About Life Coffee Brewers is part of the small Onibus Coffee group which has its own roastery in Nakameguro, although it also serves coffee from two other Tokyo roasters, Switch Coffee Tokyo and Amameria Espresso. No more than a coffee stand at the top (western) end of Dōgenzaka in Shibuya, it’s something of an institution and a favourite of many visitors to the city. Serving mostly takeaway customers (so don’t forget to bring your own cup), you can stand at the counter or sit on one of two benches down the side. There’s also a semi-secret sheltered standing-room only area inside, which is handy if it’s raining.
For such a small spot, About Life has a large output. There’s a concise with/without milk espresso menu, with the Onibus house-blend used for milk drinks and blends from the other two roasters available as espresso/Americano. However, what’s really impressive is the selection of six single origins, two from each roaster. These can be had as an espresso (no milk) or as a pour-over through the V60. All the coffee, espresso and pour-over, can be had hot, or with ice. The selection of single origins is seasonal, changing every two to three months.
Koffee Mameya, which literally translates as Coffee Beans, is something of a name in speciality coffee circles. The successor to the famed Omotesando Koffee, a legendary pop-up coffee shop that once stood on the same physical site, going to Koffee Mameya is somewhat akin to going on a pilgrimage for the speciality coffee lover.
Technically Koffee Mameya isn’t a coffee shop; it’s a retailer with a tasting bar where you can try the beans before you buy. It’s also tiny, an almost cube-shaped, wood-clad, windowless box with no seats, just a counter at the back and, more often than not, a queue out of the door.
Koffee Mameya works with seven roasters, four from Japan and one each from Denmark, Hong Kong and Melbourne. There are up to 25 different beans available at any one time (there were 18 choices on offer when I visited) arranged by roast profile from light to dark. Since Koffee Mameya is all about the taste, there’s no milk here (and definitely no sugar), with the coffee available to try as either pour-over through the Kalita Wave or espresso, using a customised Synesso Hydra built into the counter-top. There are also cold-brew samples on hand.
Japan has a wide, varied coffee culture stretching back to, I believe, the inter-war years. Although Japan has moved with the times, accepting and adapting modern trends in coffee, such as lighter roasting, the old traditions live on. On my first visit in 2017, I wrote about Café de L’Ambre, a traditional Japanese kissaten. I also visited Chatei Hatou (once I’d found it!) but didn’t have a chance to write it up. Since it’s just around the corner from my hotel, it was another place I made a beeline for on my return to Tokyo this week.
The traditional Japanese kissaten is more akin to a bar than a modern coffee shop. Both Chatei Hatou and Café de L’Ambre are long, low, windowless buildings where patrons are still allowed to smoke (although on both my visits Chatei Hatou wasn’t too smoky, perhaps due to the air-conditioning). Only serving pour-over coffee, the best seats are at the counter, where you can watch the coffee being made on a near-continuous basis. Alternatively, there are a number of tables, more cosy two-person ones and some larger, ten-person ones, in the relatively spacious interior. Finally, there’s an impressive range of cakes to tempt you.
Onibus Coffee is a small chain of four coffee shops, including this, the roastery, in the residential district of Nakameguro. That said, it won’t be the roastery for much longer, since there are moves afoot to relocate the Diedrich roaster from the cramped space in the rear of the store to a dedicated site. Until then, enjoy the spectacle of watching the roaster in action while you sip your coffee.
There’s outdoor seating along the side of the small, two-storey building, or you can sit upstairs, where, instead of the roaster, you can watch the trains rattling by, Onibus backing onto the elevated train tracks of the nearby station. You can’t quite touch the passing trains, but it’s close. It’s a busy line, so you’re never far from the clickety-clack of the next train (every minute or two). Personally, I enjoy the sound of the trains going by, but others might find it off-putting.
Onibus serves a simple espresso menu using one of its blends, while there’s a choice of several single-origins on pour-over through the V60. There’s also a small selection of cake, along with retail bags of the coffee and a small range of home coffee equipment.
Bluebottle is something of an institution in California, with numerous outlets in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. From its base, Bluebottle has spread both east, with branches on the east coast, ranging from Miami to Boston, and west, where it’s crossed the Pacific Ocean to Japan, with a solitary branch in Kyoto and seven in Tokyo.
My relationship with Bluebottle in the US has been a bit hit and miss, liking some places, but not others. However, based on my limited experience in Tokyo, I’m smitten by Bluebottle in Japan. The branch in Aoyama was around the corner from my office when I visited in April last year, one of a cluster of excellent coffee shops, all within easy walking distance of the office, that include Japanese café/roaster Sarutahiko Coffee and two further foreign-influenced coffee shops, Coutume and Café Kitsuné, both of whom have their roots in Paris.
Bluebottle serves a single-origin and blend on espresso, with another single-origin and blend on pour-over, plus two more single-origins on syphon. There’s also a concise breakfast/lunch menu and a selection of cakes. Of all the places I visited in Japan, it is the most American in terms of service and style.
The delightful Nem Coffee & Espresso is definitely the hidden gem of Tokyo’s speciality coffee scene. Located south of the Arisugawa-no-miya Memorial Park, Nem is tucked away down a narrow, pedestrian alley, so much so that you think you’re walking into a residential neighbourhood to visit someone’s house, which is not as far from the truth as it seems. The coffee shop is on the ground floor of an old house, painstakingly renovated/converted by the owners, a married couple who live upstairs, Nem opening for business in May 2016. The result is a small, but delightful space, with windows front and back, with a very Japanese feel to the architecture, but a very western feel to the coffee shop itself.
Talking of coffee, Nem has a concise menu, drinks split between “black” and “with milk”. There’s a house-blend on espresso (from Switch Coffee) and two single-origins plus a decaf (from Nozy Coffee) on filter through the cafetiere. There’s also tea and hot chocolate, plus a small food menu, with a choice of two cakes. Small is definitely the name of the game at Nem, with all the food being cooked to order in a compact, open kitchen behind the counter.
Sarutahiko Coffee is a small, but growing, coffee shop/roaster chain in Tokyo. This branch shares space with a bookshop and travel agent in HIS, a multi-level shop on a quiet street near my office, one of several excellent coffee options within a five minutes’ walk. It’s also another recommendation from the Commodities Connoisseur (although he visited the flagship Ebisu branch).
Sarutahiko roasts all its own coffee, a considerable selection of which is on sale at the Omotesandō branch. There is a variety of espresso-based drinks, either hot or over ice, while there’s a large range of single-origins (six) and blends (five) available as pour-over using the V60. Although there’s plenty of seating, the Omotesandō branch is rather unusual in that it only serves coffee in takeaway cups, so be sure to bring your own.
Sarutahiko has several neat features. For example, although it’s counter service, you are given a playing card when you order, with an identical playing card being put down on the counter with your coffee, so you know which one is yours. On the retail side, each coffee has a card with tasting and origin notes, with the card’s colour indicating the darkness of the roast. Genius!
The Local Coffee Stand was a chance discovery in Tokyo, conveniently located halfway along my walk from my hotel in Shibuya and the office in Minamiaoyama. I passed it on the second day, when the A-board caught my eye, and the following day, I popped in for a cappuccino to take to the office with me. Of all the places I visited in Tokyo, it perhaps reminded me the most of a western, third-wave coffee establishment in layout as well as look and feel. It also kept what I call “western hours”, opening at 8am, whereas a lot of more traditional Japanese coffee shops don’t open until 10 o’clock or even noon.
The Local was set up by the people behind Good Coffee, an online resource for finding good coffee in Tokyo. The coffee shop, which showcases roasters from around Japan, is on the ground floor, while the floor above is used by Good Coffee as its training centre and coffee academy. The Local’s not a huge spot, with space for maybe a dozen people in the seating area at the back, with three more at the counter. There’s espresso, bulk-brew and pour-over, plus cake for those who are hungry.
So far in covering Tokyo’s Coffee Spots, I’ve written about Maruyama Coffee, a modern take on a traditional Japanese, service-oriented coffee shop and Kaido Books & Coffee, which any aficionado of western, third-wave coffee shops would instantly recognise. For today’s Coffee Spot, however, I wanted to write about Café de L’Ambre, a traditional Japanese kissaten.
This is a very different beast, more akin to a bar than a coffee shop. In the case of L’Ambre, all the coffee is roasted on-site on a pair of small roasters at the front of the store, while coffee is made and consumed at the back, in a long, low, smoky room with a counter/bar on the left and a handful of tables on the right.
If you can, sit at the counter, the further along the better, where you can watch your coffee being prepared for you using a linen filter. This is really old-school: no scales, timers or temperature-controlled kettles. It’s coffee as a performance and although the end result might not please everybody, it’s an experience I would recommend trying. Be warned, though, L’Ambre allows smoking and it’s pot-luck whether you end up sat next to someone lighting up a cigarette.
It’s almost been two weeks since I set off from Heathrow to fly, for first the time, to Japan. You can read about my (lack of) preparation for the trip and my thoughts about it in the previous Travel Spot. Rather than give a blow-by-blow account of my trip, including where I went and what I did, I’m taking a different approach with this Travel Spot, concentrating on my general impressions of Tokyo and, in another post, Japan (at least, those bits that I visited).
My trip’s been split into three parts. Part I involved three nights in Tokyo where I was pretty much getting over my jet-lag and gentling exploring random parts of the city. Part II was work, a Monday to Friday meeting that was ostensibly the purpose of the trip and involved moving to a swanky hotel in Shibuya (think Piccadilly Circus/Oxford Street or Times Square). Part III, the bit I’m on now, sees me exploring Japan by train for a week and will be covered in another Travel Spot.
Back to this Travel Spot, where I will kick off with some general observations about Tokyo, before moving on to talk about coffee shops and other matters.