The fascinating Japanese coffee culture
The history of arrival of coffee, elegant specialty cafés, traditional coffee houses or kissaten, experts at manual brewing techniques such as siphon and hand drip, and the peculiarities of coffee consumption in Japan, among other things, have made of this country one of the most fascinating coffee cultures in the world.
The Japanese coffee-making has had far-reaching effects on modernity. For some experts, Japanese coffee exhibits the extraordinary care taken during the process that goes from rigorous bean selection to optimum roast and grind, and finally the personal technique of the maker.
Merry White, professor of Anthropology at the University of Boston, and author of the book Coffee Life in Japan (University of California Press), notes that coffee shops have been important spaces in the Japanese society long before the Seattle-driven boom. She has been observing daily life in Japanese cafés for over 40 years. According to White, unlike other imports such as men’s dress suit or the dining room table, which retained their western scent, coffee became naturalized quickly. From being used as a medicine in the late 1500s, it was considered a drink for pleasure some years later.
Kachiichakan, in Tokyo, was the first coffee shop registered in Japan and was founded in 1888. By this time, Brazil had chosen Japan as its first targeted, overseas market. Then, in 1907, the Paulista group was established in Tokyo and Osaka as the world’s first coffee chain. It was a huge success. However, for professor White, today’s coffee connoisseurs prefer independent coffee shops to chains.
The coffee culture in Japan had already consolidated in the 1970s. Merry White says that at that time it was common to find three or four coffee shops per block in any major Japanese city. Today one can find less, but they are still the place one goes. For White, visiting coffee shops is almost an unconscious action, like breathing.
At specialty coffee shops, espresso is becoming more common. But at a kissaten, in Japan, visitors will most likely find pour over (hand-dripped) coffee. “At a good shop it’s like a ballet. It’s just beautiful to watch,” says professor White.
Kissaten are recognized for their retro stylings: the décor and furnishings commonly date back to the 1950s and 60s. The atmosphere can be nostalgic, but comfortable and at a slower pace than modern coffee shops’. Hand drip is one of the main offerings of a kissaten, and in some of them one may never see an espresso machine.
Michie Yamamoto, owner of Tandem Coffee in Toronto, also highlights how fascinating a visit to a kissaten can be. For her, the atmosphere is amazing, with many regulars from a long time ago, people who every morning go and chat while they have a coffee and smoke some cigarettes. For Yamamoto, the kissaten is a display of tradition, a wonderful experience that cannot be easily found elsewhere.
Within one of the most refined, trend-setting coffee cultures in the world, kissaten are spaces where attention to customer experience and craft are paramount.
Among connoisseurs, the Japanese coffee culture is increasingly recognized as an important source of inspiration.