TOKYO, Feb 22 — The coffee scene in Tokyo is electrifying: How about a tavern that serves coffee in fine china teacups; or an artisanal café that only serves black coffee brewed using a flannel from aged beans; or some of the best latte art in the world?
Tokyo has everything a café hopper could ask for. Take a sip, enjoy your brew, taste the difference.
Little Nap Coffee Stand
Hidden in a residential neighbourhood, next to the Odakyu Line tracks and across the road from Yoyogi Park, is a tiny café. It is small enough that it calls itself a mere “coffee stand” though there are a few al-fresco benches that lovers of the outdoors would appreciate.
Little Nap Coffee Stand is run by music lover Daisuke Hamada. Hence there are always some good indie tunes playing when you enter his domain. The beans offered here are roasted by Hamada, and there are the usual espresso-based options as well as single origin drip coffee.
The bean of the day is a Mandheling, and I grab my cup gratefully over the custom-built wooden counters. The interior is lovely, in a Bohemian-chic sort of way, but outside the air has the just the right kind of bite for me to nurse my brew gratefully.
Is there anything more leisurely and blessed than sitting down on a bench, sipping on good coffee on a chilly afternoon, and enjoying the company of fellow coffee drinkers?
Is this not the essence of the café experience?
Ikebukuro is the sort of place where you either love it or hate it. There are night clubs, noisy Chinatown restaurants, and some say Yakuza types prowling around. The kids are more boisterous here; the drunks more inebriated, if that’s possible.
It’s also the home of my favourite ramen shop, so I love it.
Who knew there was great coffee to be found here too? Enter Coffee Tei. The coffee bar itself looked less like a café and more like an English pub. German beer is served too, so perhaps there’s a bit of a Bavarian tavern in its nature as well.
There is a beautiful long bar where the baristas make the coffee, and behind them shelves upon shelves of ornate, limited edition teacups that the owner had collected over the years. So what does coffee served in a teacup taste like?
I have a cup of Kilimanjaro; I don’t often encounter these beans from Tanzania. Its aroma is heady, perhaps from the way they roast, using charcoal. It could well be how the baristas brew the coffee, using a continuous drip technique. Using this method, the extraction time is about a minute shorter than the average hand drip brew, resulting in a clean and refreshing taste.
Whichever it is, I now have more reasons to return to Ikebukuro – for ramen and coffee!
Streamer Coffee Company
Shibuya’s Streamer Coffee Company is a Seattle-style café run by champion latte artist Hiroshi Sawada. He was the first Asian barista to win the 2008 Free Pour Latte Art Championships in Seattle with the highest score in history.
The café is well-hidden, off a side road in Shibuya. The place itself looks nondescript from the outside but there is a steady stream (pun intended) of customers coming and going with their takeaway cups.
Inside the café is stark with a clean, unfussy design. Sawada’s signature triple rosetta latte art hangs from the walls. There are T-shirts, mugs, and other merchandise sold near the counter. This is a shrine for believers.
How are the famous swirls achieved? The trick is in using a bowl-sized coffee cup which offers a greater surface area for latte artists to play with. Coffee here is their in-house Streamer Blend made from beans roasted using a 40-year-old Probat. A very smooth cup, if a tad milky; certainly the prettiest we’ve seen anywhere in the world.
Believers and baristas, make your pilgrimage here if you haven’t already.
Café de l’Ambre
Have you ever visited a “pure” coffee bar? Serving an old-fashioned brew to Ginza coffee lovers since 1948, Café de l’Ambre doesn’t serve any food, not even a morsel of cake – only coffee, and pure black coffee at that.
Entering this café, dimly lit like a pub, I wonder if I could really only drink coffee. Deep inside the café is a long bar where Japanese baristas from an age that had not heard of the term ‘hipster’ take their time with their brewing.
It’s not often you find a barista old enough to be your father (or grandfather). The grey-haired barista brews coffee using a flannel, with steady hands and his eyes on his handiwork. It’s a performance, and watching him at his craft is a pleasure.
The beans they serve here are certainly special; many of their treasured lots are older than I am, aged for decades. The thick aroma of strong, black coffee; the vigorous flavours; the pleasure of knowing I am drinking a brew made from beans with more years than I have: I taste the difference, and it is glorious.
It’s true; once you’ve tried black, you can’t go back.
Sangenjaya is not a touristy destination so visitors to Tokyo generally don’t think of coming to this quiet neighbourhood. Yet surprises await the intrepid café hopper, even here.
Just a block away from the verdant Setagaya Park, Nozy Coffee is a neighbourhood café with a warm, friendly ambience. Its coffee bar is in the basement while the roaster is in the adjacent room. It’s not a large place but brightly lit.
A few tables and chairs, the sound and aroma of coffee being brewed and beans being roasted: a simple décor and atmosphere for an extraordinary café.
Why extraordinary? In my mind, Japanese baristas tend to be very professional (still true here) and thus may come off as a tad serious and sombre. Add the language barrier and I rarely have any opportunity to chat with them the way I do in other countries.
However, the good folks at Nozy Coffee have completely changed my impression of Japanese baristas. They welcome me whole-heartedly, discuss their favourite coffees and mine, and for the brief time that I am here, I feel like I am in my regular café at home chatting with my favourite baristas.
Trust me, Tokyo promises a café-hopping experience like none other. Happy hopping!
Little Nap Coffee Stand
5-65-4 Yoyogi, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, Japan
Open Mon-Sat 9am-7pm; Sun closed
1-7-2 Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku, Tokyo, Japan
Open daily 11am-10.30pm
Streamer Coffee Company
1F, 1-20-28, Shibuya, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, Japan
Open Mon-Fri 8am-6pm; Sat-Sun 11am-6pm
Café de l’Ambre
8-10-15 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo, Japan
Open Mon-Sat 12pm-10pm; Sun 12pm-7pm
2-29-7 Shimouma, Setagaya, Tokyo, Japan
Open daily 11am-7pm