Japan's dated, smoky cafes unfazed by success of Starbucks

Mr Ichiro Sekiguchi, the 100-year-old coffee shop owner of Cafe de L'Ambre at Tokyo's fashion district Ginza, standing in front of his cafe. Despite the popularity of Starbucks, with its free Wi-Fi and young, hip crowd, not everyone is a fan of
Mr Ichiro Sekiguchi, the 100-year-old coffee shop owner of Cafe de L'Ambre at Tokyo's fashion district Ginza, standing in front of his cafe. Despite the popularity of Starbucks, with its free Wi-Fi and young, hip crowd, not everyone is a fan of the global coffee franchise, among them the owners of independent coffee joints. -- PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (AFP) - Above the converging crowds at the famous Shibuya scramble crossing in Tokyo glows the unmissable bright green sign of Starbucks, a magnet that pulls in a steady stream of hip, young Japanese.

The American coffee company is so popular in Japan that it recently announced plans to buy out its Japanese partner for US$900 million (S$1.16 billion) and take full control of operations in its second-largest market.

However, not everyone is a fan of the customisable drinks and free Wi-Fi on offer at over 1,000 Japanese branches of the global chain, which will soon be found in every prefecture, including the remote, rural Tottori region. "The way they make (coffee) is totally wrong, it's not tasty," rails Mr Ichiro Sekiguchi, the 100-year-old owner of long-established independent Tokyo coffee shop Cafe de L'Ambre.

The dimly lit wooden interior of his cafe, which sells nothing but coffee, is busy with customers sipping their 700 yen (S$7.90) brews, which Mr Sekiguchi claims are the best in Japan. The coffee is strong and rich, with a deep flavour that his customers think is worth the price - at least twice that of Starbucks.

Like many independent coffee shops, L'Ambre thrives on repeat custom and counts Japanese wrestler-turned-politician Antonio Inoki among its regulars, while nearby Cafe Paulista boasts that it was once frequented by John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

One of L'Ambre's loyal patrons has drunk a cup of coffee made from beans meticulously hand-roasted by Sekiguchi and his staff every day for fifty years, said the centenarian.

Mr Sekiguchi opened L'Ambre in 1948, when occupying American soldiers made coffee popular in a land where green tea had long reigned.

Japan is now the world's fourth-largest coffee consumer (after the United States, Brazil and Germany), drinking 446,392 tonnes of the stuff in 2013.

Some of that comes in the form of canned coffee, served hot or cold by the ubiquitous vending machines. One brand has been endorsed by Hollywood star Tommy Lee Jones for over eight years.

A growing proportion is being sold in the country's plentiful convenience stores, where big chains like 7-11 and Lawsons are slugging it out for customers, offering 100 yen cups of freshly-ground coffee.

"There are many people who drink coffee in Japan, but they drink bad coffee," said Mr Sekiguchi, who estimates that there are only "around five" truly good coffee shops in Japan. Naturally, that includes his.

While smoking is banned in Starbucks, the acceptance of clouds of toxic cigarette fumes may be a factor keeping old school coffee shops like L'Ambre afloat.

"Japan is still way behind in terms of anti-smoking policies, especially measures against second-hand smoke," said Dr Hiroshi Yamato, a smoking expert at the University of Occupational and Environmental Health in Kitakyushu, western Japan.

"You can still smoke in a lot of public places in Japan such as office buildings, coffee shops, restaurants and bars," he said.

Mr Sekiguchi, who smokes a pipe, said that he thought new cafes that ban smoking have got it wrong, as "after drinking delicious coffee, you want to smoke tobacco".

A smoky mist also fills the air at Aroma, a cafe tucked away on the second floor of an old building near Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo.

Aroma opened 30 years ago in the glamour of Japan's boom period and, in line with many of Japan's local coffeehouses, hasn't changed much since - round glass syphons bubble behind the counter of the mirrored beige saloon, which is decorated with pot plants and reproductions of old paintings.

An ashtray and packets of coffee creamer piled up in a glass sit on every table whilst the song Stand By Me plays on the stereo.

An ageing lady drinks her glass of iced coffee through a straw and nibbles a plate of French toast next to a pair of chain-smoking young nurses, who have chosen to take their break in the antithesis of the identikit shops run by big chains.

"Their style is so impersonal, whereas if you're on your own here, you can have a conversation," said 63-year-old owner Junko Koshiba, who runs the cafe with her daughter.

"There's a warm feeling here," she added, giving out free bananas to the cafe's customers.

Whilst the blend at Aroma is no match for L'Ambre's smooth brew, Koshiba is adamant that the popularity of Starbucks and home-grown chains like Doutor and Caffe Veloce, won't spell the end of old fashioned cafes like hers.

"Here you can relax, take your time," she said. "The young people who go to Starbucks and the like can't because they're on their computers and cellphones."

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