The tea culture in Japan is a strong one - it has been rooted in tradition ever since introduced from China in the 18th century. However, it seems as though the coffee culture has been catching up in recent years. Of course, recent trends can't keep up with centuries of history and tradition - the true test of a fad is its' staying power - but given coffee's track record, I think this one might be here to stay.
In Tokyo, you'll find that few cafes that claim to be "specialty coffee houses" exist, and the few that do carry out what they do with great finesse, both in the coffee and brunch department. More prevalent are the true specialty coffee houses, the kissaten, solely dedicated to the art and science of brewing. Purists stick to traditional drip coffees and the occasional filter brews; while the progressive ones (largely inspired by the West) go for espressos. What remains consistent is the quality and dedication to the bean - their focus does not shift. This commitment to a singular pursuit is quintessentially Japanese; and is something I greatly respect and admire. The Japanese are true craftsmen indeed.
The preferred roast in Tokyo is a dark one, based on observation and the numerous websites I've scoured through for reviews and other 'best coffee guides'. I've found that darker roasts provide a larger room for error when it comes to the actual brewing of the coffee, resulting in consistent coffees all around. My mom and I both enjoy the simplicity and the sweetness of a dark-roasted coffee, and around Tokyo we went, hunting around for some of the best coffees in Tokyo. Thankfully, good coffee spots in Tokyo are not few and far between.
1. Bear Pond Espresso
I hate that I have to reuse photos, but I consider myself lucky to even have a shot of this dirty espresso (how punny). This coffee stood out due to how unique it was, both in terms of taste and texture. Even the experience itself was quite unlike any other. Bear Pond is the result of years of development and experimentation from its' humble beginnings in New York eighteen years ago - I would think that all of it has paid off. So let go of your pride as you step in; and as you take your first sip of your coffee you will begin to understand, and maybe, just maybe, it justifies the air of arrogance and superiority that pervades this little cafe.
Full review here.
Bear Pond Espresso
2-Chome-36-12, Kitazawa, Setagaya, Tokyo 155-0031
Nearest station: Shimokitazawa (take the North exit)
2. Lattest Omotesando
Beautiful and intricate latte art is probably a given at each and every one of Hiroshi Sawada's cafes. After all, he is the first Asian to win the world latte art championships back in 2008. Visiting at least one of his cafes was another must for me when I was in Tokyo, as I have actually had the privilege of meeting Hiroshi himself when he was in Singapore for the Cafe Asia exhibition. I even did an interview with him which you can read here!
Unfortunately, Hiroshi wasn't there when I visited, but I still spent a lovely afternoon hiding from the rain in the warmly-lit Lattest. It's very cosy. I sat at the high table in the middle of the room, where a bunch of magazines were located. If only they were in English. Instead, I continued my book (PoDG) and sipped on my cappuccino. It tasted somewhat like Liberty's speakeasy blend, albeit slightly burnt. The amount of milk in that large cup couldn't quite hide it. It wasn't a bad cup, though it certainly paled in comparison to the cuppa Hiroshi made for me when he was in Singapore. On another note, the service staff there are cute.
3-5-2 Jingumae, Shibuya-Ku, Tokyo 150-0001
Nearest Station: Omotesando
3. Little Nap Coffee Stand
I made my way there on another rainy morning, taking a wrong turn out of the subway station. If only I had known to simply follow the train tracks. Anyway, Little Nap is absolutely adorable. It's a tiny shopspace filled with knickknacks that can accommodate 10 people, maximum. It was empty when I arrived, so I took a window seat and people-watched and journalled. It's also situated right across Yoyogi Park, so I got a lovely glimpse of greenery, too. Such a tranquil and dreamy space.
Accompanying me that morning was a cappuccino. It made me feel all warm and toasty inside, and it felt much like reconnecting with an old friend. I also received a wonderful caffeine kick, which is always a good thing.
Throughout the morning, a steady stream of regulars came for their coffee despite the rain and it was lovely to watch them interact with the barista. I entertained a little daydream about being one such regular someday. Tokyo Summer School, maybe?
Little Nap Coffee Stand
5-64-4 Yoyogi, Shibuya-Ku
Nearest Station: Yoyogi-Koen
Open Tues-Sun, 9am-7pm
4. Fuglen Tokyo
Decorated just like a living room, Fuglen Tokyo is a cozy space with a rustic interior and coffee to boot. Bonus: all the furniture pieces are for sale! I visited on a rainy Thursday afternoon with a friend that I am really thankful to have crossed paths with. Friendships like these really remind me of how life and things have a way of working out - sometimes you lose, but you never know cause you might have gained something (better) instead.
I had a cortado, and what I liked best about it was that you could customise the amount of milk to your liking! So the barista would pull the shot (I had a single shot) and steam the milk, and pour the milk into the cup until you tell him/her to stop. The coffee here is by far the lightest one I've had on the trip; but I hear that light roasts are typically Scandinavian, which is where they come from. On hindsight, I think I should have added a bit more milk to balance out the acidity of the coffee, which turned out to be quite overpowering. Fuglen also serves up a pretty decent smoked salmon sandwich from their small menu of food offerings, so do go for that if you're after a light bite (really, this is very light - it's quite tiny).
There's just something so wonderfully intimate and unpretentious about Fuglen that makes you want to stay there with a good book or your laptop and chill for hours. The rain seemed to accentuate this, giving the cafe a warm and homely vibe. Good vibes, indeed.
1-16-11 Tomigaya, Shibuya-Ku, Tokyo 151-0063
Nearest Station: Yoyogi-Koen
Cafe opening hours:
5. Bills Omotesando
Bills is actually from Sydney, Australia - where I was just a month before my Tokyo trip! However, I failed to make a trip to Bills when I was there, so I decided to pay a visit to the Tokyo outpost instead. Oh, the irony. Anyway, if you want to make a trip here, you better be a morning person, if only just for a day. We got here at 8:45am, and the place was more than half full. By the time it was 9:30, we could see a queue going out of the door. When we left just after 10, the queue went down the steps all the way to the floor below.
Bills is incredibly airy, well-lit and it's one of those really pristine spaces that you can't help but spam pictures of because it's so gorgeous and minimalist. I was delighted to see that the coffee here was from Single Origin Roasters - I loved their coffee from Three Williams while I was in Sydney (read here)!
The coffee here is pretty decent. I enjoyed my flat white - it was smooth and sweet, easy on the palate. Like a taste of Australia in Tokyo, albeit with less of a kick. Of course, one could not expect it to taste exactly the same, but it does the beans justice, at the very least. Now, Single Origin Roasters, will you please come down to Singapore soon?
4-30-4 Jingumae, Shibuya-Ku, 7F Tokyu Plaza Omotesando Harajuku
Nearest Station: Meiji-Jingumae/Harajuku Station
Open daily 830am-11pm
That's all for part one, part two's coming up soon! :-)