A Look at Coffee Culture in Japan
As hot beverages go, tea tends to be the one most associated with Japan. Coffee is more often linked to the Middle East or Europe. Nevertheless, there is a thriving coffee culture in contemporary Japan, too.
Coffee connoisseurs can find a range of fascinating and flavourful options in the country. Some of these relate to Japan’s creative approach to experimenting with beverages. Others are rooted in the calm and sophisticated experiences found in local kissatens.
Whether coffee fans are planning a trip or are just interested in a different approach to the beverage, it’s worth taking a closer look at the coffee culture in Japan.
Many people are familiar with the idea of that tea culture in Japan has a significant history. Yet, the origins of coffee culture in Japan can be equally rich and interesting. That’s not to say that coffee was met with quite the same acceptance or enthusiasm initially as tea.
Coffee first came to Japan in the 1700s by way of traders from the Netherlands and Portugal. Japan often has a reputation for a certain history of isolation and these traders were some of the few meaningful international connections the islands retained at the time. This introduction was relatively slow, as many locals didn’t particularly enjoy the flavor.
It was only with the introduction of the first coffee shop in Japan, founded in 1933 by Ueshima Tadao Seten, that coffee really started to take hold. Nevertheless, hurdles to the culture’s growth arrived in the form of World War II, which saw coffee imports banned from Japan until 1950.
In the 1960s and 1970s, coffee culture as we would recognize it today really started to take hold, coinciding with the second wave of coffee culture in America. A range of coffee shops began springing up across the country, many of which featured popular European styles, such as espresso and cappuccino. However, over time, unique Asian approaches to coffee became more prominent.
Coffee culture has always been influenced by locals’ personal preferences. Some of these are related to flavor profiles, while others are focused on health. For instance, today many people avoid coffee as its combination of tannins and compounds can lead to tooth staining. While such issues may be addressed with oral hygiene, one of the benefits of current Japanese coffee culture is the range of drink options available to consumers. People can find experiences that best suit their needs and tastes.
Customers that enjoy the familiarity of chain outlets will find plenty of these available in Japan. There are international players, such as Starbucks and Tully’s. But there are also chains that started in Japan, like Mariva, Doutor, and Ueshima Coffee House. Here customers will find relatively simple experiences with consistent approaches wherever they are. It’s also worth noting that coffee vending machines are a big part of Japanese coffee culture. This means that those who want to drink with minimal interaction can still get quality beverages.
That said, one of the most important parts of Japanese culture is the opposite of a chain café: the kissaten. These cafes provide a more nuanced and gourmet coffee experience. This is because their model is geared toward their identity as a tasting house, rather than a place for a quick and cheap beverage. This is reflected by proprietors’ tendency to experiment with new styles and flavours. Alongside offering different hand-crafted drinks to suit sophisticated tastes, these cafes also aim for a more relaxed and peaceful atmosphere. Though, it’s worth noting that this tends to come at a premium price point.
The European styles of coffee are still popular in many Japanese coffee houses. Though, the high sugar content can be a concern for some. For more health-conscious people, there are options for sweeteners that allow consumers to enjoy sweet beverages without sugar. Indeed, stevia tends to be the most popular alternative in Japan. That said, Japanese coffee culture also offers its own growing range of interesting drink options.
Cream soda is a common feature in Japanese restaurants and has been applied to coffee culture in the country. The coffee house will prepare iced black coffee, usually using a cold brew coffee. They will then place a couple of scoops of vanilla ice cream on top. In some instances, this is followed by a light and decorative drizzle of flavored coffee creamer.
This is a good example of the tendency for some Japanese coffee houses to experiment with fusion flavors. This option aims to blend the sweetness of a soy latte with the richness of black sesame. Once the latte is prepared with brewed coffee and warm milk, black sesame paste is carefully stirred into the mix.
Most kissatens in Japan favor a slower and more careful approach to preparing coffee. Therefore, the siphon brewing method is a common feature in these coffee houses. This involves an elaborate set-up of a vacuum brewer and two glass pots, which can look pretty spectacular. While this creates a simple form of coffee, the focus is on providing a high-quality flavour profile using gourmet beans.
Japanese coffee culture may have had a slightly rocky start, but it is currently thriving. Chain stores provide consumers with predictable and familiar options, while kissatens offer more nuanced flavour experiences. There are also some unique approaches to the beverage, often adding a Japanese perspective to European coffee styles. Japan offers visitors and residents a coffee culture that is at once both experimental and steeped in tradition.