Coffee Ceremony—Inside Japan’s growing craft coffee scene

Coffee Ceremony—Inside Japan’s growing craft coffee scene

Japan is a nation synonymous with tea – from its centuries old tea ceremony to the plastic bottles of green tea sold in vending machines. But the Japanese also have a surprisingly healthy appetite for another less traditional beverage: namely coffee.


It was in the late 18th century that Japan had its first taste of coffee, when the drink was introduced to the country by Dutch residents in the southern port city Nagasaki.

This paved the way for commercial imports in 1877, followed by the opening of the nation’s first coffee shop in 1888 in Tokyo, leading to 140,000 imported bags of coffee by 1937.

Japan is the world’s third biggest coffee consumer (after the United States and Germany), importing 7,494,000 bags of coffee in 2014, according to the All Japan Coffee Association.

Fast-forward nearly 80 years and Japan’s coffee scene is booming. Fuelled by increasingly Westernized consumer appetites, Japan is the world’s third biggest coffee consumer (after the United States and Germany), importing 7,494,000 bags of coffee in 2014, according to the All Japan Coffee Association.

From chain coffee stores and the old school kissaten coffee shops to the millions of canned coffee sold in convenience stores and vending machines, coffee is now firmly entrenched in the national diet making Japan the third country in terms of total consumption among importing countries.

Over the past decade, however, there has been a subtle but growing shift in the coffee market in Japan: the emergence of a so-called “third wave” coffee scene.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Tokyo, home to a growing number of cafes and bespoke roasteries – often minimally stylish, compact in size and photographed in lifestyle magazines.

Japan is a natural when it comes to craft coffee: perhaps no surprise, bearing in mind its heritage of craftsmanship, attention to detail and world-class service, as well as its technological prowess, which has helped create a thriving coffee gadget industry.

An alluring view from a traditional Japanese cafe.
An alluring view from a traditional Japanese cafe.

Testimony to its success is the fact that a growing number of third wave coffee pioneers from overseas have opened in Japan over the past two years – among them Blue Bottle Coffee, the cult Californian coffee company which opened its first Japan outlet – a 7,000 square foot roastery and café – in a warehouse in Tokyo’s Kiyosumi district last year (two more have since opened in Aoyama and Shinjuku).

Japan is a natural when it comes to craft coffee: perhaps no surprise, bearing in mind its heritage of craftsmanship, attention to detail and world-class service, as well as its technological prowess, which has helped create a thriving coffee gadget industry.

Japanese coffee lovers queued for up to four hours for a sacred cup of Blue Bottle coffee following the Kiyosumi opening, in a reflection of the dedication of consumers searching for the holy grail of quality artisanal coffee.

“The founder James Freeman was very impressed by the old-school Japanese kissaten style, where a store master would select beans and hand drip the coffee himself,” says Saki Igawa, Blue Bottle Japan’s director. “That experience influenced the foundation for Blue Bottle Coffee.”

The All Japan Coffee Association (AJCA), however, highlights how the artisan coffee shops making waves were statistically “negligible” within the nation’s coffee industry as a whole. Emphasizing how the main drivers of the nation’s coffee consumption were elderly, Kunitoshi Saeki, a spokesman, says: “Many positive studies about coffee and health (stating that coffee is good for human health) were reported recently not only in Japan but also other countries. This information is encouraging the health-conscious senior people. We think such senior people are the main drivers of recent coffee consumption increases in Japan.”

Testimony to this are the statistics: the Japanese demographic consuming the highest quantity of coffee are those aged between 40 and 59, followed closely by the over-60s, according to AJCA research.

The fact that Japan’s craft coffee movement is a minority industry, however, is unlikely to dent the appetite of new generation coffee lovers, many of whom are drawn to the non-mainstream quality of a bespoke cup of coffee.


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