Coffee is not part of Tokyo’s history, as it seems to be in most European cities, where entire subcultures revolve around hanging out in cafés, but the caffeine-laced drink is slowly climbing its way up the city’s pedestal. With independently owned coffee shops breaking the mold, and pioneering the introduction of Third Wave Coffee in Tokyo, the Tokyo scene is beginning to pique the interest of coffee lovers from all over Asia.
Frequenting a kissaten (tea-drinking shop that happens to serve coffee) may be a parcel of the layman’s everyday life in old world Japan. Passing time meant sipping on green tea, and munching on cakes, pastries, or okashi, but the course of society and history was not decided over tea. No kissaten in Japan is considered an institution, as much as Café Central or Café Sacher is for Vienna, or Caffé Greco or Giolitti is for Rome.
Since the 1930s, coffee, as a product, has been playing cameos in Japanese households, with the likes of Ueshima Tadao Shoten – now UCC Ueshima Coffee Company, Ltd. – directing the play. Coffee only got the starring role, though, when Tokyo’s love affair with it began after Westernization had strongly taken root on the country’s culture. Only after an obsession with productivity became part of people’s everyday way of life did the Japanese rely on caffeine.
In 1980, Doutor Coffee started selling the convenience of buying coffee (and a sandwich that would go with it) on the way to work. The business model perfectly complemented the increasingly fast-paced and competitive lifestyle of Tokyoites. Its shops mushroomed near train station exits and office buildings. It is easy to spot a branch: look for the overpowering smell of cigarette smoke and the flocking of men all clad in black suits. To this day, Doutor still outshines Starbucks, when it comes to efficiency and service time.
Even so, coffee consumption was mainly confined within the walls of the home or the office. It took decades before coffee was enjoyed in a coffee shop – before or after work, and during leisure time. Then came Starbucks.
1995 has seen through the opening, and then rapid expansion of Starbucks in Tokyo, and in all of Japan afterwards. Almost every train station exit, shopping mall, and neighborhood would have a branch – or three.
As though the First Wave (Coffee) and the Second Wave (Coffee) broke simultaneously, consumption of canned premade coffee and freeze dried instant coffee both skyrocketed, propelling Japan to the top of the list of coffee consumers worldwide.
By then, Third Wave Coffee was already stirring San Francisco, Melbourne, and Vancouver. Pioneers in Tokyo’s coffee scene came barging in as early as 2009, but it was not until around 2011 that the Japanese have learned to appreciate coffee that doesn’t come in a cup with a green mermaid logo. All thanks to the guys behind the likes of OBSCURA COFFEE ROASTERS, Omotesandō Coffee, and Nozy Coffee.
Entry does not usually come easy for front liners. Knowing the Japanese market all too well, proponents of the coffee revolution first had to introduce people to coffee that is a bit more flavorful than they have grown used to with flavour profiles that are familiar and approachable – think dark chocolate, nutty, molasses flavours. Only after the Japanese palate had matured, could fruity – think citrus and berry flavor profiles – and earthy flavor profiles be introduced. Even then, appreciation for this everyday staple is still far from the level of veneration for French wine and Single Malt whisky.
When it comes to coffee consumption, Japan merely treads the path already set out before it. It is not a trendsetter. The Japanese are known for making anything they adopt better. When they borrow an art, technology, or cuisine they make it a point to build on it with expertise unique to them. There still is much to be done to improve the coffee landscape. Too many plains are set out before the eyes, with no peaks within sight. We cannot wait to see how Tokyoites will own coffee. We’ll watch by the sidelines, as the scene plays out.