This is a slight departure from my normal Travel Spot series, less recording what I’ve done, more advanced warning of what’s coming. Whether I expand it to recap my travels remains to be seen, but for now it can stand as a reminder of an increasingly busy year!
You see, I’m off to Japan. I’ve known about it for a while now. I booked the flights in early February, but only really started planning the trip at the weekend. For reference, today’s Wednesday and I’m leaving for the airport at noon!
This is very unlike me. Normally I’m a thorough planner and preparer, even if I then use my plans as a basis for improvisation rather than rigorously follow them. I suspect that I’m a bit of nightmare to travel with, so it’s just as well that I travel alone most of the time.
I’m back with British Airways after dabbling with various airlines over the last year. It’s the one part of the trip I have planned: my exit-row aisle seats are booked and I’m looking forward (honestly, I am) to 12 hours on a 787. It might give me a chance to do some preparation for this trip!
You can see what I’ll be up to after the gallery, only there is no gallery, so let’s crack on!
If you’ve been keeping up, you’ll know that for the last 12 months I’ve been travelling for business, including a round-the-world trip last year that took in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Chicago and a couple of trips to Phoenix, the second of which turned into a rather Grand Adventure. Astute readers will notice that I haven’t actually finished any of those Travel Spots (cue mild embarrassment on my behalf), a clue as to how ridiculously busy I’ve been. I have at least been publishing various Coffee Spots from those trips, but my failure to actually finish writing about any of those trips explains my limited ambition with this post.
My current trip is another combined work/Coffee Spot jaunt. I arrive on Thursday, and have given myself three clear days to get over my jet lag and acclimatise, much as I did when I flew out to Shanghai via Hong Kong last year. This time will be spent in Tokyo, exploring the city’s vibrant coffee scene and possibly doing some tourist things along the way! Then, on Monday, I embark on a week-long meeting, after which I’ve given myself a weekend to recover before allowing myself a week to explore Japan itself. I’ve gotten as far as booking a rail pass, but that’s about it. I’ve no idea where I’m going or even where I’m staying. It’s going to be, shall we say, interesting!
And that’s about it. Rather than speculate about what I may, or may not do, here are some handy links to articles by fellow bloggers which I will be drawing on in the next few days as I plan what I’m going to do/see.
Firstly, there’s the Commodities Connoisseur with several excellent guides to the coffee scenes in various Japanese city:
Next is Bex of Double Skinny Macchiato:
- Ten Days in Japan (a mega-post/guide covering Bex’s entire trip)
- The Japan Caffeine Chronicles (the coffee scene in Tokyo, Kyoto & Miyajima)
I will also be drawing on the following sources:
- Audrey, aka The Curiosity, who has numerous posts covering Japan and the Japanese coffee scene.
- Amelia Hallsworth and her five-part Tokyo series, including an entry on the city’s coffee shops
- Chloe’s article on Japan in the latest issue of Caffeine Magazine (naturally!)
Finally, I’m indebted to Christina Wong for her advice by e-mail and to Edy Piro for his coffee shop map of Tokyo.
If you want to follow my adventures, you can see all the Coffee Spots I’ve published so far from Tokyo and Kyoto (including my favourite of the trip) below, with a few more to come. What’s more, there’s a whole Travel Spot on my thoughts and observations about Tokyo.
About Life Coffee Brewers
About Life Coffee Brewers is part of the small Onibus Coffee group which has its own roastery in Yakumo, 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.Continue reading...
Blue Bottle Coffee, Aoyama
Blue Bottle Coffee is something of an institution in California, with numerous outlets in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. From its base, Blue Bottle 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 branches in Kobo, Kyoto and as of 2019, fourteen in Tokyo.
My relationship with Blue Bottle 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 Blue Bottle 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.
Blue Bottle 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.Continue reading...
Blue Bottle Coffee, Shinagawa Station
Blue Bottle Coffee at Shinagawa Station is its sixth (of currently 14) locations in Tokyo, opening at the end of 2016, just after the Nakameguro branch. I discovered it on my first visit to Japan in April 2017, when I based myself near the station, catching the bullet trains on a daily basis as I explored Japan. As a result, it became a regular calling point first thing in the morning, with a pre-departure cappuccino to go in my SoL Cup. Since then, I’ve made a point of popping by whenever I’m changing trains in the station (which, admittedly, hasn’t been very often).
Despite being a station coffee shop, Blue Bottle, following the best traditions of Japanese station coffee shops such as Ogawa Coffee at Kyoto Station and Maruyama Coffee at Nagano Station, has a full offering in line with most other Blue Bottle locations in the city, although it lacks the extensive food offerings of the Aoyama coffee shop. The seasonal Hayes Valley blend is on espresso, along with a regularly-changing single-origin, while there’s a dedicated filter blend, different a single-origin and decaf on pour-over. There’s also a strong retail offering, plus a small range of cakes and snacks.Continue reading...
Café de L’Ambre
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.Continue reading...
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 was 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.Continue reading...
Kaido Books & Coffee
Kaido Books & Coffee was just down the street from my third (and final) hotel in Tokyo during my first trip to Japan in 2017. I’d done extremely well when it came to good coffee near hotels/work on that trip and Kaido (plus Blue Bottle Coffee at Shinagawa Station) was the icing on the cake. It was also a surprise, a random discovery as I explored the rather lovely residential street I was unexpected staying on. I made a few visits during my stay in 2017, popping back again on my return to Tokyo in July 2018.
Kaido Books & Coffee does what it says on the tin: a book shop combined with a coffee shop. In fairness, though, it’s more like a coffee shop with plenty of books. In fact, I didn’t see anyone buy a book the whole time I was there! It seems that the books are more for the customers to browse while lingering over coffee.
Kaido serves coffee from And Coffee Roasters and Ishikawa Coffee, with a choice of three single-origins on pour-over through the V60, one of which was also available on espresso. Kaido does a limited range of food, which includes a small cake selection.Continue reading...
Maruyama Coffee, Nishi Azabu
My first Tokyo coffee experience was down, in part, to the excellent Commodities Connoisseur and also to serendipity. Having done very little planning for this trip, I had picked my hotel for the first part of my stay almost at random. On arrival, I was delighted to discover that it was across the road from one of Commodities Connoisseur’s recommendations, Maruyama Coffee.
Maruyama Coffee is a roaster based in Karuizawa in the mountains northwest of Tokyo and founded in 1991 by Kentaro Maruyama. Nishi Azabu is the sixth store, one of three in Tokyo. It’s a lovely space, with plenty of seating and full table service. Although not a traditional Japanese coffeehouse (as I understand them to be), it was a very Japanese experience, far removed from the typical (western) third-wave café.
Perhaps the most surprising thing is the vast array of coffee on offer, which can be had principally through the humble cafetiere, although there are also options for Steampunk, Cores pour-over cones and espresso. If you are hungry, there is a small breakfast menu (08:00 – 10:00) and a decent selection of cake. There’s also a huge retail section, including beans, coffee-making equipment and a range of other products.Continue reading...
Nem Coffee & Espresso
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 Roasters) and two single-origins plus a decaf (from Nozy Coffee) on filter through the cafetiere (hot) or Kalita Wave (cold). 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.Continue reading...
Onibus Coffee, Nakameguro
Onibus Coffee is a small chain of five coffee shops, including this, the roastery, in the residential district of Nakameguro in Tokyo. 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 seeing the roaster in action as 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.Continue reading...
Sarutahiko Coffee Ebisu
Sarutahiko Coffee in Ebisu is another places which I discovered on my first visit to Tokyo in April 2017, but never had time to write up. I first came across Sarutahiko when I found its Omotesandō branch, around the corner from my office, which shares a multi-level space with a bookshop and travel agent. This branch, opposite Ebisu train station on the Yamanote Line (amongst others) is very different, being a stand-alone shop, but it shares the two winning factors from the Omotesandō branch: excellent coffee and, in a culture where service is king, uber-friendly and welcoming staff. In fact, even if I didn’t like the coffee so much, I’d be tempted back just to see the staff.
When it comes to coffee, Sarutahiko has one of the widest ranges of any coffee shop I know. There are six blends and six single-origins, with roasts from dark all the way to light, so there’s something for everyone. All the coffee is available as pour-over, while there’s the house-blend and a single-origin available on espresso. You can also buy retail bags of the beans, although there’s a much wider selection available in Sarutahiko’s retail shop just a few doors away.Continue reading...
Sarutahiko Coffee Omotesandō
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!Continue reading...
The Local Coffee Stand
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.Continue reading...
% Arabica, Fujii Daimaru
% Aribica is a Kyoto-based roaster/coffee shop chain which was one of Caffeine Magazine’s top recommendations. However, I couldn’t make it to either of its main stores. Instead, I’m indebted to Commodities Connoisseur for the heads-up about the branch inside the Fujii Daimaru Department Store, which, for my purposes, had the advantage of being open until eight o’clock in the evening.
Serving the house-blend and a single-origin on espresso from a very limited menu, it’s a surprisingly pleasant environment in which to sit down and rest your weary legs between sight-seeing stops. You can also buy beans and a small range of merchandising, including branded cups and containers, while if you’re hungry, there’s no problem picking something up from the food hall in the basement and munching it at % Arabica with your coffee. A word to the wise: it’s takeaway cups only, so don’t forget to bring your own!Continue reading...
A relative newcomer to Kyoto’s speciality coffee scene, Kurasu only opened in 2016. It seems a tad harsh to call it a chain, but shortly after my visit, in 2017, a second branch of Kurasu opened. In Singapore. While an excellent coffee shop in its own right, Kurasu also champions Japanese coffee products, such as pour-over filters, kettles and crockery, operating a worldwide mail order business, which is where Kurasu had its roots, starting in Australia in 2013, before the owner returned to his home town in 2016.
A five-minute walk from Kyoto’s main station, the coffee shop is a modest affair, long, and thin, with the counter on one side and minimal seating at the back. There’s a house blend from Single O, an Australian-based roaster with an outpost in Tokyo, while the pour-over and batch-brew feature single-origins from roasters around Japan, who change every month. There’s also a small selection of cake.Continue reading...
Ogawa Coffee, Kyoto Station
Yesterday I took the Shinkansen from Kyoto Station, on my way towards Tokyo, stopping en-route in Hamaya to visit Dark Arts and in Zushi (Breather Coffee). It therefore seems fitting that today’s Coffee Spot is the Kyoto Station branch of Ogawa Coffee. I had my first-ever Kyoto speciality coffee there on arriving from Tokyo in April 2017, and on my return, I had my final coffee (along with my breakfast) before leaving Kyoto yesterday morning. Not that 2017 was my first experience of Ogawa Coffee. Rather that came a year earlier in 2016, at Ogawa Coffee in Boston. Naturally, when visiting Kyoto, the home of Ogawa, I had to try at least one branch of Ogawa, and where better to start (and end), than at the station?
Despite being what could be described as a station takeaway café, Ogawa doesn’t compromise when it comes to coffee. There’s a concise espresso menu, offering espresso, cappuccino or latte, the latter being available hot or iced. There’s also filter, with a choice of the house-blend on batch-brew, and two single-origins as pour-over or Aeropress. You can either sit-in or have your coffee to go, which you can order from the separate retail counter.Continue reading...
Sentido Speciality Coffee
Sentido Speciality Coffee is in the heart of Kyoto, south of the Imperial Palace and east of Nijō Castle. It’s also a few blocks from Weekenders Coffee, so it’s in pretty good company! I visited in 2017, during my first trip to Japan, tipped off by both Commodities Connoisseur and Double Skinny Macchiato. However, I didn’t have time to properly write it up, so a return visit was top of my list when I got back to Kyoto last weekend.
Down a side street off Takamiyacho, the main east-west artery, you’re unlikely to randomly wander by and, even if you do, you might well miss it, given its relatively small façade, set back slightly from the street. Inside it’s slightly larger than it seems, going back a long way, but it’s not what I’d describe as large.
The coffee, roasted by Cafetime Kyoto, is packaged/sold under the Sentido label, with all the beans available to buy in retail bags. There’s a blend and single-origin on espresso, while all the coffees, including the blend, are available through the cafetiere, with samples to try on the counter-top. If you’re hungry, there’s a range of sandwiches and cake, with plenty of vegetarian options.Continue reading...
Vermillion is a chain of precisely two in Kyoto, with an espresso bar next to the Inari train station and, five minutes’ walk away, by a large pond at the foot of Mount Inariyama, is the Vermillion Café, subject of today’s Coffee Spot. I didn’t spend long enough in Kyoto, Japan’s old Imperial capital, nor did I get to many coffee shops, but with my visit to Vermillion, I definitely saved the best until last!
Vermillion Café has a small outside seating area at the front (northern) end, which catches the evening sun, while inside, it’s long and relatively wide, with a couple of large tables. However, the best part is at the back, where the south-facing wooden terrace overlooks the pond. Here you’ll find the best views and perhaps my favourite spot for coffee in the whole of Japan.
Vermillion serves coffee roasted by the local Weekenders Coffee, with a bespoke house-blend on espresso and a choice of a blend or single-origin on pour-over through the V60, all of which can be had hot or over ice. There’s also a limited range of tea, beer and soft drinks, plus, if you’re hungry, a small selection of sandwiches and cake.Continue reading...
Tucked away in the back of a car park (something it shares with the Acme Coffee Roasting Company, of Seaside, California), Weekenders Coffee is Kyoto’s hidden gem. It’s definitely in the “you don’t need to find my coffee shop do you?” school, typified by the original (and now closed) Flat Caps Coffee in Newcastle.
However, it would be a shame if you let any difficulty finding Weekenders put you off, since it really is a gem. Roasting all its own coffee, which it serves from a ground-floor counter in a beautiful, wooden building, there’s a choice of house-blend or single-origin on espresso, plus multiple single-origins on pour-over, all supplemented with a small collection of excellent cake. You can also buy the beans.
There’s seating, in the shape of a two-person bench at the front. Unusually for this sort of operation, proper cups are available for those who aren’t going anywhere.Continue reading...
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Have a wonderful trip — I look forward to reading about where you end up going (and where you end up drinking coffee, of course — Tokyo’s coffee scene seems to have changed a lot since I was there). The most important Japanese sentence you will need is, “kōhī o kudasai” (can I have coffee, please)!
Have a good one Brian. I can recommend Roastery by Nozy in Shibuya, Tokyo
Enjoy your trip, Brian! I have done heaps of research into the coffee scene for my trip to Japan next month and these are the places that are top of my list to check out in Tokyo: Switch Coffee Roasters, About Life (Shibuya), Little Nap, Blue Bottle, Cafe Kitsune, Bearpond Espresso, The Roastery by Nozy, Frankie Melbourne Espresso, Fuglen and Deus & Machina. I am going to attempt to visit all of these in four days! I look forward to finding out which places you visit are your favs! 🙂 — from a fellow Guildford coffee snob!
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I’m really enjoying reading your Japan travel stories! Thought this article from today’s Japan Times might be of interest for your next Japan trip
Glad that you are enjoying my Japan pieces. I wish I had had the time to write some more! And thanks for the link: I was aware of Shozo (I’ve been to Blue Bottle in Omotesando, which is right next to the little Shozo coffee stand, but I wasn’t aware of its history!
All the best,