July 2018: The great news is that in the past two years, coffee culture has continued to spread in Japan! But be prepared to DIY if travelling beyond the major cities. See below for updates.
When it comes to finding a decent cup of coffee in Japan, as the saying goes, there’s some good news and some bad news.
The good is you can get amazing coffee big cities, like Tokyo and Kyoto.
The bad – you will usually have to wait til at least 10 am (often midday or even later) for your first hit.
For the caffeine-sensitive coffee lovers like me, that second revelation posed a bit of a challenge during my recent trip to Japan. I’m more a savour-a-strong-espresso before breakfast kind of gal, rather than drink it all day and keep it coming!
Like coffee, breakfast is a late affair. Beyond the 24 hour diners (where you order and pay for your meal at a vending machine before being seated), or rice balls from convenience stores – finding that first meal of the day can be challenge for travellers.
I didn’t risk the beverages in either of those early morning options, nor the machines that vend a can of hot or cold coffee. Though did resort to using some supermarket bought pour over ground coffee bags a couple of times.
But there were some standout coffee shops, though they had little or no breakfast options.
Frankie is right at home in hipster Shimokitazawa. I spied it on the first night and thought it had a very familiar look. Straight out of Melbourne like the owner, this café not only makes exceptional coffee but also an assortment of Australian cakes and slices to go with your flat white. Coffee is Allpress (and they also sell Aeropress’s if you want a lightweight travelling companion).
Opens most days at 10 am (just look for the queue of Australasians waiting to get in). Check the website, as their hours have recently changed.
400Yen for your long black or flat white.
155-0031 Setagaya-ku, Tokyo Kitazawa 2-chome, 12-15
Shimokitazawa is a great suburb for coffee lovers, at least for the ones who don’t need a hit early in the day. All theseplaces looked amazing, just maddening closed when I needed a hit. If staying in this neighbourhood again, I’d pick up an Aeropress from Frankie and stock up on freshly ground beans around the corner at Maldive.
Sarutahiko in Ebisu is unique in its offerings. This tiny café has great music, outstanding coffee and a (single) breakfast option. But add free Wi-Fi (another rarity in this technologically advanced country) and wait for it – 7.30 am opening (weekdays, 10 am weekends) and its worth booking your next Airbnb in this area.
240 yen for excellent house brew (hot or cold), 450 for most other coffees.
Great news: They’ve rolled out more locations across Tokyo.
Tip: The granola breakfast set with their signature drip/cold brew coffee is a great way to start the day. (They’ll let you sub hot chocolate is coffee isn’t your thing).
100% Arabica has “good coffee” written all over it and it didn’t disappoint. This light and airy coffee haven with the ubiquitous blonde wood fit out off the main drag in the historic Higashiyama area, was a mere two blocks away from where I stayed. Best of all they open at 8am. The perfect time for a caffeine hit. Though not so good for my tea-drinking companion as this place serves coffee and nothing else.
The Tokyo-born owner loves the stuff so much that he bought a coffee plantation in Hawaii. 100% Arabica has three locations in Kyoto, and a handful more sprinkled around the world.
87 Hoshinochō, Higashiyama-ku, Kyōto-shi, Kyōto-fu 605-0853
Sentido: Another gift from the caffeine god, was stumbling upon this small cafe. Not only does it open at a reasonable hour but, unlike 100% Arabica, they have a small breakfast menu (and serve other beverages). From memory there were only a couple of options, toasted banana bread with the world’s tiniest but well formed cube of butter, or a small bowl of cereal with fruit and yoghurt.
The espresso was perfect and the toasted banana bread made a nice snack to go with it (thank goodness for the rice balls!)
While searching Sentido’s address I came across a blog post that mentioned the owner learned to make coffee while living in Melbourne. No wonder it was so good!
1F Nippo Karasuma Bldg, 445 Sasaya-cho, Kyoto, Japan, 604-8187
Open: 7:30am – 7:00pm Monday – Friday, 8:00am – 7:00pm Saturday (closed Sunday)
A note of Japanese addresses: the non-consecutive street numbers can be very confusing, that’s because they’re numbered in the order they’re built. A “pocket Wi-Fi” (a phone sized mobile modem) and Google maps, will save you hours of confusion when hunting for your first fix of the day.
How lucky am I to go back to Japan for a second visit in two years? Forewarned, I travelled with my trusty Aeropress and my favourite blend from Caffe Bianchi.
But did I really need to bring the hardware?
This trip took me to Osaka, Yoshino, Kyoto, Kanazawa and Tokyo. Coffee-wise it was a mixed bag.
In the big cities we stayed in hotels. All provided some kind of drinkable coffee. This varied from drip coffee bags in the room, or self-service espresso at the breakfast buffet or in the lobby.
While Kanazawa appears to have the beginnings of a coffee culture, our Airbnb (one of the few still operating since the law changed in Japan in June 2018) came equiped with a hand coffee grinder and drip coffee.
Staying in a traditional ryokan in Yoshino is a totally kettle of fish. While the food was lavish (oh my goodness, that’s another post entirely) and there was a wide variety of green teas on offer, coffee was entirely DIY. Fortunately, a flask of hot water was provided with the teas each morning.
In Yoshino at the height of summer there were very few tourists, and only a small number of restaurants open for lunch. Nothing appears to open for dinner, not even for a nightcap.
If you’re heading to a small town, or staying in a traditional guesthouse, bring your own coffee!
Vending machine coffee
It’s hot and sticky in most parts of Japan from May through to September, so I got the hankering for an iced coffee. While I chickened out of the vending machine option last visit, I fully embraced the odd cold, black coffee from a vending machine. The caffeine content seemed light on but was full of flavour.
The trick is finding the right can: hot/cold, black/white, sugar/unsweetened.
There are a number of reviews online to help you find the right brew in a can for you, or just be brave and choose the one that you think is right. After all it’s only a dollar or two.
The suburb we called home for almost a week has a number of coffee shops, most opening at a reasonable hour. As I was equiped with both the Aeropress and a free espresso machine in the foyer of our hotel, outsourcing wasn’t entirely necessary.
We tried a couple of the local coffee spots but this one a clear standout.
Open early (9am) most mornings, the single handed barista not only cranks out a fine brew and plays great music but he also makes a mean bagel.
153-0052, 2 Chome-15-5 Yutenji, Meguro
Open 9 am til late most days except Tuesday.