Traditional Japanese Welcome Tea (and Cakes)

Tea is the most commonly-consumed drink in Japan, and a customary part of the welcome visitors receive at traditional inns (ryokan), temple lodgings (shukubo), and many guest houses (minshuku).

The type and grade of tea used to welcome guests varies significantly in type and grade by region, accommodation, and/or time of year.

Temple lodgings, or shukubo, often feature roasted green teas or genmaicha, a type of green tea combined with roasted rice. Although genmaicha originated as “poor man’s tea”–the rice was added to stretch the valuable leaves–it was also often used by priests and monks to reduce hunger and fool the stomach during periods of fasting.

A snack or cake is often served along with welcome tea. Like the tea itself, the snacks can vary by region, and more expensive lodgings often offer nicer cakes or pastries. (A fact which should not come as a surprise.)

Some ryokan offer guests a taste of regional specialties–for example, Ryokan Iwaso, on the island of Miyajima, offers a warm, soft, leaf-shaped cake filled with sweetened bean paste that’s a specialty of Hiroshima Prefecture. Others may accompany the welcome tea with senbei, cookies, or fruit (especially oranges and tangerines). Temple lodgings tend to offer simpler (but no less delicious) fare–often a packaged cookie or small bean-filled cake whose flavor complements the tea.

The tea may be served by a member of the ryokan staff, placed in the room before the guest arrives–but still hot  and fresh–or provided “self-serve” style, as in the photo at the top of this post, where the temple (Tatsueji, on the Shikoku pilgrim trail) left a thermos of hot water, tea, and cookies in the room so I could prepare and enjoy my welcome tea myself, at leisure.

Regardless of the delivery method, type of tea, or accompanying snack, this welcome tea is designed to show hospitality and to offer the guest a bite to eat and a refreshing warm beverage after the exhaustion of the road. The custom has a long history in Japan (I’m not certain exactly when it began, but it’s been around for over a thousand years.) and although you won’t generally find it at Western-style hotels in Japan, traditional lodgings still adhere to this delightful–and very welcome–custom.

Have you had welcome tea in Japan? Do you like the chance to sit down and rest with a drink and a snack after traveling?