Japan might be famed for traditional arts, distinctive gardens, and culinary mastery, but delve into its culture, and you'll find a deep connection with coffee. From traditional Kissaten to bustling modern cafés, the Japanese coffee scene rivals those of Seattle, Rome, and London.
Japan has not just loved coffee for centuries; they've been perfecting it too – in a way few other cultures perfect a craft. It’s a practice known as Takumi – the pursuit of perfection without compromise.
In this three-part blog series, we'll walk you through the history of Japan's distinct and unique coffee culture. We'll even teach you how to order a coffee in Japanese, just like a local.
When did coffee first come over to Japan?
The first recorded instance of coffee being brought over to Japan was in the 1800s by Dutch merchants. As tea was the caffeinated drink of choice for the Japanese, coffee wasn't well received at first, and it wasn't until the 1900s when coffee began to take off within Kissaten, which is the Japanese word for a coffee shop or café -
As Japan began its path towards modernity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it adopted many outside influences, morphing and evolving with the world and western cultures. Coffee was no different, with Japan's first dedicated modern coffee house – Kahisakan – opening in Tokyo in 1888. Soon coffee masters were enhancing their skills with precise brewing and roasting techniques to create a unique blend of craftsmanship and innovation that is the hallmark of Japanese coffee today.
In 1908, Japanese migrants searching for a better life arrived in Brazil on The Kasato Maru. Many found work on coffee plantations and later started their own – helping launch Brazil's industry, strengthening the bonds between these two coffee nations, and deepening Japanese expertise.
But few can lay claim to influencing Japanese or world coffee culture in the 20th century more than one man: Tadao Ueshima – known in Japan as the 'father of coffee'.
What is coffee shop culture like in Japan?
Since coffee's introduction by Dutch traders, Japan's coffee masters honed their craft in independent coffee shops known as kissaten. Translated, it means 'tea drinking shop', but the term refers to the independent coffee shops at the heart of Japan's authentic coffee culture. And while their customs and appearances have moved with the times, these kissaten continue to fulfil an important, traditional social function – a place to be private in public in a culture where so few places offer such pleasure.
Kissaten is a characteristically dark, comforting space, inspired by traditional Japanese décor, where the air is thick with the aroma of roasted coffee beans and, more recently, jazz music.
For a few hundred years after its introduction, coffee culture in Japan remained largely unchanged. It was almost always enjoyed in a kissaten – where the coffee master would devote their time to perfecting their craft, developing hand-brewing techniques well before their European and US equivalents.
Japanese culture shines through in the coffee experience, as patience and kindness are both respected and shared within a Kissaten The coffee masters who make your coffee ordinarily gracefully take you on a guide through the types of coffee beans and roasts they offer and the coffee styles they brew.
The attention to detail with the presentation of the coffee is precise, while, the coffee shop experience in Japan is often much more relaxed and leisurely than in other countries. It's not uncommon to see people chatting with friends or reading a book at their local coffee shop, sometimes for hours at a time.
The history of Ueshima Coffee Company
Tadao Ueshima – inspired by his love of all things Western – opened a food store in the port of Kobe, where he discovered a lifelong love of coffee. This would grow to become Ueshima Coffee Company.
Today, Ueshima is Japan's No.1 coffee and is enjoyed by millions across the world. It holds the Guinness World Record for the longest-selling ready-to-drink coffee, having developed the world's first canned coffee to be sold commercially. It is a true seed to sip coffee company owning farms in Jamaica and Hawaii that cultivate the most exclusive coffee globally – Jamaican Blue Mountain and Hawaiian Kona. Custodians of the history of Japanese coffee, Ueshima Coffee Company has its purpose-built museum in Kobe, and has even helped revive lost coffee blends such as Bourbon Pointu: the 'lost coffee of Réunion Island' – said to be favoured by King Louis XV.
For more, visit our coffee blog