Where can I get a coffee?

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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.[1]

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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:

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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.

2013-05-02 12.10.18Our 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.

 

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A reason for going

My husband (M) and I had always wanted to travel to Japan.

In June 2012, Jetstar offered 60% discounts on a range of fares from Australia, including to Japan.  We had 72 hours to make a commitment and knew not to dither.

We arrived in Japan in April 2013 with hotel bookings in place, a three-week Japan Rail pass, Lonely Planet and Eye Witness guides, notes of discussions we’d had with friends and family who had previously travelled to the country, and enough Yen (we hoped) to last the trip.

Between us we had fewer than 10 words of Japanese, most of which resided with me.  The only word which M could consistently recall was “beer”, which took periodic care of our thirst.  I quickly memorised “arigato” (thank you), which was always gratefully received even if my pronunciation was often way off.

Our respective parents had travelled to Japan in the 1970’s on organised tours.  While there was much temptation to go down this path, we wanted to shape our own voyage of discovery in our own time.  We knew that this would make extra work for us, and it did.  But once mastered, each challenge brought with it its own particular rewards and much satisfaction that we’d figured things out for ourselves.

While we consider ourselves well-travelled, Japan is like no other place on earth that we’ve visited.  It is at once both familiar and yet unfamiliar.  I tell friends and family that it is like travelling overseas for the first time.  There are so many revelations.  At times, they can take your breath away.

Although I kept a travel diary, this blog does not set out to chronicle our daily movements.  Rather, it is about the things that impressed us, some of which you may not necessarily find in travel guides.

By contrast, I do not deliberately set out to exclude some of the many things for which Japan is famous.  If it’s not represented in this blog, that is because we didn’t have time to see it, or taste it (I’m too scared to try fugu) or weren’t travelling in the right season to experience  it.

I hope our enthusiasm for Japan will infuse this blog and that you will enjoy reading it as much as we enjoyed being there.