Have a taste of Tokyo’s coffee culture while experiencing a piece of Japanese history, Tokyo’s modern trends, and getting extra energy to keep you awake through the many long days of the Olympic and Paralympic Tokyo 2020. Whether you are looking for a place to sit down and relax, or something quick on-the-go, here is a short introduction to coffee in Japan, and how to get your hands on a cup of coffee.
BY Karolina Höglind
Coffee is a beloved beverage all over the world. Many people are grateful for its energizing effects, something you will need a lot of during the Tokyo 2020 Games. Although Japan is well known for their tea culture and traditions, the Japanese coffee scene has grown over the past decades and made its mark on Japanese culture. From a sophisticated cup of hand-drip black coffee, to a bottle of cold coffee milk after a hot bath at the local sento, or enjoying a sugary coffee creation (which also makes for a great photo opportunity), coffee has claimed its own place in the everyday lives and customs of the people in Japan.
The coffee’s journey to the heart and homes of the Japanese was not an easy one. It started in Nagasaki around the 17th century, where it was brought in and drunk by the city’s Dutch residents. Its bitter taste did not suit the flavor palette of the Japanese at the time and reminded people of the taste of something burnt. When Japan opened its ports for international trade in the Meiji Period, the imported coffee was still not favored by most people.
In 1888, Eikei Tei (also known as Tsurukichi Nishimura), who had recently returned from studying abroad, opened the first Japanese coffee shop in Ueno . Influenced by coffee shops in France where artists and writers would gather to socialize, he wanted to create something similar in his home country. Unfortunately, the cafe closed down only after a few years. Not long after, at the end of the Meiji Period, coffee started to gain popularity and one after the other, coffee shops started to open around Tokyo. Most coffee shops were located in Tokyo’s sophisticated Ginza district, frequented mainly by artists and influential people.
Following Japan’s participation in World War II, the country implemented a ban on all coffee imports. Not until the early 1960s was the ban completely lifted, and coffee beans, roasted and unroasted, as well as instant coffee could be freely imported. At this time, coffee was still a luxury product, mainly consumed by the upper class. But when the Japanese economy started to bloom, and with the spread of the convenient instant coffee, which reached Japan in the 1960s, coffee became increasingly accessible and affordable. People could find the regular coffee at hotels and cafes, while instant coffee had its place in people’s homes. With an increase in flavors and dishes from the west, there was also more food that paired well with the drink.
Convenience is an important word for many busy people in Japan. It was the convenience of instant coffee that helped the drink reach a bigger audience and really set its roots in the daily life of the Japanese. Nowadays, getting your daily dose of coffee in Tokyo couldn’t be easier. Many Tokyoites pick up their coffee on-the-go from a café chain or the nearby convenience store on their way to work. Around almost every corner you will find a vending machine selling coffee in a can for a quick drink, or while waiting for a train on the platform. Slightly fancier than instant coffee, but just as easy to make, are the single drip-coffee packs. You often find them at hotels, together with your complimentary tea bags, but you can also buy them in the stores.
At the end of the day, many people like to take a moment to enjoy their coffee while sitting down, maybe even accompanied with a light meal or snack. Tokyo offers an abundance of choices here as well. The English loan word cafe (カフェ) is often used in Japan, but the word kissaten (喫茶店) is also used when talking about coffee shops or cafes. The two words can be used interchangeably, but generally café is used for more modern places, and big coffee chains. Kissaten has an image of an older-style coffee shop, such as a local place that has been around for decades.
After the war, finding a place serving a cup of coffee was not an issue. So many different kinds of shops were serving it, that the term Jun-kissa（純喫茶）was coined, to distinguish the places where sitting down to drink coffee was the main service offered. With jun, meaning ‘pure’, and kissa, from the word kissaten, the term is still used today when talking about the nostalgic, and often very sophisticated, coffee shops popular during the Showa era. With the Japanese economy blooming, many shops embraced a sophisticated western image in their interior decoration with velvet seats, dark wood, and stained glass a common sight. Since the focus was on the coffee, the food menus were limited to a few simple items such as sandwiches and cakes, and with no alcoholic drinks.
These coffee shops are now an important culture icon and a piece of the economic boom Japan still alive today. Jun-kissa appeal to young people who want to feel the sophisticated glamour not found at bigger chains, and older people revisiting the nostalgic time of their youth.
Not all Jun-kissa are grand and dressed in velvet, many are mom and pop style coffee shops that have been around for decades but are packed with history and with a personal touch. These places have a very cozy and calming atmosphere, where you feel like pulling out a book and letting time and the world around you slow down. They make for a great escape from the heat of the Japanese summer, and the Tokyo 2020 Games when you need to cool down.
Big name brands and their fancy caffeinated drinks are popular in Japan, just as in many other places around the world. A recent trend in Tokyo, however, is the increase in small, local and independent coffee stands, focused entirely on creating a good cup of coffee. From hand-drip and espresso based hot or cold drinks, the coffee served is often created using their own blend or even beans roasted in-house. There is no doubt that behind the scaled-back shops are owners with a passion for the art of making coffee.
The shops often have a stylish, minimalistic design, which together with the high-quality coffee and personal feel, makes each visit an experience. Some places have limited seats, but even if you can’t get a seat, each shop has their own custom-designed coffee cup you can take out while exploring the city, or why not pick up some freshly roasted beans to bring home as a souvenir!
The coffee trend across Japan, has not just opened the eyes of many to the world of coffee, it has also sparked an interest in Japan’s more traditional beverage―tea. More and more tea stands are opening up around the country, and their innovative creations are a feast for both the eyes and palate. Many coffee shops in Japan offer tea-based drinks, such as matcha and houjicha latte, but now tea drinks have a platform to shine on their own. Instead of baristas, in these contemporary tea shops you will find charistas. The term is a play on words as cha (茶) means ‘tea’ in Japanese, and refers to the people with high skill and knowledge about Japanese tea, but not necessarily in connection to the art of the tea ceremony.
If you are not the biggest coffee fan, or if you are looking to try something more typically Japanese during your trip, then the matcha latte might be something for you. Unlike the regular bitter matcha, this milk-based beverage is a lot easier to drink, and you can often add sugar to taste. Saten Japanese Tea is a quaint café on the corner of a street in the laid-back Nishi-Ogikubo area on the Chuo line, The owners decided that Tokyo needed more cafes where the domestic matcha tea was not just a side-kick, but the shining star of the show.
Even though coffee has a short history in Japan, the country has come to fully embrace the caffeinated drink and let it blossom into a culture of its own. Use it as a possibility to kill two birds in one stone: experience modern Japanese culture while recharging your batteries. You will need all the energy you can get your hands on to keep going throughout the events of the Tokyo 2020 Games. Enjoy!
Sweden born and bred Tokyoite. She started her journey to Japan as many others, through watching Sailor Moon on TV from a young age. Now her interest stretches out to culture, food and social issues. While studying at a Japanese university, she worked as an editor for a Tokyo-based culture magazine and as a radio host. She now spends her time as an office worker by day and Tokyo explorer by night.