Yes, I’m a coffee freak. I need my dose of espresso in the morning to set my mood for the day — whether it’s a shot on its own or mixed with a fresh cup of milk, it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is what kind of roast it’s made from; dark or light?
If you’re a coffee enthusiast like me, you probably get what I mean. The first sip of that freshly brewed coffee just hits you.
Wherever I go, I’m always on the hunt for exquisite coffee places for me to indulge in — so, of course, I found that Japan has one of the best coffee markets in the world! What a treat for me! In fact, Japan’s history with coffee goes deep and far back, with their very own version of the French cafe.
From that, the coffee hype expanded to so much more — canned and instant coffee are just the tip of the iceberg. Let’s take a trip down memory lane of Japanese coffee as well as what and where you can get these exceptional coffee products!
Japan’s Coffee History
Japan didn’t invent coffee, of course. How it did come to Japan is all thanks to the trade the Japanese have with the Dutch and Portuguese, and it was around the late 17th and early 18th centuries that coffee was introduced. However, the Japanese had long been a tea-drinking society, and coffee didn’t change that at all — in the beginning, at least.
You see, Japan’s relationship with coffee didn’t start off so well; the people didn’t like the “burnt” taste of coffee as much, and only the Dutch traders were drinking it. There was even a ban on coffee imports at one point!
The turning point was when the first-ever coffee shop opened during the late 18th century — to provide a space for the younger generation to exchange knowledge, relax and enjoy a good ol’ cup of coffee. Many followed suit, complete with European-styled decor and furniture. This was also the beginning of the very complicated affair between drinking coffee and smoking tobacco.
World War II really affected the rise of coffee in Japan as it interrupted various trades and imports into Japan. It was quite dire — Japan’s coffee culture could’ve ended right there and there in the 1940s! But thankfully, the coffee boom did come after in the 1970s, where the demand for coffee was at its highest.
The term “Jun-kissa” and “Kissaten”
There is a very specific term in Japanese to refer to a coffee shop: kissaten (喫茶店). It was during the Taisho Period (1912 – 1926) where cafes became the go-to spots for good fun and lively atmosphere — sprinkled with coffee, smoke and alcohol. An opposite scene emerged: the laid-back, relaxed ambiance of the kissaten where the creatives like poets, writers and artists went to for a space to exchange ideas and sometimes even have an intellectual debate (I know for a fact I won’t be able to join in).
In the Showa Era (1926 – 1989), the term “jun-kissa” (純喫茶) was coined, and it referred to the genuine kind of chilled coffee places. The term “jun” means “pure” while “kissa” comes from “kissaten”. As the Japanese economy boomed to include Western influences, these kissaten and jun-kissa became even more influenced by the Western aesthetics of velvet seats and stained glass for interior decor.
With more and more of these coffee shops popping up around the country, mainly the capital city Tokyo, it just goes to show that the preference for coffee by the time was obvious — bye-bye to the tea leaves, hello to roasted beans.
Japanese Coffee Products
Since then, Japan has imported and invented coffee products for the masses. I, myself, have noticed how easy and convenient it is to grab a coffee fix around Japan — because it’s everywhere, in all forms!
Let’s look at the top three kinds of coffee products that are the most popular in Japan.
I’m a cafe-hopper, but more specifically I’m a coffee shop-hopper. So I personally know that Japan has quite an extensive range of specialty coffee shops. At these places, coffee is made from the highest grade of beans, grounded with the best machines.
Coffee beans in Japan are usually imported from the best coffee-growing countries in the world including Kenya, Rwanda, Guatemala and Indonesia.
Best of all, these specialty coffee shops in Japan offer various preparation methods like AeroPress, French press and pour over — some shops are so exclusive to a specific preparation method that they only offer that kind of coffee! Mad, right?
If you haven’t read the article about Japan’s vending machine craze, go check it out. As I’ve mentioned there, everything you can ever think of can be found in a vending machine — why not coffee?
For this very purpose, canned coffee is invented, in Japan itself! An innovative man called Ueshima Tadao birthed the wonderful product that is canned coffee in 1968, and now it’s distributed in not only Japan but international countries as well!
While the Japanese didn’t invent instant coffee like they did canned coffee, it is still one of the most consumed coffee products in the country! I mean, it’s quite convenient for the fast-paced, busy lifestyles of salarymen who spend all their daylight and most of their nighttime in the office — a quick coffee fix using instant coffee is the way to go.
One of the most common types of instant coffee comes in those convenient individually packed ones where a sachet is a serving — I don’t know about you, but I’m guilty as charged for having some of those at home for when I need a quick coffee fix but too lazy to brew one myself.
Top Japanese Cities For Coffee
So, where are the best places to go to get the best coffee Japan has to offer? I believe that the low-key, underground ones are the hidden gems — especially the local stand around the corner where you walked down randomly and discovered.
But for those who are actively seeking, there are two top cities that are perfect for your coffee adventures!
Of course, the capital city of Japan has got to be the number one city to get the best coffee the country has to offer. No matter how many coffee shops I go to in Tokyo, I feel like there’s at least 20 more that I’ve yet to discover.
One of the most famous coffee shops in Tokyo is The Roastery by Nozy Coffee in Harajuku. When I first went to this coffee shop, it only sold drip coffee — but I’ve heard it has expanded to include latte, americano and espresso. One thing’s for sure is that The Roastery has one of the best dark roast selection in the city, hands down.
Another good coffee place in Tokyo is Naka Meguro’s Onibus — a local favourite. This coffee shop has a more traditional vibe to it, and you can trust that the coffee is excellent — the owner himself was trained in Australia and put in a Japanese twist into what he learned.
The other great city to explore Japanese coffee is Japan’s ancient capital city, Kyoto. My experience with Kyoto’s coffee scene is that a lot of the best ones are the ones you stumble upon, and most of the time it’s the old-school kissaten. You have to experience that at least once during your time in Japan!
But if you need a name to go to, % Arabica has been making waves in the scene. It attracted a huge crowd when it first opened in 2014 — so much that the owner had to open another branch in the same city the next year! Now, % Arabica has expanded to other countries, but try it in the city it originated at.
Basic Coffee-Related Words & Phrases
What’s a coffee guide without a few Japanese words and phrases to help you out on your coffee adventures? Here are some of the most commonly used ones, and a simple phrase you can use with it.
Trust me, ordering a cup of coffee isn’t that difficult!
コーヒー (kohi) — coffee (usually referring to drip coffee)
ラテ(rate) — latte
店内で (tennaide) — eat-in (literally translates to in-store)
砂糖 (satou) — sugar
シロップ (shiroppu) — syrup
ホット(hotto) — hot
アイス (aisu) — iced
少ない~ (sukunai ~) — less ~
もっと~ (motto ~) — more ~
The simplest phrase to order something is: 〜お願いします (~onegaishimasu). For example, to order a hot latte, say “ホットラテお願いします” (ホットラテお願いします).
To ask for more or less sugar in your drink, just use the words for “more” and “less”: “もっと / 少ない砂糖、お願いします” (motto/sukunai satou onegaishimasu).
Head over to our Nihongo Master Podcast to learn more about how you can use this phrase!
And that sums up all you need to know about Japanese coffee origins, the types of coffee products Japan offers and where you can find all these excellent cups of coffee. Look out for a detailed list of best coffee shops in Tokyo and Kyoto respectively — coming soon to our Nihongo Master blog! See you then!