By Rieko Mohara / Japan News Staff WriterOn a weekday afternoon, many small groups of women were having afternoon tea at a luxury hotel in central Tokyo. Koto music was being performed live by a woman in kimono, but the atmosphere of the chic, mostly black, spacious lounge of Aman Tokyo hotel on the 33rd floor of a high-rise building was not typically Japanese.
Located in the Otemachi area of Chiyoda Ward, Aman is one of many hotels in central Tokyo offering afternoon tea, which usually includes sandwiches and various sweets served on a multi-tiered cake stand, as well as scones and different choices of drinks such as black tea — you can drink as much as you like. Such courses are priced at about ¥4,000 to ¥5,000.
“I liked the desserts designed as high heels and bags. They were so pretty, and it was nice to take pictures,” said Haruna Usui, a 22-year-old university student living in Nerima Ward, Tokyo. “I wanted to have afternoon tea at Aman after my friends posted about having it there on social media,” she added.
Thus afternoon tea is not something only for the privileged and middle-aged homemakers who presumably have spare time and spare money for this kind of leisure activity. Women in their 30s, 40s and 50s are the main customers, usually spending a couple of hours per visit, according to a number of Tokyo hotels.
Usui’s mother, Saki, a 51-year-old homemaker, also had afternoon tea at Aman with her “mom friends,” who know each other through their children.
“I felt relaxed and comfortable to chat with my friends there. I could spent my time differently than usual,” Usui’s mother said in an email, adding that she chose the hotel because it had been the topic of conversations. Usui said she has a number of other friends, as does her mother, who have enjoyed afternoon tea for similar reasons.
Afternoon tea, a tradition in Britain, has taken root in Japan in recent years, seemingly because it is photogenic and allows women to spend time in an elegant atmosphere at a luxury hotel.
Indeed, many customers take photos and post them to social media platforms such as blogs.
“The photos taken [by customers] are really good. As such, afternoon tea has become popular through word of mouth,” said Minako Hayata, a spokesperson for Aman Tokyo.
Saori Shiobara, in charge of marketing and communications at Palace Hotel Tokyo, also said, “I feel pleased when I see photos of our afternoon tea on social media and in other places.”
Palace Hotel, located next to the Imperial Palace in Chiyoda Ward, began offering afternoon tea on a four-tiered cake stand in its lounge bar Prive in April. The hotel had previously served afternoon tea on a two-tiered cake stand at the bar, but changed to the four-tiered version this spring to mark the fifth anniversary of the hotel’s opening after a renovation.
The Palace Hotel also serves a jubako-style afternoon tea menu in the lounge on the first floor, where the outer moat of the palace can be seen through the windows.
With a thin bird-shaped cookie on top of the stand, the concept of Prive’s afternoon tea is inspired by the idea of a small bird on a perch in a forest, as the rich green trees of the grounds near the Imperial Palace can be seen through the windows from this sixth-floor bar. The top two tiers hold fancy petit fours, the third plate carries savory items, such as a mini burger, and the base tier has bigger sweets, including the hotel’s signature cake. The food is prepared in the kitchen of French restaurant Crown, next to Prive on the same floor.
“People may feel hesitant to enter Crown, but it’s probably easy to have afternoon tea at Prive,” Shiobara said.
Afternoon tea certainly fills one’s stomach. While the price is not inexpensive, it can be considered reasonable in a way.
“Compared to having lunch and dessert at different places, for example, afternoon tea is reasonable,” said Kyoko Yamaguchi, a 48-year-old company employee working in the Otemachi area who has had afternoon tea at various luxury hotels a number of times, usually on weekends.
“It’s also convenient, because I don’t need to move from one place for lunch to another for tea. And having lunch at a restaurant is somewhat rushed, whereas afternoon tea is not,” she added. She has afternoon tea when she wants to talk to friends she has not seen for a while, to update each other on their lives.
“I learned how to enjoy having tea from my friends who had lived in Britain, and I came to love having tea with milk. I can choose a tea from among a variety of tea leaves. Afternoon tea offers something of an escape from daily life, and some of my friends even enjoy dressing up. But at the same time, it offers an at-home atmosphere as we can sit on a sofa and relax,” Yamaguchi said.
Enchanting all generations
Although the popularity of afternoon tea is seen mostly among Japanese guests not staying at the hotel, hotels are also making efforts to promote it further, such as by changing their menu every two months or so, and often featuring seasonal treats such as strawberries in spring.
At The Imperial Lounge Aqua at the Imperial Hotel, also in Chiyoda Ward, afternoon tea with Hawaiian flavors is now being served. The tea variations include blue iced tea, offering a cool refreshment. The menu is part of the hotel’s special fair in cooperation with Halekulani hotel in Hawaii through the end of May.
The lounge also offers other options during lunch time, but 80 to 90 percent of customers order afternoon tea, according to Koichi Oe, deputy manager of the lounge. While a different style of afternoon tea is served on the first floor lounge, customers at Aqua can enjoy a superb view from the 17th floor.
“We always have cucumbers in some form or another, as it’s said to be traditional to have cucumber sandwiches during afternoon tea in Britain,” Oe said, explaining the menu.
“You can try chocolates and pastries and so on. Our afternoon tea takes advantage of the best of the hotel’s specialties,” said Yuta Kitano, assistant manager of public relations at the hotel.
The popularity of afternoon tea led to the development of an after-dark high tea menu that includes steak pie and chocolates. Although the hotel initially targeted male customers, it’s proved popular mainly among women.
“Women like to have small portions of many different things,” Oe said.
Afternoon tea at a luxury hotel will likely continue to enchant women of all generations and satisfy on many fronts, thanks to exquisite and substantive assortments of food and sweets, the aroma of the tea, quality service and atmosphere, and time spent with friends.Speech