During my two visits to Tokyo, I’ve enjoyed Switch Coffee Tokyo’s coffee in both About Life Coffee Brewers, where you’ll find a pair of single-origins available as either espresso or pour-over, and Nem Coffee & Espresso, whose bespoke house-blend is roasted by Switch. However, since I’ve not yet made it down to Switch’s coffee shop/roastery in Meguro, I was delighted when the baristas at Little Nap Coffee Stand told me that Switch had opened a second branch opposite Yoyogi-Hachiman station, a mere five minutes’ walk away.
There’s not a lot to the new branch of Switch, with just the stool outside providing the only seat. Inside, it is standing-room only, with a choice of drinks from a concise espresso menu (espresso, latte or cappuccino) using Switch’s seasonal espresso blend, or batch-brew with a regularly-changing single-origin. You can also buy retail bags of beans to take home with you.
My first taste of Nozy’s coffee was at the lovely Nem Coffee & Espresso during my first visit to Tokyo in April 2017. I also walked past The Roastery, on Tokyo’s famous Cat Street, while taking a circuitous route back from the office, but I didn’t have time to stop. However, The Roastery was high on my must-visit list on my return, so a week ago today, I headed out early to beat the crowds, making a bee-line for The Roastery.
With the odd exception (Blue Bottle Coffee in Aoyama for example) the speciality coffee shops I’ve visited in Japan have been small. The Roastery bucks that trend, occupying a large space set back from the street, with a large outside seating area and a similarly-sized interior which doubles as a roastery, producing all Nozy’s coffee.
The coffee offering is just as big and impressive. There are no blends, just two single-origins for the limited espresso menu and another eight on pour-over, while you can buy all the beans to take home in retail bags of various sizes. There’s a small range of sweet and savoury snacks, plus perhaps the biggest draw of all in summer: soft-serve ice cream.
Yesterday, I wrote about About Life Coffee Brewers, a lovely coffee stand in Shibuya, next door to both my office and my hotel for the week I was working in the area. Using the rear entrance to Shibuya’s Mark City (my hotel was on top of this long, thin shopping mall) and turning right, the office was a two minute walk down the hill. However, left, if I turned left, About Life was two minutes up the hill. So, naturally, I started my day by going to About Life for coffee…
One of the frustrations of being a coffee blogger is that I rarely go back to places on a regular basis, nor do I get to sample the full range of coffee on offer, particularly somewhere like About Life, which has six single-origins available as either pour-over or espresso. However, it struck me as I ordered my two-shot latte on the first morning that there were no other decent coffee options near the office and, with two or three long breaks each day, there was every chance I could actually sample all the coffee.
So, I set myself a challenge: to try all six single-origin coffees in a week…
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.