50 Shades of Tokyo Desserts | Shade: 28
As I came out of the elevator, leaving clamor of Ginza behind, I was put to a halt by a huge white noren (drape) with a beautiful logo of the shop. It was shielding the view of what was behind, making the anticipation even more tantalizing. I cautiously walked in, taking time to absorb the calming Japanese design sensibility and the serenity of the place. I instantly fell in love with the contemporary yet timeless interior influenced by Japanese aesthetics – everything exudes restrained elegance. Clean white space was smartly interspersed with blonde woods, soft lighting, stone, leather and bronze accents, adding a dash of modernity and texture. Every single refined detail of the décor (even the stunning restrooms) has a meaning and serves a purpose. Typically, an ambiance is half the experience, but somehow, in HIGASHIYA it is 90% of the experience. Not to say the tea or food was lacking, but I could spend hours sitting there without eating or drinking anything at all. In fact, I would be happy to move in and call it home.
Having dined at Yakumo Saryo the week before, I also had this inexplicable sense of familiarity, as if both places mirror a singular vision. I was not mistaken. The creative director, founder and visionary behind both restaurants, as well as Baishinka, Higashi-yama Tokyo and design company Simplicity is Shinichiro Ogata. He also conceptualized the space for Sakurai Japanese Tea Experience. Every single of these places strive to modernize traditional Japanese aesthetics and provide a welcoming atmosphere.
The visitors are cordially greeted by assistants at the front shop. I couldn’t take my eyes off the neatly organized shelves stocked with beautiful wooden boxes of different shapes and colors. It inevitably reminded me of Ollivander’s wand shop. HIGASHIYA specializes in artisanal wagashi and hitokuchi-gashi, bite-sized traditional Japanese confectionery inspired by regional specialties, but recreated to appeal to contemporary palates. You can either purchase your treats to-go, or proceed to the tea salon inside where the tea masters beyond the concrete kitchen bar will serve you a wide array of herbal and green teas.
The retro menu (thoughtfully offered both in Japanese and English)– with tinted pages and a wooden clasps that mimicked vintage newspaper holders – listed options like traditional sweets, small sweet and savory bites, lunch sets and even kaiseki meal pairing Japan’s most fundamental teas with its traditional dishes – all changing seasonally, of course. Before pondering what to eat, I was fascinated by the HIGASHIYA story on the cover about their first shop by the Meguro River in Nakameguro.
“A shop (mise) is at once a show (mise) and a spectacle (mise). If a shop is a place for showing something to the people, the exterior wall is its face. The first HIGASHIYA shop’s exterior was rather unfriendly in this respect, as one couldn’t guess from the outside what kinf od shop it was. It was impossible to guess when seen from a distance, and even when standing right in front of it, people could only understand that it was a confectionary shop when peeking in through the small window. It was an unkind sort of appearance, and I did that on purpose. The shop in a refurbished former laundry was located under rows of cherry trees along Meguro River. IN the spring, the trees would blossom over the shop like a shower. My intention was to change people’s perception of a confectioner. To share something new with those who discovered the shop, and who were courageous enough to open the door and come inside. It is still the same concept even now that the shop has moved to Ginza.”
These words made me understand why the best dining experiences in Japan are usually hidden in the most discreet places behind modest facades with no signs. Unlike westerners, Japanese are not obsessed with publicity and marketing. They know the word will spread and the clients will come (and they do come), but they don’t want the mass. They want the selected few customers (hence another concept of “invitation only”) who genuinely look for and appreciate something special, and are not afraid or lazy enough to look behind the curtains or peek into seemingly unpretentious backyards.
Anyway, back to the menu, I opted for the Japanese-style Afternoon Tea, which came with savory and sweet bites paired with a selection of two teas. I went with matcha (no surprise there) and a recommendation of the waiter – Harumoegi, a lightly steamed green tea from Kagoshima. The beautifully unembellished, hand-formed nibbles were served on the two-tiered wooden tray.
Inari sushi was served on the side with pickles, and I loved every bite of it. Named after the Shinto god for fertility, rice, agriculture and foxes, inari sushi are deep-fried tofu ‘pockets’ filled with sushi rice. The rice filling in HIGASHIYA’s version was cooked perfectly and had delicious sweetness.
While all the food was truly delightful, one thing that I keep thinking about is the shop’s specialty hitokuchi-gashi – natsume-butter – a walnut-topped date filled with generous spread of fermented butter. A treat so rich and decadent it sent me straight to heaven. The marinated mikan, as well as kohji – pumpkin with cream cheese – were other addictive and delicious parings.
I took time to sip on my frothy matcha tea and savor last bites of the decadent sponge cake. The holistic environment of HIGASHIYA paired with decadent bites inevitably got me mesmerized and well and truly hooked. Will I be back? Without a doubt. But I was also thinking about the story on the cover, secretly dreaming of other gems I yet have to discover in the hidden corners of this massive city.
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