Camerad’s rough guide to Japan coffee scene

Quick trivia: I love coffee! That’s why during my travels, I am always on the look for coffee shops (the specialty kind, please!). I don’t like bringing brewing kits on my travels (it takes too much space) and I believe visiting the local coffee shops is part of understanding the local daily culture (ie. how does the coffee scene looks like in that part of the city?). So during my past two trips to Japan, you’d imagine that I would visit some of the local coffee shops there.. and that’s about right!

If I were to generalize the types of coffee shops here in Japan, it would be kind of similar to what we have here in Indonesia. Disclaimer: This is based on my observation during my travels to Japan in 2017 and 2019 with some internet research, and these points below are open for discussion.

First, we have the traditional coffee shop, or named kissaten (喫茶店), literally a “tea-drinking shop”, a Japanese-style tearoom that is also a coffee shop. Kissaten also serves light refreshments ie. sweets and sandwiches. One of the iconic element of the kissaten is the person who run the shop, or called the “master”. This usually involves a middle-aged person (happens also to be the owner) who heavily influences how things are being run within the kissaten, starting from the decor, the menu selections, and even preparing the beverages itself. Depending on the master’s personality, visitors can also develop their relationship with the masters based on their interactions.

Then we have the coffee shop chains. This includes *ahem* Starbucks, and some of the local chains here ie. Doutor, Potier Coffee, and many more! This goes without too much explanation. One note here, I like that Starbucks here has their own cool seasonal menu (like the American Cherry Pie Frappuccino back in May 2017) and their unique pastry selections – but don’t forget also to try the local chains here! Depending on the concept, the format here can either be a grab and or a “second home” (ample seating + WiFi anyone?) concept.

And lastly, we have the specialty coffee shops. By all means, you should not even miss the specialty coffee scene here given Japan’s prominent position in the world coffee competitions events. Like their counterparts around the world, they typically have a minimalist designhip baristas, and, obviously, serve specialty-grade coffee. I usually look for shops that also doubles as a coffee roaster. This is the type of coffee shop I tend to visit. Some of you may prefer black coffee over milk-based beverages, but my tip here is to try both! The milk in Japan tend to have higher fat content, resulting in richer taste in the milk-based espresso beverages. It’s such a different experience that you wouldn’t want to miss it.

During my latest visit in March 2019, I noticed that these specialty coffee shops usually have two types of beans ready in their grinder hoppers for espresso: the medium roast and the dark roast beans. No light roast coffee here folks, or at least I haven’t found one. I always pick the medium roast one. I think the specialty coffee shops here incorporated such an approach to cater for the general masses, which traditionally prefer darker roasts (which are commonly found in kissatens). 

Be sure to check with the coffee shop policy (if any), as well. One of the shops here didn’t let us sit inside the shop since we brought our kid with us – but they let us sit outside. Not sure what’s behind the thinking (maybe because they fear that kids will run around their shop and create some noises?), but do make sure you are aware of these kinds of policies before settling in any coffee shop.

There are also concept/thematic cafes like the Gundam cafe in Akihabara, but I’ll leave that for another time as I haven’t personally visited them yet!

Bonus: don’t forget the ready-to-drink coffee here! They have insanely huge selections of flavors, can be found easily in a konbini, vending machines or grocery stores, these are lifesavers for emergency situations. Remember that most of these RTD drinks are sugary – drink responsibly.

And that’s about my experience with the Japanese coffee scene so far. Hopefully, I get to visit Japan again to check how the coffee scene (especially the specialty coffee) has developed! I have also made some posts for my coffee shop visits Japan – go check it here:

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