The latest issue of the influential Japanese men’s magazine, Brutus, is devoted entirely to coffee. Flicking through its pages, I discovered that the Monocle office is now located in the heart of what Brutus refers to as Tokyo’s “coffee belt”. It’s been quietly building up over the last few years. After the demise of the see-and-be-seen boulevard cafés that once proliferated on busy Omotesando, a new coffee culture has developed on the quieter back streets and we are now surrounded by a number of small independent coffee shops.
There’s Be a Good Neighbour, a snug coffee stand with just enough room for a handful of customers, and Streamer, a slender, three-storey café where the barista is a maestro with the milk frother and turns every latte into a work of art. Then there’s Fuglen, the Tokyo outpost of the Oslo coffee shop that sells coffee, cocktails and vintage Norwegian furniture. And not forgetting Motoya Espresso, the first-rate coffee shop that operates out of a van just off Omotesando.
The land of green tea is now giving Seattle a run for its money in the coffee stakes. Even our local bookshop has its own coffee corner displaying books and magazines about coffee and cafés.
It’s no surprise that coffee – or ko-hee as it’s called here – is big in Japan. It’s the perfect beverage for a hard-working, sleep-deprived population. Kissaten or coffee shops have been around since the end of the 19th century and Japanese coffee chains such as Doutour, Pronto and Renoir are well established. When Starbucks first opened here in Ginza in 1996 doubters said that a no-smoking chain would never take off in Japan. How wrong they were. They weren’t counting on the silent army of people – women, in particular, who were fed up of emerging from a coffee shop smelling like they’d been sitting in a smoky bar. Starbucks now has more than 220 branches in Tokyo alone. But even it seems to have realised that while consistency is to be admired, monotony is not and it is trying to perk up its identikit interiors. Our local Starbucks in Omotesando has replaced its regular small tables with one very long, very high table with bar stools placed around it.
Of course, serious coffee drinkers wouldn’t touch chain coffee with a barge pole. As with all things culinary, Japanese coffee aficionados have taken coffee-making to a new hand-filtered, boutique roasted, artisanal level of detail. It’s wasted on the early morning crowd who just want to chug a quick shot of caffeine. They’re more likely to head to the vending machines that sell vast quantities of canned coffee, ice cold in the summer, piping hot in the winter. Brands such as Boss for which the actor Tommy Lee Jones has been the face for six years.
You can’t please everyone. You only have to mention coffee to invite emails from readers in different parts of the world who insist that theirs is the only country that knows how to make a decent cup. It might be baffling to some who don’t appreciate the old-school charm of a cup of filter coffee in a fug of smoke but Renoir and co still have their audience in Japan.
I’m no connoisseur. In fact I rarely drink coffee at all these days. But when I do, I’m happy to pop into our local, the delightful Omotesando Koffee, a small coffee stand in an old Japanese house with a very short menu, a couple of benches and a leafy garden.