Tokyo beats any other city in the world for variety and depth of the coffee drinking experience. Of course, the street corners are rife with slick Seattle-based coffee-drink emporiums. And the city boasts world-class baristas who can decorate a café creme with a Pikachu character, a rose, or a Valentine heart.
But if you want to taste a demitasse brew of 30-year aged Cuban beans, plumb the day-to-day depths of Brazil Santos #2, or compare a Sumatra Mandheling bean prepared through a cotton flannel filter, a paper filter, or a glass siphon contraption while listening to Coltrane or Shubert on vintage vinyl records, then check out Tokyo’s kissaten.
The thing is, kissaten—the old-school Japanese name for coffee shop—are not easy to find. They don’t advertise. They close early, and are often closed on weekends. You’ve got to seek them out as on a pilgrimage.
If you’ve never tried neru-drippu (cotton-flannel filter) coffee, then you are in for a pleasant surprise. Cognoscenti claim the flannel filter renders the brew maruyaka, or “rounded and soft” with no “paper filter” taste.
The best place to start would be Café de L’Ambre, Tokyo’s mecca for coffee connoisseurs for 60 years. On a quiet side street in Ginza, this laid-back shop roasts its beans everyday 300 grams at a time. Small batches, they say, ensure freshness.
Over 30 types of fragrant beans fill the glass jars on the shelves behind the polished wood counter. Coffee beans, if properly warehoused, will age over decades like fine wine developing nuances of fuller, rounder flavor and aroma. The demitasse is the cup to try.
Tsuta, another neru temple can be found in Minami Aoyama. This ivy-covered kissaten, with its large bay window overlooking a Japanese garden, was started over 20 years ago by Koyama-san who learned the basics of roasting and brewing at Café de L’Ambre.
Koyama uses only Brazil Santos #2. One bean is enough for him, he says, because the taste of the coffee changes according to the humidity, the season, the time of day, and even the mood of the customer.
One more neru kissaten worth finding is Café Bechet in Ginza. Named after Sidney Bechet, the jazz clarinetist whose vinyl album covers and b/w photos grace the walls, this kissaten offers a respite from the crowds and prices of Ginza with old school jazz and old school coffee quality.
Uniquely at Bechet, after selecting the bean you prefer, say Mandheling, you can also choose a roasting style, lighter to darker: city roast, full city roast, or French roast.
With the neru drip, the coffee brew first dribbles into a small handled pot in which the coffee cools slightly. The brew must then be reheated slightly to bring it up to sipping temperature.
The siphon method, the two-part contraption with its glass globe and detachable upper glass chamber, also produces an impeccable cup—and the coffee doesn’t need to be reheated.
The water in the lower glass bulb is heated. Steam then forces the hot water upwards into upper glass chamber where it infuses with the ground coffee. And when the heat source is removed from the glass bulb, the resulting vacuum draws the brewed coffee down through a flat flannel filter and back into the lower bulb.
Coffee Lodge Dante in Nishi Ogikubo is a fine example of this fading, yet still delicious, brewing technique. Dante is also one of the many rustic, old brick and dark wood decorated kissaten from the 1960s and ’70s which still survive across the city. Request a tune from the hundreds of vintage jazz albums crowded into old bookcases.
Holding out for nearly ninety years, Meikyoku Kissa Lion at the top of Dogenzaka in Shibuya, serves paper-filtered coffee.
But it is also a bastion for the musically pious and a refuge from the sordid world of love hotels outside.
Inside Lion it’s as quiet as a church.
Pale milky sunlight seeps in through glazed windows. Dark wood Doric columns support Moorish arches above very faded red plush chairs neatly arranged into rows like pews facing the soaring altar of the massive “3D Sound System” speakers mounted high in a tabernacle and illuminated by electric candelabra and a scintillating crystal chandelier. Order a coffee here and worship Bach, Beethoven, or Shostakovich.
The paper filter method offers several advantages over other types of brewing. First, one need not continually wash, mend and care for flannel filters. Plus, you don’t need to empty and wash out glass chambers filled with spent coffee grounds.
And the filter cognoscenti state that a superior, clean, brightly flavored brew is produced.
Near Shibuya station, Café Satei Hatou has lifted the paper filter brew to an art form. The water is treated and filtered with an ion-alkaline process until it is as pure and tasty as mountain air. The beans are carefully weighed and ground fresh for each cup. Hatou prefers the Kalita brand filter holder with its three drip holes at the bottom for a faster drain. Other brands have only one drain hole, explained the master, resulting in a more leisurely drain. Such details are essential for coffee cognoscenti.
The cups at Hatou are of the finest porcelain and hundreds of different designs are on colorful display on shelves behind the counter which is twelve meters of dark hinoki. Seasonal flower arrangements, as large as the crown of a tree, dominate one corner table. Oil paintings in ornate frames hang on the wall alongside modern lithographs. A grandfather clock tick tocks soothingly beside an armoire displaying antique vases. Hatou is intimate enough for lovers and spacious enough for large thoughts and grand ideas.
At first glance the prices seem exorbitant—800 yen for a cup of coffee, 900 yen for a glass of juice. But if you order a second cup or glass—of anything on the menu—it will cost only 500 yen. A modest price to pay for perfection.
Café de L’Ambre: 8-10-15 Ginza, Chuo Ward. 03.3571.1551.
Tsuta: 5-11-20 Minami Aoyama, Minato Ward. 03.3498.6888.
Café Bechet: 2-2-19 Ginza, Chuo Ward. 03.3564.3176.
Coffee Lodge Dante: 3-10-2 Nishiogi Minami, Suginami Ward. 03.3333.2889.
Meikyoku Kissa Lion: 2-19-12 Dogenzaka, Shibuya Ward. 03.3461.6858.
Café Satei Hatou: 1-15-19 Shibuya, Shibuya Ward. 03.3400.9088.