Living in Melbourne all these years, I have become spoilt when it comes to the choice and quality of coffee on offer in the numerous cafes and bars around the city. So when I go overseas, I can get withdrawal symptoms if I don’t get my morning doppio. And I don’t mean an over-priced and over-rated big brand product from a certain you-know-who-you-are multinational chain store. My recent experiences in Japan, which has the third largest coffee consumption by nation, revealed that espresso-style coffee is on the increase, but is competing with some entrenched coffee tastes.
On my recent trip to Japan, I not only found some excellent new espresso outlets, I also acquired a renewed respect for siphon and filter coffee, which are both great when they are done well. As anyone who has been to Japan will know, coffee (both hot and cold) frequently comes in a can, either from a vending machine or a convenience store. In cafes, the coffee is usually brewed, and however good the coffee beans, this style just doesn’t do it for me. Rarely have I seen a cafetière (“plunger”) or percolator in use, although iced drip coffee is something of a delicacy.
From three weeks of travel, here are some of the highlights:
In Tokyo’s Ginza district, there is the Renoir Coffee Room which has a certain appeal, if you like authentic retro (i.e., it’s probably the same decor since the 1970’s, without a hint of irony or post modernism). Certainly a favourite with an older clientele, presenting a genteel atmosphere (somewhat undermined by the popular smoking section) and a reminder of a slower, gentler time. In the absence of espresso, I had a standard filter or pour over coffee, and despite being a little on the weak side, it had just enough of a roasted flavour to compensate. Rating: 6/10
Over in hipsterish Ebisu, I was expecting to find loads of local coffee shops, packed with neo-beatniks, retro-hippies and proto-punks, and the constant hiss of espresso machines. Not to be – maybe it was too early in the afternoon, but there were few options. Marugo Deli is more of a juice bar and organic cafe, that also happens to serve espresso. It was a friendly place, nice atmosphere, but the coffee was nothing special. Rating: 6/10
Down in Himeji, after a challenging climb to the top of the castle on a hot day teeming with hundreds of other visitors, it was a welcome relief to escape into the cool, calm comfort of Hamamoto Coffee. Again, they don’t serve espresso, but they specialise in siphon coffee (something I probably haven’t had since I used to visit the former Martinos Coffee Lounge in Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay in the 1990s). Sitting at the counter meant that I got to see the whole process close up, as the bar tender kept several siphons going at the same time. It’s as much an art as working a good espresso machine, and makes for interesting entertainment. The coffee itself was bold, yet mellow at the same time – full-bodied but smooth with an almost zesty edge. HIghly recommended. Rating: 8.5/10
Wandering around Kyoto‘s hipster quarter close to Nijo Castle, I came across Cafe Bibliotic Hello! (quirky name, quirky building!!!) where it’s easy to while away the time browsing through the library of art books and sampling the excellent baked goods from the adjoining store. The espresso was a welcome bonus, and was the best I’d had up until then on this trip. Rating: 8.5/10
Outside Kyoto, in Saga-Arashiyama (near the bamboo forest), % Arabica has recently opened its second Kyoto coffee shop. Overlooking the river, this tiny cafe is really only a takeaway stand, but everything has been designed for maximum aesthetic effect. There’s clearly a personal statement being made here, almost verging on the pretentious/precious, but not surprisingly it is very popular with the passing visitors. And the coffee is also pretty good – full-roasted, robust, just enough acidity, and an excellent crema. Rating: 9.5/10
Back in Tokyo, nearing the end of my trip, I spent a day walking around the district of Kiyosumi-Shirakawa, visiting the numerous galleries, second-hand bookshops and the Kiyosumi Gardens. In 2014, the New Zealand-based Allpress Espresso roastery and cafe group opened a branch here, in a former timber warehouse. It’s an interesting space, and is bringing some serious competition to a rival coffee roaster nearby (which only serves filter coffee to its customers). However, not all the locals seem to have taken to espresso – after having the coffee menu explained to them, a number walked out without trying, looking somewhat confused. But for me, having an Antipodean barista was obviously a plus. Rating: 9/10
Finally, I tried a couple of other espresso bars on my stay in Shimo-Kitazawa, one of which was not much more than an espresso stand, offering good coffee (Rating: 7.5/10), but the service was very slow. I can’t remember the name, and I can’t find a website for it, but it was close to the west entrance to the railway station. This trendy neighbourhood has a number of well-regarded coffee shops, but sadly, I did not have enough time to visit many of them. Next trip, perhaps.
Next week: More #FinTech stuff