Starbucks, Tully's, Excelsior Caffé, Beck's...the list of chain coffee shops in Japan goes on and on. Add that to the many kinds of canned coffee and espresso variants lining conbini and vending machine shelves and you would probably agree that there certainly isn't a shortage of coffee available in Japan. At first glance the experience seems to parallel what one might expect in America, but I've found that the slight differences make for an interesting twist on coffee culture in Japan.
Like their American counterparts, Japanese coffee drinkers seem to differentiate between drinking with a purpose and for pleasure. For those times when a caffeine boost after an all-nighter is necessary to keep you going, coffee is just as much a quick-fix in Japan as anywhere else. The aforementioned grab-and-go coffee is readily available in bottle, can, and even jelly forms (trust me, look it up), sold at conbini both hot and cold, and is also dispensed at vending machines that can be found on almost major street or cramped alleyway in Tokyo. On Sophia University's campus, there are also vending machines that brew a variety of delicious blends of instant cup coffee (again, available hot and cold). One of the most surprising things to me when I first got here was to see names like "Suntory" and "Kirin" associated with these pre-packaged coffee brands. I would never associate a name like "Budweiser" with a decent brand of canned coffee. Still, I have to admit that Japanese beverage makers (as I call them, since they don't especially restrict themselves to alcoholic drinks) certainly have done well expanding their market shares. I can easily imagine the average businessman buying "Boss Coffee" (or Bosu, Suntory's well-known coffee brand) early in the morning, and then winding down at the end of a long day with least one glass of Suntory " The Premium Malts" beer.
Certainly conbini and vending machines are more...well, convenient than going into a coffee shop in many cases. But I am more inclined to want my coffee to be (reasonably) freshly brewed, and handed to me in that classic cardboard "Solo" lookalike cup by a barista across a cafe counter. Although this type of pre-packaged coffee is relatively available in the U.S. (I'm thinking of Starbucks' refrigerated "frappacinos"), it never seemed to me that it was as popular an option for Americans. After all, there isn't really much of a difference in the pricing, at least as far as I can remember, and the quality is pretty different to say the least.
That's not the case in Japan. Can coffees and espressos runs anywhere between ¥110 to about ¥200, which at current exchange rates is about $1.50 to $2.50, whereas a small cup of regular, no-frills drip coffee at a major coffee chain like Excelsior can run you from ¥200 to over ¥300. I was honestly a bit shocked. No wonder people go for the cans despite the small size -- the cheap alternative allows consumers to get their fix while enjoying some of the more "exotic" varieties like caramel lattés that, while priced similarly to Japanese drip coffee in the U.S., would be much more expensive at a coffee shop. Of course, Japan is a country that relies a great deal on imports, and coffee is no different; but I was still amazed at the price of a simple cup of small, regular coffee. That's not to mention that the sizing of those cups are far smaller than what one might consider "normal" in America. If you are looking to buy your coffee in Japan brewed for you right there, expect that even the large (which could run you close to ¥450-500) will only come up to an American medium in many cases. To be sure, coffee prices are hiked up everywhere: Starbucks in Japan is just as overpriced as Starbucks in America is. But the lousy exchange rate doesn't really help that, either.
That being said, I find the other side of Japanese coffee experience, the café culture, to be pretty appealing. It's clear from the pricing of food and drink alike, as well as the atmosphere of relaxation and socializing cultivated in even the chain cafés, that this is something of an everyday luxury, perhaps even more so than in America. In addition, the local, independent cafe may perhaps be more associated with the U.S., but I'm pleased to say it exists in even in a country with as many convenience and chain stores as Japan.
The first independent coffee shop I visited was the "Label Café" in Azabujuban, within walking distance of Tokyo Tower. After doing a bit of reading up on the place, it seems that it's owned and operated by a small design group called "Label Creators" that makes clothing and furniture, with other projects to boot. Label Creators seem to have another restaurant in Osaka, as well; perhaps they aren't quite so small after all.
The café' itself is what caught my eye: on a whim, I walked up a side street in Azabujuban and happened upon the three floor building. After looking at the menu outside and taking note of it, I walked on, meaning to return later that day to scope it out. Unfortunately I was too late that day (it closes rather early, around 5 pm), and so I came back the next day in the hopes that I would find my first favorite coffee haunt in Tokyo.
Even from the outside of the building, one gets the sense that this is a place where people are meant to sit down and relax for awhile. Just to the left of the door is a bench sitting in front of an ivy-covered fence that practically begs you to stop and rest a few minutes. The bikes resting there gave me the impression that this is a place for locals, and one that people willingly go out of their way to visit on their day off.
The inside of the Label Café certainly looks like it was the brainchild of a modern design company. The entryway gives one the sensation of having entered a house, and the stairway to the right seems relatively plain, leading to a small library/gallery on the second floor (the third was closed off, and I received weird looks from café staff even when I climbed up to the library). However, look to the left as you enter, and you encounter the small "store," where you can buy clothing and other products made by Label Creators. From there, you enter the café/restaurant itself (the building serves as an Italian cuisine place, as well), a long room with a bar that commands attention from guests. The café also serves beer and wine, so in that sense the "baristas" here might actually deserve the title.
I chose one of the tables near the doorway and ordered a café au lait (seeing as how it was only an extra ¥50 apart from the regular coffee at ¥650, I felt I should just bite the bullet and really have the café experience). I took an instant liking to the furniture, which is apparently produced by Label Creators as well. The chair I sat in is oriented in such a way that one must sit at a diagonal angle: perhaps not the most comfortable of seats, but worth trying out. Getting to use furniture designed by the owners of a café itself was an interesting experience that for me has so far been unique to the Label.
I wish I could speak better for the coffee itself. My café au lait was a little bit too milky for my taste, and rather small for having paid around $8-9 (big surprise). Perhaps the most enjoyable thing about my expensive drink was appreciating the ceramic ware it was served in. Having come from a tea ceremony demonstration earlier that day, it would seem a fitting consistency in Japanese culture if one would appreciate the sugar cup just as much as the coffee itself (I would mention the mug, but it wasn't really anything special). Of course, I may just be trying to make myself feel better for having spent so much on an unsatisfying cup of coffee.
The rest of the menu looked to be interesting, so perhaps the Label Café deserves another look. Apart from the furniture, I discovered another few cool cafés I mean to visit in the future thanks to some of the coffee shop guides the Label has set out as free reading material. If you're looking for more than just a cup of coffee in a shop, then the Label Café may hold some interest for you.
The second independent shop I went to was a bit different in tone from the first. I sought out Café Hinata-ya after my host sister recommended it as a good place to spend some time studying. After arriving at Ochanomizu station, its almost a straight-shot down a street until one comes to the point of a triangular building. The Café is on the fourth floor, and the sign is easy to miss unless you are looking for it. After entering through a small side door and walking up a steep, cramped staircase, one comes to the entrance itself. Café Hinata-ya is a very cozy setting, more familiar where the Label was sophisticated. Used books and magazines are tidily stacked on bookshelves and an assortment of knick- nacks line the space beneath windows that wrap around the room and afford a nice view of the city streets below. Its a really pleasant place, and I have to admit that I was more comfortable spending an hour there than I would have been at the Label Café. It felt more like I'd been invited into someone's apartment rather than a coffee shop.
Amongst the other things that made my experience at Hinata-ya more enjoyable were the expansive menu, the welcoming staff, and the face that the place was full (but not packed) of regulars who seemed to be enjoying themselves. Certainly the drink deserves a mention, too: I ordered a really nice, rich café mocha, which cost around ¥600. Once again, the size wasn't as large as I would have hoped for, but you learn to appreciate the amount you get pretty quickly here (or I suppose you don't go to cafés). Unfortunately the one thing I didn't feel comfortable enough to do was to take a few pictures, so I don't have any of the inside of the place itself; but check the website (linked above) for an idea of what it looks like.
Ultimately, if you are interested in checking out the coffee scene in Tokyo, from what I've experienced thus far, I would say it's best not to expect too much for your money and to take the time out to enjoy whatever you get. Sit a minute, bring some work or a book, and stay awhile. As (comparatively) cheap as coffee is in America, I sometimes find it all too easy to guzzle down what I've ordered; but in a country where imports like coffee are considered more along the lines of everyday luxury, its best to try a different way of approaching the way you think about it. Who knows: maybe I'll learn to appreciate my coffee a little more in the future.