Japan has long been the mecca for green tea with its elaborate chado ceremonies, but it has also come to wholeheartedly embrace the coffee movement.
It was in the late 18th century that coffee first landed in Japan courtesy of Dutch merchants who had been trading in the south-west port city of Nagasaki. Coffee would quickly find its way across the country, leading to traditional kissatens (coffee houses) that satiate the caffeine needs of Japanese folk early on.
Fast forward till today and such kissatens still coexist alongside the stylish bespoke roasteries that have come to symbolise Japan’s vibrant third-wave coffee movement. Even Starbucks has been trying to muscle in on a piece of this pie: Kyoto is now home to the world’s first Starbucks outlet with tatami mat seating. Over in Fukuoka, a store designed by renowned architect Kengo Kuma has become a tourist attraction.
Little wonder that Japan is now one of the world’s top consumers of coffee. We look at some of the best that Tokyo has to offer.
Written by: Walter Sim, The Straits Times
The founder of Bear Pond Espresso Katsuyuki Tanaka is, perhaps, as pedantic as you can get over coffee. Sometimes grouchy, often misunderstood, the cafe has drawn flak online for alleged poor service. But while it may not win any customer service awards, Bear Pond scores with its coffee that has earned it a cult following since its opening in 2009.
Tanaka spent 18 years in New York before returning to Tokyo to open his shop in the bohemian enclave of Shimokitazawa. He says: “I try to deliver espressos out of passion, and passion is most important to life.”
Where: 2-36-12 Kitazawa, Setagaya-ku
Tel: +81 (0)3 5454 2486
Info: www.bear-pond.com or www.facebook.com/Bear-Pond-Espresso-180813752278448
Open: 11am to 5.30pm (Wednesdays to Mondays), closed on Tuesdays
Price of a cuppa: 550 yen (S$6.65) for its signature drink, Dirty
When Blue Bottle first opened in Tokyo in February 2015 in the industrial Kiyosumi neighbourhood, it sparked a queueing frenzy with lines lasting at least three hours. It was not just a passing fad. Today, the chain has six stores in Tokyo, in high traffic areas including Shinjuku, Roppongi and Naka-meguro.
All of them boast the signature Blue Bottle look: a vast clean layout with plenty of natural light and soft wood undertones that put customers at ease the moment they step in. The coffee is great, too, sold within 48 hours of their roasting as is the company’s vow to “get our coffee into your hands quickly, so you could enjoy the ascent to peak flavour”.
Where: Six locations, including B1/F Tri-Seven Roppongi, 7-7-7 Roppongi, Minato-ku
Tel: +81 (0)3 6804 6603
Open: Hours vary by store. The Roppongi outlet opens from 8am to 8pm daily
Price of a cuppa: From 500 yen for a coffee
Cafe L’Ambre will transport you from the modern hubbub of Ginza back to 1948, with its dim lighting, plush leather upholstery and, because indoor smoking is allowed, wafts of cigarette smoke. What is also remarkable is that the owner and chief barista Sekiguchi Ichiro is more than 100 years old.
Mr Ichiro knows his coffee like a sommelier knows his wine and he has pushed the boundaries by serving cups prepared from beans that have been aged for more than two decades. Its slogan says “Perfect own roast hand drip” and the truth cannot be further from that. So take a seat at the bar counter, pick out a bean blend and sit back and enjoy the magic.
Where: 8-10-15 Ginza, Chuo-ku
Tel: +81 (0)3 3571 1551
Open: Noon to 10pm (Mondays to Saturdays), noon to 7pm (Sundays and public holidays)
Price of a cuppa: 870 yen for a single shot to 1,070 yen for a double shot
Deep in the hipster enclave of Shimokitazawa is this coffee house that channels the kissatens of old, but was opened only in 2003. “We are a hardcore coffee beans shop,” founder Atsushi Furuichi boasts. “We recommend that our coffees are drunk black and therefore we do not provide milk and sugar.”
He is such a purist that he has a list of house rules plastered on the entrance, from restricting laptop use to denying entry to children under 15. But Mr Furuichi knows his stuff. On top of coffee, he also sells beans from batches of coffee that he roasts. On top of blends, there are also single-origin beans from places including Brazil, Tanzania, Guatemala and Ethiopia.
Where: 3-31-3 Kitazawa, Setagaya-ku
Tel: +81 (0)3 3466 5058
Info: www.geocities.jp/cafeuse or www.facebook.com/CAFEUSE2004
Open: 10am to 9pm (Tuesdays to Sundays), closed Mondays
Price of a cuppa: 500 yen for a long black
Fuglen means “bird” in Norwegia, and the cafe has soared high in Oslo since its launch in 1963. Its second outlet would open in Tokyo only 50 years later.
Coffee connoisseurs will appreciate the brews by head roaster Kenji Kojima, who did a three-month stint in the Norwegian branch. It brings a good dose of Scandinavian charm to a laidback neighbourhood near Yoyogi Park, the shop decked out in teak and decorated with vintage Norwegian furnishings.
The coffee-by-day, craft cocktails-by night concept keeps the throngs coming all through the day. And this, for Fuglen, is a source of pride: “The total concept harmonises coffee, cocktails and vintage design.”
Where: 1-16-11 Tomigaya, Shibuya, Tokyo
Tel: +81 (0)3 3481 0884
Info: www.fuglen.comor www.facebook.com/Fuglen.Tokyo
Open: 8am to 10pm (Mondays and Tuesdays), 8 to 1am (Wednesdays and Thursdays), 8 to 2am (Fridays), 9 to 2am (Saturdays); 9am to midnight (Sundays)
Price of a cuppa: 260 yen for a single-shot espresso, 520 yen for aeropress coffee, 620 yen for mocha coffee
Mr Daisuke Hamada has, since 2011, been brewing “cups of happiness” for coffee connoisseurs at his coffee stand sitting in a tiny lot within a quiet residential district.
The laidback space might be small – it seats only 10 at most – but the crowd often spills out outside. It feels like the kind of cafe where you would hang out with your buddies over a great cuppa. Its hipster vibe is underscored by the indie tunes as well as the huge record player taking up a lot of prime real estate in the very small shop.
The coffee packs a punch and Mr Hamada serves up drip coffee using beans from countries such as Brazil, Guatemala, Colombia and Ethiopia, as well as standard fare such as cafe latte. Ice cream and muffins are on the menu too.
Where: 5-65-4 Yoyogi, Shibuya-ku
Tel: +81 (0)3 3466 0074
Info: www.littlenap.jp or www.facebook.com/LittleNapCOFFEESTAND
Open: 9am to 7pm (Tuesdays to Sundays), closed on Mondays
Price of a cuppa: 430 yen for drip coffee, 450 yen for a latte
Onibus Coffee founder Atsushi Sakao has become somewhat of a celebrity in Tokyo’s third-wave coffee scene. His wholesale beans, sourced from coffee-growing regions from Honduras to Rwanda, have rapidly gained popularity in the capital.
The Meguro store is Onibus’ second and houses a 15kg Diedrich roaster that is the centrepiece of the store. On its back wall is a hand-drawn mural detailing the brewing process from seed to cup. The name “Onibus” is derived from the Portuguese word for “public bus”, and Mr Sakao’s vision – inspired by a pilgrimage to Australia – is to build communities bonded by coffee.
He has opened four thriving locations within five years, including ABOUT LIFE COFFEE BREWERS, the hipster hole in the wall just off Shibuya that is also a crowd favourite. (1-19-8 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku; open: 8.30am to 8.30pm daily; tel: +81-03-6809-0751.
Where: Two locations including 2-14-1 Kamimeguro, Meguro-ku
Tel: +81 (0)3 6321 3283
Info: www.onibuscoffee.comor www.facebook.com/onibuscoffee
Open: 9am to 6pm daily
Price of a cuppa: 450 yen for an Americano, 490 yen for hand drip coffee
In June 2012, former actor Tomoyuki Otsuka opened Sarutahiko Coffee in the gentrifying neighbourhood of Ebisu.
Five years later, Ebisu has gained a hip reputation with stores including American burger chain Shake Shack and Sarutahiko cannot be more at home. Its hot coffee cups are decorated with traditional Japanese caricatures, including geishas, torii gates and Mount Fuji.
“We want to be your coffee shop. A place that brings a smile to your face with just one cup of roasted goodness,” Mr Otsuka says. His hope, he adds, is to spread this happiness to others “like a chain reaction that can build a better community and a better world”.
Where: Multiple locations, including the flagship at 1-6-6 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku
Tel: +81 (0)3 5422 6970
Info: www.sarutahiko.coor www.facebook.com/sarutahiko
Open: 8 to 12.30am (weekdays), 10 to 12.30am (weekends and public holidays)
Price of a cuppa: 370 yen for an espresso, 430 yen for a cappuccino
Nestled within the Tokyo flagship store of Saturdays NYC, the trendy apparel boutique from New York, is an espresso bar that serves up a great cappuccino.
The store’s effortless design puts it right at home in the upscale yet laidback Daikanyama district. The homely, al fresco back patio is the perfect place to enjoy your cuppa, roasted from beans sourced countries including Ethiopia and Peru.
Also on the menu is a selection of teas from American brand Harney & Sons Fine Teas, which distributes to restaurants, hotels, and speciality shops.
Streamer Coffee is perhaps the fastest expanding Japan label of the third-wave coffee movement. Latte artist Hiroshi Sawada opened his first store in Shibuya in 2010, but seven years later, the store already has 16 outlets in Tokyo and branched out to other cities in Japan, including Kobe, Osaka and Sapporo.
Mr Sawada was inspired by the American coffee-loving cities of Seattle and Portland, where he worked for more than a year to hone his skills. As he says on the Streamer Coffee website: “Yes, we do cold brew, we’ve developed our own nitro, we hand drip, aeropress and pull shots off custom-tuned supercharged espresso machines each and every day.”
But he adds of his true passion: “We do all these quite well, but when it comes to our lattes which we free pour, we are totally nerds about it.”
Where: Multiple locations including the flagship at 1-20-28, Shibuya,Shibuya-ku
Tel: +81 (0)3 6427 3705
Info: http://streamer.coffee or www.facebook.com/StreamerCoffeeCompany
Open: Hours vary by store. The Shibuya outlet is open from 8am to 6pm (weekdays and public holidays), 10am to 6pm (weekends)
Price of a cuppa: 410 yen for a Mud Americano, 500 yen for a Premium Tokyo Cold Brew Coffee, 780 yen for a Military Latte with green tea, white chocolate and espresso
Here is a hidden gem of a coffee stand serving up top-notch coffee with its own customised coffee machine, offering a respite just minutes away from the Shibuya Scramble that is the world’s busiest crossing.
The Theatre Coffee has made a name for itself for its latte art and the cafe is said to have nurtured a number of baristas who have gone on to clinch global latte art competitions.
Despite its showy location and, well, theatrical name, The Theatre Coffee is decidedly understated. It is located on the 11th floor of the Shibuya Hikarie department store. You have to navigate escalators to find the place and it faces the lobby of the building’s office block, not the best view.
The outlet got its name from the Tokyo Theatre Orb, also on the same floor, that stages musicals and other productions. But one option is to enjoy your coffee over lunch at the adjoining Theatre Table restaurant, which has a terrace that boasts views of the Shibuya skyline.
Where: 11/F Shibuya Hikarie ShinQs, 2-21-1 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku
Tel: +81 (0)3 3486 8411
Info: www.transit-web.com/shop/theatre-coffeeor www.facebook.com/thetheatrecoffee
Open: 8am to 8pm (weekdays), 11am to 8pm (weekends and public holidays)
Price of a cuppa: 450 yen for a latte, 500 yen for a caramel latte
In 2015, speciality coffee lovers mourned the demise of Omotesando Koffee, the tranquil oasis founded by Mr Eiichi Kunitomo neatly tucked into a traditional Japanese house away from the teeming masses of the upscale shopping street.
Its sister outlet Toranomon Koffee, which opened the same year, could not be in a more different environment: a gleaming skyscraper in the heart of one of Tokyo’s newest business districts.
But what sets apart the brand, which also has an outpost in Hong Kong and a branch in Singapore due to open in August, is its near-scientific focus on that quality cup of espresso. The baristas at Toranomon Koffee, donning white lab coats, work behind the counters of two beautifully charming wooden coffee bars that are an Instagrammer’s dream.
The star is the coffee, including the hand drip (430 yen for regular, 480 yen for large) and Baileys Cappuccino (630 yen for regular; 750 yen for large) that comes with a splash of the Irish liqueur. The maccha latte (530 yen for regular; 630 yen for large) is also good.
They serve food too, including a mean avocado and eggs toast (580 yen) and French toast (600 yen).
Where: 2/F Toranomon Hills Mori Tower, 1-23-3 Toranomon, Minato-ku
Tel: +81 (0)3 6268 8893
Open: 7am to 7pm daily
Price of a cuppa: 430 yen for a regular drip coffee, 530 yen for a regular maccha latte