You can’t miss the proliferation of corporate coffee shop outlets on prime Tokyo street corners and in fashionable new office complexes. Starbucks alone has 239 stores scattered about the city. But on Tokyo’s quiet side streets, a long and noble tradition of specialist coffee shops has, for over half a century, been steadfastly maintained even in the face of the Seattle juggernaut.
The patriarch of Tokyo’s coffee houses is Ichiro Sekiguchi, a spry and energetic 96, who still roasts coffee beans everyday 300 grams at a time. Small batches, he says, ensure freshness. He’s been doing this at his Café de L’Ambre for over 60 years.
“I’ve probably roasted at least 100 tons so far,” Sekiguchi says with a chuckle. Over 30 types of fragrant beans fill the glass jars on the shelves behind the polished wood counter. Sekiguchi prefers to drink old bean coffee. Aged beans, he says, like fine wine, develop a fuller, rounder flavor and aroma. His cup of choice is brewed from 30-year-old Cuban beans.
Sekiguchi has been studying coffee since he was 15 years old. “You don’t need to follow a complicated procedure to make good coffee,” he says. “If you know its nature, then you know how to make delicious coffee.”
“I’ve been to a Starbuck’s once for research,” he adds. “What I found strange was that no customer was drinking real coffee. They all had large cups filled with mostly milk!” he laughs.
Café de L’Ambre, tucked away on a Ginza back lane, is a tiny temple to coffee. ”Coffee Only” is Sekiguchi’s motto. He serves no milk, no juice, no sandwiches. And if the framed newspaper and magazine articles that hang on the entranceway wall are any testament, it is some of best coffee in the world. Though the entire shop would fit inside a railway car, its influence has been huge across the city.
Twenty years ago, Taiji Koyama quit his job at a water pump manufacturing company to make coffee his life work. Tsuta, his ivy covered kissaten (coffee shop) in Minami Aoyama, features a large bay window with a view of a Japanese garden.
As it turns out, Koyama learned the basics of roasting and brewing from Sekiguchi. He even uses the same cotton-felt filters—cutting and stitching the felt pouches to brass handles he fashions from wire, often with ornamental flourishes in the twists.
Koyama is single-minded about his coffee. He uses only one type of bean—Brazil Santos #2, screen-size 19. “One bean is enough for me,” says Koyama, “because the taste of this coffee changes according to the humidity, the season, the time of day, and even the mood of the customer.“
“I love this work,” he says. “A kissaten is a place where the customer can slow down.” He gestures toward the table next to the window. “I create a space where you can sit, drink delicious coffee, read, listen to baroque music—never symphonies—and look out at the garden.”
The large coffee shop chains don’t affect Koyama much. “I’ve got probably 800 regular customers,” he says. “They understand kissaten culture. I don’t know exactly when they will stop by, but they will.”
Koyama’s own favorite coffee shop is Café Deux Oiseaux in Asagaya. Started 25 years ago by Takao Sou and his wife, the shop has an airy interior brightened by sprays of fresh flowers. Sou too prefers the cotton-felt filter. It comes as no surprise that he also is a disciple of Sekiguchi.
A master of cotton-filter brewing technique, Sou keeps the tilted kettle motionless against his right side as a stream of water so thin it resembles a string of pearls falls from its copper spout. His left hand moves the filter almost imperceptibly under the beads of water to completely wet the freshly ground coffee.
The aromatic liquid is caught in a small copper pot which Sou then briefly holds over a blue flame to maintain the proper drinking temperature before pouring the coffee into a pre-warmed cup. The finished brew, a medium roast Kilimanjaro, is richly flavored with a clean, bright finish.
Like Koyama, Sou doesn’t worry about the corporate coffee companies. “Almost all my customers are regulars,” he says. “Families come here. Even grandparents bring their grandchildren sometimes.”
A well-dressed matron at the counter looks up from her coffee. “I’ve been to Starbucks,” she says. “They are often near a station, and are a good place to meet someone. But I come here because I like the two people behind the counter.” Sou smiles in response. “And, of course, because the coffee is outstanding,” she adds. “Sou puts his heart into every cup.”
So it goes across the city. Tokyo’s traditional kissaten provide an essential service to the harried city dweller—one a corporation cannot—a private space for both quietude and society, and superb coffee prepared by masters who have made coffee their life’s work.
A short list of Tokyo’s best kissaten:
Café de L’Ambre, Ginza 8-10-15, Chuo Ward. 03.3571.1551
Tsuta, Minami Aoyama 5-11-20, Bunkyo Ward. 03.3498.6888
Café Deux Oiseaux, Asagaya 4-6-28, Suginami Ward. 03.3338.8044
Hatou, Shibuya 1-15-19, Shibuya Ward. 03.3400.9088
Tsubakiya Kohiten, Ginza 7-7-11, 2F & 3F, Chuo Ward. 03.3572.4949
Coffee Erika, Nishi Kanda 2-1-1, Chiyoda Ward. 03.3263.1551
Monozuki, Nishi Ogikubo Kita 3-12-10, Suginami Ward. 03.3395.9569
Jazz Coffee Masako, Kitazawa 2-20-2, Setagaya Ward. 03.3410.7994
New Dug, Shinjuku 3-15-12 B1, Shinjuku Ward. 03.33419339
Saboru, Kanda Jinbocho 1-11, Chiyoda Ward. 03.3291.8404
Bon, Shinjuku 3-23-1, Toriichi Bldg B1, Shinjuku Ward. 03.3341.0179
Classic, Nakano 5-66-8, Nakano Ward. 03.3387.0571
Violon, Asagaya Kita 2-9-5, Suginami Ward. 03.3336.6414
Chez Nous, Waseda 3-15-2, Shinjuku Ward. 03.3208.4037
Lion, Dogenzaka 2-19-13, Shibuya Ward. 03.3461.6858
Takayama, Kanda Sudacho 1-12, Chiyoda Ward. 03.3251.7790