A Barista's Guide to Kyoto Coffee Culture
Turn a corner on a random city street in Kyoto, and you’re just as likely to run face-first into a classical Buddhist temple as into a five-floor shopping center. Ancient shinto shrines sit anachronistically beside rent-a-bike stations. Brilliant pink cherry blossoms are blown from their branches by the speed of passing delivery trucks. But despite the apparent contradictions, nothing feels disjointed or ungainly about this city.
Kyoto is a place where modernity and tradition meet in seeming harmony, at least to this visitor’s eyes.
During my recent trip to Kyoto, the times I treasured most were the early morning hours. These were the hours I had to myself, when I could walk the sparsely populated edges of the Kamo River in search of great coffee. I had some trouble in this regard though. Traditional Japanese coffee houses (called kissaten) open, without apparent exception, at exactly 11a.m. They’re afternoon hang-out spots, by-and-large, usually serving both coffee and a selection of teas, along with snacks and desserts.
The air is often thick with cigarette smoke. The soundtrack is smooth jazz. The average patron is, it would seem, older than fifty. To this visitor from Manhattan, kissaten bring to mind a host of deeply familiar New York establishments, while remaining uniquely Japanese. There’s a little bit of the 24-hour-diner in their DNA. Maybe a dash of jazz club. A little hookah bar. But still indescribable in full.
The two kissaten I visited during my trip were deeply relaxing spaces, with wide-ranging menus and attentive staff.The coffee was nothing most third-wave baristas would approve of—it was usually roasted dark (in house!) and brewed a gritty black by means of a siphon. No flavor notes other than the charcoal and metal of the roasting process were readily apparent. And yet as I sat wreathed in a cloud of cigarette smoke, eating a massive, crustless scrambled egg sandwich and washing it down with huge gulps of dark black coffee, the appeal of such an establishment, and of such coffee, was self-evident.
The coffee at a kissaten is the Japanese equivalent of diner brew—separate in chemical makeup and intended effect from third-wave coffee. Not a specialty food product, but a sort of wholesome all-ages drug, and a companion to other vices. A drink to smoke cigarettes to. A drink to chase away a hangover. The value in this kind of coffee doesn’t end when the taste leaves your mouth. It stays with you, like any other fine memory.
This is not to say that the story of coffee in Kyoto begins and ends with traditional coffee houses.There’s a small but slowly growing community of artisanal coffee roasters in Kyoto. By far the best known of these is % Arabica, founded by Kenneth Shoji. % Arabica’s name has become synonymous with third-wave coffee in Kyoto, in much the same way that Counter Culture’s and Stumptown’s have in the states. Their international head barista, Junichi Yamaguchi, even won the Latte Art World Championship in 2014. I was lucky enough to make two trips to % Arabica’s pop-up style shop, centrally located in the popular department store Fuji Daimaru (not far from the legendary Nishiki Market!)
By any standard, this is a beautiful-looking store, with light fixtures made from repurposed pour-over carafes and a custom-designed espresso machine.It also seems to be incredibly popular with both locals and tourists; there always seemed to be a snaking line of customers, which the baristas on shift handled with aplomb. I’ve heard the flagship store (Higashiyama) is even busier, a proper destination for international coffee fans. I’m not sure any single shot of espresso could’ve lived up to this level of hype, but mine was certainly pleasant, if a little roasty. I think repeat visits would be necessary to fully gauge % Arabica’s roasting priorities and capabilities. I look forward to coming back some day, hopefully to the flagship location.
Practically hidden at the rear of an hourly parking lot on a largely residential block, Weekenders Coffee Tominokoji was the surprise highlight of my trip. To begin with, it’s a homey, welcoming space, so indistinguishable from a Kyoto townhouse that I accidentally trespassed upon Weekenders’ next-door neighbor on my first pass at trying to find their location (the neighbor’s guard dog kindly directed me toward the exit). Weekenders’ front door is a sliding partition. A tiny but beautifully maintained asymmetrical garden of mosses and trees welcomes you at the shop’s entrance. Employees leave their shoes at the foot of the stairs when they climb to the second floor to grind beans and prepare for cuppings.
I sampled two pour-overs at Weekenders, a singularly impressive Guatemala (La Libertad Cuevitas), with a smooth body and notes of sweet caramel, and an almost equally delicious Honduras (Apolonio Canales Portillo), with some truly distinctive flavor notes, including tart pear and a long green tea finish.I don’t have an expansive enough knowledge of Japanese roasting trends to know if these flavors are more commonly cultivated there, but I’d certainly never encountered them before, at least not with such prominence in the cup. It was a real treat, and, in the case of the Guatemala, a surprise. I have a (perhaps unfair) prejudicial opinion of Guatemala as a filler-bean, something you could use to balance out a Colombia and an Ethiopia in a blend, for example. But this coffee more than stood on its own, and made me rethink the possibilities of Guatemalan single origins. Can’t ask for more than that. It’s also worth noting that although both coffees had been roasted a mere twenty-four hours before I drank them, they tasted fresh as opposed to immature.
The final coffee stop on my trip was Kurasu Kyoto, just a short walk from Kyoto Station. I popped in before boarding a train to Tokyo for my flight home to the states. Kurasu curates a rotating menu of different specialty roasts from all across Japan. They also maintain a tasteful selection of coffee brewing items and coffee-related merchandise for sale. My pour-over, roasted by Hazeru Coffee from a batch of the much-hyped Gesha varietal, was simple, sweet, and full-bodied, a satisfying end to an enlightening trip.
My impression of Kyoto as a coffee city, however quickly gleaned, is that it is in transition.
Time will tell whether third-wave coffee culture will take hold there in the way it has in New York, Sydney, and (I’m told) Tokyo. Perhaps the tradition of the kissaten will fade, replaced by specialty shops with sleek countertops and uncountable numbers of V60s. Or perhaps the two traditions will blend in intriguing ways, in much the same way Kyoto itself offers visitors a scintillating mixture of the old and the new.
Time will tell.
Sayonara! - Tom