About Japanese Coffee

When people think about beverages from Japan, tea usually comes to mind. But, let’s not overlook Japan’s robust coffee culture. Coffee, or kōhī (コーヒー) as it’s called in Japan, is every bit as deep and storied as tea. As one of the world’s largest consumers of coffee, Japan’s influence in the global coffee industry is undeniable. Japanese coffee isn’t a specific type of coffee, but rather an umbrella term for the coffee culture, brew methods, and local beans cultivated in Japan.

Even though coffee isn’t native to Japan, the country has embraced it wholeheartedly, cultivating their own coffee growing regions. Some farmers in the southern regions of Japan, such as Okinawa, Kagoshima, and Miyazaki, have started growing their own coffee, producing coffee beans that stand out with unique, local flavour profiles.

 

Coffee drip manually by hand
Photo by Pakutaso

Japanese coffee culture has roots in both traditionalism and modernism. It embraces everything from meticulous pour-over coffee methods, vintage coffee equipment, to canned coffee, and vending machine brews. But what really sets Japanese coffee apart? The answer lies in the attention to detail and emphasis on quality that runs through almost every aspect of Japanese culture, coffee included.

 

What Makes Japanese Coffee Special?

The uniqueness of Japanese coffee goes beyond the beans. One of the secrets to the distinct flavour of Japanese coffee lies in its brewing techniques. The popular method of slow-drip, or Kyoto-style coffee, is a testament to Japanese craftsmanship, patience, and appreciation for refined flavours.

Kyoto slow drip cold brew coffee machine
Photo by b0jangles (CC BY 2.0 DEED)

Kyoto-style coffee, also known as cold drip coffee, is a brewing method in which water is allowed to slowly drip through the coffee grounds over several hours. This slow extraction process results in a coffee that is clean, smooth, and full of delicate flavours. It’s a perfect example of how the Japanese approach to coffee differs from the Western perspective—it’s not just about getting a quick caffeine fix, but about savouring the experience.

 

Smiling cafe staff
Photo by photoAC

In addition to the unique brewing methods, the concept of selfless hospitality, or omotenashi (おもてなし), also plays a significant role in the Japanese coffee experience. The attention to detail, respect for the customer, and effort to create a unique experience for every individual is something that you can experience firsthand in a Japanese coffee shop. Whether it’s the carefully measured brews, the deliberate and thoughtful service, or the well-curated café ambiance, it’s clear that coffee in Japan is about more than just the drink—it’s the whole package.

 

The History of Coffee in Japan

A monument at the site of the old Kahiichakan in Ueno, Tokyo
A sign erected at the site of the old Kahiichakan in Ueno, Tokyo. Photo by Avenafatua (CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED)

The history of coffee in Japan dates back to the 17th century. However, it wasn’t until the late 19th century, during the Meiji Era (1868–1912), that coffee consumption began to increase. The Meiji Era was a time of rapid modernisation and westernisation, and coffee was seen as a stylish and modern beverage. The first coffee house, known as Kahiichakan (可否茶館), was opened in Tokyo in 1888. It quickly became a hub for intellectuals, artists, and writers.

 

A can of UCC Coffee with Milk
Photo by Like_the_Grand_Canyon (CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED)

In the early 20th century, coffee was still a luxury item consumed primarily in urban areas. However, the post-World War II period saw a significant change. With the country’s rapid economic growth, coffee became accessible to a wider population. This was also the beginning of the canned coffee phenomenon. In the 1960s, UCC Ueshima Coffee Co. launched the world’s first canned coffee, “UCC Coffee with Milk”. This innovation made coffee even more accessible which led to a surge in popularity.

Over the decades, coffee in Japan has gone from a symbol of modernity and luxury to an everyday beverage enjoyed by people from all walks of life. Today, Japan’s coffee culture is a blend of tradition and innovation, with a deep respect for both the art and science of coffee.

 

Understanding Japan’s Coffee Culture

Coffee drip

Japanese coffee culture is fascinating and diverse, with different facets that cater to almost every taste. The journey of coffee in Japan has led to the evolution of a culture that combines traditional brewing methods, modern technology, and a unique ambiance that reflects the country’s history and love for aesthetics.

At one end of the spectrum are the traditional Japanese coffee houses or kissaten (喫茶店). These establishments are a testament to the nostalgic Showa Era (1926–1989), with vintage brewing equipment and dark furniture, and a quiet ambiance that encourages you to lose track of time.

On the other end are modern coffee shops and third-wave coffee artisans who bring a scientific approach to brewing coffee. These shops often have minimalist aesthetics and offer an array of single-origin coffees, each brewed using precise methods to bring out the distinct characteristics of the beans. These contemporary cafés put a focus on ethically-sourced beans and direct trade with farmers.

 

Kissaten: Traditional Japanese Coffee Shops

The interior of a typical kissaten in Ginza, TOKYO
Photo by Sue Lynn

Kissaten coffee shops are a testament to Japan’s historic love affair with coffee. Stepping into a kissaten is like stepping back in time. The interiors are usually filled with Showa-era memorabilia, antique furniture, and soft, mood-setting jazz music playing in the background. These coffee shops often serve a variety of coffee styles, from the strong and slightly bitter blend that’s been popular since the post-war era to more modern light roast options.

 

Nel drip
Nel drip. Photo by photoAC

In these establishments, coffee preparation is an art form. The coffee served here is typically brewed using a nel drip (ネルドリップ), a method that involves a flannel cloth filter and a slow, patient, almost ritualistic, pour. The result is a smooth, full-bodied cup of coffee that’s unlike anything you’ll get from a quick coffee machine brew.

 

Toast
Photo by photoAC

Beyond coffee, many kissaten also offer light meals, like sandwiches and pasta, as well as sweets to accompany your cup of joe. One popular food item is the thick toast served with a pat of butter and a drizzle of honey or red bean paste, a perfect pair to the robust coffee.

 

Cafés: Modern Coffee Shops in Japan

The interior of a typical cafe in Japan
Photo by Pakutaso

While kissaten offer a nostalgic coffee experience, modern Japanese coffee shops provide a different kind of charm. These coffee shops, inspired by the third-wave coffee movement, emphasise the origin of coffee beans and aim to bring out the unique flavours of each type. They often source their beans directly from farmers, roast them in-house, and use precise brewing methods to ensure the best taste.

 

Complex coffee making equipment at a Japanese cafe
Photo by Pakutaso

These modern shops usually have a minimalist design that reflects contemporary Japanese aesthetics. The focus is squarely on the coffee. From pour-over to espresso-based drinks, each cup is crafted with great care. Some of these coffee shops even offer coffee tasting sessions, similar to wine tasting, where you can learn about the different flavour profiles and brewing methods.

A prominent example of this trend is Blue Bottle Coffee, an American brand that has made significant inroads in Japan. It’s popular for its single-origin coffee, chic interior design, and open, airy spaces. Despite being an import, it fits well into Japan’s modern coffee scene and has been embraced for its dedication to quality and service.

 

Last Sip! Discover Coffee Culture with JAPAN RAIL CLUB

A cup of coffee in ceramic cup made in Japan
Photo by Pakutaso

Whether it’s the artisanal cup from a modern café, a carefully brewed coffee from a kissaten, or a quick can from a vending machine, coffee in Japan is about more than just a caffeine kick. It’s a testament to the country’s commitment to quality, craftsmanship, and the constant pursuit of perfection.

 

SL Shinbashi Drip Coffee Bag
Photo by JAPAN RAIL CLUB

If you’re intrigued by the Japanese coffee culture and want to taste it for yourself, JAPAN RAIL CLUB’s “Tetsudo Encounters” Omiyage Snack Box is a great starting point.

Featuring the Shinbashi SL Blend (Hanging Ear Drip Coffee) (新橋SLブレンド), this product by SAZA COFFEE was inspired by Japan’s earliest steam locomotive train and the concept of Africa and is making its overseas debut this month! This distinctive drip coffee bag blend, which brew features meticulously selected African beans, including varieties from Kenya, perfectly aligning with the store’s African motif. The infusion is further enriched with the addition of Guatemala Geisha coffee, creating a delightful fusion of flavours.

Grab your subscription today with our curated selection of snacks from Japan every month and embark on a flavourful journey through Japan’s coffee world as we deliver the rich coffee culture right to your doorstep.