Japan’s Burgeoning Cafe Culture and the Future of Coffee in Japan
Wherever you look in Japan, you’ll find coffee. The world’s favorite beverage is stocked in convenience stores, on the menu of every restaurant and bar, available at supermarkets, and ubiquitous in vending machines from the city to countryside. As the world’s third largest consumer of coffee amongst importing countries, you can find it anywhere and everywhere. But, amongst visitors to Japan, one of the biggest complaints echoed is “I can’t find a decent coffee anywhere”.
Accessible as it may be, the endless variations found canned in the streetside machines and available in hot or iced in family restaurants just doesn’t seem to be able to compare with the offerings available in the other metropolises of the world. But, that is starting to change. Before that, though, to find out how to improve we must first look at why the coffee here just doesn’t seem as refined as in other places.
As the avid drinker knows, most of the coffee experience is not just the product, which in itself is delicate and complicated to make just right, but the environment the coffee is purchased and consumed. We all have it, our favorite little hide-away, our favorite cozy cafe. A place where we can sit and chat for hours, work on our masterpiece, catch a breath, unwind, read, or just sit for hours without speaking and concentrate on our thoughts. Where the cool and laid-back barista works their dark magic, the decor which is both cozy and inviting, the music played at just the right volume, both relaxing and occasionally causing you to groove along, the time away from time, the break from real life.
To wit, there are two key elements that are crucial- the coffee itself, which needs an expert to prepare, and the place where you get that coffee.
This is where things are really starting to change, and, as we look to the future, hope lies ahead for those of us of the addiction. But first, let’s go into a bit of a history regarding coffee in Japan.
In this, the land of the tea ceremony, coffee was first introduced by the Dutch who would consume it and trade it in very limited quantities while the land was still closed to most foreigners, before the black ships. The bitter drink was a rare delicacy, and one that most Japanese would not ever encounter in their lifetimes.
After Japan was opened up to the west, it then gained a measure of popularity due to it’s foreign roots- it was the same time men sheathed their swords for the last time, and suits and ties and other western accoutrements and elements of culture came into fashion. It was enjoyed for a number of years until that most unfortunate of times came, the second world war.
During the war, nationalism took over and imports became heavily restricted. With the increasing difficulty of procurement of foreign goods, the war effort absorbing much of the spending in the country and danger lurking throughout the country, supplies became very limited, and coffee became a distant thought for most Japanese people.
After the second world war, imports resumed, and the drink became more readily available, and again gained popularity for being seen as foreign and cultured to consume. Restaurants began using it as a menu staple, and the large beverage makers realised there was a demand for the caffeinated drink for the modern worked- so brought with it the rise of canned coffee. Unfortunately, one important element that wasn’t brought over was the art of coffee production, only possible through the artist, the professional barista.
The bubble-era economy, where money and success brought splurge spending then brought the Japanese style coffee shop – ornate establishments with brass and stained glass throughout. A mixture of victorian styling and kitsch “European” imagery, the Japanese coffee shop is a unique treasure of the country, and a place where many of the older generation who lived through it’s heyday still stop to take a break and re-live all those times past. But where are the youth going?
This brings us to today, and the beginning of a trend which looks like it will only grow in the future, and the shining ray of hope for all those who need that dark liquid in their life. The rise of cafe culture, and the growth of coffee culture in Japan.
It seems that with each passing day, more and more areas are seeing new cafes, styled in line with those of Helsinki, New York and Paris, are popping up throughout the expanse that is Tokyo. These places where the staff are cool, the music is just right and, most importantly, the coffee, sourced from around the world, is made with love and precision.
While we can speculate on the reasons- is it the allure of the international drawing us in again? Is it the increase in consumption of foreign media that leads us to desire the same things? Is it the internationalization of Japan? Could it even be social media? The drive of something ever more interesting and popular on instagram or twitter? Good coffee is now here in Japan, and here to stay. Great examples of the increasing and surprising love of coffee that has struck Japan are the pop-ups Omotesando Koffee and Commune 246.
Both were started with only a short existence planned, but people flocked to these newly founded joe meccas. With a plan for only 6 months, Omotesando Koffee ended up staying open for 3 years until the owner decided to move on to other ventures, and Commune 246 is still going strong.
While these were just experiments, they paved the way for the many permanent ventures which have taken hold in almost every Tokyo suburb. For the urban youth, whiling away time over a coffee has become a staple of the Tokyo lifestyle, and with it, good coffee is becoming more and more available.
But why spend so long questioning a good thing? Whatever the reasons, let’s enjoy this perfect moment, and look forward to a future where a good java is available anywhere we want to go.