Coffee in Japan: A Slow-Burn Love Affair

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

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Coffee in Japan?! Granted, coffee's not the first beverage that comes to mind when you think of the "Land of the Rising Sun."

Coffee in Japan?! Granted, coffee’s not the first beverage that comes to mind when you think of the “Land of the Rising Sun.”

Still, those in the know understand that for decades coffee has been right up there with green tea and sake in this ancient land. So what exactly does coffee culture in Japan entail?

Let’s explore the rich history and current traditions of this unique coffee culture.

Coffee in Japan: A Brief History

Coffee first graced Japan’s shores in the 1700s courtesy of Portuguese and Dutch traders in the city of Nagasaki. However, locals thought it a strange, bitter beverage. Like the shogun who shunned Christianity in the harrowing 2016 Scorsese epic Silence, most Japanese gave the brew a wide berth.

But in the Meiji period, when Japan’s isolationism ended, coffee had its moment. Pioneers like Eikei Tei, who spent time in France, opened Japan’s first coffee shop in Tokyo in 1888.

Then, in the early 1900s coffee in Japan really picked up. Consequently, many Japanese emigrated to coffee-producing countries like Brazil.

As a result, industry experts like Tadao Ueshima, the “father of coffee in Japan,” brought this knowledge back home. In 1933, Ueshima established his famous Ueshima Coffee Company (UCC).

Japan's first coffee shop Kahisakan Tokyo

Then came World War II, which had a devastating impact on the Japanese coffee scene. In addition, the attitude of kokutai, which rejected anything foreign all but stopped coffee imports.

Thankfully, after World War II things began to look up again for coffee in Japan. Mass consumption led to immense creativity in the industry. This, in turn, led to the creation of ready to drink coffees and the to-go vending machine coffee culture in Japan.

Leading the pack, of course, was UCC, which launched the first canned coffee in 1969. People went all out for it! Other canned coffee brands like BOSS by Suntory and Georgia from Coca Cola soon followed.

In tandem, came the rise of specialty coffee shops. Thus, a distinctive coffee culture combining ancient and modern brewing techniques was born.

Coffee in Japan Today

Today, Japan is one of the largest coffee consumers in the world. It is this massive growth in the coffee industry that necessitated the formation of the All Japanese Coffee Association in 1980. This organization oversees coffee quality in the country. It also promotes the beverage and offers guidance to producers, roasters and retailers.

All these efforts have certainly paid off. Currently, Japan is the fourth largest importer of high-quality coffee worldwide. It imported an impressive 440,000 tons of high-quality beans in 2022. It is also the third-largest in coffee consumption worldwide. Coffee lovers here consumed a whopping 7.3 million 60-pound bags of whole beans in the same year. Not bad for a tea-loving nation!

But Japan isn’t just a consumer of coffee; it’s a producer too. Well-known for tea production, Japan’s east coast city of Shizuoka also grows its own coffee. The area’s rich soil, hilly landscape and friendly climate make for ideal growing conditions. Although production can’t match the leading coffee-producing countries, exquisite coffee beans with distinct citrus and floral notes are the result.

And it’s not Shizuoka alone that contributes to coffee production. Miyazaki, Okinawa, Kagoshima and Nagasaki are other notable coffee-growing regions.

All in all, the future of the Japanese coffee market looks promising. According to Statista, total revenues from the Japanese coffee market in 2024-2028 should surpass $6.1 billion.

In addition, an increasing number of coffee shops are focusing on signature coffee blends and unique brews. There’s no slowing down for specialty coffee in Japan just yet!

Coffee Shop Culture in Japan

The Japanese have done with coffee what they do best with anything foreign: taken the brew and put their own special twist on it.

As a result, this innovation and creativity has birthed a thriving coffee shop culture in Japan. These beautiful spaces provide a quiet and relaxing atmosphere. Here, friends get together and catch up over delicious coffee drinks and light meals.

Many coffee shops in Japan focus on precision brewing. In most Japanese coffee shops the focus is on brewing great coffee using manual brewing methods like siphon and pour-over drippers.

Coffee Shop Culture in Japan

Japan’s coffee culture focuses on bringing out the subtle flavors and aromas of specialty coffee beans from around the world. It goes without saying that Japanese baristas are highly skilled, taking great pride in their craft.

In time, the world’s biggest coffee companies and specialty roasters took notice of the growing coffee culture in Japan. Unsurprisingly, they decided to put some skin in the game. Starbucks led the pack, opening its first store in Ginza in 1996. The coffee giant also has a Reserve Roastery in Tokyo’s Meguro-ku district.

Unlike in Australia, Starbucks’ uptake in Japan was phenomenal. As of 2023, it had over 1,700 coffee shops and vending machines throughout the country. McCafe and Tully’s Coffee (a Seattle-based brand later acquired by Ito En, Inc.) also put down roots in this growing coffee market.

The Rise of Japanese Coffee Chains

Homegrown coffee shops have had massive success too. There is, of course, the legendary UCC, which owns and operates coffee estates in Kona, Hawaii and the Jamaican Blue Mountains.

Then we have Doutor Coffee, established 1980. It now operates over 1,000 coffee shops and imports and roasts its own beans. Needless to say, it’s a major supplier of roasted coffee to smaller coffee shops.

Excelsior Caffé and Caffè Veloce also lead the pack when it comes to Western-style coffee chains. These modern coffee shops appeal to younger clientele, drawing them in with clever coffee creations and affordable instant coffee options.

But as with everything in this ancient land, the past is never far behind. Kissaten coffee brands like Sapporo Coffee Kan, Hoshiyama Coffee and Komeda Coffee are quite popular. These cater to clientele with a higher spending power offering luxury, high-end coffees, brewed to perfection.

Kissaten Culture and the Third-Wave Coffee Movement

Like anywhere else in the world, coffee in Japan keeps evolving. So when the third-wave coffee movement hit Japan, quality-conscious coffee enthusiasts welcomed it.

Japanese coffee connoisseurs began to focus on every aspect of the production process. This included strengthening direct trade bonds between producers and enhancing the coffee chain.

Kayaba Coffee 1938

Soon, foreign third-wave coffee shops put their hats in the ring. California’s Blue Bottle Coffee, itself inspired by Japanese coffee culture, set up shop in Tokyo in 2015. And talk about reciprocity, why don’t you! Japanese coffee brand Kurasu has also exported its unique brewing methods all the way to Norwich, England!

In addition, many leading coffee companies such as Kalita and Hario operate in the country. In fact, the pinnacle of Japanese third-wave coffee and manual brewing is undoubtedly the Hario V60 Pour-Over Coffee Maker.

What you need to realize is that brewing coffee in Japan is slow, complex and ritualistic. This means, among other things, embracing:

  • Ma: the concept of Japanese minimalism. In the coffee world, this translates to not over-complicating the brewing process.

  • Omotenashi: the Japanese philosophy of offering the highest level of hospitality to every guest or customer.

  • Kodawari: commitment beyond the normal. This means using only fresh coffee beans, precision grind settings and impeccable brew times.

In essence, Japanese brewing methods focus on elevating the experience for the coffee lover. Third-wave roasters, such as Kyoto’s %Arabica and Tokyo’s Onibus Coffee champion this wave. So, too, Glitch Coffee Roasters (the poster child for single-origin coffee in Japan) and Koffee Mameya. These innovative coffee companies have paved the way for fourth-wave coffee culture in Japan.

Japanese Coffee Shop Etiquette

Say you’re lucky enough to have coffee in Japan. Is there coffee etiquette? Like with Italian coffee culture, there most certainly is! This makes sense, as Japanese society is ritualistic and specific rules apply to Japanese food and drink.

When you drink Japanese-brewed coffee, you’re encouraged to embrace sado or the “way of the tea.” Sip rather than gulp your drink to immerse yourself in the Japanese coffee experience.

And whatever you do, don’t drink coffee with food still in your mouth. It’s in poor taste. Additionally, after stirring your drink don’t leave the spoon inside your cup but place it gently on your saucer.

Importantly, coffee shops in Japan are quiet areas – spaces for introspection and rest. It’s crucial to keep talking to a minimum so as not to bother other people. The same goes for phone calls; if you must, take or make your call outside.

Lastly, when ordering your coffee it’s customary to pay for it as you order. Cash is king and as such many mom-and-pop or smaller chain coffee shops won’t take credit cards.

You’ll find a diverse range of coffee drinks in Japan. Interestingly the Japanese have chosen to incorporate the Western terms for these drip and espresso-based drinks into the language. You’ll see what I mean in a minute.

Some popular choices include:

Dorippu Kōhī

A popular choice, often served in Japanese coffee shops and convenience stores. Filter or drip coffee in Japan highlights the simplicity of a freshly brewed cup. It’s darker and bolder, and most often taken with milk or cream.

Aisu Kōhī

Perfect for warmer weather, Japanese iced coffee is a refreshing option, sometimes accompanied by sweeteners or milk. Not to be confused with Japanese flash-brewed coffee, which is made by brewing hot coffee directly over ice.

Esupuresso

Like folks around the world the Japanese love a good espresso. The drink here is strong and dark, often accompanied by milk, cream, ice or stained with foam as an espresso macchiato.

Esupuresso tonikku is a trendy choice, combining the boldness of espresso with the effervescence of tonic water over ice.

Esupuresso kōra is another unique variation that first went viral in 2018. Today, coffee shops in Japan are reviving this drink but this time it ain’t just coffee and cola in a can. When you order this drink, your barista will pour your freshly brewed espresso over craft cola for a delicious caffeine-fueled treat.

Kafe Ore

A delightful mix of Japanese drip coffee and hot milk. Japanese café au lait strikes a pleasant balance between the bold flavor of Japanese espresso and the creamy richness of milk.

You could also opt for a kapuchīno (cappuccino), mokā (mocha) or furatto howaito (flat white) – do I detect a little bit of Australian influence here? If you’re not a fan of milk-based drinks, ask your barista for an americāno (americano) instead.

Yūgao

A cold brew coffee variation that involves a slower extraction. This brewing process produces a coffee with a smoother, less acidic flavor profile.

Matcha Rate

While not strictly coffee, this green tea latte is popular in Japan, combining the earthy flavors of matcha with creamy milk. An interesting variation, hōjicha rate (hojicha latte) uses roasted green tea for a warmer, toastier flavor.

Regional Variations: Coffee Across the Prefectures

Japan’s diverse regions offer unique twists on coffee, reflecting local preferences and influences.

Kyoto, for instance, is famous for the artistry of slow-drip Kyoto brew. This unique brewing method drips water slowly though coffee grounds for hours. The result is a smooth, concentrated cold brew known around the world as cold drip, ice drip or Dutch coffee.

In contrast, Tokyo, Japan’s bustling capital, presents a mix of traditional and trendy options. It’s a hotspot for new and exciting coffee creations. Notable ones include espresso colas, cherry blossom frappuccinos, matcha lattes and clear lattes.

So too Osaka, known for its kissaten (a traditional coffee shop) and modern Japanese coffee shops. Here, baristas showcase their skills with different coffee blends and roast profiles. They’re also famous for precise brewing and intricate latte art.

Osaka Modern Japanese Coffee Shops

Further north in Hokkaido, the island of chillingly cold winters, comes Yubari King coffee served with milk or cream. On the other hand, that other famous Japanese island Okinawa takes a different approach. It’s renowned for coffee infused with a touch of the tropical. Uniquely, Okinawa coffee features hand-made brown sugar and tropical fruits, giving it a surprising twist.

Then there’s Nagoya, with its “morning service.” Cafés here serve a complimentary breakfast set with a morning house blend pour-over coffee. It’s a tradition that has long defined the city’s coffee scene.

Last, but definitely not least, I must mention Kobe. As with its world-famous beef, Kobe’s coffee culture emphasizes unique elegance. Here, coffee shops offer a Viennese-like refined setting, complemented by quality brews. Like their Vienna counterparts, they’re famed for their desserts. Look out for the unique milky coffee jelly drink kōhī zeri, daifuku (sweet mochi balls) and Japanese cheesecake.

Final Thoughts on Coffee in Japan

It’s clear that Japan has not only embraced coffee but also redefined the art of brewing. Each cup, like the Japanese culture itself, embodies the unwavering pursuit of perfection.

Coffee in Japan represents a captivating fusion of tradition and futuristic innovation. Nothing compares to the bustling energy of Japanese coffee shops in Tokyo or the soothing ambience of a kissaten café in Osaka. No wonder the world’s most innovative brands and roasters have made a point of setting up shop here!

I hope this short exploration of coffee in Japan has left you with a newfound appreciation for the country’s unique approach to the brew. Take my advice and make a point of experiencing this unique coffee culture as I did a few years ago. You’ll be glad you did. Kanpai!

Have you had any Japanese signature coffee blends or experienced the coffee culture in Japan firsthand? I’d love to hear your opinions in the comments!

Coffee in Japan FAQ

Japan has excellent coffee. Pour-overs from sublime single-origin beans and well-crafted coffee blends are common throughout the country.

In Japan, the literal translation of the word “coffee” is kōhī.

While it’s not forbidden by law to walk and drink coffee in Japan, cultural norms discourage such behavior.

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Arne Preuss

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

More about Arne Preuss

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

More about Arne Preuss

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