It is difficult to describe the constant bliss of travelling to a place like Japan purely to experience the coffee without leaving the English language behind entirely. It was only while I was in Japan that I became of a Japanese expression《物の哀れ》, pronounced 'mono no aware', which literally translates to the 'pathos of things'. In use, however, this expression has a much deeper meaning - mono no aware is a simultaneous appreciation for the beauty of things, as well as a wistful awareness of their transient nature. The prototypical example of mono no aware in Japan is cherry blossoms, which explode into force in magnificent beauty when in season, their glory lasting only a few days. For me, mono no aware encapsulates the feeling I have when everything conspires to create a perfect coffee experience: the beans, the brew, the environment, the weather and the people. It's much more than a cup, and it's much more than coffee. It's an ephemeral feeling of happiness that paradoxically transcends the transience of the moment and remains imprinted in my memory.
The following is a brief summary of the most significant moments, places and people of my coffee trip to Japan. Many places have been excluded, but this is a summary.
Arise Coffee (Kiyosumi-Shirakawa, Tokyo)
The first time I had the feeling of mono no aware was at ARiSE Coffee in Kiyosumi-Shirakawa, a semi-industrial outpost in the east of Tokyo. ARiSE is the real star of the specialty coffee scene in the area, despite the arrival of some more prominent international juggernauts. Owner/roaster/barista/skateboarder/heavy metal fan Taiju Hayashi is a long-term veteran of the coffee industry, having been brewing and roasting since the early 2000s, but only setting up this business in 2013 when he discovered he had the right personality for hospitality. The amazing thing about ARiSE is that it's tiny. There's seating for about five, on some homely looking chairs and stools, and there's no air conditioning. Half the store is the roaster! And 100% of the store is Taiju, whose engaging presence fills the space and everyone inside it. Taiju supplies other locations around town, including his own cafe about five minutes walk away, but this is the place to go if you want to not just drink the coffee but meet the man. He instantly makes you feel at home and expresses a genuine interest in everyone who comes through the door (not just me, but others in the store, and others who have written about the place). The coffee knocked my socks off as well - a Dominican, and one that he suggested I try. You should ask him what you should try as well. Taiju only brews pour-overs (no espresso here) and has a couple of snacks if you're keen.
2. Maruyama (Minato, Tokyo)
The second time I had the feeling of transient beauty was at Maruyama Coffee in the Minato ward. Nestled between several embassies and with some expensive cars parked around the lot, the first thought I had was that the rent must be even more enormous than the location itself. But the quality of the coffee surpasses the allure of the surroundings. The genesis of Maruyama is Hidenori Izaki, a world-wide coffee celebrity after winning the 2014 World Barista Championship, something that almost guarantees a future in the business. Notably, it wasn't just the first win for a Japanese contestant, but also the first win for someone from Asia (which will no longer be a rare thing). Izaki stepped back from the spotlight to serve coffee to his many fans and also to raise up the next generation of competitors - staff at Maruyama locations round Japan are frequent contestants and often winners of regional, national and international competitions in coffee. Maruyama has a frankly ridiculously long menu of coffee of amazing coffees - maybe fifty in total (I lost count). Combined with brew methods it can be daunting to a casual visitor, so ask the staff for suggestions. They're aware of the showmanship of coffee as well, so they will invite you to come watch the brew. The ambience is really what seals the deal here - you could luxuriate there for hours. I'd even go there on a date (no, it's not cheap, either.)
3. Cafe Kitsune (Aoyama, Tokyo)
There's a Blue Bottle around the corner with queues out the door and with the ambience of an Apple Store on launch day, but Cafe Kitsune, a Tokyo outpost of a Parisian brand, is quietly cranking out perfectly executed shots on one of the very few Slayer espresso machines in the country (outside their main distributer, below). A Slayer is a beautiful machine that's hand-crafted in Seattle and has to be pre-ordered sometimes a year in advance. They're basically carved out of stone and are entirely manual - the barista doesn't have control just over temperature and pressure, but even temperature and pressure profiles - and all manually. It's not easy to use. It's definitely not easy to use 1,000 times a day. But people here do it. Kitsune is a welcome respite from the busy area, and an easy place in which to relax and and recuperate both physically and mentally.
4. %Arabica, Higashiyama, Kyoto
'You must be in a constant state of bliss', I told %Arabica Kyoto's head barista Junichi Yamaguchi, a latte art legend who has an incredible list of gushing fans. He agreed with a smile. %Arabica Coffee's name might sound a little hard to pin down (everyone uses arabica coffee these days), but the company has put an incredible amount of thought into everything in their stores, all of which are also roasters - a gorgeous aesthetic of white and woods, an open and inviting plan, really genuinely beautiful locations (check out their page for the others!) and high-end equipment - Tornado roasters and Slayer espresso machines (%Arabica is also the distributor of Slayers in Japan). This is the second mention of Slayer in this article, but it was only the second machine I saw out of 50+ locations I visited around Japan. %Arabica's Higashiyama location is located just metres from a local temple, and the entire area is breathtaking, even on a typically overcast Kyoto day - there's a peaceful ambience and a feeling of space and timelessness. The coffee is incredible, and it would be well worth your while luxuriating in the area for hours. You can follow Junichi's instagram here to be one of the tens of thousands who agree he's a rock star.
5. Cafe de l'Ambre, Tokyo
No overview of Japan's coffee culture could be made without a mention of the traditional kissaten, an older-generation coffee house. Japan actually has a very refined coffee culture that predates the 'third wave' by a considerable degree. Decades, in fact. Did you know siphon brewers, one of the sexy new specialty darlings of the west, were invented in Japan in the seventies? Did you know that in Japan, 'Kyoto-style cold-drip' is actually just referred to as 'cold-drip'? The Japanese kissaten is usually frequented by older Japanese and has a reputation for being smokey - and while smoking is allowed, this one wasn't smokey at all. At a good kissaten like this one, you can enjoy high quality beans that have been roasted with dedication and which are brewed with meticulous care. Cafe de L'Ambre has a reputation for three things: a) being one of the oldest kissatens in the city, b) serving aged beans (with vintages - like you can get a '74 Ethiopian, for example) and c) still being managed by Ichiro Sekiguchi who opened the location in 1948 and who is, as of time of publication, just shy of 100 years old. Unfortunately he wasn't there when I visited. I mean, he was probably resting. The coffees are pricey, some of which reflects quality and some of which reflects inventory costs of storage for 40 years. It's well worth a try, and it's important to acknowledge that two generations of coffee culture can live side-by-side.
Another day, another five coffees
Like in every other aspect of its culture, Japan does coffee its own way. It isn't slavishly following trends set in Portland, Oregon or Melbourne, Australia, but rather taking notes and implementing them in unique ways. Over the course of ten days I grew to appreciate that it's a beast unto itself. The above is just a slice of the coffee culture - there are hundreds of quality specialty coffee locations around the country, and it would be impossible for one person to cover them all. But we'll keep trying.