A masterful take on afternoon tea in Tokyo

Hidden in the heart of Ginza, HIGASHIYA GINZA offers traditional tea and wagashi sweets with a contemporary twist

Higashiya Ginza tea salon in central Tokyo
Higashiya Ginza tea salon in central Tokyo

The bustling swirl of central Tokyo is exhilarating but can be utterly overwhelming too. On a recent visit to the city, I found a genteel escape route – taking afternoon tea, Japanese style. Hidden in the heart of Ginza, with its tall towers and expansive department stores, is Higashiya Ginza, a discreet tea salon situated on the 2nd floor of an otherwise unassuming building. 

The tea salon offers up local traditions but with contemporary twists
The tea salon offers up local traditions but with contemporary twists
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Emerging from the lift we passed through a heavy white noren (curtain) adorned with a pared-down logo, a sign of good things to come. Specialising in Japanese green teas – there are some 30 varieties on offer – and modern takes on traditional wagashi sweets, the salon offers up local traditions but with contemporary twists that will appeal to foreign palates.

A Higashiya serving of kasutera, sponge cakes
A Higashiya serving of kasutera, sponge cakes
If you can’t get a table, there is also a gift shop to visit
If you can’t get a table, there is also a gift shop to visit

It’s a small but well-designed space in copper and bronze finishings, which can accommodate about 40 guests at a time. Most come for the seasonal wagashi and samajiki (¥4,860, about £32) – a Japanese equivalent to afternoon tea, complete with trays of Higashi signature assortments of wagashi. We opted for the saka (about £26) – a tea-pairing menu featuring hitokuchi-gashi (one-bite wagashi)  and, I have to confess, I spent the rest of the afternoon completely wired. The house blends were subtly flavoured and the presentation – in earthen ceramic pots and in simple little vessels – added to the experience. Harumoegi, a lightly steamed green tea from Kagoshima would be at the top of my list.

The gift shop stocks a variety of Japanese confectionery
The gift shop stocks a variety of Japanese confectionery
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Once the two-tiered trays of samajiki had been devoured by our party we were offered a savoury counterpoint, an assortment of pickled vegetables and bean snacks with black sesame rice crackers. Among our favourite nibbles was the nari sushi – tiny deep-fried tofu pockets filled with sweet rice – and the shop’s specialty hitokuchi-gashi, an insanely rich, walnut-topped date filled with fermented butter. Staff are bilingual and take great pride in sharing their country’s delicacies.

Renewed and revived, we sidled over to the gift shop. If you come for nothing else – or if you can’t get a table – then pick up sweets such as kasutera (sponge cakes, about £18) to go, as well a box of original blend tea (from about £10) to take home. These make the most elegant gifts and while I stocked up on boxes intending to give them away, they remain sitting on my desk as a reminder of a uniquely restorative afternoon.

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