Kyoto is a spiritual place, but its also a modern functioning city, it does both of these things without seeming as if it is anyway comprimising. Here lines blur all over the place, with you drawing your own distinctions, rather than Kyoto having provided them for you. You’ll find yourself asking questions like am I in a garden or am I in the forest, am I at a shrine or am I at a public water fountain, am I in a cafe or is this someones home? And you’ll find yourself asking these questions a lot, because here things are not put in boxes, no matter how much they’re a part of tradition, they just are what they are.
Waiting in Osaka for the train to arrive and with specialty coffee too far away to even consider, we did what any sensible people would do in that situation and took advantage of the doughnuts on offer from Mister Donut. Grabbing ourselves a chocolate and cream cronut, a classic angel cream and a french strawberry custard to see us through the short hop to Kyoto.
By the time we’d arrived in Kyoto and checked in, it was getting a bit late in the day for coffee and so we made our way to Kyoto Chocolate and Organic Tea House. Down a somewhat residential road, we wandered in off the street to be greeted by a large and friendly ginger dog lazing in the entrance way, before Sherry one half of the husband and wife team that run the tea house encouraged us to take off our shoes and come inside.
Seating ourselves on the floor Sherry brought some complementary buckwheat tea to begin with, while we stared about the rather homely abode which was the tea house. It was quiet and relaxing here almost instantly and we’d only just sat down, it’s as if time slows and only the sound of wildlife in the adjacent open garden reminds you that the rest of the world still exists. Sherry, our host is Canadian and seems as pleased as we are at the prospect of some easy going conversation. It’s late in the afternoon and the boundaries between tea house and home are dissolving away, Sherry grabs some tea and joins us for a while, before taking our order.
Sherry disappears into the kitchen before returning with two bowls of Matcha tea and a selection of their chocolates and asking if we’d like anything else to which we reply no. She explains that we have lingon berry, matcha, a sweet Austrian liqueur and a Japanese liqueur ganache to try, before returning to the kitchen. The Matcha tea is better than any I’ve had back at home, its herbal and balanced with very little sweet or bitterness. The ganaches are unusual but well crafted, theres a Japanese-ness to them, they have tart and sour acidities, but plenty of balance and refinery too. The lingon berry has a tart jammy acidity with smooth balance, but it’s outshone by both the liqueurs, the Austrian has sweet white berry notes again with plenty of balance, while the Japanese one has a whiskey like tang and some cocoa tones on the finish. This is proper chocolate, made with a lot of skill and that’s pretty uncommon here in Japan, with cocoa still remaining a topping, flavour or ingredient in confectionary.
Sherry returns as we finish with some apple and blueberry cake, not that we’d ordered any and joins us at the table, we’re the only ones left in the teahouse and to be honest it feels more like we’re guests in someones home. She sits to have some cake with us and in the two hours of conversation that follows I miss my opportunity to take some photos of the lovely garden before it gets dark. She tells us stories of how her and her husband met and what it’s like to live in Kyoto as a non Japanese resident and we chip in a few travelling stories of our own. Nama chocolate and tea house, was a lovely place to spend an afternoon (and evening) with its chocolate and tea only being outdone by its overwhelming hospitality.
76-15 Tenno-cho, Okazaki, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto
Arriving the next morning in Arashiyama, famous for its bamboo forests, we made our first stop by the entrance to the walkway to Nonomiya shrine opposite the ‘tofu shop’ at a pretty traditional looking cafe. I’d seen a few ‘World Coffee’ signs around while I’d been in Japan now and while I wasn’t expecting specialty pour overs, I was curious in the absence of specialty coffee to see if this offered any more insight into a traditional coffee taste in Japan.
Making a simple order of two black coffees, they came in two lovely cups that wouldn’t have looked out of place in an expensive cafe. Arriving with the typical aromas of a darker roast, but with some distinct pear and grapefruit notes, this might not have been specialty, but I’ve been served a lot worse. To taste there was a sweet pink acidity and even some light florals and berries, as it cooled these flavours got longer and some rose crept in on the finish. The roast was dark for sure, but depsite this it made for a good cup of coffee with a soft tea like mouthfeel, refined, smooth and with distinct flavours that weren’t limited to just caramel and chocolate. We left to walk around Arashiyama with no complaints, none whatsoever.
〒616-8374 Kyōto-fu, Kyōto-shi, Ukyō-ku, Sagatenryūji Kitatsukurimichichō
Walking over the bridge in Arashiyama a little parched by the humid heat, I looked in through the window of Togetsu Cafe, spotting a collection of aeropresses and a Malkonig grinder on the counter and thought we might finally be in luck. Stepping inside we had a look around for any indication of the beans being used and spotted some retail bags of Ogawa coffee by the window, thinking we’d got pretty lucky we ordered up a couple of aeropresses to drink in.
As we sat in the window we stared out at the beautiful landscape that was Togetsukyo bridge and had no problem waiting for our coffees to be made. Normally I feel a little guilty ordering two aeropresses from a bar, knowing that someone has to make two coffees rather than just pour more water over more coffee, but we were in no hurry and the barista looked genuinely excited at the prospect of making them.
The coffee arrived with sweet citrus and honey caramel aromas and to taste was pretty similar with a full bodied juicy citrus and caramel flavour running throughout. The coffee wasn’t mindblowing, but I don’t think it was meant to be challenging, to be honest I was just glad of a decent cup in an area somewhat designed for tourists.
Saganakanoshimacho, Ukyo Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 616-8383, Japan
Unfortunately for us % Arabica were a week away from opening their Arashiyama branch when we arrived in Kyoto, but of equal fortune was our chance encounter with their Pop up Coffee Kiosk on Kyoto’s high street. Walking through Kyoto in search of food we came across the kiosk 10 minutes from closing with an unusual desire for coffee with milk.
With a paired down espresso menu and their custom Slayer espresso machine, it was impossible to pass by without putting in an order. Chatting to the barista, his accent immediately gave him away as being American, explaining that he was there on a secondment of sorts, but that he’d been lucky enough to land himself a job with % Arabica. Given that cappuccino is a pretty loose term when it comes to a worldly interpretation, we amended our order to a couple of espressos with milk and left the rest up to him.
Responding to our milky challenge of sorts he proceeded to knock out the above two cups of ‘espresso with milk’ and a did a fine job of it. The top made with some additional milk foam and the bottom with more traditional steamed milk, both looking pretty neat and tasting like milk chocolate and sweet cream. Taking our cups on our way with us, we explained we’d be back to the flagship store before we left Kyoto.