Enjoying a cuppa in Japan

If a Japanese acquaintance should say casually to you, "Ocha shimasen?" (literally, "How about having tea?"), don’t start thinking about sipping matcha or, conversely, apologising for not being a tea drinker.

In Japan, "How about having tea?" is just an invitation to go to a coffee shop and an excuse for a chit-chat.

In urban areas, American-style self-service coffee shops such as Starbucks or Tully's are very popular.

So are the domestic chains like Doutor, the largest in Japan with nearly 1,200 outlets.

Doutor made its debut in 1980 in Tokyo's trendy Harajuku district, a full 16 years before Starbucks opened its first outlet in the capital city's Ginza, which was also the Seattle-based chain's first outlet outside North America.

These days, there seems to be at least one outlet of these coffee chains at every major street corner and in shopping centres.

Yet, they still total only a few thousand in all, compared with the 80,000 or so traditional coffee shops known as "kissaten" that are mostly run by individuals and dot the nation.

The word kissaten is a bit of a misnomer.

The two Chinese characters for "kissa" mean "to drink tea" while "ten" means shop.

Yet, a "kissaten" is associated primarily with coffee-drinking, although the typical menu includes Earl Grey and other varieties of Western tea, fruit juices, soft drinks, sundaes and items such as sandwiches and pancakes. (Shops that serve exclusively Western or Japanese tea are never called "kissaten" but go by other names.)

Kissaten also tends to charge more for their coffee - averaging 400-500 yen (S$5.20 - S$6.50) a cup compared with 200-300 yen a cup charged by major chains - as traditionally they provided not just coffee served in dainty porcelain cups but were also a place for relaxation and congenial conversation among friends.

There were over 160,000 kissaten in the early 1980s, but the advent of the self-service coffee shop chains slowly gnawed at those numbers.

For me, if I need a cuppa - drip, not instant - I head for the nearest self-service outlet.

Unlike kissaten, the décor of self-service shops is generally spartan and their seats usually smaller.

But the service is cheerful and quick and the quality of their brew quite reasonable.

To go with my coffee, I also like to have the occasional icing-topped slice of pound cake or a rich chocolate brownie, items not likely to be found at a kissaten.

However, the self-service coffee shop chains and kissaten increasingly face stiff competition from the some 37,000 convenience stores nationwide which offer take-out coffee at around 100 yen a cup.

So the self-service chains have come up with ways to get more people to patronise them.

These include putting in more comfortable seats, installing free Wi-Fi and having more power outlets for notebook computers and other mobile devices, making the shops eminently suitable for surfing the net, or for work if one so desires.

Depending on the shop, drinking coffee need not be expensive.

At Starbucks' Japanese outlets, for instance, if one buys a cup of drip coffee of any size, one can get a refill for just 100 yen on the same day at the same or a different outlet. One can therefore grab a Starbucks coffee before boarding the bullet train and buy a refill for 100 yen upon arriving at one's destination.

Mister Donut, the doughnut chain, offers an even better deal.

Buying a coffee at Mister Donut entitles one to any number of refills as long as one stays in the shop!

Rare is the kissaten that offers unlimited refills for their brew. But they do exist.

Incidentally, many of the smaller Japanese chains are not self-service.

At Komeda, a chain based in Nagoya, orders are taken at the table. Although Komeda charges slightly more for their coffee - 400 yen - and offers no refills, its outlets are particularly full in the morning when an order for any drink comes with a free slice of toast and a boiled egg!

Despite the competition from self-service shops and convenience stores, kissaten are not about to disappear anytime soon.

In addition to being very much a part of the modern Japanese lifestyle, some of these old-style establishments carry on the fine art of coffee making, some of them to great heights. Connoisseurs search out such kissaten where experienced masters obsess over the selection and roasting of coffee beans and brew each cup to perfection after an order is taken. It is no wonder that they have to charge more, considering the extra effort that goes into each cup.

Even iced coffee, a favourite summer drink in Japan, is made with loving care at these shops.

Ordinary ice cubes slowly dilute the coffee as they melt, making for a less than agreeable drink halfway through.

Their solution is to freeze ice cubes using, not plain water, but the same coffee that is used to make the iced coffee. That way, the coffee maintains the same flavour right to the end.

Besides the continued demand for eclectic coffee shops, a growing number of coffee seminars being held around town these days suggests that interest in brewing good coffee at home is also growing.

wengkin@sph.com.sg