Coffee is one of the most widely consumed drinks on the planet. With an uncanny ability to find its way into nearly every major culture around the world, everyone’s favorite morning ritual takes on a different style and flavor depending on where it’s made. Japan is no different. This may come as a surprise to some, but Tokyo isn’t all matcha lattes and bubble tea.
Japanese coffee culture is a fantastic gateway into current trends as well as the fascinating history of the country itself. So brew a cup, take a sip, and immerse yourself into one of Japan’s most sacred obsessions.
Coffee beans first made their way into Japan through the ports of Nagasaki in the 17th century, where it was imported and consumed primarily by the Dutch who lived there. At this time however, the acrid and often overpowering flavor of deeply-roasted coffee didn’t sit well with local Japanese palettes. It was considered much too strong and overwhelming, and so coffee’s first foray into Japanese culture was lukewarm at best.
While the Dutch may not have converted the Japanese into avid coffee drinkers, they were at least able to bring the product over for the first time. It wouldn’t be for another couple hundred years before coffee won over the Japanese.
In 1888, the Yale educated Eikei Tei opened up Tokyo’s first ever coffee shop known as the Kahiichakan. Tei was inspired to open a place of his own after experiencing everything a great coffee shop has to offer in France and other countries across Europe during his time studying abroad. While it didn’t last for long, closing just a few years later, the Kahiichakan is widely recognized as the starting point of Japanese coffee culture as it is today.
Source Customers enjoying their coffee in a 1930’s era Japanese cafe
Soon after the Meji Period came to a close, freshly brewed coffee began to appear more and more frequently across Tokyo. Most shops thrived in Tokyo’s fanciest district – Ginza, where different brewing methods could be utilized to wow the district's wealthy and often foriegn-influenced clientele.
Convenience is king in modern Japan – especially within the mega-metropolis that is Tokyo. Unsurprisingly, coffee is now readily available in all sorts of forms anywhere across Japan. Instant coffee, which was originally considered a luxury, (much like instant ramen), originally brought coffee into the mainstream of Japan.
Nowadays, you’ll find a spot to grab a coffee on the run just about anywhere. Major chains like Starbucks, Excelsior and Tully’s are all over and serve up a variety of cheap and quick drip coffee. Even the major convenience store chains like 711, Lawson and Family Mart have pre-canned, bottled, and fresh drip hot coffee available. Other, fancier chains like Blue Bottle that specialize in artisan pour over coffee are becoming more and more popular.
Source Japanese vending machines full of coffee are never far out of reach in Tokyo
You can even get canned coffee in vending machines all over the country! Most vending machines on the streets of Japan have drinks – and even soups – that are both hot and cold, perfect for the hustle and bustle mentality of Tokyo. Many commuters get their morning coffee on subway platforms, stations, or even just on the sidewalk on their way to work.
If you’re really into coffee, you’ve definitely heard of pour over Japanese style iced coffee. It’s a technique that requires a degree of care and skill in order to extract subtle notes and rich, delicious flavors from your coffee that you wouldn’t otherwise get. It sounds a bit intimidating to get into, but it’s really not too difficult to get down once you know what you’re doing.
The pour over method works best with freshly roasted and ground coffee. You then measure the appropriate grams of coffee according to the amount of cups you’d like to brew. Using a special coffee filter and brewer – such as the Hario V60 (which requires its own unique paper filters) – you then slowly pour precise amounts of hot water slowly and consistently overtop. It’s important to make sure the water flow is slow and deliberate.
Source Japanese iced coffee requires the careful use of a pour over coffee brewer
Japanese style iced coffee takes everything one step further. Typically, iced coffee is simply cold brewed, or even just regular drip coffee that is then poured over ice. As the ice melts, it waters down the coffee, delivering an undesirable and watery result. Japanese style iced coffee utilizes ice cubes as a part of the total weight of water in your brew. It’s then sweetened with simple syrup to give it a pleasant and smooth consistency. This way, when you’re brewing your pour over, you will get a cold and refreshing end product that is just as robust and satisfying as a typical pour over.
Nailing down the pour over method allows you to brew an insanely delicious cup of coffee every single time, and it’s the perfect way to enjoy iced coffee at home. If you’re not comfortable with doing it yourself, though, there’s plenty of speciality cafes out there to try.
While coffee has a relatively short history in Japan, it continues to grow in exciting and innovative ways. We highly recommend enjoying the wide variety of coffee available on your next trip to Japan. It’s a great way to experience a unique side of Japanese culture while also keeping up the energy you need to make the best of your adventures!
Tanner is a content editor and marketing associate based in Tokyo, Japan. As a former professional cook, he loves exploring Tokyo's food scene and cooking at home for his partner. He also enjoys bad puns, decent coffee, oxford commas, and reading fantastic genre fiction.
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