Monday photos: Coffee break in Japan

Japan is so well known for tea - both the beverage itself and the many customs and rituals surrounding it - that many people don’t know that coffee is just as deeply ingrained in daily life as tea is. Japanese people have been obsessing about the perfect cup of coffee for a long time, way before mass-market paper cup coffee joints started proliferating around the world.

A cafe or coffee house in Japan is called a kissaten. This literally means ‘tea tasting shop’, but in actuality a kissaten is a place where you can get a great cup of coffee, a light meal, a delicious piece of cake - or indeed a cup of black tea. Traditional green teas are not served as a kissaten. These days kissaten can be called cafés, or caffes if they’re going for an Italian feel. But you still get what you’ve always been able to get a a good old kissaten.

Neither of the two kissaten I’m introducing to you here are famous or unusual in any way. They are just small, comfy neighborhood joints. You probably don’t want to go out of your way to visit them, since you will very likely run into a similar place closer to wherever you are…if you hurry.

This kissaten is in a nondescript residential area of Yokohama, about a 10 minutes walk from my home base in Japan. It is called Coffee and Tea Specialist Store Kaldi. It is a tiny old fashioned kissaten, established in 1975.

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As you enter, there is a big glass case with coffee beans for sale, roasted for you on the premises.

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The counter is worn but impeccably clean, with coffee making equipment and the roasters on display. It’s a nice place to sit if you’re by yourself. The busy Master (the owner/operator of an independent kissaten is always called Master) shuttles busily back and forth between the counter and the kitchen in the back.

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The tables are on the other side of the narrow store. Inexplicably, there’s a big glassed in phone booth right in the middle, splitting the tables into two sections - a relic of the past for sure these days, when everyone over the age of 5 seems to own a cellphone. The back wall of the phone booth is covered with faux brick wallpaper. It could just be the original paper from when the store opened.

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Every kissaten prides itself on its own way of brewing coffee. At Kaldi, they use the cold water extraction of “Dutch” method, which results in a rich tasting coffee with very little bitterness. (Other brewing methods you see mentioned include siphons, flannel drip, gold filter, and on and on and on.) I like to add a good dollop of milk, and add a spoonful of coffee crystals. (Coffee sugar crystals are still fairly standard at Japanse coffee places.) The coffee and tea cups are thin and delicate and a bit old fashioned.

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I dont often have something to eat there, since the neighborhood is packed with inexpensive little restaurants serving delicious food. But Kaldi’s food is not too bad, considering that the Master has to cook everything himself and make the coffee too. This is a typical ‘special’ plate, with pizza toast (cheese and sauce melted on baguette slices), boiled pork sausages with grainy mustard, a poached egg and homemade potato chips.

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Here’s another kissaten, this time in Kyoto. Kyoto is famous for its numerous well preserved, generations old coffee houses. Takagi Coffee is not one of those, but I love it regardless. It is on the well known Karasuma road that runs north to south in the center of the city, but on a section that is rarely visited by tourists, at the edge of a quiet residental area. Like Kaldi in Yokohama, it’s tiny, with a long bar and about 10 little tables. In back of the faded lacquered bar is a Hindu diety or something that is the mascot of the store. The Master brought it back with him from one of his trips.

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The cups are Takagi Coffee are thick and hearty, like the loud, very un-Kyoto-like irasshai!! greeting you get whenever you enter the place. 90% of the clientele are male, many of them smoke, and some look like they haven’t moved from their chairs in decades.

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The speciality of Takagi Coffee in the cold months is a bracing lemon-ginger tea. It is strong and sweet and sour, and makes you feel better even when you’re blowing your nose every 5 minutes. I’ve tried to make my own lemon-ginger tea several times, but have yet to come close to theirs. (By the way, if you’re not a coffee person, an interesting drink to try in a kissaten is Royal Milk Tea. It’s the richest milk tea you’ll ever experience, and I’ve never had anything like it in the UK.)

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Another hearty Takagi speciality is cheese on toast, using 3cm (1 inch plus) thick slices of bread. (This is actually a standard cut of bread in Japan, though not used that much.)

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You’ll find little kissaten like these all over Japan. You are almost guaranteed of a good cup of coffee there, and plenty of time to enjoy it.

Coffee house chains

What is threatening the existence of small, independent kissaten are of course the big coffee chains. I think there is a place for both, and hope that the big chains do not kill off the small, atmospheric places run by a single Master. Time will tell.

The biggest coffee chain in Japan is probably Starbuck’s, usually called Staba or Starba. Starbuck’s is fine if you want the comfort of the familiar, but there are others. I understand that Tully’s is also a U.S. based chain, though I’ve never encountered them in the U.S. myself. Here’s are some young Buddhist priests enjoying a cuppa and a smoke at a Tully’s in Kyoto. (Not such an unusual thing to see young priests goofing off in Kyoto. The place is crawling with them.)

Priests on a coffee and smoke break

My favorite coffee chain is probably Excelsior Caffe, usually called Excel Coffee. Japanese owned, it’s a branch of Doutor Coffee, another chain which has a more ‘ojisan’ (place-for-middle-aged-men) kind of feel. Excel has an Italian theme. Not that it makes a big difference - all the chains serve decent espresso and capucchino and all kinds of fancy coffee based concoctions. What sets Excel apart for me is that their sandwiches are really pretty good. Staba’s sandwiches and snacks are about as mediocre as they are in the States…though the sandwiches may be marginally better. At either place, you can get a big cup of coffee, hot or cold, free wifi, and a little time to chill out.

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When you go to Japan, do try to seek out a kissaten at least once for a very Japanese experience. But I won’t criticise you too much if you go to a coffee chain either.

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Re: Monday photos: Coffee break in Japan

How I miss kissaten! I was initiated into the cult of coffee in Japan, and I have been looking for cafes that feel like kissaten ever since.

Tully's is a San Francisco chain, and not one that the locals favor. It tends to be full of tourists thinking they're getting an authentic SF experience (whereas the authentic experience is to be had at an independent joint, or at least Peet's).

meg | 31 October, 2011 - 17:23

Re: Monday photos: Coffee break in Japan

Tully's is actually a Seattle chain (it was founded there in 1992). They bought Spinelli's Coffee (a SF chain) in 1998ish and Seattle and San Francisco/the Bay Area are their big hot spots. I'm not sure whether Tully's is on the east coast. ^_^

Sayaka | 12 November, 2011 - 06:21

Re: Monday photos: Coffee break in Japan

Oops, I stand corrected!

I'm still not fond of their coffee, even if they come from the Mesopotamia of coffee culture.

meg | 12 November, 2011 - 19:47

Re: Monday photos: Coffee break in Japan

I used to go to Doutor shops because they always had some fresh squeezed orange juice.

Isaac Kojima | 31 October, 2011 - 18:39

Re: Monday photos: Coffee break in Japan

Re: Doutor. --Not to mention the best hot dogs on at least two continents. Boy, I sure miss Doutor's "German Dog" (plain with spicy mustard). I lived out in the Gifu Prefecture countryside (last visit: 2001), and my friend and I used to bring back SACKS of them whenever we went into the city. I have tried to replicate the flavor of German Dogs (they also had Lettuce Dogs and one or two other kinds) with every combination of hot dog, mustard and bread on the East Coast, to no avail. :(

Denise | 2 November, 2011 - 04:11

Re: Monday photos: Coffee break in Japan

Strong, sweet, sour and bracing lemon-ginger tea. Oh dear. I do hate you sometimes, Maki. You've planted the seeds of a new obsession.
Please do post your best recipe when you can.

Loretta | 31 October, 2011 - 22:45

Re: Monday photos: Coffee break in Japan

I shall be daydreaming about having a lovely cup of coffee at a kissaten all day. The office coffeemaker never lives up to my daydreams, though I suppose it tries hard.

looloolooweez | 31 October, 2011 - 23:00

Re: Monday photos: Coffee break in Japan

When I was teaching English out in the boondocks, I'd always try to find a kissaten for lunch, as their teishouku was usually reasonably priced and tasty. For meeting friends or having a coffee break, however, I preferred Mr. Donut. The coffee wasn't as good, but it was cheap, and the selection of pastries made up for the mediocre java.

Roburo | 31 October, 2011 - 23:38

Re: Monday photos: Coffee break in Japan

Tully's is kind of a West Coast coffee chain. I've seen them here in AZ. I have one in my local Fry's which is Kroger's on the East Coast. I've seen a couple of them floating around AZ too besides grocery stores. It's not bad. Certainly not Starbucks and not any of the local coffee joints that they have in AZ. Like Eclectic Cafe but not terrible. :P

I miss Kissaten! When I lived in Misawa we used to stop by them before we'd head to the Onsen. I miss having a nice warm coffee shop to stop in too during the dead of the Misawa winter.

Dina | 1 November, 2011 - 07:37

Re: Monday photos: Coffee break in Japan

How I miss Japan and going to the local kissaten or ramen shop around the corner from where I lived (Osaka and Odawara). 懐かしい(natsukashii). I am so glad I found your blog. It has been 15 years since I lived in Japan but it is forever with me. My 2 1/2 year old daughter just ate onigiri for lunch :-)

dewcatcher | 1 November, 2011 - 22:52

Re: Monday photos: Coffee break in Japan

There's a lot to try there. I wish I could go there too.. I really like Japan.. but more like if i experience it.. :P

rdsean | 2 November, 2011 - 05:26

Re: Monday photos: Coffee break in Japan

I love Excelsior Caffe! I never knew that they were a branch of Doutor. Learn something new every day.

I have to say, I wish I could find a good recipe for Royal Milk Tea. Love, love, love the stuff. The closest I can get here is the instant stuff you mix with hot water. Not bad, but not quite the real stuff.

The only thing with kissaten - chain or not - is that many don't do take out, and if they do, you have to make sure to ask for it to go. I remember my first time ordering coffee in Japan, on my first day of work there. Went in and asked for a coffee, thinking I'd bring it in to work with me. I got a lovely saucer of coffee. Boy was I confused, chugging my hot coffee trying to not be late for work!

Shari | 2 November, 2011 - 21:02

Re: Monday photos: Coffee break in Japan

That's a good point Shari. Take-out coffee (or other beverages) is not a done thing at all in Japan. Actually it's not a done thing much in France either, or Switzerland. I always get a bit uneasy when I watch American reality shows and the like and see everyone running around with a cup of something in one hand...even though when I lived in NY I'm sure I did that too. I think that's a very American thing. (Files it as another blog post topic down the line ^_^)

maki | 2 November, 2011 - 21:26

Re: Monday photos: Coffee break in Japan

One of my best memories of visiting Japan in my childhood is walking down to the neighborhood kissaten with my grandfather and ordering the buttered toast, that big fat slice served hot and fresh. That bread! When I try to make it myself at home, it feels like an indulgence now. (too many carbs.) But it was just a lovely treat to a a child.

aki | 6 November, 2011 - 06:55

Re: Monday photos: Coffee break in Japan

Hey buddy that was a gud post.
I have gone through your site information and it is the same opportunity that I was looking for.
The facilities, the process that what you are offering are perfectly matched to my Expectation & very soon you will get Response from my side.

srkshazu | 7 November, 2011 - 05:58

Re: Monday photos: Coffee break in Japan

During my 6 month stay in Japan I would go to a Kissaten as a way of remembering home. I never drank tea before then but I got heavily into the tea culture while there. But the Kissaten's were a grat place to relax after work.

Ogriv83 | 23 November, 2011 - 15:11

Re: Monday photos: Coffee break in Japan

Really nice Pictures. Today i found your Blog the first time and im really impressed!

Adrian | 25 November, 2011 - 17:06

Re: Monday photos: Coffee break in Japan

Honestly, The first time i saw your place if feel that I am going to relax in this place and the time that I ordered and ate the foods. I feel very comfortable.

Gladys | 7 December, 2011 - 15:57

Re: Monday photos: Coffee break in Japan

Enjoyed Excelsior Caffe when I was over there, and do agree with the earlier post about take away coffee's being very much an American thing, and indeed a London thing also. In the UK some places charge us tax only on have in coffee, so you tend to see a lot of people chancing on not getting asked to leave when they drink the take out coffee in a nice warm Cafe Nero's. Nice blog, and good pictures, added to my favorites on Delicious.

anon. | 8 December, 2011 - 19:33

Re: Monday photos: Coffee break in Japan

I live not too far from here and I biked over to Cafe Kaldi tonight. Unfortunately I got there five minutes before close and was unable to try the coffee. Do you have any food recommendations for the area?

sekibun | 17 October, 2014 - 17:26

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