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Claire, full-time PR and marketing whizz and part-time coffee connoisseur, has scoured Tokyo and Kyoto to find the best cup of joe.
Not my cup of Matcha Tea
Japan is synonymous with tea. And we’re not talking your average builder’s brew either – tea is taken VERY seriously in Japan. As well as being the most commonly consumed beverage, the revered art of the tea ceremony is a fundamental aspect of Japanese culture, stirring connotations of geisha encounters in tranquil tatami-clad rooms. Witnessing the very process of serving a steaming cup of the green stuff is an experience that comes top of many a tourist agenda. And that’s not to mention the huge commercial potential.
Matcha, it would appear, is everywhere. It helps, of course, that matcha tea powder is such a delightfully lurid green colour (a.k.a Instagram gold). Who hasn’t travelled to Japan and plumped for the matcha ice cream or matcha KitKat at least once? Yes indeed, there’s no doubt about it – when in Japan, it must be matcha.
Now I have a confession to make. As a Brit, I feel bad enough, but as an honorary Yorkshire lass, I’m conscious that what I’m about to disclose is little short of pure sacrilege. But here it goes…
I’m not a tea person.
I’m 100% a coffee person. So one of the first questions on my lips when I arrived in Japan was ‘where am I going to find a decent cup of coffee?’
As you’d expect, Japan has no shortage of Starbucks outlets – in fact, after North America and China, it has the highest number of Starbucks in the world. Now don’t get me wrong. When you’re fresh off the plane, heady with jet lag and in need of a place to get your bearings and regroup, that iconic green sign is a very welcome sight indeed. Even with dubious sounding concoctions like ‘Grapey Grape Frappuccino’, everything is so reassuringly familiar.
But if you fancy yourself as a bit of a coffee connoisseur, it won’t be long before you start looking further afield.
As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. Japan has no shortage of good coffee shops. In fact, over the last few years, Japan has been hit by a ‘third wave’ coffee renaissance with a number of speciality shops springing up all over the country. Some (arguably) even go as far as to say that Japan now has a distinguishable ‘coffee scene’ on a par with cities such as Melbourne and Wellington.
After two weeks sniffing out the best beans in the business, here are my recommendations for getting your caffeine fix in Tokyo and Kyoto.
First stop on my coffee lover’s pilgrimage was Fuglen. I’d first read about Fuglen in Monocle magazine and had thought that I’d have to wait for a trip to Oslo to try this cool coffee/cocktail joint out for myself. However, I was delighted to discover that a sister branch had opened up in a quiet residential street just around the corner from Yoyogi Park in Tokyo – ideal for a lazy Saturday morning cuppa on my first weekend in Japan.
With a minimalist white façade, wood-framed french windows and cabin-like vibe, Fuglen oozes Scandi style and sophistication outside and in. The interior harks of a vintage gentleman’s study, with slick black counters, dark teak wood furniture, dimly lit desk lamps and strategically scattered coffee-table reads aplenty. But nowhere was the Scandinavian influence more obvious than the pastry counter… Skolebrod, Kanelbolle… as a Fika fanatic, I was certainly spoilt for choice, plumping in the end for a rather delicious looking cinnamon bun topped with salty nuts (all in the name of research of course!)
Despite operating in Tokyo since 2012, Fuglen still religiously adheres to Nordic roasting methods to bring out the light, citrusy undertones of the beans. The only downside is that they adhere to Scandinavian price-tags too… but with a steady stream of hipster-types flooding through the doors at 9am on a Saturday morning, they’re clearly doing something right…
Address: 1 Chome-16-16-11 Tomigaya, 渋谷区 Tokyo 151-0063
Opening Hours: 08.00 – 22.00 Mon-Tues; 08.00 – 01.00 Wed- Thurs; 08.00 – 02.00 Fri; 09.00 – 02.00 Sat; 09.00 – 00.00 Sun.
2) Blue Bottle
When I was compiling my coffee shop shortlist, the first person I turned to for recommendations was InsideJapan’s very own Tyler Palma. For those of you not in the know, Tyler is pretty clued up on the hidden gems of Tokyo, having lived and led tours in the city for well over a decade. He’s also an avid coffee drinker and has even led a speciality espresso tour in his time – he sure knows his beans. So when I asked Tyler for his top pick and he immediately responded “you need to check out Blue Bottle in Roppongi”, I was confident it was going to be good.
A US export (just like Tyler), Blue Bottle is the epitome of Californian cool, harmoniously blended with Japanese clean lines and fastidious attention to detail. Despite being a successful international chain (the Roppongi store is one of seven stores in Japan, with multiple outlets in cities across the US), Blue Bottle manages to gives off a convincingly independent vibe.
The interior is purposefully minimalist and understated – no huge splashes of branding, no garish display boards reeling off a bewildering array of choices. All focus is on the art of the brew. Cocooned from floor to ceiling in light wood and white-washed walls, there’s a warm, relaxed atmosphere about this place and the large communal table seating only adds to the convivial feel.
Blue Bottle Roppongi is a little more hidden than a couple of its sister stores, relying purely on foot traffic and those in the know; but that’s a large part of the appeal. Food-wise, I’d suggest deviating from the usual hot coffee and cake here in favour of an iced beverage and a delicious Roppongi sandwich.
Address: 7 Chome- 7-7 Roppongi, Minato, Tokyo 106-0032Opening Hours: 08.00 – 20.00 Mon-Sun.
If you’re one of those people that religiously digs out their phone to take an Instagram-worthy snap every time you order something, you’re going to LOVE Reissue. Tucked away in a back street just five minutes from Harajuku’s popular Takeshita Street, this first floor café doesn’t look like anything fancy, but the baristas here are incredible.
Think you’ve seen impressive latte art? Think again! A standard latte or cappuccino here costs 600 yen, but for an extra 400 you can show them any picture and they will magically recreate it for you in milk foam. I’d heard the rumours and seen pictures, but wanted to put Reissue to the test myself.
Upon being seated, I whipped out a picture of my cat– a feisty looking tortie with complex markings. No mean feat in my opinion. Unperturbed, the waiter simply asked if I wanted my ‘catpuchino’ in 3D or 2D. “3D is pretty”, he remarked, “but 2D is beautiful”. I opted for 2D.
Less than 10 minutes later, I was presented with the masterpiece and wow, was I impressed! He’d managed to capture my cat’s character perfectly… and perhaps most impressive of all, the coffee was still warm. The only downside was that it was just too beautiful to drink.
Address: 3 Chome-25-7 Jingumae, Shibuya, Tokyo, 150-0001
Opening Hours: 10.00-18.00 Mon-Sun.
4) Chatei Hatou
When it comes to coffee shops in Japan, I have a huge, unfashionable soft spot for kissaten. For those not in the know, a kissaten is something we don’t have in the UK: a traditional coffee house that is often dark-bordering-on-dingy, full of polished wooden tables, upholstered chairs and a long counter, behind which a smartly uniformed maestro brews incredible coffee in vintage cups with enviable patience.
Kissaten have a distinctly nostalgic ‘ode to a bygone era’ kind of vibe, and can feel a little off-putting if you’re more used to the mega-watt smiles of Starbucks staff. Don’t let that stop you, as you will find some of the best coffee in Japan at these magical little places. Chatei Hatou in the heart of Shibuya is a personal favourite. There’s a generous amount of seating here but my top tip is to grab a seat at the bar/counter in order to watch the coffee master in action, and perhaps pick up some brewing tips.
On my first visit I opted for their speciality drink which wouldn’t look amiss on the menu of a whisky bar – an ‘aged’ old coffee that took 40 glorious minutes to make and resulted in the smoothest, richest demitasse I’ve ever had. Combined with a slice of cake and a book and I was ready to settle in for an hour or two of peace and quiet. The coffee at Chatei Hatou isn’t the sort that you quickly gulp down before heading on your way – you need to take the time to savour it (especially considering the price tag – perfection doesn’t come cheap).
One of the downsides to kissaten is that many of them (including Chatei Hatou) still allow smoking, so bear that in mind before visiting.
Address: 1-15-19, Shibuya, Tokyo, 150-0002
Opening Hours: 1100 – 2300 Mon – Sun.
Vermillion is a speciality espresso bar conveniently located just minutes away from popular tourist attraction, Fushimi Inari shrine – famous the world-over for its thousands of vermillion orange torii gates winding up a hillside. After a stiff uphill climb amongst the crowds, you’ll certainly be in need of somewhere to take a breather, and there is arguably no better place to do so than Vermillion.
Exit right as you come down from the temple complex (or left if you’re coming straight out of Inari station) and you’ll stumble across this neat little establishment; the brainchild of Shigeo Kimura, inspired by 18 years in the coffee capital of the world, Melbourne. Given the prime position, this is a tourist hotspot, yet still seems to encapsulate an oasis of calm – particularly on the terrace overlooking a little zen garden out back. Inside, there’s something of an industrial feel about the place, with exposed concrete brickwork, exposed pipework in the ceiling and simple wooden benches with cute scatter cushions.
Now that’s not to imply its cold – in fact, quite the contrary. Small and snug, with seats for around 15 people max, Vermillion has garnered a reputation for itself as one of Kyoto’s friendliest coffee shops. The baristas swing easily between Japanese and English, and with chilled out music and plenty of aspirational picture books about Kyoto to flick through, you could quite easily while away a good hour here.
Address: 85 Onmae-cho Inari Fukakusa Fushimi-ku, Kyoto.
Opening Hours: 09.00 – 17.30 Sat – Sun; 10.00 – 17.30 Mon – Fri
6) % Arabica
I’d heard great things from multiple sources about the Arabica chain of coffee shops in Kyoto, so made it my mission to hunt out my nearest one during my first afternoon exploring Gion. Trusty Google Maps led me up one of the busiest streets in Higashiyama, crowned by the magnificent Hokan-ji pagoda. This is prime tourist territory and as I got closer, I started to make out a queue forming down the street outside a modern looking shop front*. Was this % Arabica? Of course it was! A surefire sign that I was onto a good thing.
The cool, contemporary design of % Arabica is so good it hurts. The frontage is one entire wall of glass, lit from above by spotlights with a stylish white custom-branded Slayer espresso machine taking centre stage. With white counters, stools and white marble floor stones, it’s achingly beautiful. The shop itself is only small – hence the lengthy queue – and a large proportion of the space is taken up by a glass display cabinet; a showcase for all the own-brand beans bundled up in hessian bags, available to purchase and have roasted on the spot. Everything here, from the concept to the skilled baristas and the coffee itself is a cut above the rest.
Thanks to a consistently healthy TripAdvisor score, % Arabica is a firm favourite amongst international and kimono-clad Japanese visitors alike – so much so that they’ve recently expanded and opened a second Kyoto branch in Arashiyama. A must-visit – just make sure you get there early!
(*In fact, so long was the queue that I didn’t actually make it in on my first attempt!)
Address: 87-5 Hoshino-cho, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto, 605-0853
Opening Hours: 08.00-18.00 Mon-Sun.