When I first came to Japan, I was, like so many others, fascinated by the vending machines. I mean there are vending machines absolutely everywhere in Japan. And they will vend absolutely everything from soda to fried noodles. One of them that I saw sold bouquets of flowers, which could come in handy for that late night craving of flower giving.
But, one of the most ubiquitous kinds of vending machines of course are soda machines. And most of them carry some kind of canned coffee. Some machines actually only carry coffee. And during one of my early days here, when I would try absolutely anything and everything within an arm’s length, I purchased a black can from a machine. It was when I first came here and I couldn’t read anything, so it could have been motor oil for all I knew.
As it turned out it was straight black coffee. And it was ice cold. No creamer, no sugar, no milk, straight. I almost spat it out and threw the can away. Cold black coffee? Are you mad? Who drinks that?
Now, 10 or so years later, I sometimes drink cold black coffee with my meal at Mos Burger or grab a can from the convenience store without even thinking about it. I acquired the taste pretty early on actually, and I’ve come to realize that there is a lot of coffee in Japan.
From little cafes to the big mainstream places, it is a part of Japan. And it was a part of Japan even before the chief mate on the Pequod showed up. There is even a style of making coffee named after Kyoto. A slow 8-16 hour brewing process that this kindly bearded man will explain for you:
At the beginning of the 80s, the Japanese coffee shop Doutor opened its doors for business. They were seen as a quick cafe that salarymen could duck into on their way to work to pick up a sandwich and a cuppa before heading into work. They are still the most common coffee shop in Japan, with somewhere around 1400 locations including its offshoots.
They offer a good combination of a light sandwich and a good blended coffee. They also have a few seasonal drinks, but it is primarily a simple, to-the-point kind of cafe without all the thrills of other coffee shops.
If you were wondering where the word Doutor came from, it’s the Portuguese word for ‘doctor’. Apparently, the name comes from the street name that the founder stayed on while working on a Brazilian coffee plantation.
Speaking of strange names for coffee shops, the coffee shop named after the chief mate of the Pequod, the ship that went after Moby Dick, made its inevitable way to Japan in 1996. Amazingly, Starbucks mostly kept its style and menu when it came over. I would say the big difference is a smaller selection of coffees and a bigger and better-stocked sweets selection.
As with a lot of trendy places from overseas, it was an immediate success. Doutor felt the pinch of competition and responded with a look-alike, called Excelsior Cafe. It apparently looked so much like Starbucks, including the color scheme and the old logo, that Starbucks promptly sued them.
Excelsior Cafés are still around today though and yes they still kind of look like Starbucks Cafés.
Other than mainstream coffee shops, there is an immense variety of canned coffee flavors available. A perennially favorite seems to be cafe au lait, a French mixture of coffee and milk. What’s amazing is that in winter, these drinks are served hot from the vending machine. That’s actually why they are canned, so they don’t burst open.
A new trend of late has been coffee at convenience stores. It seems like somebody would have thought about it why before now, but over the last 2 years or so, Lawson, a popular convenience store chain, has started carrying all sorts of coffee drinks for reasonable prices. And it is pretty well-brewed.
It really pales in comparison to the kind of coffee you get in the States at convenience stores. There it seems to be more of a raw commodity, like gasoline or milk. It’s generally pretty tasteless and over-heated. The convenience store coffee here is quite nice.
There are plenty alternatives to the mainstream options of course. For example, there is a recent trend of cat cafes, where you go and have coffee with a few feline friends. There is even an owl cafe in Namba here in Osaka, where there are several owls in cages hanging out in the cafe. That one seems a little cruel to be honest, but interesting none the less.
Out in the countryside, there are plenty of cozy little cafes that serve their own variety of sweets and coffee in unique handmade mugs. I went into one place that had an all-wood interior and a nice view of a Japanese garden. So, it might be something you want to add to your to-do list if you are visiting.
I feel in some of these local cafes it is almost like coffee drinking has replaced tea ceremony. The interiors are homy and the coffee is served with real sugar cubes that don’t look they came off an assembly line somewhere. The whole experience is a lot more peaceful than the ram and jam of trying to squeeze into an urban Starbucks.
Adapting New Trends
I feel like coffee in Japan is just another example of Japan’s take-it-and-twist-it way of adopting something. Not a lot of trends seem to come out of Japan. There aren’t a lot of new inventions that change the world or spark a new trend. Instead, Japan seems to take a lot of things and give them a little twist.
The obvious example here is the car industry where Japan has excelled and has actually created a whole new kind of engine, the hybrid. But, you can see other examples in things like housing which I mentioned last month. New houses are inspired by Western tastes, but modern houses have their own style all of their own.
Thinking outside of the box never really gets the applause that it does in other cultures. Instead, there is more of focus on perfection and adhering to standards. The hunger for innovation has been dulled from the days when Sony came out with their groundbreaking Walkman.
I hope the hunger grows again. It would be interesting to see a chain of green tea cafés worldwide.
Are you a coffee aficionado?
Have you tried some interesting cafés in Japan? Do you have a crush on Tommy Lee Jones? Tell me about it in the comments below.
Photo by Miki Yoshihito