Australian city dwellers tend to take their coffee very seriously. We have a robust coffee culture with countless caffeine holes in the city and suburbs, where competition and quality is generally high, and brand loyalty is hard-earned. If a barista burns the beans just once, we’ll move on to the next place. And we don’t care how good the chocolate brownies are because it’s all about the coffee.
So how would Japan – a country perceived as having an obsession with drinking tea and sake – rate on a coffee drinker’s index of satisfaction? Would it evoke the words of Edward VII (1841-1910) who is reputed to have said that he could tell when he’d crossed the frontier into Germany because the coffee was so bad?
A first time visitor might be surprised to learn that Japan is one of the largest consumers of coffee in the world. And this didn’t happen overnight.
Dutch traders first introduced coffee about 400 years ago, but it wasn’t until the port of Kobe opened to trade in 1868 that coffee became widely available. It did not take long to become fashionable with Tokyo’s first kissaten – or coffee shop – opening in 1888. By the 1930’s there were 3,000 in the city and 160,000 nationally by the 1960’s.
Like so many things in Japan, operators have taken the best from the West and put their own stamp on it. In addition to one’s regular brew, you will also find vending machines and convenience stores dispensing bottled, canned and instant coffees.
On our first morning in Japan, as we stepped out of our Shinjuku hotel in search of breakfast, we were confronted by something like this:
Where Starbucks failed to gain a foothold in Australia, the opposite is the case in Japan where the locals have enthusiastically embraced the concept. 1,000 stores now operate nationally and the Shibuya outlet in Tokyo is alleged to be the highest grossing store in the world.
But we didn’t care to celebrate our first breakfast in Japan with a frappucino.
After fossicking around the streets and laneways east of Shinjuku station, we found a Segafredo outlet. This offered a passably good cappuccino with an admirable head of froth, albeit it minus the dusting of chocolate we take for granted in Australia. And from our window seats, we were treated to a spot of light entertainment as representatives of the city traffic department painstakingly measured up how far a parked truck had exceeded its legally allotted space before towing it away.
Our experience of the coffee chains was as variable as the chains are numerous. No matter how often we asked – admittedly in English or by pointing – we could never get coffee from Vie de France, a Japanese owned French bakery, served in anything other than a cardboard container. Yet Japanese diners seemed to get theirs in porcelain.
The local Tully chain, with its white sandwiches and lukewarm coffees, offered all but one beverage in a cardboard cup. So I ordered the espresso, something I would never do at home because I don’t like espresso.
Family run coffee shops can also be a hit and miss affair. Our venture into a charming looking Asakusa coffee shop renewed our acquaintance with a substance we’d long forgotten. I began by asking for a cappuccino and M a flat white. These were politely declined and we were directed to the single coffee offer on the menu. At 300 yen a piece, we expected at least filter coffee. The whistling of a kettle on the counter should have been a dead giveaway, but it wasn’t until the coffees arrived at our table and we’d taken the first sip, that we realised what we were drinking: instant.
By contrast, some of our best coffee drinking experiences were at what we would have thought of as unlikely places. I can’t readily think of a Sydney train station where I would choose to sit down and enjoy a “cap”, but there are many such places at Japanese stations and some of them serve exceptionally fine coffee. At Namba station in Osaka, we were introduced to the Kiefel brew. Kiefel has been in business for the last 50 years so clearly they are doing something right. And while M’s black coffee was a tad on the dear side at 500 yen, it was worth every drop.
The station at Hakata – a stop more visited in order to change trains than as a point of disembarkation – yielded a fine coffee shop where the coffee was splendid and the smokers were tucked away in a sealed bunker, far from the aroma of roasting coffee beans.
I’m sure that Edward VII would have been satisfied.
© AJapaneseDiary, 2013 ongoing. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without the express and written permission of this blog’s author and owner is strictly forbidden. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given, and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.