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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