The Tokyo coffee scene is exploding. In recent years Tokyo has undergone a transformation in its coffee culture: from kissaten to cafe. The kissaten（喫茶店）has been Japan’s claim to fame in the coffee world for over 100 years. Though the direct English translation of this word may be “cafe,” it’s important to note that the word kissaten conjures up a certain image in the Japanese mind, so a better translation might be “A dimly lit room, often with bar seating, run by a well dressed and quiet middle age man who labors silently over each dark cup of coffee with a copper kettle in hand, and ensures a quiet soft music continues to flow. Oh, also you can sometimes eat spaghetti, omelettes, etc. there.” The kissaten is where coffee professionals have lurked for ages.
Of course there have been modern cafes in Japan for decades, but these establishments are often tied as much to sweets and lunch sets as they are to coffee. The real important evolution in the Tokyo coffee scene is the sudden rush of specialty coffee shops. Cafes that specialize in, well, coffee. The idea of a cafe or coffee house that cares more about coffee than snacks or lunch plates may seem shocking, but we’ve seen a huge influx of them in North America recently as well. Now the serious coffee craftsman of Japan are not only in the dark, smoke filled kissaten, but also in brightly lit, natural wood laden, stool strewn third wave cafes.
This surge in modern coffee culture is no secret, however. There are already dozens of magazines reviewing and celebrating the lighter-roast and espresso driven third wave coffee scene here in Tokyo. Even the USA’s newest Art Photography/Coffee specialty publication Drift Magazine chose to dedicate it’s second volume to Tokyo, rather than other major coffee capitals such as Portland or San Francisco. Thanks to these guides it’s easier than ever to find a good cup of coffee in the maze of side streets, chain stores, and crumby cafes. Needless to say, Tokyo is an exciting place to be for coffee enthusiasts and professionals. It’s well worth exploring.
Just as the Western coffee scene borrowed Japan’s hand drip/ pour over methods and tools, Japan is now borrowing roasting techniques and espresso culture from the West. Small roasters are crammed in to hole-in-the-wall espresso bars and are cranking out world class home-roasted beans. There is a strange earnestness and seriousness to the young cafe owners. Compared to the traditional Japanese salary man they may look like loafers in their flat-brimmed 5 panel hats, selvege denim, and graphic vintage tee shirts, but given a closer look there is a focused steadiness to them. It seems that the stylish 30 something baristas of Tokyo know they are a the forefront of something huge, and they want to be prepared.
As I said before, the scene is well worth exploring. My plan is to do just that.