Coffee in Japan: Local Independent Shops
By Perry Luckett and Colleen Luckett
How are Japan's smaller cafes doing? They're hanging in there. Until about 15 years ago, most Japanese got their coffee at local coffee shops called “kisaten.” These places had plenty of local charm, but they were often filled with cigarette smoke and they served only standard hot or iced coffee.
Many independent coffee shops now thrive on repeat customers, and a lot of them still allow smoking, which Starbucks and Tully’s have outlawed. The number of smokers nationwide has fallen below 20 percent of the population, but the “every-lung-is-sacred” campaign hasn't yet prevailed in Japan, so being able to smoke while sipping one’s brew is a big selling point for the tobacco crowd. (Of course, that keeps non-smokers away, but they already tend to go to the chains.)
Tokyo usually is considered the coffee capital of Japan, so the big city receives a lot of attention in guidebooks and online articles. As a result, we’ve decided to emphasize three other cities in Japan that offer plenty of independent coffee shops to try: Kyoto, Fukushima, and Tokushima. Of course, no matter where you're enjoying coffee (or tea), it's always a good idea to keep it hotter longer with a fine Thinsulate-insulated coffee sleeve, cup cap, or French press cover from koffeekompanions.com.
Kyoto is a beautiful city that gives Tokyo a run for its money as a haven for good independent shops that sell world-class coffee in all its permutations. For example, no coffee lover’s trip to Kyoto would be complete without a visit to cozy little Weekenders Coffee, which opened in 2005 and became one of the first espresso shops in the prefecture. They began roasting their own coffee beans in 2011 to supply their own shops, as well as other cafés. Although this location is mainly a place where you can buy beans and coffee equipment, they do have a small standing bar where you can leisurely sip your java—especially after 3 p.m. Before that, the roasting machine is going and can get quite noisy.
Because space at the original location is at a premium, and things got cramped and hot as the demand for beans grew, they opened Weekenders Coffee Tominokoji in July 2016. It’s perched at the end of a parking lot, and its design is a nod to Kyoto traditions: sliding partitions, bamboo, wooden beams, and clay walls all play a part. The exterior of the shop is punctuated by small trees in mossy beds and arranged stones.
Upstairs the team regularly hosts cupping sessions--cupping its own coffees alongside coffees from fellow Japanese roasters and other international coffee brands in a cozy atmosphere. Local baristas and people from even as far away as Osaka join these sessions to broaden their horizons and learn a thing or two about coffee.
Café Phalam is another top-five shop in Kyoto--a half block from Nijo subway station on the Tozai line, walking distance from Nijo Castle (Nijo-jo station). Its representatives have participated as tasters in the Cup of Excellence, in which farmers compete to sell the highest grade of coffee. Also, unlike most cafés in Japan, Café Phalam reduces its waste by not dispensing oshibori (moist towelettes), and it even gives a ¥100 discount if you bring your own cup!
This cosy cafe serves delicious fresh-brewed coffee and has two vegan lunch specials: combo platter or veggie burger. They have a granola-yogurt-coffee set that is popular with regulars. Portions are small, but everything is tasty, and there is a display case of vegan baked goods, a small organic grocery section, and some attractive tableware for sale. The cafe also serves meat dishes, beer, and organic wines. An English menu is posted at the register, where you order and pay in advance.
For a very different experience, try Vermillion near the famous Fushimi Inari temple in Kyoto. After you’ve made your way down from the hundreds of steps you’ve climbed to the temple, you’ll be exiting the temple complex on its northern side. That’s where you’ll find Vermillion--one of the city’s cutest and most welcoming new coffee shops. Its interior features straight lines and beautiful light wood, with a small garden and terrace seating available for a “Zen experience.”
Vermillion sources all of its coffees from Weekenders (described above), so the quality is high. Their standard house blend consists of 60% Brazil, 20% Ethiopia and 20% Guatemala, but the menu also features pour-overs and iced coffees. What’s unique about Vermillion, though, is its Australian roots. The owner is Shigeo Kimura, who spent 18 years living in Australia before returning to his native Japan to open his own coffee bar. Australian Mitch Prince is a core member of the team, having lived in Kyoto for 3 or 4 years.
Colleen lived for a time in Fukushima, so let’s drop in a couple independent coffee shops there: Coffee Gourmet and Coffee No Machi (City of Coffee).
Coffee Gourmet is a short walk from the train station, so it’s popular with tourists and commuters alike. Its classic wood tables and chairs give the shop an older look, with a well-stocked pastry case and a nice long bar where singles tend to stop for coffee and a set lunch. They have a number of well received coffee specialty drinks, several desserts, and tasty dishes for meals or snacks.
Coffee No Machi is a 10- to 15-minute walk from Fukushima station, tucked away on the second floor of a building along the cultural street. They have a small sign at the entrance but a very interesting historical image on the front wall that depicts an old-time coffee wagon. In fact, the entire place has a retro look, even in the tableware and accessories. They’ve served excellent scones for many years but now have added food and dessert choices to the menu. Patrons range from young students to the elderly, who have been coming to Coffee No Machi for decades. Check it out for its relaxed, retreat-like atmosphere.
When Colleen moved to Tokushima, she started looking for coffee shops to supplement the Starbucks and Tully’s chains near the train station. One of Colleen’s favorites is Trump-do Café (not THAT Trump—it’s named after a no-trump card in a Japanese card game). It boasts a beautiful décor: rich, velvet curtains; French trinkets on shelves; beautiful collectible tea cups on the walls; and quaint furnishings. Tables at the front have a nice view of the street.
Because Trump-do makes their coffee using the slow-drip process, every cup is delicious. And they're open late, so if you need some coffee after spending a little too much time at the bar (ahem-not-Colleen-of-course-ahem), you have a go-to place.
An interesting little place, Canadian Coffeehouse, is an attraction in nearby Matsushige-cho. It’s about a 19-minute drive from Tokushima Station and is known as much for its architecture as for its coffee. Its décor is “old-time-coffee-shop,” which many of its regulars enjoy, but it’s surprisingly roomy at the floor level. Special bread from Kobe is a highlight of the menu, as are good Japanese breakfasts and other baked goods.
Another good independent in Tokushima is Ikariya, located very near the famous Awa Odori dance theater (blocks from the train station) and known especially for their coffee jelly (served often with vanilla ice). Trip Advisor ranks them number 1 of 12 listed coffee and tea places in the city and 22 of 1,630 overall. Ikariya was established in 1955, so third-generation family members now own and manage their thriving coffee sales business, as well as consumer tea and coffee rooms. They also serve pancakes, waffles, and other tasty foods. It’s a great place to start or end your day.
These are just a small sample of the many independent coffee shops that are part of Japan's vibrant coffee scene. Of course, you can find dozens of them in Tokyo and Osaka, as well, but a true measure of growth in Japan's coffee industry is how many independents are thriving in the "smaller" cities: Kyoto (1.5 million people), Fukushima (275,000), Tokushima (258,000), and the like.
Have you traveled to Japan and found a favorite independent coffee shop? Tell us about it in the Comments below. At Koffee Kompanions, we're always glad to hear from our readers.