Tokyo cafes range from traditional kissatens to hip bespoke roasteries

By Walter Sim 
Japan Correspondent in Tokyo

Japan has long been the mecca for green tea with its elaborate chado ceremonies, but it has also come to wholeheartedly embrace the coffee movement.

It was in the late 18th century that coffee first percolated in the Land of the Rising Sun, brought by Dutch merchants who had been trading in the south-west port city of Nagasaki.

Coffee would quickly find its way across the country, leading to traditional kissatens (coffee houses) that satiate the caffeine needs of Japanese folk early on.

Fast forward till today and such kissatens still coexist alongside the stylish bespoke roasteries that have come to symbolise Japan's vibrant third-wave coffee movement.

For sure, this has been catalysed by a culture that has an obsession with good quality, attentive service and pleasant design.

Even Starbucks has been trying to muscle in on a piece of this pie: Kyoto is now home to the world's first Starbucks outlet with tatami mat seating. Over in Fukuoka, a store designed by renowned architect Kengo Kuma has become a tourist attraction.

Little wonder that Japan is now one of the world's top consumers of coffee. We look at some of the best that Tokyo has to offer.

1. Bear Pond Espresso

The founder of Bear Pond Espresso Katsuyuki Tanaka is, perhaps, as pedantic as you can get over coffee. Sometimes grouchy, often misunderstood, the cafe has drawn flak online for alleged poor service.

While it may not win any customer service awards, Bear Pond scores with its coffee that has earned it a cult following since its opening in 2009.

Tanaka spent 18 years in New York before returning to Tokyo and opened his shop in the bohemian enclave of Shimokitazawa. He says: "I try to deliver espressos out of passion, and passion is most important to life."

Order the signature Dirty, a rich, smooth coffee beverage served in a mason jar that consists of two layers: the first, 80 per cent espresso and 20 per cent cold milk; and the second with 80 per cent milk and 20 per cent espresso.

2. Blue Bottle Coffee

When Blue Bottle first opened in Tokyo in February 2015 in the Kiyosumi neighbourhood, a more industrial part of the city, it sparked a queueing frenzy with lines lasting at least three hours.

It was not just a passing fad. Today, the chain has six stores in Tokyo, in high traffic areas including Shinjuku, Roppongi and Naka-meguro.

All of them boast the signature Blue Bottle look: a vast clean layout with plenty of natural light and soft wood undertones that put customers at ease the moment they step in.

And then there is its open kitchen concept and the coffee bar, where baristas may freely engage with customers.

The coffee is great, too, sold within 48 hours of their roasting as is the company's vow to "get our coffee into your hands quickly, so you could enjoy the ascent to peak flavour".

3. Cafe L'Ambre

Cafe L'Ambre will transport you from the modern hubbub of Ginza back to 1948, with its dim lighting, plush leather upholstery and, because indoor smoking is allowed, wafts of cigarette smoke.

What is also remarkable is that the owner and chief barista Sekiguchi Ichiro is more than 100 years old.

Mr Ichiro knows his coffee like a sommelier knows his wine and he has pushed the boundaries by serving cups of coffee prepared from beans that have been aged for more than two decades.

On the menu was the Brazilian Bahia extra fine coffee that dates back to 1973. Also great is the succulently sweet iced Queen Amber, served in a champagne glass (820 yen for a single shot, 1,020 yen for a double shot).

Its slogan says "Perfect own roast hand drip" and the truth cannot be further from that. So take a seat at the bar counter, pick out a bean blend and sit back and enjoy the magic. 

4. Cafe Use

Deep in the hipster enclave of Shimokitazawa is this coffee house that channels the kissatens of old, but was opened only in 2003.

"We are a hardcore coffee beans shop," founder Atsushi Furuichi boasts. "We recommend that our coffees are drunk black and therefore we do not provide milk and sugar."

He is such a purist that he has a list of house rules plastered on the entrance, from restricting laptop use to denying entry to children under 15.

But Mr Furuichi knows his stuff. On top of coffee, he also sells beans from batches of coffee that he roasts. On top of blends, there are also single-origin beans from places including Brazil, Tanzania, Guatemala and Ethiopia.

5. Fuglen Tokyo

Fuglen means "bird" in Norwegia, and the cafe has soared high in Oslo since its launch in 1963. Its second outlet would open in Tokyo only 50 years later.

Coffee connoisseurs will appreciate the brews by head roaster Kenji Kojima, who did a three-month stint in the Norwegian branch.

It brings a good dose of Scandinavian charm to a laidback neighbourhood near Yoyogi Park, the shop decked out in teak and decorated with vintage Norwegian furnishings.

The coffee-by-day, craft cocktails-by night concept keeps the throngs coming all through the day. And this, for Fuglen, is a source of pride: "The total concept harmonises coffee, cocktails and vintage design."

6. Little Nap Coffee Stand 

Mr Daisuke Hamada has, since 2011, been brewing "cups of happiness" for coffee connoisseurs at his coffee stand sitting in a tiny lot within a quiet residential district.

The laidback space might be small - it seats only 10 at most - but the crowd often spills out outside. It feels like the kind of cafe where you would hang out with your buddies over a great cuppa.

Its hipster vibe is underscored by the indie tunes as well as the huge record player taking up a lot of prime real estate in the very small shop.

The coffee packs a punch and Mr Hamada serves up drip coffee using beans from countries such as Brazil, Guatemala, Colombia and Ethiopia, as well as standard fare such as cafe latte. Ice cream and muffins are on the menu too.

7. Onibus Coffee 

Onibus Coffee founder Atsushi Sakao has become somewhat of a celebrity in Tokyo's third-wave coffee scene. His wholesale beans, sourced from coffee-growing regions from Honduras to Rwanda, have rapidly gained popularity in the capital.

The Meguro store is Onibus' second and houses a 15kg Diedrich roaster that is the centrepiece of the store. On its back wall is a hand-drawn mural detailing the brewing process from seed to cup.

The name "Onibus" is derived from the Portuguese word for "public bus", and Mr Sakao's vision - inspired by a pilgrimage to Australia - is to build communities bonded by coffee.

He has opened four thriving locations within five years, including ABOUT LIFE COFFEE BREWERS, the hipster hole in the wall just off Shibuya that is also a crowd favourite. (1-19-8 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku; open: 8.30am to 8.30pm daily; tel: +81-03-6809-0751.

8. Sarutahiko Coffee

In June 2012, former actor Tomoyuki Otsuka opened Sarutahiko Coffee in the gentrifying neighbourhood of Ebisu.

Five years later, Ebisu has gained a hip reputation with stores including American burger chain Shake Shack and Sarutahiko cannot be more at home.

Its hot coffee cups are decorated with traditional Japanese caricatures, including geishas, torii gates and Mount Fuji. 

"We want to be your coffee shop. A place that brings a smile to your face with just one cup of roasted goodness," Mr Otsuka says.

His hope, he adds, is to spread this happiness to others "like a chain reaction that can build a better community and a better world". 

Big dreams, starting from that one cup of coffee.

9. Saturdays NYC

Nestled within the Tokyo flagship store of Saturdays NYC, the trendy apparel boutique from New York, is an espresso bar that serves up a great cappuccino.

The store's effortless design puts it right at home in the upscale yet laidback Daikanyama district.

The homely, al fresco back patio is the perfect place to enjoy your cuppa, roasted from beans sourced countries including Ethiopia and Peru. 

Also on the menu is a selection of teas from American brand Harney & Sons Fine Teas, which distributes to restaurants, hotels, and speciality shops. 

10. Streamer Coffee Company

Streamer Coffee is perhaps the fastest expanding Japan label of the third-wave coffee movement.

Latte artist Hiroshi Sawada opened his first store in Shibuya in 2010, but seven years later, the store already has 16 outlets in Tokyo and branched out to other cities in Japan, including Kobe, Osaka and Sapporo.

Mr Sawada was inspired by the American coffee-loving cities of Seattle and Portland, where he worked for more than a year to hone his skills.

As he says on the Streamer Coffee website: "Yes, we do cold brew, we’ve developed our own nitro, we hand drip, aeropress and pull shots off custom-tuned supercharged espresso machines each and every day."

But he adds of his true passion: "We do all these quite well, but when it comes to our lattes which we free pour, we are totally nerds about it."

11. The Theatre Coffee

Here is a hidden gem of a coffee stand serving up top-notch coffee with its own customised coffee machine, offering a respite just minutes away from the Shibuya Scramble that is the world's busiest crossing.

The Theatre Coffee has made a name for itself for its latte art and the cafe is said to have nurtured a number of baristas who have gone on to clinch global latte art competitions.

Despite its showy location and, well, theatrical name, The Theatre Coffee is decidedly understated. 

It is located on the 11th floor of the Shibuya Hikarie department store. You have to navigate escalators to find the place and it faces the lobby of the building's office block, not the best view.

The outlet got its name from the Tokyo Theatre Orb, also on the same floor, that stages musicals and other productions.

But one option is to enjoy your coffee over lunch at the adjoining Theatre Table restaurant, which has a terrace that boasts views of the Shibuya skyline.

12. Toranomon Koffee

In 2015, speciality coffee lovers mourned the demise of Omotesando Koffee, the tranquil oasis founded by Mr Eiichi Kunitomo neatly tucked into a traditional Japanese house away from the teeming masses of the upscale shopping street. 

Its sister outlet Toranomon Koffee, which opened the same year, could not be in a more different environment: a gleaming skyscraper in the heart of one of Tokyo's newest business districts.

But what sets apart the brand, which also has an outpost in Hong Kong and a branch in Singapore due to open in August, is its near-scientific focus on that quality cup of espresso.

The baristas at Toranomon Koffee, donning white lab coats, work behind the counters of two beautifully charming wooden coffee bars that are an Instagrammer's dream.

The star is the coffee, including the hand drip (430 yen for regular, 480 yen for large) and Baileys Cappuccino (630 yen for regular; 750 yen for large) that comes with a splash of the Irish liqueur. The maccha latte (530 yen for regular; 630 yen for large) is also good.

They serve food too, including a mean avocado and eggs toast (580 yen) and French toast (600 yen).