Thinking about all the things that Japan is famous for, coffee might not be among the first things you think of. On the other hand, the land of the rising sun, matcha, and sake has a flourishing coffee culture. Let me tell you, coffee in Japan is amazing! Tourists and coffee aficionados from all over the world discover the fascinating and rich Japanese coffee culture.
Japan is one of the world’s largest coffee importers, with a total value of 1.2 billion USD in 2018. As with everything, the Japanese take great pride in their coffee, which makes the Japanese coffee culture one of the most fascinating in the world. Join us while we discover the Japanese world of Coffee.
Coffee in Japan: a brief history
Contrary to common belief, coffee has been around in Japan for quite a while. After the ‘isolation period’ (sakoku), which lasted from 1638 to 1858, access to foreign traders was very restricted in Japan. However, European merchants on the island of Dejima, near Nagasaki, drank coffee.
After the sakoku period gave way to the Meiji restoration period in 1868, coffee started to be imported into the country and slowly but surely, won the hearts of the Japanese. Tokyo’s first coffee shop opened in 1888. Later, most coffee shops were located in Tokyo’s sophisticated Ginza district, frequented mainly by artists and influential people.
During the two world wars, coffee imports in Japan slowed down, but from the 1960’s onward, drinking coffee became very popular in Japan. Nowadays, coffee is one of Japan’s most popular drinks, consumed by people of all ages.
Looking at Japanese coffee culture, you’ll find that the Japanese are very creative when it comes to coffee. This results in several niche coffee drinks, coffee fusion recipes, as well as traditional brewing methods such as drip coffee or pour-overs.
Japanese coffee shops
As mentioned, the first coffee shop in Tokyo opened its doors in 1888. Surely, things have changed a lot since then, but wherever you go in Tokyo, you see that ‘the old’ exists alongside ‘the new.’ The same goes for coffee shops. The old and traditional Japanese coffee shops (‘kissaten’) have not disappeared, but new additions have enriched the offering over the past decades.
In Japan, there are many ways to get your daily coffee fix. You can visit one of the many coffee shops, brew your own at home. Or, if you’re on the move, from one of the many coffee vending machines you’ll find peppered across Japanese cities.
In Japan, you will find roughly three types of coffee shops; the old school, traditional ‘Kissaten’, are the most popular with the older generation and businessmen. You have the large chains such as Starbucks or Doutor Coffee and last but not least are the ‘specialty coffeeshops’ that are rapidly gaining popularity in Japan.
These specialty coffee shops are definitely the most interesting and range from the tiny ‘hole in the wall’ type shops to mid-sized, trendy establishments up to small privately owned chains. The clientele in those places is a healthy mix of coffee-lovers, young professionals, and Instagramming teens.
If you’re looking for top-notch coffee, dedication, and quality, we can definitely recommend a visit to ‘Unlimited Coffee Bar‘. So, if you’re planning a trip to Tokyo, don’t forget to include this on your itinerary.
There are some small-scale initiatives of growing coffee on Japan’s southern-most island of Okinawa. Due to its geographical location (well outside the coffee-belt), Japan imports most of its coffee from South America, Africa, Indonesia, and Thailand.
Japan imports a good portion of fresh beans, which local roasters then work their magic on. Almost every coffee shop lets you choose your beans from a wide selection. They also take great care in what beans they select and mostly offer high quality and ethically sourced beans.
You can really tailor your cup of coffee to your specific taste. Most coffee shops offer a wide range of specialty coffees. There is a choice from several blends or single origin coffees from a wide range of countries and regions.
Often their selection keeps changing while adding limited-edition coffees or seasonal blends.
Like Italy can be seen as the home of espresso coffee, Japan is the undisputed king of drip coffees. As such, you will find pour-over almost everywhere. Other popular brewing methods you will find in third-wave Japanese coffee shops are Aeropress and French press.
Keeping in mind that Japan is an important coffee gear producer (brands like Kalita and Hario), many coffee shops are heaven for us ‘coffee-nerds’ when it comes to purchasing gear. Apart from coffee, many (larger) coffee shops also sell professional coffee gear to their patrons so, if you’re planning a coffee trip to Japan, make sure you have some spare room in your luggage 🙂
The Japanese coffee experience
Japan is renowned for its high service standards; as a matter of fact, the same applies to the coffee industry. Waiters take time to serve customers and are very kind, attentive, and gracious. The coffee is served beautifully, often on a tray and in a beautiful cup or mug.
If you’re someone who enjoys coffee but who’s by no means an expert, you might feel ashamed to ask questions about the coffee due to a lack of knowledge. Or, you might feel like you’re hassling the staff with your questions. In Japan, however, there is no need. Not only are the staff generally well-informed, but they are also happy to help and, most importantly, they’re judgment-free.
As a foreigner visiting Japanese coffee shops, there is usually a bit of hesitation and a language barrier when I strike a conversation with the barista or staff. After breaking the ice for a few minutes though, I always have a friendly and interesting chat and often learn something new.
Have a look at GoodCoffee to find some must-visit coffee shops for your next trip to Japan.
Canned coffee in Japan
When speaking of Japanese coffee culture, we have to mention the Japanese canned coffee. While canned coffee has gained popularity worldwide as a quick and convenient caffeine boost, Japan really brings it to another level.
In fact, canned coffee is a Japanese invention by Tadao Ueshima, aka the ‘father of coffee’, who created and sold the first can of coffee in 1969.
Today, canned coffee is everywhere in Japan. Mostly chilled, but sometimes hot coffee can be found in cans as well. When visiting Japan, it will not take long for you to come across it. Any convenience store or supermarket has a wide selection or can get one from the numerous vending machines throughout the country.
When you find yourself in Japan, you may be tempted to try it, and you probably should. It is a bit of an acquired taste. Most canned coffees are sweet and milky, but there are some low sugar or sugar-free and black variants out there as well. Some well-known brands are Boss, Kirin, Asahi (yes, from the beers), and Wonda.
You’re not in Japan but in the US? No worries, check out Chobani’s new cold brew drink and get close to that Japanese canned coffee taste.
If you’re a coffee-lover and venturing to Japan, it’s hard to miss the Japanese coffee culture. From creamy lattes to an adventurous pour-over. From supermarket-canned coffee to third-wave coffee shop. There is a suitable cuppa for you wherever you go in Japan. Whatever your taste, we wish you a great coffee-journey in Japan!
Have you been to Japan? Let us know what you thought of the coffee culture below in the comments. Is there anything we forgot to mention here? We’d love to hear from you.