What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you think about Japan? Probably not coffee, right? Personally, I would think of sushi, anime and tea.
Indeed, Japan is well-known as a country of tea drinkers. However, coffee reached Japan around the same time as Europe during the 16th century, and today the country imports just as much coffee as Italy.
Around 1900, many Japanese had to leave their homeland in order to earn a living, mainly on the American continent. Many of them ended up in Brazil to work on the coffee plantations. In return, Brazil supplied coffee to Japan over a period of several years. And even if coffee itself reached the country around the same time as it did Europe, it was probably only then that the foundations for the Japanese's passion for coffee was established.
Today, Japan has its own unique coffee culture and traditions, and that’s exactly what I would like to talk to you about today!
Kissaten - Traditional coffee houses
It’s impossible to talk about Japan’s coffee culture and not mention Kissaten. Kissaten are Japan’s traditional coffee houses, where time truly stops. The oldest Kissaten can be found in Tokyo's Ginza district, and it opened its doors to coffee lovers in 1911.
Like small bars in Japan, Kissaten are often run by just one person or a couple. Accordingly, they are spatially rather small, but somehow all the more cozy.
Completely different from the big coffee chains, the equipment of Kissaten is fundamentally different from that of any other, because as a rule the style of the furnishings simply corresponds to the taste of the owner.
As for the coffee, many owners put together an individual coffee menu that includes beans from all over the world. They also often roast the coffee on the spot just before brewing it, while manual brewing methods such as the Nel Drip are preferred.
The final touch is, of course, the music. As the Kissaten are places with a relaxing ambiance, you’ll often hear jazz and bossa nova sounds as you enter. In general, Kissaten represent the true meaning of tranquility for Japanese people, as they are a true haven where the hustle and bustle of the city disappears.
The land of coffee in a can
But Japan wouldn't be Japan if it didn't have vending machines. There are vending machines almost nationwide over the entire Japanese islands. Allegedly one vending machine corresponds to only 23 Japanese people!
As you might have guessed, in every vending machine there are cans of coffee. But what is unique in Japan is that you can choose between cold and hot canned coffee. One might wonder if coffee from a can belongs under the “coffee culture” umbrella, but the fact that it was the Japanese themselves who invented the very first coffee in a can shows how much they love coffee.
Coffee chains and speciality coffee in Japan
Starbucks’ first foreign brand opened in Tokyo and that was no coincidence, as the popular coffee chain knew Japan’s love for coffee. This was one of the first international coffee house chains that opened in Japan, followed by others like Costa Coffee and Blue Bottle Coffee.
Such chains have become hip and are particularly popular with young Japanese people. Their spread increases the number of coffee lovers in the country, but sometimes that is at the expense of the traditional Kissaten.
Speciality coffee has also reached Japan, and small cafés are emerging, where emphasis is placed on each individual step of the coffee preparation process. These shops do not belong to large franchises, but rather secure their market share through high quality and the often minimalist, hip ambience.
In Japan, good coffee is almost always equated with manually poured filter coffee. The low-pressure siphon method, which was still the common method for brewing coffee in Japan at the end of the 19th century, is still one of the most popular brewing methods.
Thus, using a machine to make coffee contradicts the Japanese idea of mastery, but speciality coffee shops have started to change that idea as more and more Japanese have begun to enjoy a perfectly pulled espresso-shot.
Specialty Coffee Association of Japan
In 1987, in a testament to the emergence of speciality coffee in Japan, industry members founded the Gourmet Coffee Association of Japan. Twelve years later, the organisation changed its name to Specialty Coffee Association of Japan (SCAJ) and held the first World Specialty Coffee Conference and Exhibition in the country.
Up until today, the SCAJ represents Japan’s speciality coffee community and organises a large set of activities, initiatives, seminars, educational workshops and, of course, competitions! Some of the competitions include:
- Japan Barista Championship
- Japan Siphonist Championship
- Japan Latte Art Championship
- Japan Cup Tasters Championship
- Japan Coffee in Good Spirits Championship
- Japan Coffee Roasting Championship
- Japan Brewers Cup
All of the winners represent Japan in the annual world coffee competitions and so far they have achieved very good rankings.
As you can tell, Japanese coffee culture brings together many elements, such as tradition, innovation, automation, modernity, relaxation and curiosity.
And something else: The Japanese people know that it’s futile to look for success. If you love your craft and always search for ways to improve, success might just come to you.
Not bad for a tea country, right?