By Emmanuel Laroche, Vice President of Marketing & Consumer Insights
I put a 100 yen coin in the vending machine and got my first can of hot coffee at the Narita airport. I landed a few minutes earlier from Newark, NJ and could not wait to use one of the famous Japanese vending machines. I first heard about them when I started working in the food industry back when I was living in Europe. I remember how fascinated I was that one could get hot coffee from a vending machine! With slightly over 5 million nationwide, Japan has the highest density of vending machines worldwide. There is approximately one vending machine per every 23 people!
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In 1973, the hot and cold beverage vending machine was introduced in Japan. Coupled with the 100 yen coin that began circulation in 1967, canned coffee became a huge hit. Ready-to-drink beverages were just part of the equation for the rise of coffee.
I cannot write about my coffee experience in Japan without mentioning the kissatens – traditional Japanese coffee houses. The kissaten is a traditional Japanese-style tearoom that also serves coffee. They were born after World War 2 and became the place to get coffee in Japan for several generations. Throughout the years, kissatens gradually branched out into two concepts in order to retain its customers’ interest. One of these concepts incorporated entrainment to engage customers. These types of kissatens were the early making of French Maid, Manga, Cat, Dog, and Owl cafes. The other concept was simply focused on perfecting the art of coffee making. These kissatens would become experts in bean quality and the roasting process, using only the highest quality on the market and specific brew methods to associate with the perfect coffee bean. What we see today in association to the third wave coffee movement is what Japanese kissatens have been practicing for generations.
During my trip to Japan, I enjoyed several type of coffee from vending machines to convenience stores, and coffee chains to third wave coffee stores in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka.
The most common coffee chains found in Japan are Starbucks, Doutor, Pronto, Excelsior, Tully's and St Marc.
Starbucks has always creative seasonal drinks in Japan like Chocolate Cake Topped Frappuccino with Matcha Shot, Key Lime Cream and Yogurt Frappucino Blended Crème, Shaken Watermelon & Passion Tea, or Cherry & Chocolate Chip Frappucino. At the time of the year my seasonal drink option was Halloween Red Night Frappuccino. It comes filled with a sweet and tart red berry sauce made from raspberries, cranberries and strawberries in a Frappuccino blended with white chocolate brownies. The drink is finished off with a topping of whipped cream, black cocoa powder and red berry sauce.
The most popular brands of canned coffee are Georgia (Coca Cola), BOSS (Suntory), and Fire (Asahi). Each company releases colorful and uniquely shaped cans that contain different blends. The basic is Black, no calories as there is no sugar or milk added. Additional offerings include Cafe Au Lait, Regular Blend, Strong Blend, Extra Caffeine, Low Sugar etc... The sweetness and creaminess level varies depending on the type.
In Tokyo, the Shibuya district seems to be the new place to be for a lot of these 3rd wave coffee stops. I went to two of them: The Roastery by Nozy Coffee and Streamer Coffee Company.
The Roastery by Nozy Coffee
A hip place within the little streets between between Shibuya and Harajuku stations. While merely walk from Shibuya crossroad, it seems as if we had reached another world—a Japanese version of Brooklyn. The Roastery has a beautiful outside seating area and at the same time a simple and sophisticated store. Everything here is about single origin coffee. The Roastery’s menu is a simple one. Three options: Espresso, Americano, and Cafe Latte. After that you have two choices of single origin beans: Costa Rica and Columbia. (The Roastery is located at: Shibuya-ku, Jingumae, 5-17-13, Tokyo)
At a walking distance from The Roastery, The Streamer Coffee Company created in 2010 by barista Hiroshi Sawada, lives up to the hype. With its unfussy decor and long communal table in the center of the room (probably inspired from his store Sawada in Chicago), the star attraction on the menu is the Streamer Latte with a unique roasted bean that combines the sweetness of caramel and the bitterness of bitter chocolate, served in a soup bowl-sized mug.
Murmur Coffee Company in Kyoto
One of the unconventional ways to truly discover Kyoto is to walk along the Takase River. The Takase River is an artificial river made for transporting rice and sake from Kyoto’s center to the Fushimi area in the south. It was used for over 300 years from 1611 to 1929. Along the river there are many restaurants and cafes. One of them is Murmur Coffee Company, one of my favorite coffee shops in Kyoto. It has a minimalist decor and a special charm to it. They specialize in morning breakfast toasts and you can choose from 6 types of green coffee beans that are carefully selected, blend according to your wishes, roast in the in-store roaster, and take home your own fragrant coffee.
South of the Shinsaibashi Station, in the Amerikamura where there are a lot of coffee shops and Lilo Coffee Roasters is my favorite. It is a very tiny place with few seats inside the store and wooden chairs and benches outside. It offers 18 varieties of single origin coffee beans to choose from. At the counter, baristas give you a guide with instructions on how to brew their coffee with each method. I decided for a Gilbratar based on a Dominican Ristretto Espresso that was incredibly smooth.
If you love coffee, you have to experience Japan’s unique coffee culture. Japanese coffee culture has developed very uniquely and you might find it a bit strange spanning from canned coffee to convenience stores, coffee chains to morning service, and from kissaten to new third wave coffee shops. But once you've tried it, you may find yourself positively obsessed with it, like I did.
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Header image courtesy of LiLo Coffee Roasters.