22 May 2014

The Japan Caffeine Chronicles: Tokyo, Kyoto & Miyajima

Make no mistake: Japan is a tea country, and when coffee is available, it's often served iced. However, coffee fans shouldn't despair because it is possible to find places that serve pretty decent espresso or drip coffee, even in the unlikeliest of locations. It's all about the research, and I did a fair amount so you don't have to!

First, though, you should either try to bring your Aeropress or V60 and some filters with you, or head to a department store to pick one up, to get you through the first few hours until you have found a good place for the second coffee of the day. I left my Aeropress at home but in lifestyle stores like Loft and Tokyu Hands, which have branches in most major cities in Japan, there will be a great selection of coffee-making kit. I picked up a Hario V60 dripper and a pack of filters for ¥450 (about £3) and a bag of decent ground coffee from Tokyu Hands, which kept me going for the rest of the trip and then some.

As you would expect for a city the size of Tokyo, there are good coffee bars around; you just have to know where to look. Time Out Tokyo has rounded up 25 of their favourites, some that are better for drip, some for espresso. A lot of them aren't that close to the city centre (many are in West Tokyo), however, and although Tokyo's subway system is excellent, when you only have a few days in the city, there isn't time to go chasing caffeine dreams. Here are a few of the places I did visit:

Omotesando Koffee (4-15-3 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku. Omotesando station, exit A2). This tiny cube of an espresso bar is set on a quiet street a few blocks away from Omotesando's main drag. The decor is minimalist and traditional and there is a sunny and peaceful garden at the front. I had a macchiato and it was the best macchiato of the trip: creamy, rich and smooth.

TWS Art Cafe 24/7 Coffee & Roaster (1-19-8 Jinnan, Shibuya-ku. Shibuya station). While in Shibuya, I was actually heading for another Time Out recommendation, Streamer Coffee Company, when I stumbled upon this place, attracted by the minimalist design and the fact that the menu offered two roasts and three hand-drip techniques. It was probably too hot a day for a big cup of hot drip coffee, but the coffee was very good, and I enjoyed my serene perch looking over the madness of Shibuya by weekend.

Café de l'Ambre (8-10-15 Ginza, Chuo-ku. Shimbashi station). This veteran café has been serving "coffee only" to Tokyoites since 1948. They have a huge selection of beans to choose from, and your selection will be lovingly ground and hand-dripped. It isn't cheap — my special Brazilian coffee set me back about ¥860 for an almost espresso-size shot — but it is good coffee served in a lovely, traditional setting and with beautiful china.

To my surprise, Kyoto turned out to be a hot bed of decent coffee. There are a lot of cyclists too and the two often go hand in hand. I was so busy trying to see everything that I only ended up visiting three cafes, but I have also heard good things about Caffè Verdi.

Vermillion (85 Ommaecho Fukakusa Inari, Fushimi-ku). This espresso bar is almost right opposite the main entrance to the Fushimi inari shrine, famous for its thousands of vermillion torii gates (hence the name). It's pretty small inside but the staff are friendly, there is free wifi and local guidebooks to peruse, and most importantly, the macchiato was very good, especially after a hard day's temple hopping.

Kawa Coffee (Kyoto Chukyo-ku, Kyoto 397 Konbu-ya cho). This is probably the only espresso bar/leather maintenance hybrid in Kyoto — possibly even the world. I was walking past when I spotted a V60 dripper and dived on in. Although I can't speak for the leather maintenance, my pourover coffee was very good, and served in a gorgeous blue and white mug. They have wifi and the location is handy if you're visiting the Imperial Palace (it's on the road that runs along the south side of the grounds).

Sentido (445 sasaya-cho, Kyoto-shi). I ducked in here partly to shelter from the rain and partly to sample the espresso. The latter was pretty good, with a rich taste and good crema. They also sell coffee beans and assorted coffee kit, and the café is a nice place to hang out. I met some friendly Vancouvrites and we sat exchanging Japan tips for a while.

I wasn't in Hiroshima long enough to need caffeinating, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that the nearby island of Miyajima — population of about 2,000 — where I was spending the night had at least two very good coffee options.

Miyajima Coffee (on the main drag, one block from the sea; directions here). Miyajima Coffee is an art space and gallery as well as a café, but it certainly does a great job at the latter. I sampled both the drip coffee and an espresso and enjoyed both, although in my effort to drink the former too quickly, I burned my tongue. They sell their own beans and ground coffee in stylish packaging bearing the island's signature vermillion torii — a good business move given how tough it is to find non-kitschy gifts on Miyajima.

Sarasvati (close to the five-storey pagoda; directions here). The owner of my ryokan recommended this place, which turned out to be just around the corner. They roast their own coffee in-house and they prepared me a lovely mug of their hand-drip variety of the day. The roasting was in progress while I was there but sadly, my Japanese wasn't good enough to enquire further. As it's slightly further from the main touristy street, Sarasvati is also a little calmer than Miyajima Coffee, but the staff are just as friendly.


  1. Anonymous05:43

    Thank yoi for saving my life at Miyajima :-)

    1. How so? :)

    2. Anonymous16:11

      Was developing withdrawal syndrome by the time I found your post.
      Espresso was good and they have a smoking place

  2. I finally made it to Kyoto and to Vermillion, although I went to the cafe rather than the espresso bar by the station. It was awesome though!