Although afternoon tea is a British tradition, Japan, too, offers an opportunity to enjoy tea time with all the luxurious trimmings.
Traditional afternoon tea is generally served in a three-tiered stand. The lower plate contains a selection of dainty finger sandwiches (including the thinly sliced cucumber variety), and the second plate consists of scones served with clotted cream and preserves. Cakes and pastries, meanwhile, occupy the upper plate.
As for the tea, standard English teas are broadly used, but recently a wider variety — including herbal tea, Chinese tea and even Japanese green tea — is on offer, often served in silver teapots and delicate bone china cups against a formal backdrop.
This mainstay of British culinary tradition first started to appear in Japan when Asia’s first Four Seasons Hotel opened in 1992, on the premises of the Chinzanso wedding facility in Tokyo’s Mejiro area at its lobby lounge, Le Jardin.
“At that time, we were not familiar with the British culinary tradition, so we visited Four Seasons hotels overseas to learn how and what to serve for the hotel chain’s standardized afternoon tea,” says Kenji Shiojima, secretary general of JR Hotel Group, who was head of Four Seasons Tokyo at Chinzanso’s culinary department during that time. Details such as the shape of the scones, the ingredients of clotted cream and sandwich types all had to be learned, he said.
Afternoon tea gained popularity — especially among fashion-conscious women — soon after the service started, and it rapidly spread across the nation. “In the middle of the ’90s, luxury foreign brand hotels were established in Japan one after another and they followed suit,” Shiojima says.
The Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo, which changed its name to Hotel Chinzanso Tokyo in 2013, offers a variety of new menus at Le Jardin, and experiments with new concepts while retaining traditional elements of the custom. In collaboration with a different brand each season, such as famed perfume name Annick Goutal and French cosmetic maker L’Occitane, the hotel creates a themed service with a menu of specialty desserts, scones and sandwiches. Currently, customers can enjoy a firefly-inspired early summer menu at Le Jardin, which faces a Japanese garden famous for the luminescent insects. Priced at ¥3,800, the afternoon tea set is available through July 2.
The hotel also offers an “evening cute” tea service, a lighter serving of afternoon tea from 6 to 9:30 p.m. “Evening cute tea can be enjoyed before or after dinner, so the menu basically consists of sweets and appetizers without scones,” says Ayumi Sanada, a PR official at the hotel.
Thanks to the development of social networking sites, photogenic afternoon tea sets have been proving popular lately, according to gourmet journalist Toryu, who goes by just one name. “Customers tend to take photos if the food is artfully presented and put the photos on the web — that encourages sweet lovers to savor the treats,” he said.
Indeed, pastry chefs are getting more adventurous with their presentations. Palace Hotel Tokyo, for example, introduced a new afternoon menu in April at Lounge Bar Prive featuring a tea stand resembling a tree perch custom-made by traditional tableware maker Nousuke. The seasonal dishes arrayed on the four tiers of the stand are all special creations of the chefs at the adjacent French Restaurant Crown. Priced at ¥4,000, the menu changes depending on the season.
Aman Tokyo, meanwhile, offers a sleek, black-themed afternoon tea set at the Lounge by Aman. Seasonal sweets, finger food and tea are presented in rustic stands handcrafted in bamboo. The menu, which is updated every two months, includes a bamboo charcoal bun sandwich, plain and green tea scones, green tea chiffon cake, blackberry eclair and Brazilian 62 percent cacao chocolate for ¥4,900.
At InterContinental Tokyo Bay’s New York Lounge, guests can choose either a classic British stand or Japanese-style tiered jubako lacquered lunch boxes. The latter is aimed at the increasing number of inbound foreign travelers and older Japanese women, according to Emiko Okuzono, the hotel’s marketing manager. In either case, the menu is the same and changes every season. The lounge is now offering an early summer afternoon tea featuring ingredients from Kumamoto Prefecture. The price is ¥3,333 on weekdays and ¥3,833 on weekends.
A growing number of internationally renowned pastry chefs are also contributing to the popularity of afternoon tea in Japan, according to Hajime Shimada, a freelance journalist specializing in the hotel industry.
At Hyatt Regency Tokyo, Hirokazu Sato, who once practiced his craft at Patisserie Sadaharu Aoki in Paris, offers a plateful of seasonally themed desserts at the hotel’s all-day dining Caffe restaurant. His recent afternoon tea menu, which features banana and chocolate, is offered plate by plate like a course meal. Priced at ¥3,300, the menu is available through the end of June.
Yokohama Bay Sheraton Hotel & Towers, meanwhile, offers Marie Antoinette-inspired afternoon tea presented by Shuji Muto, who has won many international pastry competitions. The menu, which is available at ¥3,704 at its Lobby Lounge Seawind through the end of June, includes macaroons, cakes and scones.
The concept of afternoon tea is even being applied to an elegant version of brunch: Imperial Hotel Tokyo’s Aqua Lounge will offer an afternoon tea-inspired bento lunch menu for two months in June and July. The five-course menu is served in a set of understated wooden bento boxes, offering a synergy of haute French cuisine and classic Japanese aesthetics. A glass of champagne is included, followed by unlimited servings of any of 10 selected teas or coffees. Priced at ¥10,000, Bento will be limited to 10 lunchtime servings each day.
Reservations are advised, as some places offer limited numbers of sets and there are often waiting lists.