Tokyo in Five Cups of Coffee

James Freeman takes us through Tokyo, one cup of coffee at a time.

My favorite time to go to Tokyo is in the fall when the air is less heavy and the leaves are starting to turn. Coffee weather.

There's a Japanese word, akibare, which means (and I'm approximating), "The delight at feeling the sun on a crisp autumn day knowing you are heading to a really good cafe."

If you find yourself in Tokyo with a bit of jet lag, in need of a lot of coffee, and wanting to see a slice of Tokyo that’s not in the guidebooks, here's the plan.

First Cup
8 am: Cappuccino and Fruit Buckle
Blue Bottle Coffee, Kiyosumi

Our roastery in Kiyosumi-Shirakawa is a great place to start your day even though it's kind of in the boonies—the El Cerrito of Tokyo, you might say. A dozen subway stops out of central Tokyo, Kiyosumi has a relaxed vibe: Tokyo moms taking their kids to school on bikes, elderly crossing guards, sumo schools, botanical gardens.

The roastery, coffee bar in front, stands out as one of the busier places in the neighborhood. Open the door and it's like walking into California—spacious, mellow, beautifully lit. But, somehow, it’s a better California: a California where you can leave your laptop on a table if you go to the bathroom. Have a Hayes Valley cappuch and a buckle, and let the memory of your last drink in San Francisco linger. These guys have the taste of Linden Street down.

Second Cup
10 am: Panama Geisha and Millefeuille
Cafe Bach, Minami

You're already quite a bit east of what many consider the “cool” part of Tokyo. Cafe Bach is even farther east.

Eight or so stops on the Hibiya line from Kiyosumi-Shirikawa Station, and you'll get to Minami-Senjou. Although the neighborhood has the reputation of being Tokyo's version of a “last exit to Brooklyn,” urban mean-street hell, it seems only a little scruffy to me.

A ten-minute walk from the train station gets you to Cafe Bach (pronounced ba-ha)—a neighborhood institution. Since 1968, the proprietor, Mr. Taguchi, has been roasting an appealing menu of single-origin and blended coffees, many of which he has sourced himself, cupping and purchasing at origin.

It's easy for some to think that delicately roasted, directly traded, floral- and fruit-forward single-origin coffees were somehow invented in Portland fifteen years ago, but Taguchi-san has been doing it well for the last four decades.

Ms. Taguchi is a Paris-trained pastry chef, and she and her staff produce ephemeral pastries that are absolutely delicious with coffee. The millefeuille paired with a Don Pachi Naturally Processed Panama Geisha is one of the best coffee and sweets pairings I have ever had.

This is a shop that has been executing at the highest level since the 1960s. Every motion of the staff is a joy to watch. It’s easy to get carried away by the precision of the staff at the drip bar, but pay attention to how everyone who works there pours glasses of water for guests exactly the same way: holding the pitcher from the bottom of the handle, rather than the more natural (and less graceful) middle of the handle.

The choreography of pouring water is so beautifully worked out, so effortlessly and consistently executed, that I wonder at the thickness of the Cafe Bach water-pouring manual, and the weeks of training involved before new employees are allowed to touch a pitcher.

Third Cup
12 pm: Single-Origin Espresso
Nem Cafe, Minato-ku

Here’s the glory of Tokyo: You’re out in the hinterlands of East Tokyo at Cafe Bach, about nine miles from your next destination. For 240 yen (about $2.25 USD), you can glide under approximately five million people, traveling seventeen stops (a straight shot, no transfers) on the Hibiya subway line.

Only forty-five minutes later, and you are at Nem Cafe, favorite of Blue Bottle Tokyo baristas. A beautiful, spare shop off a charming alley, Nem is run by a husband-and-wife team. Their prior design experience shows through in the modest, elegant room. 

The hospitality is beautifully attentive, almost maternal, and the modern, bracing, precise single-origin espresso is chosen from a rotating handful of newer local Tokyo roasteries.

Fourth Cup
1:30 pm: Single-Origin Pour Over and Ginger Cookie
Blue Bottle Coffee, Nakameguro

Nakameguro is one of my favorite neighborhoods in Tokyo, and our shop occupies an adorable building that looks like it was plucked out of a Miyazaki film. It's about a ten-minute walk up the hill from the train station. We have training facilities here, as well as offices and a classroom. Combined with the coffee bar, the effect is something like a Studio Ghibli production of Richard Scarry's Busy, Busy World, with designers and architects playing the parts of Huckle the Cat and the Lowly Worm.

The single origin on the pour over changes often, but is always made with pleasant exactitude. You're in Tokyo, so please order and drink in the Tokyo style: for here and black, onigaishimass.

Fifth Cup
4 pm: Black Coffee and Brahms
Cafe de Violon, Suginami-ku

From the Nakameguro Station, it’s time to head west to one of the oddest cafes I’ve ever been to. Cafe de Violon is either a vestige of or homage to (I’m not sure which) the classical kissaten—coffee shops devoted to sipping black coffee silently while listening to classical music on awesomely ancient stereos.

Cafe de Violon’s overall design aesthetic is one part City of Lost Children, two parts La Belle et la Bete, and one more part Harold and Maude, which is a creepy vibe for a cafe, but somehow de Violin is not creepy.

Maybe it’s a testament to the unseen power of the sonic environment, but the regal warmth radiating from the horn-loaded speakers and tube amplifiers supersedes the fusty strangeness of the doilies and the countless leering, porcelain figurines.

The last time I was there, during a cold, rainy, late-fall afternoon, we entered during the end of a Beethoven symphony (a surprisingly jaunty recording of his Seventh), and the proprietor sent over an assistant to ask the Japanese-speaking gentleman I was with if his guest (me) would care to choose the next selection.

I replied, flushed with pride and barely thinking, with a fairly obscure, brooding, and autumnal request: a Brahms string sextet. There was much shuffling through what seemed like several-thousand vinyl records and the assistant returned. Would I like to hear sextet number one or sextet number two?

Number two, please!

The needle dropped and I recognized the Stern/Ma/Laredo record, so familiar since my teenage years from the very first notes. The playing of Issac Stern emanated grandfatherly kindness through the enveloping intimacy of that sound system. I could almost smell the pleasantly cheesy old man breath, as he led his younger colleagues through the magically veiled opening.

No one spoke.

Coffee appeared and was sipped. The drinks at de Violon are pretty rough, but there are other reasons to go this far out of your way for a coffee.  

Read more musings by James here and here and here


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By James Freeman

Published Dec. 6, 2016

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