It’s an understandable mistake to make. You’re foot-sore from exploring the bustling streets of Tokyo (or any big city in Japan), you’re feeling all traveled out, and all you want for the next half an hour is somewhere quiet to sit with a delicious drink to nurse and a pastry to nibble at, until your energy levels creep back up again.
So you use that internationally recognised word that succinctly explains this need to just about anyone you could meet:
“Sumimasen [“Excuse me”]. Uh…café?”
Here’s an incomplete list of the kinds of cafés you could be directed to in Japan:
- a place modeled on exhaustingly lunatic Japanese gameshows, complete with unexpected pranks sprung on you at random moments…
- a place based loosely on feudal Japan, where you’ll be served coffee by ninjas and, perhaps, be dramatically shrieked at…
- a place clad in blood-coloured velvet that looks like the set from an Anne Rice movie - and yes, the waiters are vampires, and that is indeed fake blood spattered on the walls over there…
- a place where the waitresses are dressed in stereotypical maid costumes and act as your servants (these are called Maid cafés)...
- a place themed on Alice in Wonderland, complete with Lewis Carrol-quoting murals, Cheshire Cat spaghetti and “Eat Me” desserts…
- a place where you’re served mainly by robots…
- a place where other people will offer to cuddle you, or the staff will give you an animal to hug…
- a place that’s manga, Nintendo, Pokémon or pop-related, complete with pulsatingly bright colour scheme and thudding soundtracks…
- a place filled with Halloween-like decor and riddled with ghost-related booby traps.
Since you’re obviously not a local, the person you ask directions from may be thinking, “oh, they want to go to the most exciting places, the craaaaazy ones that all the tourists take pictures of!” And since you just used the correct word for them - “café” - well, that might be where you end up.
But you just want…a café. You know! A quiet backwater kind of place, where the seats are comfy and people sip their drinks in silence and nothing really happens. A place where you can truly collect your thoughts after seeing this overstimulating sensory-barrage of a city.
Ahhh. Then you want a kissaten (喫茶店). Well, why didn’t you say so?
In a way, this is Japan being linguistically smarter than the rest of the world. Hardly anywhere else has a specific word that means “those sleepy kinds of mom-and-pop places where you can read a book in peace and the coffee’s really amazing, and mostly definitely not those raucous big chains that get you in and out the door as fast as possible.” It’d be nice if there was a word in English that did the same job. But no, we just have “café” or “coffee shop/house” or “tea room”, any of which could be applied to the full range of beverage-serving establishments across Japan - including the noisy type you’d happily avoid after a long, emotionally draining day in a city of 14 million people.
And of course, many Tokyo residents feel the same way.
Despite the cultural importance of tea, coffee culture has been a thing since it was introduced by Dutch traders in the 18th Century - but it was only during the time of Emperor Shōwa (1926-1989) that it really took off domestically. And it’s true that there are also some novelty examples (commonly called kissa) - in particular, the variety called jazz kissa where people in the 1930s and ‘40s went to listen to imported jazz records that were too expensive to buy...
(In this way, Japan became one of the most welcoming countries for jazz enthusiasts for the 20th Century and beyond. Even now, those places are still around, albeit in greatly reduced numbers - but in a nice circle-of-life fashion, this uniquely Japanese pastime is now taking jazz back out into other countries, as they open up their own jazz kissa in a similar style. Never write off jazz - it’ll always find a way back into the world.)
But on the whole, a kissaten is a peaceful, minimalist place that doesn’t want to distract you from how good the coffee is.
These aren’t like international chains with their takeaway cups or frothy varieties: you’ll probably get a small delicate-looking cup of black coffee, accompanied by a pot of cream, and that’s more or less that. It’s an expression of the Japanese ethos of kodawari - the pursuit of perfection, engineered by paying attention to even the smallest details and keeping everything so simple that all the emphasis is on the right things.
Kissa are also different for how intensely local they are. If you’re used to how international chain venues look like branded spaceships that have just landed on the sidewalk, a kissaten is all about reworking and fitting in with the existing environment. Some of them are former bathhouses, others warehouses or homes built upwards and outwards. What the place used to be isn’t hidden - it’s transformed, with the former layout often on show.
But sometimes, what they’ve done with the place is just incredible. Take the newly opened Koffee Mameya Kakeru, as profiled here in Tokyo Weekender magazine. This establishment (the name roughly translates as “coffee bean shop multiplying-together place”) is positioning itself at the forefront of the specialty coffee scene, away from dimly lit homey places and towards something between a fine-dining restaurant (complete with inward-facing benches so you can watch the experts at work) and a high-concept design store:
“We as baristas stand between the roaster and the customer. The value of coffee is decided in the final product, and we have to educate our customers on how to brew correctly to make sure the end result is delicious. If we can do that, everyone is happy — the roaster, the barista and the consumer.” - founder Eiichi Kunitomo.
But perhaps that’s a bit much for you as well, when you just want, you know, a coffee?
Happily, Japan is filled with kissa. Just ask writer Craig Mod, who hiked across Japan in 2019 in a quest to publicize them to the rest of the world. He did it by drinking a lot of really great coffee, by eating huge quantities of the Japanese form of pizza toast (a doorstop-like slab of bread adorned with toppings) and by falling in love with their stubbornly traditional qualities: “suspended, like mosquitoes in amber, in a very specific moment in time,” as he put it for Eater.
To his eyes, he was seeing the end of the Shōwa-era kissa:
“There were some 150,000 kissa spread across the country,” Otake said. With a smile, he added, “It was probably too many.” Three years ago the number dipped below 70,000, and the drop continues precipitously. Many of the owners of the remaining shops are well past retirement age, and their children are not taking over. Which is to say that the classic kissa is not long for this world.”
(Read Craig Mod’s book Kissa By Kissa to enjoy the full journey.)
Nevertheless, a new wave of kissaten is emerging, run and frequented by younger generations keen to create stylish, gently retro havens of contemplation amid the whirl of modern Japanese life. Since these are trendy and run with all the modern marketing and attention-grabbing skill of any novelty café, there’s a decent chance you’ll find one - or be directed there, if you ask the right question…
Welcome to the Japan you were looking for, friend. Coffee? You sure look like you need it.
Wheel & Anchor’s tour of Japan in May is already sold out - but due to its popularity, we’ll be returning in October to sample the very best that this exciting, paradoxical country has to offer (including the coffee and pizza toast.) Apply here while places are still available.
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