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.
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.
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.