Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Japan - Coffee in Tokyo, Kyoto and Nagoya

“Where can I find good coffee in Tokyo?” autofilled as soon as I began typing it before our trip. I’d heard tell of coffee shops being everywhere in Japan, but very much in the mainstream American mould – watery drip coffee at breakfast and Starbucks and twee Japanese imitators peddling milky rubbish.

But I was very wrong, as I soon learned. Yes those elements are prevalent in Japan, but there is also a funky, meaningful coffee scene, focusing on either environment and subculture (Manga Art Café? French Maids?) or that typical Japanese obsession of doing one thing excellently, like single origin beans or ‘extreme’ latte art.

affogato before lunch?!

Another strong point is that many independent cafes also do proper evening food and sell alcohol too, morphing seamlessly into bars, something which unlike Continental Europe, the UK can’t seem to fathom. God forbid we have our evening drinks in the same place we get our breakfast.

So rather than gargantuan mugs of weak lattes at Central Perk throwbacks, we were spoilt for choice. And here’s a round up of some of the places we visited.

I’ve already written effusively about Glorious Chain Café for their burger, but bonus points to them for being the first place I found where ‘long black’ rather than ‘americano’ featured on the menu. And it’s a diner more than anything else. Great staff and wifi too (which you can get onto outside in the mall).

Streamer Coffee (which we spent days before locating it referring to as Steamer, which I still think works better) was a cool place, just north of Glorious. Coffee here was serious business, but my long black was too strong, even for me. 

Having seen an image of their Military Donut (sic), I was desperate to try one. Although it's chocolate, coffee and pistachio icing, it sadly wasn’t that tasty, but looks damn cool:


Sunday Issue is a gallery, bar and library of coffee table fluff situated above On The Corner, a diner we went to which also has great coffee courtesy of a Bear Pond Espresso exclave at the front. These collaborations between brands and establishments, denoted with a little x, are hugely popular in Japan.

Sunday Issue was very cool, but the staff were a bit into themselves, Bear Pond was great coffee-wise, but slightly ruined by all the fag smoke from the diner.

too kool for service?

Further into Harajuku, a quirky establishment with a bit of welcome outdoor space (and brilliant wifi) was iki-ba, a veritable complex including a vintage trailer, a two-story Wendy house and other random fixtures to enjoy your coffee in. Espresso-based mainly, this had more of a bar feel.

If you find yourself out in Kichijoji in Tokyo’s Western suburbs, possibly visiting Inokashira Park or the Ghibli Museum, the Manga Art Café offered a good respite and again, great wifi. It’s a fun place to people watch, buzzing with legions of excitable and yet impeccably well-behaved kids. Fun latte art on the flat white too:

My absolute favourite café and coffee in Japan was from Omotesando Koffee. This is tucked away in a residential street north of Omotesando Hills and definitely worth the trek. The area itself is architecturally quite interesting, with some fantastically designed apartment buildings with a West Hollywood feel to it all.

This guy, owner/designer/barista, also designed the Monocle Cafe in Ginza.

The café itself is the ground floor of a little house, and the space is incredible. The pictures don’t do it justice so do visit for yourself or at least find better pics. It has beautifully discreet signage, and a tiny Zen front garden to sit in. The interior is all clean lines, minimalist and yet warmth through the wood, perfectly balancing the modern and the traditional:

The packaging is perfect (such a forte of the Japanese) and the coffee is fanstastic. I dare you to grab a coffee there and leave without wanting to set up shop yourself:

Our favourite spot in Kyoto was a spot called eFish sandwiched between the Kiyamachi canal and the main river, with views of both. It has a modernist feel with its strong geometric design (the windows and shelves for example) but the smaller touches were more contemporary in design. Again, this place was filling up as a bar when we headed off to find food.

And in Nagoya, you could do a lot worse than Waltz in the Sakae area. This café-bar is upstairs and hugely spacious, with great drinks and a funky b-boy feel to it.

For every venue we went into, especially around Shibuya, Harajuku and Omotesando, there were countless more we didn’t get to try. 

Try Mud Café or the many others alongside the tracks towards Daikanyama, or Bonjour Records which is also a brilliant music and clothing store. Or along the Meguro river at Nakameguro. Or around Parco and north of Seibu, where Shibuya gets much more civilised…

Interestingly for Hario fans, conversely the decent Japanese coffee places seem to shun those products for US-based Chemex ones. The grass is always greener, eh?

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