James Freeman, founder of Oakland-based Blue Bottle Coffee, hits the Tokyo scene and uncovers his favorite cafés along the way.
The smell of apple pie and roasting coffee beans fills the air inside Café Bach, a 51-year-old coffee shop in Tokyo’s rough-and-tumble Minami-Senju neighborhood. Café Bach is what many young Tokyoites might describe as “Shōwa.” Japan’s Shōwa era (1926–1989) was marked by a penchant for imported concepts and non-Japanese decor. At Café Bach, staff in mint-green shirts serve customers who sit, quietly sipping, in bulky leather-and-wood chairs, surrounded by dark wood wainscoting, as classical music plays in the background.
I’m here this morning to meet James Freeman, the founder of Blue Bottle Coffee, the third-wave, Bay Area coffee company recently purchased by Nestlé for an estimated $500 million. We’re going on a tour of some of his favorite Tokyo coffee shops, and Café Bach is not only at the top of his list but, thanks to its legendary brewing rituals, was also part of the inspiration for his own coffee empire.
When I arrive, he’s seated, nursing a Panama Don Pachi Geisha prepared by master barista Koichi Yamada and chatting with the café’s owner, Mamoru Taguchi. At first glance, I don’t get the appeal of the place. To me, it feels like a Denny’s in need of a refurb. But as Yamada meticulously hovers over my Papua New Guinea grounds with a gooseneck kettle and all the seriousness of a nuclear physicist, I slowly come around to its locked-in-time ambience. The volcanic, complex, and deeply edifying brew is prepared in the slow-drip, pour-over style, and served in a wide-brimmed ceramic cup with a white saucer.
I soon discover that Café Bach is known as a kissaten—a traditional Japanese café with a hyper focus on the craft of coffee—and more specifically as a meikyoku kissaten, a coffee lounge that doubles as a place to listen to music. Taguchi’s wife, Fumiko, who studied pastry-making in France, brings me a slice of warm, American-style apple pie from the bakery on the second level. The thick, uneven mantle of buttery shortcrust is so imperfect it’s perfect. This isn’t just coffee and pie; it’s a master class in coffee and pie. It’s also a place I can imagine camping out for an hour or two—which is what traditional kissaten are all about.
“Kissaten embody the idea of omotenashi—Japanese-style hospitality,” Freeman explains. You could say the kissaten is to the Japanese what the terrace table is to the French—temporary real estate to catch up on your thoughts, but over coffee instead of pastis. “Customers pay to occupy the space as much as they do for the expert sourcing and preparation of beans,” Freeman adds.
Taguchi makes regular pilgrimages to coffee plantations around the world. His menu is a veritable United Nations of beans, from dark Sumatran to light, floral Peruvian and Malawian, all roasted in-house. “Suntan!” he says with a smile as he rolls up his sleeve, his tan a badge of honor from his recent time in sunnier climates.
While Japan’s kissaten represent a bygone era—and don’t typically serve espresso drinks—in recent years, a wave of new coffee entrepreneurs has arrived. Their cafés retain the spirit of hospitality that make kissaten so inviting but have introduced more modern design, creative spaces, and yes, espresso.
Switch Coffee, the next stop on our tour, is one such place. Switch is everything Café Bach is not. Located on a relaxed side street in Tokyo’s Meguro neighborhood, it’s more kiosk than café, with a bench and a chalkboard menu on the sidewalk.
“I don’t usually drink lattes, but Masahiro-san makes the best,” says Freeman, drinking his from a tempered glass tumbler. Owner Masahiro Onishi prepares my latte himself while talking about living in Melbourne, where he studied latte art and coffee culture.
Fully caffeinated, we make our way to one of Tokyo’s newest Blue Bottle Coffees just before lunchtime. We enter and Freeman is immediately recognized by the staff, who respectfully bow. Blue Bottle has a devoted cult following because it tapped into the kissaten mentality early on—focusing both on craft and on a pleasing space for people to linger over their lattes—and lines at the company’s 12 Tokyo shops are not unusual.
“It’s quiet this morning,” I say, recalling the 30-minute wait during my visit the day before to Blue Bottle’s first Japanese location, in the eastern Kiyosumi neighborhood.
“Japan doesn’t have a big morning rush hour for coffee,” Freeman says. Matcha or genmaicha, roasted brown rice tea, is usually served with a traditional Japanese breakfast, while coffee is typically consumed in the late afternoon. “In Japan’s tensely structured work culture, an afternoon coffee is treated as a little luxury or reward for hard work, not an energy drink to pull you through the rest of the day,” he adds.
Like each of Japan’s Blue Bottle locations, Meguro’s 19-seat outpost offers a Marie Kondo level of minimalism. This particular location has clean counter lines, natural wood hues, and a single image of a blue bottle emblazoned on a polished concrete wall. These are sanctuaries from the commercial onslaught of urban life, and it’s easy to see why the company has done so well in Japan.
“We didn’t set out to become a Japanese coffee brand,” Freeman says, “But our shops here have historically performed better than anywhere else, so we just ran with it. It’s exciting to spend time in the place that originally inspired Blue Bottle.”
How to Take Your Own Tokyo Coffee Tour
Classical music plays at the Shōwa-era meikyoku kissaten (music lounge), but Fumiko’s homemade pastry and Mamoru’s globally sourced beans are the real stars. 1 Chome-23-9, Nihonzutsumi
Switch Coffee Tokyo
The airy, micro-size contemporary kissaten is hidden on a side street in Tokyo’s Meguro neighborhood. 1 Chome-17-23 Meguro
Meikyoku Kissa Lion
Talking is discouraged inside this meikyoku kissaten, a hodgepodge of European architecture with Venetian Gothic arches and Corinthian columns, where music lovers converge in Shibuya’s Love Hotel district. 2 Chome-19-13 Dogenzaka
Blue Bottle Coffee
This small branch with polished concrete walls is among the newest Blue Bottle cafés in Tokyo. 1 Chome-2-19 Shimomeguro
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