A Brewed Journey: Exploring the Rich Coffee Culture of Japan

by Nana Young
Although Japan has gained global recognition for its tea culture, the country is also one of the biggest consumers of coffee in the world. If you’re a coffee lover in Japan, this coffee guide contains all the information you need to explore the different brews and brands offered in Japanese coffee shops.

Introduction to Coffee in Japan: From Tradition to Innovation

Interior of a Japanese kissaten.

Coffee is a big deal in Japan. In a country filled with hard working and busy people, it makes sense that citizens turn to the beverage when they need a break. But the Japanese coffee culture is so much more than that. Influenced by Western traditions, coffee-drinking in Japan blends a few elements of traditional tea ceremonies with modern coffee rituals.

The coffee shops in Japan are called kissaten and serve as the best places to fully experience the urban coffee culture. This is where people from all social, economic, and age groups gather to enjoy cups of cold and hot brews. Japan is also a pioneer of the concept of marrying coffee-drinking and fine dining experiences.

It all started at the beginning of the 18th century, when Dutch traders first brought the beverage into the country. Coffee grew in popularity for nearly two centuries, and eventually, the first coffee shop (kissaten) was established in 1888. By the early 1900s, it became common to find Japanese immigrants in Brazil, the biggest producer of coffee beans. These people left their home country to work as expats in Brazil’s blossoming coffee industry.

Japan wouldn’t establish its own coffee industry until the 1930s, when Tadao Ueshima founded the Ueshima Coffee Company (UCC), the biggest coffee brand in the country. He is known as the “Father of Coffee in Japan” and was one of the early pioneers of hand-brewing and canned coffee.

There was a setback during World War II when Japan banned coffee imports due to its Western perception. However, this ban was lifted after the war and the Japanese coffee culture returned stronger than ever.

In this post, we’ll explore the different kinds of coffee brands, beans, hotspots, and consumer habits in Japan.

Japanese Coffee Brands: A Showcase of Excellence

Japan is home to several renowned coffee brands, many of which sprung up after the war. These brands have established shops all over the country. While some of the shops are run in the traditional kissaten style, others favor a more Western approach. There are also brands with no shops but with widely popular canned brews. Whatever your preference, you should check out our curation of the best Japanese coffee brands, ranging from household names to specialty roasters renowned for their quality and craftsmanship.

Top Coffee Shops (Kissaten) in Japan

Let’s have a look at the most popular coffee shop chains in the country, known for their excellent service and coffee products.

Ueshima Coffee Company (UCC): UCC has had the most impact on coffee culture in the country and is by far the biggest chain among all the other shops. The company had humble beginnings, starting with a single shop in 1933. The first to release canned coffee, UCC serves different trademark brews in its 100+ kissaten-style shops.

Interior of the UCC Coffee Museum in Kobe, Japan.


Doutor: There are over a thousand Doutor shops in Japan, many of which are located next to airports. The company offers modernized establishments that are similar to Western cafes by providing decent coffee at affordable prices alongside urban services like wi-fi. 

Exterior of Doutor Coffee Shop


Komeda Coffee: With over 400 shops in the country, Komeda is another major player in Japan’s coffee-making industry. The company focuses on offering a luxurious experience to its customers by turning its cafes into alternate living rooms filled with peace and tranquility.

Menu and sign outside a Komeda's coffee shop in central Tokyo.


Koffee Mameya: The company is at the forefront of third-wave coffee shops in Japan. Koffee Mameya is a single coffee shop located in Tokyo. With no chairs, no milk drink options, no distracting artwork, and no shortage of expert coffee brewers, the shop offers one of the most unique coffee-drinking experiences in the world.

Exterior architecture and design at 'KOFFEE MAMEYA' local specialty coffee cafe and bean roaster in metropolis urban town


Blue Bottle: Originating in Oakland, California, Blue Bottle is one of the most successful foreign coffee brands in Japan. All of its branches in the country pride themselves on offering only specialty-grade coffee. We’ll reveal more about why Blue Bottle Coffee is so popular in Japan, even as a foreign-owned establishment.

Blue Bottle Coffee Ikebukuro Cafe

 

Top Canned Coffee Brands in Japan

Next, we’ll review some of the best canned coffee products sold at shops or convenience stores and served at home, in kissaten, or in cafes. 

  1. BOSS (by Suntory): Global beverage giant Suntory is responsible for launching what many consider to be the best ready-to-drink coffee product on the market. Suntory's BOSS offers a rich brew with deep flavors and no unpleasant aftertaste.
  2. Georgia (by Coca-Cola): The Coca-Cola company released Georgia in Japan in 1975. Since then, it has gone on to be the company’s best-selling canned coffee product in the country.
  3. Fire (by Kirin): Deep tastes, intense flavors, and fragrant aromas are the core attributes that make Kirin’s Fire coffee brand a household name. The brand has several variants, including milk-based, sugar-free, and dark roast.

Exploring Coffee Beans in Japan: From Seed to Sip

Japanese man standing in an Eco Cafe, operating coffee roaster machine.

High-quality coffee tends to thrive in regions with high altitudes and warm climates with alternating temperatures. Hence, Japan is not as ideal a place to grow coffee beans as Brazil, Honduras, Vietnam, and Columbia. The majority of the coffee beans used in Japan are imported from overseas. This does not mean that Japan does not grow any coffee beans. There are coffee plantations in the Kagoshima, Nagasaki, Okinawa, and Miyazaki prefectures, along with the Ogasawara islands. However, the bulk of Japanese coffee beans come from Brazil, Indonesia, and other nations.

The various kinds of coffee beans in Japan range from specialty types like Tokuda coffee to more mainstream versions such as Mocha, Kilimanjaro, green, and Toraja coffees. These coffees are roasted using one of three major techniques: drum roasting, hot air roasting, or Sumiyaki charcoal roasting. Of the three techniques, Sumiyaki charcoal roasting is indigenous to Japanese roasters and has become a global phenomenon. Charcoal-roasted coffee is more refined, but it requires expertise and can be expensive.

Best Japanese Coffee: Savoring the Finest Brews.

Coffee and coffee beans on the table.

Coffee shops and products in Japan use fresh coffee beans from different production areas around the world. These coffees provide the unique flavor profiles that captivate coffee enthusiasts worldwide. One of the best coffees in Japan is the Blue Mountain Blend coffee, which is made from coffee beans from Jamaica and Brazil. It’s a major component of one of UCC’s best selling coffee products. Another popular one is Kilimanjaro Blend coffee, which you can find in Kunitaro’s Avance coffee. For single-origin coffee, Japan’s favorites include Royal Blend, Single-Origin Colombia, and unblended Kilimanjaro coffee. But how Japanese people consume these coffees is what makes them great.

Understanding Japan's Coffee Culture: Tradition Meets Innovation

Aerial view of various coffee

The kissaten (traditional Japanese coffee shop) is the most important aspect of coffee culture in Japan. These establishments offer unique experiences that appeal to individual tastes and desires. Coffee drinkers have come to understand where to go when they need specific offerings, such as single-origin brews, relaxed environments, and Western-style coffee. People in Japan can even enjoy their coffee with zero human interaction, thanks to vending machines. There is also more demand for the high-quality coffee sold in third-wave cafes. The country's newest generation of coffee drinkers is driving this particular movement by demanding top-quality sourcing, brewing, and roasting processes.

Coffee Roasting in Japan: Craftsmanship and Precision

Enjoy Coffee beans on the table

The art of roasting has taken many forms over the years. In Japan, master roasters still use all three roasting techniques, but most of the local coffee shops and brands, like UCC, rely on the Sumiyaki charcoal roasting technique.

With the hot air roasting technique, the coffee beans are heated directly to high temperatures. Drum roasting involves heating a large drum containing the coffee beans over a flame. Sumiyaki charcoal roasting originated in Japan and was a common practice among the local coffee masters before going mainstream. The process involves heating the outside of the beans with burning charcoal and the inside with far-infrared rays.

How to Say Coffee in Japanese: A Linguistic Exploration

Smiling beautiful barista girl in apron, making batch brew, filter coffee, standing in cafe behind counter.

Only less than a third of the people living in Japan speak English. So, if you’re hoping to explore their coffee culture, you should learn how to say "coffee" in their native language. The word for “coffee” in Japanese is “kohi.” But don’t stop there. There are many other words in the language's rich vocabulary surrounding coffee culture and terminology that you should know. These include the following: barisuta (barista), kohi mame (coffee bean), esupuresso (espresso), dorippuji ka n (brew time), rate (latte), kohi o tsukuru (make coffee), ochikaeri-yo kappu (takeaway cup), kafein-iri (caffeinated), dekafe (decaffeinated), kohi o nomu (drink coffee), and mizu dashi kohi (cold brew coffee).

Do Japanese Drink Coffee? Unveiling Consumption Habits

A beautifulAsian woman is taking a photograph of hear food before having tea and cake with a friend in a trendy cafe.

There’s a common myth that people in Japan don’t drink coffee. This is primarily because of the country’s popular tea ceremonies. The fact is that the Japanese drink a lot of coffee. The country is among the major coffee consumers in the world. Coffee-drinking has become a way of life for many people in Japan. Workers stop by the kissaten every afternoon to relax and enjoy a delicious brew. To them, this establishment serves as a special place that’s in between home and their workplace. Friends and family also gather at coffee houses, shops, and cafes.

Is Coffee Popular in Japan? Tracking Trends and Traditions

Interior of a Popular Coffee Shop

Coffee is hugely popular in Japan. The locals love it for its exquisite taste and fine experiences. Visitors from foreign countries are not left out, and you’ll find many expats and tourists at Japanese coffee shops. There are over 5,000 of such establishments in all of Japan and very few of them struggle to find customers. A coffee shop in an urban area is almost certain to pull in a sizable number of customers.

Many visitors come for the coffee, but they stay for the experience the shop has to offer. Recent trends reveal that people drink coffee before work as a way to improve their concentration. The older generation loves their black coffee, while younger people seem to prefer latte and instant coffee. Japanese coffee drinkers also appreciate experimentation on the part of the coffee shop. Hence, we’ve seen cases of blends aged for many years and coffee extracted over ice.

Japan's Love Affair with Blue Bottle Coffee: A Modern Icon

Blue Bottle Coffee shop in TOKYO,JAPAN

Only a handful of foreign companies have been able to blend in with the established coffee culture in Japan. Blue Bottle Coffee is one of these businesses. The company becomes even more impressive when you consider that it recently opened shops in different locations around the world. It takes inspiration from Japanese coffee culture and its concepts of minimalism, omotenashi (hospitality and customer service), and kodawari (commitment and perseverance).

Blue Bottle Coffee branches in Tokyo are famous for serving the best coffees along with pairings of sweets and snacks. At Bokksu, we have a special set called the Coffee Connoisseur Bundle. It consists of items you can only find in Tokyo’s Blue Bottle Coffee locations, including their signature coffee bag and fruit jelly.

Coffee and Culture: The Role of Cafes in Japanese Society

Young couple on a date at a cafe

In the past, coffee shops and cafes served as meeting places for members of social movements, such as anti-government enthusiasts and feminists. Today, these buildings still serve the same social functions but on a lighter scale. They are casual social hubs, creative spaces, and relaxation spots. When most business people walk into a cafe, they hope to enjoy their coffee while they contemplate life or relax after a stressful shift.

Coffee Rituals in Japan: From Pour Over to Siphon Brewing

Specialty coffee tools in a coffee bar

There are several traditional and modern coffee-brewing methods in Japan. Read on to find out the most common ones so you know what to expect at a coffee shop:

  1. Pour-over: creating clean and smooth coffee by pouring hot water over coffee grounds. 

  2. Siphon: heating a lower chamber filled with water until boiled water mixes with coffee grounds on the upper chamber and pulls them down to the lower chamber. 

  3. Cold brewing: brewing hot ground coffee directly onto ice to create Japanese-style iced coffee, which is a favorite among coffee enthusiasts.

Innovations in Japanese Coffee: Trends and Technologies

Iced Orange Espresso Coffee Mocktail Cold Brew Tonic Spritz on White Background

Besides the many innovations in Japanese coffee culture, such as canned coffee and vending machines, new specialty brewing equipment are poised to drive the Japanese coffee market forward. Coffee shops are also helping the cause by adopting sustainable practices and blending traditional flavors with modern favorites.

Exploring Tokyo's Coffee Scene: Cafes, Roasters, and Hidden Gems

A barista in a Japanese kissaten.

If you happen to visit Tokyo, don’t stop at one or two kissaten. Embark on a journey through Tokyo's vibrant coffee scene, featuring top cafes, local roasters, and hidden gems awaiting discovery. But don’t go to any of these places empty-handed. We recommend that you grab any of the following boxes for a steady supply of delicious coffee pairings: the Bokksu Original Sweets Gift Basket filled with different kinds of chocolate, strawberry, and milk pudding; the Sweet Snack Lucky Bag containing authentic Japanese sweets and snacks; and the Sweet Caramel Apple Cake Gift Box housing a blend of apples, walnuts, and caramel syrup.

 


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