I’m first to order at Fuglen Tokyo and I’ll be the last to leave in 15 hours’ time. Orders begin finding customers, coaxing conversation. There is something different about this café scene. Commitment to the process, unwavering attention to detail, an aspiration for excellence. I leave the café after the last coffee is served filled with a greater appreciation—it looks as identically perfect as the first.
As someone who has lived in the city of Tokyo for the last 10 years, the Japanese have continued to intrigue me with their rich history and unique values, namely their work ethic and what seems to be intrinsic moral culture, leading to the mastery of so many things, including a cup of coffee. And all I can say is: the more you dig, the more it mystifies. It’s a bit like learning the language, the more you know, the more you know you don’t know, and probably never will.
'Collectivist values of loyalty to the group and respect of hierarchy stemming from Buddhism and Confucius principles—not to mention a powerful island mentality—were preserved for centuries in Japan'
What we do know is that collectivist values of loyalty to the group and respect of hierarchy stemming from Buddhism and Confucius principles—not to mention a powerful island mentality—were preserved for centuries in Japan with little outside disturbance, especially during the long sakoku (isolationist) period from 1639–1853. The foundations of these values can still be seen in Japanese working lives today. Salarymen often spend time with co-workers to boost company cohesion at the expense of the family, for example. Every person you encounter, from train station cleaning staff to construction site security to the barista who painstakingly prepares your pour-over, exudes a sense of ownership and pride in their work. There’s a real ‘live to work’ mentality, as opposed to ‘work to live’ in the West. These ethics continue to be instilled from parents, as well as in the moral doutoku class at school, which has the goal to ‘cultivate morality, including attitude, mindfulness, hard work, and harmony.’ It can seem like the whole country has been born with this in them—they are happy to do one thing well forever.
Getting Inside Tokyo13 million call Tokyo home. Outsiders-both in Japan and abroad-gravitate to this mega city. While multicultural compared to the rest of the country, it's still overwhelmingly monocultural compared to much of the Western world. It’s a multifaceted city that seems to wonderfully contradict itself at every turn. A coffeehouse unchanged for 50 years will sit happily beside a seven-story electronics store pulsating in neon. A gothic Lolita girl in Alice in Wonderland themed costume will eat handmade soba noodles in a noren-curtained, pocket-sized noodle bar. Every single person will be unfailingly polite.
In 2015, 2016, and 2017, Tokyo topped Monocle’s Most Liveable Cities list. Fiona Wilson, Monocle’s Asia Bureau chief in Tokyo for the last 10 years says that ‘Tokyo has an irresistible mix of creativity, variety, quality, and safety.’ She talks about the small things ‘done properly’: ‘the pot plants on the street, purchases being wrapped beautifully, the punctuality of the shinkansen.’
There’s no shortage of artisans championing this Japanese spirit of mastery and simplicity. There’s Seirinkan in Nakameguro, a pizza shop with only two pizzas on the menu; Morioka Shoten, a bookshop in Ginza which sells only one book; Bar High Five which carves the perfect diamond out of a solid block of ice in front of your very eyes. Tokyo is so good at doing small things. There’s Sekiguchi-san of Café de l’Ambre who at 103 years of age still roasts coffee three times a day. There’s Lion, a classical music coffee shop which has over 5,000 LPs. There’s Nejimaki-gumo, run by Naganuma-san, one of my favourite baristas, whose pour-over style exhibits military-like precision. There’s Koffee Mameya, the only coffee shop I know to have only coffee on the menu.
Chace Fedor, director of poweredby.tokyo, an online platform featuring the people an d places of Tokyo city says Japanese 'perfection of the process has lead to the perfection of the product'. Fedor does, however, say 'You have to train yourself to not lose patience with certain procedures, accept certain things you will never have the power to change, and only then you will begin to enjoy the mystifying narcotic fruits this intoxicating city has to offer.’
'The juxtapositions of an everyday walk down a Tokyo street just never get boring.'
After a decade of trying to understand Tokyo myself, I still feel down a never-ending rabbit hole of adventure and discovery, an otherworld of mystery, contrast, and so much wonder. The juxtapositions of an everyday walk down a Tokyo street just never get boring. Wilson continues, ‘I love seeing new things but I am often most excited about an old kissaten or a building that’s been there for years. Change is such a visible part of Tokyo—longevity is buried deeper.’ There are many levels to Tokyo and it explicitly rewards the intrepid explorer, unveiling its captivating treasures generously at every corner.
And then there’s the coffee
Coffee was first imported to Japan on Dutch and Portuguese ships in the 16th century not as a beverage but as medicine to treat headaches and diarrhoea and eventually as a stimulant for prostitutes. It was only later in the 1860s that it was introduced to local areas in infused sugar balls—called koohiito. Just add hot water.
Coffeehouses became more prominent in the Mei- ji era (1868–1912) as places where nonconformists and artists gathered. During the Taisho period (1912–26), a more refined coffee drinking space emerged—the kissaten. Coffee in Japan became synonymous with socializing. By the 1930s there were around 3,000 kissaten in Toyko.
Japan suffered an eight-year coffee embargo during World War Two, but its popularity was quickly restored. In the 1970s, smaller kissaten began emerging throughout the more stylish districts of Tokyo—there were 200 in Shinjuku alone. But even these venerable Tokyo institutions have not been protected from the impact of globalization and the wave of coffee chain stores that began to emerge in the 1980s. Since then, the number of kissaten has been sadly on the decline.
Kissaten and culture exchange
Nevertheless, kissaten remain an alluring part of the coffee scene in Tokyo. If they exist outside Japan, I haven’t found them. Kissaten make you stand back in awe at their vintage romanticism—think rich coffee in elegant coffee cups complemented by classical music or jazz played softly on LP records.
(This particular scene may have its origins in the post-war period, during which one LP record cost the equivalent of one month’s salary.) Café de l’Ambre in Ginza, Chatei Hatou in Shibuya, Café de LaPaix in Roppongi, and Café Trois Chambres in Shimokitazawa embody the dedication to the principle of doing one thing well and have all become a spectacle through their longevity. The coffee masters themselves don’t say much, but their coffee says a lot; the longer extraction might produce a kick too hard for some third-wavers, but the experience of having coffee at these establishments is an unmissable sensory experience.
At my local kissaten, which is a genuine oddity impossible outside Japan, the aging proprietress behind the long counter makes siphon coffee in old glass beakers in front of timber display cabinets full of china and owl figurines. I sit on a faux-leather, high-backed swivel chair alongside a single ancient Japanese man and eat egg, cucumber, and wasabi sandwiches on the whitest bread you’ll ever see. She rings up my bill on what looks like an oversized toy cash register that makes you feel that anything could happen. Blink and you find yourself in a Murakami novel.
Chatei Hatou still remains unchanged since it opened thirty years ago in centre of Shibuya. It’s also the kissaten where I met James Freeman (Blue Bottle ceo) for the first time, and one that he often credits in his interviews as being an inspiration for his brand of coffee. Freeman told me that it had always been his dream to try to take ‘threads of kissaten inspiration and reflect it [with] enthusiasm.’
When Blue Bottle opened their first shop in Tokyo at the beginning of 2015, the media coverage was unprecedented, with helicopters and people—including me—lining up for three to four hours.
I remember speaking with Terashima-san, coffee master at Chatei Hatou, who surprised me by saying his business had increased. The hype surrounding Blue Bottle and its inspirational links to the old school coffeehouse had spilled over into a renewed enthusiasm for the remaining kissaten—ironically the industry that inspired them. It’s a fascinating tale of reverse cultural exchange.
Tokyo’s third wave
In their own way the third wave coffee shops of Tokyo, which are a whole wonderful world in themselves, have taken the baton from the kissaten masters and run with it. Their focus and dedication to perfecting their craft bears the mark of much of what is so good about kissaten culture. Here are some areas of development we’ve seen in the specialty coffee industry, and why it’s lucky to be a coffee lover in Tokyo.
So much coffee
Masataka Nojo, owner of Nozy Coffee, started what many believe to be the first ‘specialty coffee shop’ in Tokyo. A simple coffee stand while he was a university student, it was devoted to single-origin coffee. Since then, we’ve seen many excellent specialty coffee roasters spring up. Setting the bar high are Onibus Coffee that wholesales to a lot of cafés in Tokyo, Switch Coffee has six servers working the counter inviting conversation, and Amameria Coffee, which is sometimes overlooked, will introduce you to a whole new world of flavour. Tokyo has embraced a series of overseas imports: Fuglen from Norway, AllPress Espresso, Mojo Coffee from New Zealand, Blue Bottle Coffee and Verve Coffee Roasters from the States, and Coffee Supreme, also from New Zealand, has recently opened in the hip area of Tomigaya. These acclaimed coffee roasters have all chosen Tokyo as their first port of call.
Never bean better
The quality of coffee served in Tokyo is extremely high. People who reside in Tokyo are known to have a thirst for the best, and as a result, coffee roasters will often only source the top-quality beans in order to meet the needs of the city. Cup of Excellence (coe) is a prestigious auction where roasters can bid and pay a premium for what is expertly judged as the highest quality coffee in the world. The results are all public, so a google search for ‘coe auction results’ will produce tables of winning bids for best lots, the top of the list often being occupied by roasters based in Tokyo—Maruyama Coffee, Sarutahiko Coffee, and 27 Coffee Roasters being among the usual suspects.
Pioneering coffee shops are promoting a more collaborative approach, as opposed to the way baristas, like chefs, used to belong solely to their own establishments. About Life Coffee Roasters and The Local Coffee Stand are two examples of coffee shops that host ‘Guest Barista’ events—where a barista from another coffee shop is invited to spend a shift brewing at the bar. Lots of fresh learning takes place, and due to the collaborative nature, it’s a win-win on all fronts. Workshops, cupping sessions, and talks are well attended by fellow baristas and roasters. What’s more, staff from chain coffee stores will sometimes advance their introduction into the specialty coffee scene via this avenue
One of the leading coffee professionals in Tokyo, Kenji Kojima of Fuglen (meaning, The Bird) is contributing to the expansion of knowledge in the industry. ‘I am visiting producers as much as possible now,’ says Kojima. ‘What I am trying to focus on is explaining to our consumers more about the coffee producing countries, who produced it and how.’ Fuglen has now set up their roasting facilities in Tokyo, and have started working hand-in-hand with other service establishments to improve their coffee menus. Fuglen has further enhanced the reputation of Michelin-starred restaurant L’Effervescence and boutique hotel Claska. Kojima’s approach is an intricate one, but he maintains, that ‘making coffee has to be easy and I want customers to make coffee at home every day.’
There is usually a queue at Koffee Mameya, the new boutique beans shop in Omotesando, but when it’s your turn, the barista greets you, bows, and says ‘thank you for coming.’ Almost at once, you feel relaxed and welcome, and any first-time nerves are alleviated. Time is spent to understand your preferences before you are offered something from the menu. Customer service in Japan is often regarded as the best in the world and this is never made clearer than during a visit to Koffee Mameya. You are more than just a transaction, you’re the centre of the universe.
For many of us, the experience of coffee drinking in Tokyo—at kissaten and third wave shops alike—unfolds into a revelation about many things. You start taking time out from the pressures of daily life and spending more time reading books and looking at trees; you may start to replace your cheap dishes with beautiful artisan ceramics that seem to tell stories; you might start to enjoy speaking with people over the phone again; sitting down to slow conversations or quiet moments of thought while your coffee is hand-poured with the utmost care and attention. You might find you start to wish every day had a Tokyo coffee shop moment in it ... and you might even consider spending the whole day at one....
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