The Time Capsules
The kissaten (traditional Japanese coffee shop) that nearly every coffee tourist seems to know about is Ginza’s Café de l’Ambre — but it's still worth a visit. Owned and operated by Ichiro Sekiguchi since 1948, this coffee-only establishment is a smoke-saturated, dimly lit, dark-wood-paneled wormhole to somewhere outside of our present space-time.
Café de l’Ambre violates all the rules that your local bean bro probably holds sacred: All of the coffee, roasted in-house by the centenarian Sekiguchi, is practically charred by fancy coffee standards, and at least a few of the beans at any given time have been aged for years (or decades) before being roasted. They’re then brewed with a "nel drip" — imagine a pour-over with an old sock for a filter — which is a standard kissaten brewing method. But each cup comes together so masterfully that even the edgiest coffee dork will have to submit to its basic deliciousness. So don’t be put off by the menu — a double-sided page of options sorted by preparation, quality, origin, and age — because the generally tiny size of each serving means that you can sample at least a couple of items. Try a curiously smooth two-decade-old Mocha or the sweet Blanc et Noir, which is served over ice. Linger for a while, depending on your tolerance for caffeine and cigarette smoke — and grab a seat at the counter if you can. 8-10-15 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo | +81 03 3571 1551 | www.h6.dion.ne.jp/~lambre
Of the more coffee-focused kissaten — they exist in stunning variety, and many are chronicled in detail in anthropologist Merry White’s Coffee Life in Japan — are Cafe Bach and Chatei Hatou (sometimes rendered as "Satei Hatou"). Both have become favorites of Blue Bottle founder James Freeman, who has traded handsomely on his fastidious appreciation of Japanese coffee culture and paraphernalia. (In fact, not a little of modern America’s coffee culture has been imported from Japan — much of the manual coffee gear you see in shops, from pour-over cones to siphon bars, is Japanese.) Each of these two cafes offers a dizzying array of coffee beans to choose from — all roasted in-house and hewing slightly more to the taste of a super-modern coffee drinker than l’Ambre’s roasts — as well as traditional kissaten desserts, like sponge cake. And while the number of kissaten in Japan has shrunk from a 1960s peak of 130,000 to around 80,000 as of a few years ago, new traditional cafes still appear, like Coffee Tram, opened by a former employee of Daibo Coffee, an iconic shop that closed in 2013. (If you can’t make it to a kissaten, reading the Daibo Coffee Manual isn’t the worst substitute.) Cafe Bach: 1-23-9 Niigatae, Taito-ku, Tokyo | +81 03 3875 2669 | www.bach-kaffee.co.jp | Chaitei Hatou: 1-15-19 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo | +81 03 3400 9088 | no website | Coffee Tram: 1-7-13 Ebisunishi, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo | +81 03 5489 5514 | www.small-axe.net/coffee
Distinctly Tokyo Coffee
Outside Japan, Bear Pond Espresso is probably the most well-known of Tokyo’s new wave of coffee shops. This is owing as much to the rock ‘n’ roll style of owner Katsuyuki Tanaka as its duly heralded and unorthodox espresso, which is as dense as wet concrete and dark as craft chocolate. While Tanaka once pulled shots for the flagship Angel Stain — an uncut dab of espresso in a demitasse — until the early afternoon, he now only serves 10 a day, meaning you’ll need to line up before the shop opens to get one. But "The Dirty," made with the same muddy, chocolatey espresso and ice cold milk, is a happy consolation prize. The vibe of shop can feel a little intimidating though — one of the less charming holdovers from the mid-2000s New York City coffee scene that inspired Tanaka. 2-36-12 Kitazawa, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo | +81 03 5454 2486 | www.bear-pond.com
On the other end of the cult-coffee scale, the serene setting and quiet exactitude of Eiichi Kunitomo’s Omotesando Koffee earned it rapturous accolades until it closed in 2015. Kunitomo is now back in the same space with Koffee Mameya, which is more bean purveyor than full-fledged cafe. The wide selection of whole-bean coffees on offer — from roasteries in and outside of Japan, including Australia and the U.S. — are also available brewed as espresso or drip coffee. If that sounds too tidy and peaceful, consider the skateboard and death metal vibes at the original location of Arise Coffee Roasters, which also offers a staggering number of coffees, all roasted in the shop. Koffee Mameya: 4-15-3 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo | +81 03 5413 9422 | www.koffee-mameya.com | Arise Coffee: 1-13-8 Hirano, Koto-ku, Tokyo | +81 03 3643 3601 | www.arisecoffee.jp
The Fancy Coffee You Know, But Maybe Better
Tucked away in a quiet residential area, Switch Coffee churns out immaculate lightly roasted coffee in a space that feels more like a workshop than a cafe. If you're looking for a clear expression of modern coffee at its most delicious and unpretentious, it would be hard to do much better than Switch, which serves interesting coffees, clean roasts, precise brews, and not much else. In a similar vein, and with a similar name, is Glitch Coffee Roasters. Switch Coffee: 1-17-23 Meguro, Meguro-ku, Tokyo | +81 03 6420 3633 | www.switchcoffeetokyo.com | Glitch Coffee: 3-16, Kanda-Nishikicho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo | +81 03 5244 5458 | www.glitchcoffee.com
About Life is an outpost from Onibus Coffee that amounts to little more than a window in the side of a building off a busy street in Shibuya. It offers espresso drinks made with beans from multiple roasters, Japanese and otherwise, and repared with a relaxed fastidiousness. Drinking coffee on one of the uncovered outside benches, set against a nearby alleyway wall, somehow feels like you've slipped into a tiny bubble universe where you can look out onto the street and see everything going on, but no one can quite make out that you're there. 1-19-8 Dogenosaka, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo | +81 03 6809 0751 | www.about-life.coffee
The Roastery by Nozy Coffee in Harajuku is typically noted for its focus on single-origin coffees. The relatively spacious cafe, complete with an expansive outdoor area, feels among the most American of Tokyo’s fancy coffee shops. Espresso drinks are made in the center station, and a selection of its coffees are available as pour-over from a separate counter in the back. 5-17-13 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo | +81 03 6450 5755 | nozycoffee.jp
If you happen to feel crushed by your experience at Bear Pond (perhaps you missed the Angel Stain), it's worth making the short hike to the nearby Dear All, a pleasant, natural-light-filled box of a coffee shop. Solid coffee from Single O forms the backbone for cappuccinos and cortados with Instagram-ready latte art, while the perfectly square buttered toast will probably solve whatever other problems you have for the moment. When it’s not crowded, Fuglen, a mid-century Norwegian living room fantasy made real, can feel similarly restorative. Dear All: 1-59-5 Sasazuka, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo | no phone | www.dearalltokyo.com | Fuglen: 1-16-11 Tomigaya, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo | +81 03 3481 0884 | www.fuglen.com
THAT CANNED LIFE
Or you can forget all of this and grab a canned coffee from any convenience store or vending machine. Unlike the coolers of an average American convenience store, with its sad rows of Starbucks milkshakes and exxxtremely edgy overcaffeinated Monster coffee cans, even the most basic Japanese conbini has a splendid rainbow of canned coffee beverages, ranging from straight black to varying degrees of sweet and creamy — and many are even available hot. (If you want a lot of milk and sugar, try one of the cafe lattes in plastic sippy cups and embrace your inner baby.) Canned coffee isn’t amazing, but it costs around ¥100 and does the job. Sometimes that’s all you need.
Matt Buchanan is Eater's features editor.