The Complete Guide to Coffee Culture in Japan

The Complete Guide to Coffee Culture in Japan

Coffee, once a rarity in Japan, has become a beloved part of the nation's daily life, weaving itself into the fabric of modern Japanese culture. The evolution of coffee in Japan is a fascinating journey, from its initial introduction to its current status as a cultural staple, characterized by unique traditions, innovative brewing methods, and a thriving café scene. 

Japan is actually ranked third in global coffee consumption. The coffee culture is flourishing and there are no indications of it slowing down. Read on to explore the world of Japanese coffee.


Historical Introduction of Coffee in Japan

Coffee was first introduced to Japan in the 17th century by Dutch traders, but it didn't gain popularity until the late 19th century during the Meiji Restoration when Japan opened up to Western influences. The first coffee shop, Kahiichakan (可否茶館) opened in Tokyo in 1888, setting the stage for a coffee revolution.

Post-World War II saw a significant rise in coffee consumption, influenced by the American presence and the growing middle class's desire for Western lifestyles. The increasing demand for coffee has paved the way for the establishment of kissaten, independent coffee houses in Japan, which now hold a significant position in Japanese culture.

Traditional Japanese Coffee Houses

Kissaten, the traditional Japanese coffee houses, played a crucial role in embedding coffee into Japanese culture. The kissaten, or traditional Japanese coffee houses, are a true reflection of the nostalgic Showa Era (1926–1989). With their vintage brewing equipment, dark furniture, and serene atmosphere, these establishments create an ambiance that makes it easy to lose track of time alongside providing light meals and desserts.

Unlike modern cafés, kissaten focus on providing a tranquil atmosphere where patrons can relax, read, or enjoy a quiet conversation. The attention to detail in both the coffee and the setting reflects the Japanese appreciation for harmony and quality.

Modern Café Culture: A Blend of Tradition and Innovation

Japan's contemporary coffee scene is a dynamic blend of tradition and innovation. Specialty coffee shops have mushroomed in urban areas, particularly in Tokyo and Kyoto, offering a variety of brewing methods such as pour-over, siphon, and espresso. These cafés emphasize the artisanal, even bordering on scientific aspects of coffee making, from sourcing single-origin beans to perfecting brewing techniques.

The baristas' craftsmanship and dedication mirror the meticulous nature of Japanese tea ceremonies, elevating coffee making to an art form - literally in the case of custom latte art.

Unique Coffee Experiences: Vending Machines to Themed Cafés

Japan's coffee culture is also marked by its unique and often quirky experiences. Coffee vending machines, ubiquitous in cities and rural areas alike, offer a quick and convenient caffeine fix with a surprising variety of options. UCC Ueshima Coffee Co. revolutionized the coffee industry in the 1960s by launching the world's first canned coffee, "UCC Coffee with Milk", which made coffee more convenient and popular.

Themed cafés, ranging from cat cafés to manga cafés, provide a distinctive twist on the coffee-drinking experience, attracting both locals and tourists seeking something out of the ordinary. These establishments often combine coffee with entertainment, creating a multifaceted social experience.

Regional Coffee Specialties

Japan may not have had a coffee tradition, but it has wholeheartedly embraced the beverage and even developed its own coffee-growing regions. In the southern parts of the country, such as Okinawa, Kagoshima, and Miyazaki, some farmers have ventured into coffee cultivation, yielding coffee beans that possess distinctive and locally influenced flavor profiles.

In Kyoto, for instance, you can find matcha-infused coffee drinks that blend the best of Japanese tea culture with modern coffee trends. Hokkaido, known for its dairy products, offers rich, creamy coffee drinks that are particularly popular during the cold winter months. Exploring these regional variations provides a deeper understanding of how coffee has been adapted to suit diverse palates across the country.

Japanese Coffee Shop Etiquette

Experiencing coffee in Japan is more than just enjoying a beverage; it’s about respecting a culture that values precision and mindfulness in every sip. Much like the ritualistic Italian coffee culture, Japanese coffee etiquette is deeply ingrained in societal norms and practices.

When you drink Japanese-brewed coffee, it's encouraged to embrace the concept of "sado" or the "way of tea." This means sipping your coffee slowly to fully appreciate the nuanced flavors and the care that went into its preparation. Avoid drinking coffee with food still in your mouth as it’s considered impolite. Also, after stirring your drink, remember to place the spoon gently on your saucer rather than leaving it in the cup.

Japanese coffee shops are havens of tranquility, designed for introspection and relaxation. It’s important to keep your conversations quiet and avoid making or taking phone calls inside. If you need to use your phone, it’s best to step outside. This respect for silence ensures that everyone can enjoy a peaceful coffee experience.

When it comes to ordering, be prepared to pay at the counter as you order. Cash is preferred, especially in smaller, family-run establishments where credit cards may not be accepted. This traditional approach to transactions adds to the charm and authenticity of the Japanese coffee experience.

Special Summer Coffee Trends

Over the past few years, Japan has witnessed a surge in summer beverage trends within its coffee culture. One popular choice among coffee enthusiasts is espresso tonic, which originated from Sweden. This unique blend of bitterness and fizz gained popularity in Japan's speciality coffee shops around 2015-2016. However, the trend has since evolved, with coffee shops now experimenting by substituting tonic water with sparkling water and adding various flavorings like citrus fruits, honey, and ginger.

Additionally, Japanese coffee shops are also venturing into unconventional coffee pairings, such as espresso cola, which combines craft cola with fresh espresso to create a spiced beverage. Starbucks always introduces limited-edition summer drinks, for example a drink made with clear coffee, indicating a growing interest in transparent coffee.

Other exciting trends like espresso lemon tonic, coffee lime soda, and coffee strawberry soda further demonstrate Japan's determination to break away from traditional coffee culture and offer consumers unique and refreshing experiences.

Recommendations on Coffee Shops to Visit

Across Japan, there are thousands of independent kissaten and prominent home-grown coffee chains like Ueshima Coffee Company, Doutor, and Mariva, as well as their western counterparts. In this selection, we have focused on highlighting some more unique cafes that may be particularly appealing to visitors from abroad:

  • Onibus Coffee (Nakameguro): Onibus Coffee in Nakameguro offers a unique experience in the heart of Tokyo with its minimalist design and dedication to quality. They roast their beans in-house for a fresh, aromatic cup. This cafe is perfect for those seeking a serene and focused coffee experience.

  • Café Bon (Shinjuku): Café Bon in Shinjuku transports you to a different era with its retro Showa-era interior. It provides a nostalgic atmosphere, ideal for a quiet coffee break amidst Tokyo's hustle. This cafe is a hidden gem for those looking to explore Tokyo's vintage charm.

  • Arabica (Kyoto): Arabica in Kyoto combines modern aesthetics with traditional Japanese elements. It is renowned for its stunning latte art and commitment to sourcing the best beans worldwide. This cafe is a must-visit for coffee aficionados exploring the historic city of Kyoto.

Popular Japanese Coffee Chains

Unlike our above list, if you really want to experience some of the more popular Japanese Coffee chains during your visit, we'd recommend the following to get a taste of the everyday coffee shops:

  • Doutor Coffee: Established in 1980, Doutor offers a wide range of coffee drinks and light meals, catering to busy urbanites. In fact, did you know that the headquarters store of this chain is located close to the omakase offices?
  • Tully's Coffee Japan: Known for its cozy atmosphere and extensive menu, Tully's is a popular spot for both work and relaxation.
  • Komeda Coffee: Famous for its generous portions and nostalgic ambiance, Komeda's is a beloved chain that offers a unique coffee shop experience.

Omakase Recommendations

Feeling like brewing up a cup of coffee for yourself after reading the above? We don't blame you. Why not whip something up in one of our artisan drinkware here on omakase. We even have some recommendations for what coffee would be best served in each. 

Yabu Camellia Café au Lait Mug

The Yabu Camellia Café au Lait Mug, with its delicate camellia design and comfortable handle, is perfect for enjoying a creamy café au lait. The mug’s size is ideal for mixing coffee and milk, allowing the flavors to blend harmoniously. The elegant camellia motif adds a touch of sophistication to your morning routine. This mug is particularly suited for a rich, velvety café au lait or a classic latte, offering an ample surface area to appreciate latte art.

Tsuyukusa Shigaraki Mug

The Tsuyukusa Shigaraki Mug, handcrafted with the distinctive Shigaraki ware technique, provides a rustic and authentic feel, making it an excellent choice for enjoying your coffee. Its unique texture and earthy tones complement the robust flavors of a dark roast or a bold French press coffee. The mug's sturdy build and comfortable grip make it perfect for savoring a full-bodied coffee, whether you're starting your day or taking a relaxing break.

Nabeshima Celadon Porcelain Tumbler

The Nabeshima Celadon Porcelain Tumbler stands out with its exquisite celadon glaze and smooth finish. This tumbler is ideal for enjoying a refined pour-over coffee or a delicate single-origin brew. Its sleek design and elegant appearance enhance the coffee-drinking experience, allowing you to fully appreciate the intricate flavors and aromas of your coffee. The tumbler's refined aesthetic makes it a great choice for serving guests or enjoying a quiet, reflective coffee moment.

Small Blue Celadon Porcelain Kiyomizu Cup

The Small Blue Celadon Porcelain Kiyomizu Cup, with its vibrant blue glaze and compact size, is perfect for an espresso or a cortado. The cup’s smooth texture and striking color enhance the visual appeal of your coffee, making every sip a pleasure. Its small size is perfect for concentrated coffee drinks, allowing you to savor the intense flavors and rich aromas. This cup is ideal for those who appreciate the artistry of traditional Kiyomizu pottery while enjoying a strong, flavorful coffee.

In Conclusion

Coffee culture in Japan is a rich and multifaceted phenomenon, blending historical influences with modern innovations. From the serene kissaten to the bustling specialty cafés and quirky themed establishments, coffee in Japan offers a unique experience that caters to diverse tastes and preferences. Whether you're a coffee aficionado or a curious traveler, exploring Japan's coffee scene provides a delightful journey through the country's evolving cultural landscape. As Japan continues to embrace and redefine coffee culture, it stands as a testament to the nation's ability to harmonize tradition with contemporary trends, creating a vibrant and dynamic coffee experience.

Back to blog

Featured collection

1 of 8