While the image of Japan as a nation resolutely faithful to its tradition of tea is a mainstay in most popular perceptions of the country, there is another beverage which occupies a large part of everyday urban life and culture. In addition to being the third largest importer of coffee beans worldwide after the United States and Germany, the consumption of both instant and roasted coffee in Japan is about double that of green tea according to research from the All Japan Coffee Association.
Coffee in Japan is an interesting beast. It comes in all different shapes, sizes and flavours – cold and in a can, embellished with latte art, made with a syphon, packaged and sold in a convenience store - the list goes on. More broadly, the marketing of coffee in all its forms as well as the experience of how it is consumed in Japan is also strikingly varied. The sheer diversity of the coffee experience in Japan can be a little bewildering, but through it all one thing is obvious: coffee is serious business here. We’ve decided to look a little deeper by starting a series centred on coffee in all of its manifestations, and to start off with we have the timeless ‘kissaten‘.
A cursory Google search on what differentiates a ‘kissaten’ (喫茶店）from the multitude of other names that are used to describe establishments that serve coffee (including cafe and coffee house) reveals that there is a bit of confusion over any concrete distinguishing characteristics. Legally the word is used to designate shops that focus on the serving of coffee and drinks, but calling a shop a ‘kissaten’ in general conversation implies a particular kind of establishment.
There is a kind of retro image associated with the kissaten, and this old-fashioned feel is reflected in the interior of a store, which may be furnished with leather seats, sturdy, varnished wood tables, and Bauhaus-style furniture. Lighting is often dim and slightly moody, and there is an old-world feel that is reminiscent of the Showa or Taisho period. A kissaten does not necessarily have to have history or even have to be “old” in age, but they do stir up a sense of nostalgia.
The atmosphere and ambience of a kissaten tends to be more formal than chain store coffee joints and cafes, and unlike these places there is table service. Mood-wise, a kissaten tends to be a little more subdued and calm, a pocket of nostalgia where a typically older set of people go to collect their thoughts or catch up with each other while lingering over a cup of coffee.
The coffee itself is often served strong and black with a small pot of milk and sugar syrup at the side – a far cry from the cups of steamed milk and espresso that dominate the menus of “younger” cafes. This dark blend is presented in vintage looking cups and saucers, whose non-uniformity is a gentle reminder that the kissaten is often a more independent and local enterprise. It is not unusual for a shop to have a daily stream of well-known regular customers who have been patrons for years.
The main focus of a kissaten is generally on the atmosphere and the leisurely style of drinking coffee in these places, and in the past kissaten’s did not typically offer much variety in terms of food apart from sandwiches, pasta, curry rice and other simple items. The morning breakfast set menu is a common feature of a lot of kissaten - a piece of toast or two with coffee and an egg or fruit.
Although the number of kissaten is being overtaken by chain store coffee shops and they aren’t quite as “trendy” as the growing number of cafes, they occupy a very special place in the Japanese coffee scene. They serve a particular kind of coffee, and with it, a particular kind of nostalgic experience that definitely has its aficionados.