Tokyo’s best cup of coffee: Café de L’Ambre

old-beans

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.

sekiguchi-san1The 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.brewing-coffee-11

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.

tsuta-master2Koyama 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.oiseaux-master

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


18 Responses to “Tokyo’s best cup of coffee: Café de L’Ambre”

  1. Gerald Says:

    This post was a real pleasure to read – and makes me want to seek out some of these establishments. I’ve linked to this post from my blog – and used one of your photos. If you object, I’ll take it down. http://www.whatsforenglish.com/2009/06/15/16-in-focus-coffee-coffee-in-japan/

  2. Mike Kleindl Says:

    Thanks Gerald,

    Your blog looks great and thanks for putting up a link and a credit for the photo. You really ought to check out some of those kissa. Especially L’Ambre in Ginza.
    Best,
    Mike Kleindl

  3. Geoff Says:

    Thanks for putting this up. A colleague took me to Tsuta about 5 years ago while we were on a very quick turnaround gig in Tokyo (less than 18 hours there, then turning around and coming right back to NYC). We went there twice in those 18 hours, as that was quite possibly the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had in my life (and this is coming from someone who worked as a barrista in brooklyn for 10 years and takes great pride in his coffee-love). I’ve been racking my brain trying to figure out where or what that place was for the next time I, or any other coffee lover I know, heads out tokyo-way, and this article made it possible to find it. Thanks again!!

  4. Mike Kleindl Says:

    Hi Geoff,
    Twice to Tsuta in 18 hours! That might be a record, especially flying in from NYC. Have you had a chance to go to Cafe L’Ambre?
    Best, Mike

  5. Tomi Callander Says:

    Learned about Tsuta from a book I just finsihed called “Killing Rain” by Barry Eisler. It made me want to go to Japan and try some. Hope to make it there some day. Only have been to Hong Kong

  6. Mike Kleindl Says:

    Yes, Tsuta is a great kissaten. Actually, Barry Eisler learned about Tsuta from a Tokyo Q guidebook I helped write. Barry does a wonderful job of portraying Tokyo as it really is.

  7. Aristippos Says:

    Thank you Michael,

    for this wonderful report about Tokyo.

    Since almost 3 decades I have a latent love for the Japanese culture, which took off mostly thanks to the works of Akira Kurosawa and Yukio Mishima. Now I must add this great Coffee Master to my list of inspirational Characters. Especially because he is the only one I might get to meet.

    I found your blog while doing research on Café l’Ambre for an article I might be posting in one of my german blogs this week. But I truly enjoyed your comments about the Kissaten and Mr. Sekiguti. And I would certainly appreciate it, if there is more from you on Coffee in Japan. My blogs revolve mostly around the Coffee Universe.

    cheers
    aristippos, the coffee dramatist

  8. Mike Kleindl Says:

    Hello Aristippos,
    Thank you for the kind comments about tokyofoodlife. I was in L’Ambre recently and Mr. Sekiguchi is still fine. I’ll be sure to stop in again soon.
    I’ve found several other shops worth writing about so you’ve inspired me to write up another piece. I’ll get out next week and start drinking. Last time, though, when I wrote the coffee piece I drank so much coffee I couldn’t sleep for a week!
    I will check out your website.
    Thanks,
    Mike

  9. 超過一甲子的熱情:銀座 Café de L’ambre at Roaster On The Roof :: THINK. FEEL. ROAST. Says:

    […] Tokyo’s best cup of coffee: Café de L’Ambre […]

  10. Vintage Coffee from Cuba in Tokyo « Coffee Dramatist Says:

    […] aged a couple of decades. But the experiences and visits of people like Ken Belson, hemmant jha or Michael Kleindl, plus a few other bloggers, testify of a true gourmet […]

  11. Vintage Cuban Coffee in Tokyo « Aristipposian Coffee Journal’s Blog Says:

    […] aged a couple of decades. But the experiences and visits of people like Ken Belson, hemmant jha or Michael Kleindl, plus a few other bloggers, testify of a true gourmet […]

  12. Henri Hein Says:

    Mike,

    I owe you thanks. During my last visit in Tokyo, I hung out at Cafe L’Ambra every day. It is an experience, not just for the coffee, but the ambience and the skill of the baristas there. I did catch a glimpse of Mr. Sekiguchi himself in the roasting room, and he did indeed seem fine.

    My own blurb is here: http://travelingatomist.blogspot.com/2010/03/japanese-java.html

  13. 超過一甲子的熱情:銀座-琥珀咖啡館 Café de L’ambre at Roaster On The Roof :: THINK. FEEL. ROAST. | bike'sblog Says:

    […] Tokyo’s best cup of coffee: Café de L’Ambre […]

  14. Coffee Only. | Tam Does Japan… Again Says:

    […] I readily admit that my coffee-finding powers are rooted in other people’s blogs, like this one. It was here that I came across Tokyo’s hidden gem of the week: Café de L’Ambre, a […]

  15. Mike Kleindl Says:

    hope you had a chance to have a cup of coffee there.

  16. Green Coffee Bean Australia Says:

    Do you mind if I quote a few of your articles as
    long as I provide credit and sources back to
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  17. Mike Kleindl Says:

    Hello Micah,
    Sure, no problem. credit and source and link back to tokyofoodlife would be great.

    Thanks for reading,

    Michael

  18. Mike Jones Says:

    Hello,
    The cafe is still there, and Mr. Ichiro Sekiguchi is now 100. It is the best
    coffee I’ve ever tasted.
    Thank you!

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