Japan is a unique place, rich in history, with a culture steeped in tradition. Here the word artisan is replaced with the word shokunin, but to treat this as a literal translation is not to do the word shokunin justice, shokunin is about an obligation to be the best that you can be at your particular craft for the benefit of others, not purely limited to the experience and skills you have in your trade. Whether that be expertly cooked sushi rice, artistically sharpened samurai swords or just simply producing a perfectly extracted cup of coffee. With no place better to start experiencing this philosophy of dedication and skill than in the sprawling metropolis of Tokyo, we started there.
Arriving at our first coffee stop we found the place shut, having failed to check what time Cafe De L’Ambre opened merely assuming that all coffee shops opened before we were ever likely to arrive, we paused wondering whether it was open this day or not. Suddenly, as if from nowhere,a man appeared sticking his keys in the door, enquiring as to whether he was opening up he replied ‘we’re open at 12, come back in an hour, we’ll be open then’. So after taking a stroll round Ginza we made our way back to the shop and stepped inside.
Stepping back in time, the shop was like something out of an old film, walls lined with dark wood panels and ash trays set into the tables, a capsule of nostalgia. Perusing the menu was like leafing through a wine list with coffees labelled by date as well as origin. Cafe De L’Ambre not only sell single origin coffee, but offer a selection of aged coffees from various origins and years. Aged coffees tend to have more body, while being cleaner and sweeter, those that retain any of their acidity tend to lean towards sourness. In the end after much consideration I opted for one of their non aged coffees, a Blue Nile from Ethiopia, prepared using a Nel cloth filter, the brewing method they use for the majority of the coffees on the menu.
Served in an ornate Japanese demitasse in very similar style to the Turkish, but with the grounds filtered out of course. The coffee arrived with aromas of sour green grapes and to taste it was complex, while being somewhat reminiscent of Turkish coffee, there were green grapes and apples, with hints of sherbet all wrapped up in thick and syrupy mouthfeel. Somewhere between espresso and filter coffee this was somewhat similar to a long black, but with much more clarity.
It was nice to start our tour at somewhere old and authentic, it was clear that coffee was almost heritage here, with some beans on the menu being nearly as old as me and the shop itself being far older. Having very much enjoyed the atmosphere, we said our goodbyes and wandered out to see some more of Tokyo.
Japan, 〒104-0061 Tokyo, 中央区Ginza, ８−１０−１５
Not far from Kiyosumi Garden and taking up space on a large open corner, Blue Bottle’s Kiyosumi roastery stands out without looking out of place, with its large whitewashed walls and signature blue bottle stamp. A little different from the traditional Japanese coffee houses, this is an open and airy affair, less intimate and more casual. It’s busy when we arrive, well that is to say its popular, featuring two espresso machines and a pourover station with three brewers ready to go, they’re particularly well equipped to meet the needs of plenty of customers. It feels active but relaxed, no ones rushing around here, even if there’s lots of drinks to serve and roasting going on in the back.
Skipping past the iced latte’s, even though it was hot, I headed for the filter menu, ordering a Kiambu from Kenya before taking up a seat in the back.
Brewed through a classic filter cone the coffee arrived in a glass cup showing off its transparent red amber appearance while giving off aromas of cherries, hay and tangerines. To taste there was a long sweet mild acidity of sour cherries, with flavours of honey tangerine and black tea. If it wasn’t for the cherries and the lightly juicy mouthfeel it might have been hard to distinguish this from honey sweetened tea.
Blue Bottle Kiyosumi had both elements of an American coffee shop and yet still felt very Japanese, standing out in its neighbourhood while fitting in all at the same time.A welcome addition no doubt to a burgeoning neighbourhood. Finishing up our drinks we headed for another coffee business import just around the corner.
1-4-8, Hirano, Koto-ku
Occupying a quaint little spot besides an urban park garden, Allpress espresso blends into its environment with dark wood paneled walls seamlessly fitting in with their surroundings. A quieter, softer approach, inside feels friendly and intimate even with a roaster tucked away in the back. With a decor somewhere between the 50’s, wood cabin chique and modern it comes across as both stylish and functional at the same time, service taking place both in front of and behind the counter in a somewhat Scandinavian style.
Looking over the filter menu I ordered the Guatemala Antigua, before our Scandinavian barista walked around the counter to begin brewing the coffee through a Kalita classic style dripper.
Arriving wonderfully presented in a serving carafe it gave off sweet and fruity aromas like honey baked pears. To taste it was just like hobnobs (an oaty biscuit) with soft poached pears and white grapes with a noticeably creamy mouthfeel that gave it banana milkshake qualities as it cooled down.
Feeling distinctly like a neighbourhood cafe we soaked up the atmosphere and stayed chatting a while, enjoying the relaxed nature of this tucked away hideout, watching the world go by outside its large windows. Eventually it was time to leave though and so we walked slowly back out in to Tokyo.
3-7-2 Hirano Koto-ku, Tokyo
135 0047 Japan
Beneath the Tokyo Skytree in a more commercial setting sits a little courtyard with one of Max Brenner’s chocolate bars and so before heading over to Senso-ji it would have been a shame not to get some of Max Brenner’s hot chocolate. With a menu chock full of desserts, some bordering on the ridiculous, there was some sense of theatre going on inside the diner, but keeping our heads about us we ordered some simple hot chocolate.
Coming in what is described as a hug mug, we ordered a dark and a milk hot chocolate from the counter. The milk version coming with its own form of latte art, the dark coming as a rich, thick and well refined drinking chocolate. I have to admit as unusual as the mugs were, they were pretty well adapted to hot chocolate drinking and were a good innovation.
Reminiscent of good Italian style hot chocolate, its clear that while chocolate isn’t particularly big in Japan they’ll more than happily tolerate chocolate in its quality and ever so slightly ridiculous forms.
Tokyo Skytree Town Solamachi 1F
Even though Tokyo has a wealth of specialty coffee shops, sometimes you need a drink and unfortunately you’re not particularly close to one of its more infamous locations. Fortunately however this is Tokyo and so even the less appealing choices can teach you something about Japanese coffee culture. Finding ourselves at the wonderful Senso-ji we stopped to sit for a drink and with large signs spelling coffee outside the above cafe it was possible we might find something interesting inside.
This wasn’t a specialty shop unfortunately, but as we were stopping here for water and a seat I couldn’t help but be curious about a bar littered with siphons and a menu board that read Jamaica Blue Mountain being inside (without meaning any disrespect) a generic cafe. If this was Japan’s equivalent to the instant coffee served back at home this was a distinct improvement. So I ordered up a cup, ground fresh and while not quite evoking the spirit of shokunin it was brewed with more skill than I could probably apply to a siphon.
Arriving at the table smelling a little like cream of tomato soup, I had to admit it was a little unusual, but not exactly off putting. To taste there was a bright sour acidity, not entirely unlike the Ethiopian coffee I’d had at Cafe De L’Ambre, with flavours of green apple skin and walnuts and a touch of citrus on the finish. Not the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had, but by no means the worst. It was somewhat indicative of a Japanese style of coffee however, and I was beginning to appreciate that Japanese coffee, rather than specialty coffee exactly, tended to be either smooth with typical coffee flavours like a flat Sumatran coffee or alternatively bright with a sour acidity like a slightly hard fermented natural coffee. This cup definitely fell in the latter category, but was interesting all the same.