Usually, I make my own drip coffee in the morning. It’s really because my mom always does and so that’s what I’m used to. I’m used to the smell of the coffee beans being ground and the super loud noise that pissed my dad off when he was teaching zoom classes when I was just waking up, and the brown dust on the white tile counter. And it’s what I have to do while on a budget. Because buying coffee every day really adds up. And I make better coffee than most places anyway.
But that doesn’t mean I’m not trying the local shops, come on. Coffee shops I’m used to have memorabilia scattered over the walls,
Sit-down coffee shops
The first interesting aspect of coffee culture here is that the coffee shops are more often than not sit down experiences. And often more about the sit-down experience than the coffee itself. Shops like Komeda coffee, Kohikan, Hoshino Coffee, and Precious coffee moments are similar in their lackluster coffee, and consistent menu often featuring some sort of egg salad sandwich, ham and cheese sandwich, and sometimes curry rice. Contrary to an American sit-down coffee shop, where people are expected to sit down and do work, these shops hardly ever have outlets or wifi. Sometimes when I asked to be seated near an outlet, I’d get taken to a really odd corner of the place. And then I’d get all settled down to realize the coffee wasn’t that good and I wouldn’t have decent wifi to get any work done anyways.
Convenience store coffee
When you’re not looking for a sit-down experience, your options are limited to convenience store coffee or vending machine coffee. 7/11, Family Mart or Lawson coffee is always shockingly delicious. When you use the drip machines, they literally grind the beans as you make your cup. You can choose the strength or flavor of your coffee at 711, and can also choose hot or iced lattes that aren’t so bad either. Plus it’s only like 150 yen, which is less than a dollar. I recently found my go-to latte at 7/11. It’s in the refrigerated coffee section, and it’s called Caffe Latte: Bitter Espresso. It comes in a plastic cup with a sealed on lid, and a straw you can punch in to drink it on the go. It’s just perfect. This is my number one recommendation in this article.
Vending machine coffee, coming at the same price point, is not great. Vending machines are one of the most exciting parts of living in Japan, and they do make coffee, water, juice, electrolytes, vitamins and tea extremely accessible and convenient. And in cases of desperation I’ll purchase a vending machine black coffee. But I have many thoughts on the many varieties I’ve tried and they’re all missing something. There are a good amount of brands. Boss makes a series of canned coffees that come out of the machine either warm or cold, but they’re all so sugary! And the black one doesn’t have much flavor. Georgia makes a black iced coffee that I could tolerate for a while, but got tired of fast. Most of the coffees from vending machines contain sweetener unless they’re specified to be “black,” which makes me upset because I usually want my coffee with milk, but without any sweetness. Sweetness ruins coffee.
Milk makes good coffee better and bad coffee worse. Yes, quote me on that, please. And if I’m sweetening my coffee, I’ll do it with a vanilla creamer and cinnamon, not sugar and milk. So, when my options are bad black coffee or bad black coffee with milk and sugar, I’ll choose the former any day.
Specialty coffee shops
Specialty coffee shops like Tatjana, a shop right by my dorm, actually are not only a sit down only endeavor, but the one-man shop owner makes the coffee on a gas stove like you’re in his apartment. It’s a tiny coffee stand, with a unique bohemian vibe, and fits only a couple people inside. It’s the type of place I really wish offered a to-go iced coffee. There are little quirky shops and stands like this, and some of them are so small they only do to-go. I enjoy that. Japanese coffee shops that import beans and curate and decorate shops in unique ways are really neat.
The best coffee I’ve probably had in Japan was in an airstream in Hakone. It was more than a cup of coffee made by a former JPop producer who went off into the wilderness to start a mobile coffee van. It was a conversation about art, a union with musicians and artists and photographers in the area, and just a great Café Au Lait. It’s hard to get a Café Au Lait right, but Tomu-san totally did. This delicious coffee and conversation were a highlight of my stay here. Opening a coffee shop like this is also my personal dream.
I have found navigating the coffee scene of Japan to be a learning curve. It’s a culture shock I was never expecting. But after four months of adjusting, I wake up daily looking forward to my first sip of coffee.
Be sure to read my last blog about the rewarding English teaching part time job I’ve taken up, or other blogs from my fellow study abroad-ers in Tokyo.