KYOTO, Feb 25 — Unlike Tokyo, Kyoto isn’t exactly known as a bastion for specialty coffee. Well-preserved machiya (traditional wooden townhouses)? Check. World heritage sites, from Buddhist temples to Shinto shrines? Check. Single origin pour-overs? Well, that’s more of a rarity here.
What’s brewing in Kyoto, amongst the narrow streets and tiny shrines?
Most visitors to the city will arrive at the main Kyoto Station, and one of the closest cafés is Len Kyoto Kawaramachi. Which is why it is also a hostel for design-conscious backpackers and doubles as a trendy bar at night. We get off the bus at Kawaramachi Station and walk for a few minutes, with the views of the mountains in the distance as we approach.
The vibe is international, thanks to hostel guests from around the world. The interior is all warm woods and dim lighting; the music loud as though to compete with the coffee to give us a jolt. Speaking of coffee...
Beans at Len Kyoto are supplied by Tokyo-based roaster Onibus Coffee. Based in Setagaya, Onibus is run by Atsushi Sakao who has won accolades for his style of roasting — which no doubt has influenced the rise of specialty coffee in Kyoto.
Consider it a revival of the coffee scene here, from the traditional kissaten (coffee shops) to a new breed of cafés that elevate the craft of making coffee.
Our cappuccino is sweet and creamy, thanks to the Onibus Original Blend — a mix of Brazilian, Ethiopian and Guatemalan beans. Lovely with one of their pastries or croissants.
For drip coffee, we enjoy a couple of different fully washed coffees: an Ethiopian Heirloom (Duromina #8) that is floral and complex, as well as a Rwanda Coko, a Bourbon varietal that has a nutty and long aftertaste.
The prize for the least likely location has to go to Weekenders Coffee Tominokoji, which is at one corner of a parking lot. That’s right, a parking lot.
The café doesn’t look out of place though, given this is a historical city and many old buildings rub shoulders with the new. Weekenders Coffee is designed to look like a machiya with its shoji (sliding doors made from bamboo frames and washi paper) and well-tended garden of mosses, trees and water bowls made from stone.
If we have to walk past rows of carefully parked vehicles to reach this oasis, well, that’s part of its charm, isn’t it?
First opened by Masahiro Kaneko in 2005, Weekenders Coffee moved to its current spot a couple years ago. Barista Kuroki Takumi tells us that the move was due to a dearth of space in Kyoto, crowded as it is with narrow alley ways.
Relocating to a parking lot is just a bit of thinking outside the box; they’re not a kissaten, after all, and don’t have to conform to any idea of what a Japanese coffee shop should look like.
And their coffees certainly aren’t like what’s on the menu of a kissaten. For an intense espresso or piccolo latte, ask for their Opera Blend which is a dark roast with rich, buttery notes of dark chocolate.
For a lighter roast, we enjoy their fully washed Kenya Muthingini AA as drip coffee. Floral with hints of blackcurrants and red wine, this is a heady brew that will give one sweet dreams rather than insomnia.
After the cool vibes of Len and the Zen serenity of Weekenders, we are up for experiencing something more artistic and contemporary. Along the popular Kiyamachi-Dori street and canal, we discover Forum Kyoto which is a four-storey building that houses a Japanese-influenced French restaurant, a bar specialising in beers from microbreweries, an art exhibition space... and a café, of course.
Performance artists and fashion designers aside (even Forum’s director, Alexandre Maubert, is a multi-media artist), there is more than a passing focus on the coffee. The café isn’t just a plastered-on portion of the building but intended to add to the overall atmosphere — of engaging with trends, now and to come.
On the counter, some glass jars of beans by Glitch Coffee Roaster are displayed. We try two of them: the Brazil Santa Barbara, a pulped natural-processed coffee that tastes of walnuts and macadamia, and the washed-processed Colombia Jesus Antonio, which is fruitier. We taste grapes, or maybe prunes.
So far we’ve been exploring downtown Kyoto, where most of the action is. We wouldn’t have expected this new wave of coffee shops to extend beyond the city centre. What a pleasant surprise to discover a gem of a café further north near the majestic Nijo Castle.
The unobtrusive entrance to Clamp Coffee Sarasa is almost hidden by a wall of vines (bone-dry or leafy green, depending on the season). Inside, the café has a weathered ambience with plenty of re-purposed wood doubling as furniture and furnishing.
Dried flowers and fresh plants flourish in vessels that are really odds-and-ends. Vintage items abound such as the clamp that gives the shop its name.
Clamp Coffee Sarasa was founded by barista-roaster Tomonori Kanbara. There is a minimalist menu of beans, simply labelled — Brazil, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Mandheling and their own Sarasa Blend.
Most visitors are regulars, each with their preferred bean, to go with journalling or chatting at the communal table or simply staring out the windows as the world goes by.
Every sip is an awakening. And with this new generation of coffee shops in Kyoto, the city seems to be ready for a reawakening itself. A reawakening with the aroma of a delicious fresh brew.
Len Kyoto Kawaramachi
709-3, Uematsucho, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto, Japan
Open daily: café 8am-5pm & bar 5pm-12am
Weekenders Coffee Tominokoji
560, Honeyanocho, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto, Japan
Open daily (except Wed closed) 7:30am-6pm
209-2, Nabeyacho, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto, Japan
Open daily (except Mon closed) 2pm-1am
Clamp Coffee Sarasa
67-38 Nishinokyo Shokushicho, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto, Japan
Open daily (except Wed closed) 8am-6pm