TOKYO, April 17 — The Japanese love their coffee. From traditional kissatens (coffee shops), dimly lit and smoked-filled, to giant American coffee chains, there’s a café around every corner. However, of late, there’s been a change in the air; the aroma of coffee young Tokyoites enjoy is different today. Increasingly they reject not only the old-school kissaten but also the mass-market coffee chain.
Instead these Tokyoites are embracing an invasion of Western independent coffee shops that roast and brew their own beans. They expect a well thought through menu of espressos, cappuccinos, single origin brews and iced coffees. This combines the lure of something foreign with the craft of slow-brewing and high-quality ingredients — something the Japanese appreciate all too well.
Possibly the brand that has made the biggest splash is Blue Bottle Coffee. The celebrated American coffee roaster opened its first shop in Japan — also its first outside of the U.S. — inside a renovated factory in Kiyosumi, a rather industrial neighbourhood. (Though you wouldn’t have guessed that by the lines that wind around the block.)
The Kiyosumi shop also houses a 7,000-square-foot roastery with a cupping room, Loring Smart Roaster and kitchen. The über-cool coffee bar is manned by a mixed crew of Japanese and Californian baristas.
Founder James Freeman, a freelance musician and coffee fanatic founded Blue Bottle in Oakland, California in 2002. Using a tiny six-pound batch roaster, Freeman’s aim was to start a roaster for those who, like him, would appreciate the taste of freshly roasted coffee.
The name Blue Bottle is actually an homage to Vienna’s first coffee house, Hof zur Blauen Flasche (“House under the Blue Bottle”). This “Blue Bottle” was founded in 1686 by Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki who helped defeat the Turks in the Battle of Vienna in 1683. The retreating Turkish army left behind sacks of coffee beans which, according to legend, Kulczycki ground up and started serving coffee to the Viennese.
Aside from coffee (that is lighter than any brew you’d get in Vienna), don’t miss out on Blue Bottle’s pastries (the waffle is delicious) and sandwiches made with bread from Yoyogi-Uehara’s Katane Bakery. For a smaller crowd, head to their second shop in Aoyama. Snack on freshly-made beignets and agonise over which beans to buy home (you’d want to get them all).
While you’re in the Aoyama neighbourhood, do drop by Coutume Café too. Originally founded in Paris in 2011 by Frenchman Antoine Netien and his Australian partner Tom Clarke, Coutume blends the sensibilities of both its owners — Melburnian coffee craft with Parisian chic.
Their Tokyo outpost, launched in 2014, is hardly lacking in the latter — its sleek interiors seem to be a minimalist marriage of laboratory and coffee shop. Expect classy white tiled surfaces contrasting with mad scientist-like Steampunk brewers.
Coutume roasts their own beans and here, they offer a lighter roast than what you’d typically get in a kissaten. The team had to develop new roasts for Tokyo, to cater to the specific constraints such as the water in Japan being softer than in Europe.
To go with these “redesigned” brews, choose from a typically French menu of pastries such as tart aux pommes (apple tarts), croque-monsieur (grilled ham and cheese sandwich covered in béchamel sauce, made with bread from Gontran Cherrier) and fresh salads (the avocado, broccoli and grapefruit version is generous and oh-so-healthy).
If American casual or French sophistication is not your cup of tea (or coffee, as it were), how about a blast of Nordic Cool? Hailing from Oslo, Fuglen (which means “the bird” in Norwegian) is a stylish blend of coffee bar by day and a cocktail bar by night. Located in small alley near Yoyogi Park, Fuglen Tokyo is decorated with vintage furniture — every piece is for sale!
Night owls may wish to drop by in the evenings for the cocktail menu developed by champion bartender Halvor Digernes and the unusual mix of both Japanese and Norwegian craft beers (Digernes is the co-owner of Fuglen, together with vintage design expert Einar Kleppe Holthe and Peppe Trulsen, who runs one of the oldest coffee companies in Oslo, Stockfleths).
Coffee lovers, though, will do well to come by during the day for some delicious brews made from seasonal single origins, ranging from the sweet and chocolaty La Folie from Guatemala to the Kiunyu from Kenya, which has notes of raspberry and dates. Espressos are impeccable too; however, a filter brew might be a better choice for lingering over with a good book.
Interestingly, there existed some cultural cross-pollination even before Fuglen arrived in Tokyo. Its original shop in Oslo, Kaffefuglen (established in 1963), was declared a cultural heritage site by Widar Halén, the senior curator at the Norwegian National Museum, due to its showcase of Japanese influence on 1950s Scandinavian design. You only need to look at the walls — covered with 1950s-style Biri-straw wallpaper – to observe this.
Fans of Portland’s Stumptown Coffee will be thrilled to discover that the American brand has landed in Japan... sort of. The only place, in fact, where you can get a true Stumptown brew in Japan is in Paddlers Coffee, a cosy café in the quiet neighbourhood of Nishihara.
Nishihara is a lovely, ageing neighbourhood with shops lining the street from the station to Paddlers. Bicycles line up outside the café, itself looking not unlike a log cabin with plenty of blonde wood and retro bric-à-brac, from vinyl records and a vintage record player to model sailing vessels and a snow globe of — where else? — Portland, Oregon.
Besides the excellent coffee, there are sweet and savoury treats. Try Paddlers Coffee’s kouign-amann, the rich and addictive Breton pastry, or their gourmet hot dog in a made-from-scratch soft bun from Yoyogi-based Tarui Bakery, smothered with sauerkraut. Scrumptious.
Owner Daisuke Matsushima grew up studying in Portland but it was only after he returned to Japan to volunteer in the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami that he realised the magic of communal effort and experiences. Matsushima decided to bring Stumptown Coffeeback to Tokyo so the always-rushing Tokyoites will have a chance to “paddle out” — that is, to slow down and savour the good life and a good cuppa.
Judging by the happy, relaxed faces in Paddlers Coffee and the other aforementioned cafés, it’s clear Matsushima’s compatriots are learning to do exactly that.
Blue Bottle Coffee
Kiyosumi HQ: 1-4-8, Hirano, Koto-ku, Tokyo, Japan.
Open daily 8am-7pm
Aoyama: 3-13-14 Minamiaoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo, Japan. Open daily 10am-9pm
Coutume Café Aoyama
5-8-10 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo, Japan
Open daily 7.30am-9.30pm
1-16-11 Tomigaya, Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan
Open daily Mon-Tue 8am-10pm, Wed-Thu 8am-1am,
Fri 8am-2am, Sat 10am-2am, Sun 10am-1am
2-26-5 Nishihara Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan
Open daily (except Wed closed) 7:30am-6pm