Coffee is a serious business in Japan and one of the country’s favourite drinks, making it a perfect destination for anyone who loves great coffee.
Japan loves coffee! While Japan’s tea and its traditional tea ceremonies are famous around the world, the country’s love of coffee and its thriving contemporary coffee culture is a lesser-known secret. Japan is a national leader in the coffee community and is responsible for turning coffee into a fine-dining experience. If you’re a coffee drinker who loves checking out the coolest coffee shops and cafes when you travel, then you’ll be in for a treat in Japan. While Japan is home to all the big coffee chains, the real story can be found in its independent coffee shops - known as kissaten in Japanese - which is where the country’s coffee masters have been honing their trade and pioneering hand-brewing techniques to create some of the finest and most unique coffee in the world. This is the true heart of Japan’s coffee culture. In this blog, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about Japan’s coffee culture, a brief history of coffee in Japan, the country’s coffee hotspots and how to travel between them with the ever-reliable Japan Rail Pass and domestic rail network. Ready for the best coffee of your life?
Do They Drink Coffee in Japan?
Yes! As we mentioned above, coffee is big business in Japan and the country has a serious coffee culture. It may surprise you to learn that Japan is usually ranked around 3rd or 4th in the world every year for the amount of coffee it drinks. Coffee is a hugely popular beverage in Japan and a way of life among Japanese people as well as international visitors, and the country’s love of coffee ranks alongside Italy, the USA, Britain, and South America. Japan has a long history with coffee, which we’ll explore in more depth below, and its contemporary coffee culture scene is thriving. If you’re a coffee aficionado planning a pilgrimage to Japan then you’ll be very well catered for. Japan’s cities are packed full of some of the trendiest, most welcoming, coffee shops anywhere in the world. Speaking of which, Japan’s own coffee brands have also gone worldwide, such as Ueshima Coffee Co (or UCC as it’s also known), and many more. Japan not only loves coffee, but it has made its mark on the industry too. Similar to the way Japan took western beverages like whiskey and beer and created their own unique, high-quality ‘craft’ brands through pioneering methods, the country has become a hugely influential coffee trailblazer over the decades. Let’s find out more.
A Brief History of Coffee in Japan
It is believed that coffee was first introduced in Japan by Dutch and Portuguese merchants in the 1800s. At the time, tea was the dominant drink in Japan, but coffee slowly began to gain a foothold and early that century, the first coffee shop was opened by Eikei Tei in Ueno. By 1888, the first coffee house, Kahisakan, opened in Tokyo. In the early 1900s, there was also a diaspora of Japanese immigrants to Brazil to work on coffee plantations. Many of those who returned to Japan did so with a newfound expertise that helped light the spark for the country’s emerging coffee culture and drive forward the industry. Over the course of the 20th Century, Japan’s love of coffee grew and grew and its coffee masters began to lead the way on the world stage, pioneering techniques such as hand-brewing long before their western counterparts. One of the key figures in this period was Tadao Ueshima, who began to produce coffee from his shop in Kobe, Japan, and went on to found the famous Ueshima Coffee Company (UCC). Known as the ‘father of coffee’ in Japan, Ueshima innovative canned coffee helped launch the country’s coffee craze, which followed in the years after the Second World War. The growing popularity of coffee also led to kissaten - independent Japanese coffee houses - opening across Japan and taking an important place in Japanese culture.
What Is a Kissaten?
Kissaten translates as ‘tea drinking shop’ but actually refers exclusively to Japan’s independent coffee shops. Dark, warm, inviting, retro, traditional, and offering a sense of privacy and homeliness despite being a public place, kissaten are at the heart of Japan’s coffee culture. Alongside home and work, kissaten are known as a kind of ‘third place’, situated in the space between public and private. As well as the beautiful aroma of roasted coffee, you might hear jazz music, or smell the smoke from an older gentleman’s cigar. And you’re as likely to see hard-working business people as you are coffee-fuelled students and grandparents. There are kissaten across Japan that date back almost 100 years and they are definitely worth a visit for those wanting to experience a Japanese institution as well as a great cup of coffee.
Japan’s Coffee Culture
As we’ve explained, Japan loves coffee and it occupies an important place in their culinary culture. While Japan’s coffee masters and independent kissaten have developed some of the finest coffee in the world and created special social spaces to enjoy it, the country has also pioneered affordable, mass-produced coffee for the nation’s busy, hardworking, and frequently on-the-go populace. This includes canned coffee, which is something that Japan first introduced to the world. As such, there are lots of different types of coffee available in Japan. As well as the usual cold brews, lattes, espressos, and more to try, here are a few additional varieties to look out for - canned coffee (affordable and ideal for those on the move); iced coffee (strong coffee in tall glass with ice cubes - with or without gomme sugar syrup; coffee fresh (this is coffee with a pot of cream); and more. An interesting coffee-related custom that to be aware of when visiting Japan is called ‘morning service’ and this is where you can receive a free breakfast, including toast, eggs, and salad, when you order a coffee.
While coffee is everywhere in Japan and excellent value for the most part, the country is also leading the way in high-end coffee experiences too - essentially the ‘fine dining’ of the coffee world. You’ll find this if you visit the coffee shop known as ‘Cokuun’ in Omotesando, Tokyo. Read more about what makes this coffee shop so special in our list below. Other high-end Japanese coffee shops leading the way globally in terms of innovation, high-end coffee, and unique dining experiences include Leaves Coffee and Koffee Mameya Kakeru, both in Tokyo. In recent years, the city’s formerly industrial Kiyosumi-Shirakawa neighbourhood in the east has become one of the centres of the country’s thriving coffee culture as young, ambitious roasters moved into the area.
Five Coffee Shops To Visit In Japan
1. Ueshima Coffee Company (UCC)
While it's a home-grown chain, UCC is Japan’s No.1 coffee. If you want to try a cup developed by Japan’s father of coffee, there are more than 100 Ueshima Coffee Company shops across Japan to visit, including in Kobe where it originated. Kobe is also home to the Ueshima Coffee Museum (as well as the world-famous Kobe beef!). You can use the JRailPass to reach the harbour city of Kobe in the Hyogo Prefecture by travelling on the JR Tokaido/Sanyo Shinkansen from Tokyo on Hikari trains.
As we mentioned above, Cokuun has become known for its fine-dining coffee experience. Overseen by the 2014 World Barista Champion Hidenori Izaki, this contemporary coffee house serves private, ticketed coffee omakase for 16,500 yen per person! It might be expensive, but it’s also some of the best coffee you’ll ever have. Omotesando is known as Tokyo’s Fifth Avenue thanks to its luxury, high-end shopping, restaurants, cafes, and coffee shops. It can be reached easily on foot from Harajuku JR station. Simply take the JR Yamanote line and get out at Harajuku. Take the front entrance of the station, go right and walk from 2-3 minutes and there is the start of Omotesando. The Yamanote line is covered by the JR Pass. Alternatively, Omotesando Station can be accessed using the Tokyo Metro (Chiyoda, Ginza, Hanzomon lines).
3. Koffee Mameya Kakeru
Located in Tokyo’s eastern Kiyosumi-Shirakawa neighbourhood - one of the centres of Japan’s contemporary coffee culture - has been rated as one of the best places to eat or drink in Japan. Led by owner Eiichi Kunitomo and head barista Miki Takamasa, Koffee Mameya Kakeru serves coffee flights and has become famous for its espresso martini.
4. Inoda Coffee
Kyoto’s Inoda Coffee - particularly its original branch in the city - is a kissaten with a retro, old school charm. Opened in 1940, it now has several shops in the city and elsewhere in Japan, but has retained its traditional atmosphere. Otafuku is another local and traditional kissaten that would be a great choice for those visiting Kyoto. Getting to Kyoto with your Japan Rail Pass is easy from either Tokyo or Osaka. Both cities are connected to Kyoto by the JR Tokaido Shinkansen. From Osaka you can also take the JR special rapid train on the JR Kyoto Line. Once in Kyoto, the easiest way to get around the city is using public transportation, so you’ll want to invest in a prepaid travel card such as an ICOCA, PASMO or Suica card, as well as a JR Pass for getting around the rest of the country.
5. Kayaba Coffee & Chatei Hatou
Dating back to 1938, Kayaba Coffee on Yanaka's Kototoi-dori, in Tokyo, is a traditional kissaten that will take you back in time with a cup of pure nostalgia. Also in Tokyo, the kissaten Chatei Hatou, is one of the most highly recommended and well worth a visit. Within walking distance of the famous Shibuya Crossing, Chatei Hatou’s dark, traditional, and inviting wooden interiors make it the kissaten of your imagination. Tokyo has a number of other traditional kissaten too, such as Satei Hato, Tajimaya Coffee House, and Monozuki - we did tell you that you’d be in for a treat if you’re a coffee lover visiting Japan!
Coffee lovers will feel right at home in Japan, but it’s definitely not the only beverage (or food-related item) that this amazing country is famous for. Here are a few closely related bonus recommendations:
- Japan, of course, is famous for its love of tea and for tea ceremonies in particular. Tea was first introduced to Japan in the 9th century and was initially exclusive to monks and later the Imperial family. It was between the 12th and 16th centuries that drinking tea grew in popularity, eventually reaching every corner of Japanese society. Japanese tea ceremonies are a ritualistic activity that is an artform all to itself. Known as the Way of Tea and called sadō, chanoyu, or chadō in Japanese, the custom is a ceremonial serving of matcha green tea within a traditional tearoom. Find out more in our to What It's Like to Take Part in a Japanese Tea Ceremony. You can also visit the Teahouses of Kanazawa or Japan’s Beautiful and Historic Green Tea Fields.
- Kanpei! Japan loves beer. In fact, beer is Japan’s most popular alcoholic drink. Japanese beer has always been crisp, clean and pure, but with more and more craft beer producers and distilleries emerging as competition for big brands such as Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo and Suntory, international craft beer enthusiasts travelling to Japan have a huge amount to look forward to and enjoy. Find out more in Kanpai! A Craft Beer Tour of Japan.
- Japanese Whiskey! Outside of Kentucky in the USA, and Scotland in the UK, Japan is arguably the No.1 destination for whiskey lovers. Japan has a serious love affair with whiskey and has become one of the world’s finest producers of the spirit, creating its own unique whiskies that are a genuine rival for the very best whiskies from around the world. Read our guide, Japan for Whiskey Lovers, to find out more.
- Japan is obviously famous for having some of the best food in the world too, from sushi and ramen, street food and regional specialities, all the way through to Michelin-starred fine dining. If your Japanese coffee culture holiday gives you an appetite, be sure to read our guide to Japanese Food and Regional Dishes for everything you might need to know in advance.
- Alongside the above, if you’re planning on searching for the hippest new coffee shops in Japan’s biggest cities, then we highly recommend you invest in a PocketWifi device for unlimited internet access and data on up to five devices simultaneously.
- Finally, with all this talk of food and drink, you might be worried about needing a refresher in Japanese etiquette. Fear not as we’re here to help yet again. Just read our blog on Japanese Table Manners and you’ll be all set!