In early 2011, we knew each other through the Popular page on Instagram. 3 flights to Tokyo and 3 visits to Singapore later, we have never been more certain that we are perfect for each other.
Every time we see each other it’s like we are seeing each other for the first time. We spend hours sharing our pasts, hopes and dreams over cups of coffee.
We decided to go on a Tokyo Coffee Trail and embarked on a journey of serendipity across 18 coffee joints. Follow us while we luxuriate in caffeine debauchery, and of course, love, as we explore Tokyo’s burgeoning specialty coffee scene.
MARUYAMA COFFEE started in 1990 as a roaster retailer ; now a highly successful bidder for top lots at Cup of Excellence (COE) auctions, they offer the world‘s best coffee to discerning customers in Japan. Besides their flagship coffee shop in Karuizawa, the greatly anticipated Tokyo shop has opened in October 2012 at Oyamadai. We trudged our way there, along the icy sidewalk on a frosty morning, yearning for warm comfort from a great cup of coffee.
SARUTAHIKO COFFEE is named after a powerful guardian deity of the Japanese Shinto religion. Despite what the name suggests, the coffee shop is far from the gaudy Kissaten (Japanese-style coffee house). Bathing in the warm glow of lighting from steampunk copper fixtures, the cozy little shop is an eclectic stash of tarnished weighing scales and quirky baby’s milk bottles filled with coffee beans.
Don’t be surprised if STREAMER COFFEE COMPANY evokes a familiar feeling. Hidden along the alleys of Shibuya, the coffee shop is spacious with a high ceiling, long wooden communal tables and grey concrete walls much like coffee joints from the Pacific Coast. There are comfortable cushion seats on one side of the shop for you to plop into before slurping your coffee. On the other side is an area conducive for working alone: a few bar stools were placed along a long table with ample power sockets, providing just the right amount of privacy for you to type away on your laptop.
FUGLEN (The Bird) is a café, vintage showroom and cocktail bar from Oslo, Norway. Heralded as one of the best retail concepts in the world by uber style bible Monocle, FUGLEN has opened their first outpost in Tokyo. Having served coffee since 1963, the original FUGLEN had two neighbouring rooms painstaking restored by one of Norway’s experts on mid-century design, Peppe Trulsen. Trulsen’s work at FUGLEN has been declared as a cultural heritage site, preserving a valuable example of Japanese influence towards the end wave of Scandinavian Design in 1950 and 60s.
You will be struck by a strong sense of déjà vu even before stepping into LATTEST OMOTESANDO Espresso Bar located in Ura-Omotesando. The latte art signage outside bears a striking resemblance to STREAMER COFFEE’s. In fact, LATTEST OMOTESANDO Espresso Bar was planned and executed with Hiroshi Sawada’s consultancy. This explains why the place is embellished with Sawada’s industrial chic style, from the concrete finishing to wooden furniture with industrial metal accents. Before you think they are just a twin of STREAMER COFFEE, this is where the similarities end: STREAMER COFFEE screams cool street hype, LATTEST OMOTESANDO Espresso Bar is a laudation of wholesome girl power. Ran by a girls-only crew of baristas, LATTEST OMOTESANDO Espresso Bar is a refreshing change in a male-dominated scene.
Intelligentsia Coffee is one of the Big Three of Third Wave Coffee, together with Stumptown Coffee Roasters and Counter Culture Coffee. As one of the pioneers of direct trade, they are on a constant pursuit for truly exceptional coffees by working closely with farmers. Around since 1995, Intelligentsia now has 7 bars – 4 in Chicago, 3 in Los Angeles and a “lab” in New York. identity COFFEEBAR + GALLERY is the first in Japan to carry Intelligentsia’s branding, serving a wide range of single origin hand drip coffee, and espresso drinks with a choice of two blends
If you had stumbled upon OMOTESANDO KOFFEE by chance, thank your lucky stars for that moment of serendipity. The shop sits quaintly in a 60 year-old abode shrouded by unkempt foliage. With the inconspicuous signpost leading to a forlorn courtyard, it is hard to imagine this as a place to get your caffeine fix. Do not be fooled by its ramshackle appearance, though. The coffee kiosk was slated to be there for only a year after which the building would be demolished. The landlords reversed their decision for a good reason: OMOTESANDO KOFFEE has amassed much acclaim from specialty coffee fans in Tokyo.
We made our way to BE A GOOD NEIGHBOR COFFEE KIOSK one chilly morning, guided by my girlfriend’s Google map app. Many specialty coffee shops in Tokyo thrive in obscure crannies like hidden gems but this time we had it easy. We spotted it round a corner, near a red post box in a serene Sendagaya neighborhood. Like OMOTESANDO KOFFEE, it is a coffee kiosk, with just enough standing space for 4 persons. When we reached there, some people were lingering outside, chatting over coffee in hand. A staff was standing near them, rubbing his palms for warmth occasionally.
Sitting in a discreet corner beside Ron Herman Sendagaya RH Cafe, the third iteration of Café Legs Cafe Legs #3 resembles a coffee stand by the beach with its shed-like appearance and surfing vibes. Artist Alexis Ross, along with owner of LA motorcycle shop Choke, Jeff Johnson are the men behind Café Legs, a roving pop-up espresso bar. The inspiration for Café Legs comes from “Café con piernas” the Chilean coffee bars where you are served by scantily clad waitresses.
The word ‘artisanal’ may be overused but there is something endearing about the handcrafted chocolates Honey Coffee 15351 offers. An Italian-style café-restaurant–wine bar located in the peaceful Nakameguro neighbourhood, it is the first Honey Coffee in Tokyo, the other being in Fukuoka. Honey Coffee 15351‘s owner Asahi used to be a sommelier and pâtissier in Italy before he headed back to Japan and honed his craft at Fukuoka Honey Coffee. That explains the comforting waft pervading the cafe as we waited for our coffee orders.
Situated amongst the slew of indie fashion boutiques in Daikanyama, THE COFFEESHOP is a selection shop that offers 8 types of single origin beans from Nozy Coffee, The Five Beans and other roasters, prepared using the French Press, Hario V60, Kone filter and AeroPress. Espresso based drinks are unavailable here: the idea is that anyone can have good coffee anywhere, even at home.
Yemen was a dominant exporter of coffee in the fifteenth century, especially to areas around the Arabian Peninsula. The word “Mocha” has nothing to do with chocolate: it is the port of Al-Mokha in Yemen through which coffee was exported. Mocha Coffee is the only place in Tokyo that serves Yemeni coffee so it is a must-try for caffeine fiends. The verdant patio in Daikanyama is perfect for a laid-back afternoon with friends; it also offers a pocket of solitude, impervious to the metropolitan hustle.
Being too early, we were traipsing along sleepy alleys and soaking in the pleasant lassitude of Shimokitazawa on a sunny morning. Bear Pond Espresso may draw hordes of coffee connoisseurs clamouring but the seemingly abhorrent rules made us jittery. Espresso is not available after 2pm. Strictly no photography is allowed in the shop. Only owner Katsuyuki Tanaka is allowed to make espresso. That is because only Tanaka is permitted to use the B.P.E. Original Technique which he perfected after ruthless experimentation.
Little Nap COFFEE STAND sits in a corner populated by Tokyo’s creative community near Yoyogi Park, sequestered from the urban frenzy. A caffeine joint that congregates people in the neighbourhood, a comforting laidback charm pervades the café. It is a tranquil place where you can connect with others or enjoy time out alone; where people of different backgrounds have serendipitous encounters, spurring new collaborative visions.
After we left Bear Pond Espresso, we wandered around Shimokitazawa and explored the shops; that is how we found BALLON D’ESSAI. BALLON D’ESSAI literally means trial balloon in French. The idea is that customers come and hopefully, they can find what they are searching from a hot-air balloon vantage point. It is clear that latte art is the main draw here: pictures of latte art are displayed prominently.
Located along a road in the halcyon Setagaya neighbourhood, Nozy Coffee is named after Masataka Nojo’s moniker. Born in 1987, Masataka surprised industry veterans by starting Nozy Coffee while he was still in university. They have since expanded and even supplied beans to a number of specialty coffee joints including THE COFFEESHOP and SARUTAHIKO COFFEE.
We walked through the light rain on a wintry morning in a placid Sangenjaya neighbourhood. Cafe Obscura is a highlight of our Tokyo Coffee Trail as it is the only cafe offering siphon coffee. In fact Cafe Obscura offers only siphon coffee. Siphon or syphon coffee is a brewing method using a vacuum pot. It involves steeping coffee with boiling water ascended from a flask-like carafe to the extraction and filtering of coffee into a clear receptacle. In Japanese siphon coffee methods, coffee is stirred twice using a bamboo spatula, allowing water to permeate the ground coffee evenly, facilitating complete degassing.
Located on the ground floor of a residential apartment in Musashi-Koyama, Amameria Espresso combines an industrial look with a rustic touch using raw concrete replete with exposed bricks. That is not the only melding: Amameria Espresso is an amalgamation of the words mame (“bean” in Japanese) and cafeteria.