Tokyo’s coffee culture

Trend is an intriguing topic. Why is it that some trends remain local (within a town/city/country) while others spread and become global? There are of course numerous factors behind the spread of a particular trend, but the one that excites me most in recent years is the booming coffee or cafe culture, or the so-called “Third wave coffee” movement.

Forget about Starbucks and the traditional European style cafes, this trend is more about independent artisanal coffee shops, where many would also roast the coffee beans on site. Usually a few single origin and blended options are available, and then they are drip brewed by hand or by Aeropress.


Tokyo coffee

Japanese magazine on Tokyo’s cafe culture


Unlike its neighbour South Korea (where coffee is ubiquitous), Japan has predominantly been a tea-drinking country. Although Tokyo has never been short of specialist coffee shops, this trend did not take off until recent years.

Interestingly, I was informed by my Japanese friend that since 7-Eleven started installing freshly grounded automatic coffee dispensers at its convenience stores across Japan, it has sold almost half a billion cups of coffee. And according to the All Japan Coffee Association, coffee has now replaced green tea as the biggest-selling hot drink in Japan.

One of the ‘hippest’ coffee shops of the moment is Blue Bottle Coffee from California. Their new 7,000-square-foot roastery in Kiyosumi took the city by storm when it opened in February. People queued for up to four hours outside of the new shop to taste a cup of coffee!

Due to time constraint, I didn’t travel specifically to these hip artisanal coffee shops, but I did manage to discover some delightful ones either by chance or through local guides/ magazines.


About Life coffee brewers About Life coffee brewers

About Life coffee brewers, Shibuya


About Life coffee brewers (1-19-8 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku) – I love this small corner coffee shop in Shibuya, which is easy to miss in this busy area. There are bikes hanging on the wall outside next a narrow bench. It is not a place to linger, but if all you want is an excellent cup of carefully brewed coffee, then this is the place to stop by as there is nothing nearby that matches the quality of this shop.


gorilla coffeegorilla coffeegorilla coffeegorilla coffee

Gorilla coffee in Shibuya


Gorilla coffee (1-20-17, Jinnan, Shibuya-ku) – Another new US import is Brooklyn’s Gorilla Coffee opened in Shibuya at the beginning of the year. I went there on a rainy morning, and although I found the americano a little weak for my liking, I liked the shop’s interior and spaciousness. Aside from coffee and bakery, the shop also sells its own branded goods, coffee and all essential coffee brewing equipments.


cielo y riogallery ef cielo y riocielo y rio

Top, 2nd right and bottom rows: Riverside cafe Cielo y Rio; 2nd row left: Gallery Ef


Located inside the Mirror Arts building next to the river in Kuramae, Riverside cafe Cielo y Rio (2 Chome 15-5 Kuramae)occupies two floors (1F & 3F) and offers a wonderful view of the Sumida River and Tokyo Skytree tower. The cafe/restaurant offers Western style dishes and drinks in a casual setting, with fairly reasonable prices. Nearby in Asakusa (away from the touristy bit), there is an interesting cafe/art gallery space called Gallery Ef (2-19-18 Kaminarimon, Taito-ku) converted from an Edo period (1868) warehouse. There are regular art exhibitions that take place on the 1st floor, while the ground floor operates as a cafe during the day and a sake bar in the evenings.


furret coffee furret coffeefurret coffeefurret coffee furret coffee

Turret coffee


Although I have visited Tsukiji market many times before for my sushi craving, I have never had coffee in this area. Located a few blocks away from Tsukiji market is Turret coffee (2-12-6 Tsukiji), a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop with few seating. There is nothing more satisfying than a good cup of coffee after a delicious meal, and Turret coffee offers this in a cosy and friendly setting.


Kabaya Coffee Kabaya CoffeeKabaya CoffeeKabaya Coffee

Kabaya Coffee in Yanaka


Yanaka is one of my favourite areas in Tokyo because it makes you forget that you are in one of the most densely populated metropolis in the world. Right opposite the restored Old Yoshidaya sake store is Kabaya Coffee (6-1-29 Yanaka, Taito-ku) opened since 1938. The cafe looks like a kissaten (traditional coffee shop) from the outside, so it is quite surprising to see the retro & modernist interior when you step inside. This is friendly and relaxing cafe where you can enjoy coffee and cakes before setting off and getting lost in this maze-like area.


yanaka coffee tokyo cafeyanaka Coffeeskipa cafe skipa coffee

Top left and middle: Yanaka coffee; bottom row: Cafe Skipa


Yanaka coffee is a home-grown coffee brand. It has been supplying and roasting coffee for the citizens of Tokyo since 2001, and has opened stores over twenty-four different locations across the city. Although it is a chain coffee shop, it differs from other soulless chains, and the best thing is that you can order raw beans on site and have them roasted by the baristas in just 15 minutes.

My friend and I visited Cafe Skipa (6-16, Shinjuku) in Kagurazaka on our previous trip, and I would like to recommend it because it is cute and cosy. From the outside, it looks rather like a wooden shed, but the eclectic interior and laid back ambience make it a good place to hang out or linger on a lazy afternoon.


cafe rinCafé de l'AmbreCafé de l'AmbreCafé de l'AmbreCafé de l'AmbreGinza Tsubakiya

Ginza – Top left: Cafe Rin; Top middle, right, 2nd & 3rd rows: Café de l’Ambre; Bottom: Ginza Tsubakiya


Ginza is the home of traditional kissaten in Tokyo. Since my friend and I have stayed in the area a few times in the previous years, we have also tried out many cafes around here. Coffee prices in Ginza are higher than most other areas in Tokyo; while we have tried fancy cafes like Shiseido Parlour, Ladurée, The Royal Café and Qu’il Fait Bon (famous for its freshly baked fruit tarts) etc, personally I prefer the smaller and more traditional coffee shops.

The oldest and most famous in the area is Café De L’Ambre (8-10-15 Ginza) tucked away in a back alley, where it feels like it is stuck in a time warp. Opened in 1948 by Ichiro Sekiguchi, and amazingly, the 101-year old owner is still running the shop today.

The wooden-furnished and dimly lit cafe does not sell comfort nor spaciousness, and it is full of chain smokers. However, this place is quaint, authentic, and best of all, it is known for serving the best coffee in town. And honestly, I think the coffee I tasted here was by far the best on this trip. Prices are not cheap here, but it is worth every penny.

Ginza Tsubakiya (6-6-14 Ginza) is a local chain kissaten that occupies two floors of a building in a traditional European-style dark wood setting. The coffee prices here are steep, but if you want to find a comfortable and ‘retro’ coffee shop to hang out in the area, then this is an option.

Coffee Rin (1F, 4-11-3 Ginza) is a more contemporary artisanal coffee shop where baristas would take their time to prepare and hand drip the coffee slowly (in one direction) in front of you at the counter seats. The shop’s speciality is its charcoal roasted coffee and it is roasted on site to ensure its freshness.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *