Ten Immaculate Specialty Coffee Shops Worth Booking a Trip to Japan For
From standalone coffee shops on the outskirts of town to tiny one-man stalls doing hand-drip.
Japan might be the land of the rising sun, but the sun isn't something we want to face before coffee. Luckily, Japan does a damn good brew, mixing the best of the American filter scene with antipodean flatties and lattes. We drank our way around the country to find the best buzz this side of hitting the high notes in some J-pop karaoke.
Let the smell of coffee draw you down an alleyway behind Naka-meguro Station, where you'll find one of the best flat whites in Tokyo. Even better? The magic happens in a Tiny Homes–esque white box house that will blow up your Instagram feed. This is the flagship roaster for Onibus Coffee, and, apart from serving punters, the shop also uses its 15-tonne roaster to pump out beans for Onibus' other shops around Tokyo, including the made-for-Instagram About Life Coffee Roasters in Shibuya.
Switch Coffee, in the backstreets of Meguro, might look like a regular coffee shop. But one sip into the smooth calcium kick of one of their lattes — or, even better, the espresso tonic (espresso shot + tonic water = magic) — and you'll be planning the rest of your Tokyo stay around how many times you can get back to Switch. It's all the work of one man; owner Onishi roasts and brews all of the coffee, and he does different beans day to day — so you've got even more reason to go back and try them all.
When you think of Hiroshima, you probably don't think of coffee. But that doesn't mean you have to resort to following hipster dudes around town to find a good cup of joe — just head straight to Obscura Coffee. After starting in Tokyo, Obscura has opened a coffee shop in the centre of Hiroshima. The space is cleanly white, almost monastic in appearance. But what's being worshipped here are coffee beans, which Obscura roasts in their Tokyo laboratory and ships down to Hiroshima. Fittingly, a taste of Obscura's perfectly brewed iced coffee is almost a religious experience — it's really damn delicious.
This tiny converted Japanese house with huge windows, minimalist finishes and street seating next to a wide river with overhanging mountains might just be the prettiest coffee shop in the world. But people don't just come to this spot in Arashiyama on the outskirts of Kyoto (and its sister cafe in the city's main temple district) for the Insta props. The house-roasted coffee has a very smooth and slightly dark finish, resulting in perhaps the best iced coffee in town (and it looks prime against the white house for All The Photos).
Sapporo's coffee scene feels like it landed via the filter coffee capital of the world, Portland, as flat whites have retreated and left the field to milk-free coffee. So don't waste time trying to find a flat white — do like the locals do and head straight to Morihiko. This local coffee chain has a few branches across Sapporo, each one with its own personality. We went from a coffee doughnut paired with American press at the grungy warehouse DxM to a delicate chiffon cake matched with French press at the ivy-covered enchanted house of Morihiko. It's almost enough to stop you ordering a flat white ever again.
When people talk about coffee in Osaka, Brooklyn Roasting Co. is generally the first name that crops up. It might be because this is another place in a stupidly idyllic spot — this time next to a flower shop on a river overlooking a ceramics museum in Kitahama — but it's also because of the coffee. Now, your coffee experience might be totally different from our coffee experience, and that's because the cafe cycles through different house-roasted beans every day. But we can guarantee it will be good. Go for an iced coffee or an Americano (don't go anything shorter than a latte).
Toranomon Koffee is the last remaining Tokyo shop by the owner of the late and much-lamented Omotesando Koffee in Harajuku. We'll be straight up with you: this shop isn't as cool as Omotesando. Even though Toranomon has a nifty set-up of plywood frames and test tubes filled with coffee, well, there's no hiding it — Toranomon is in a huge office building. In the embassy district. On the fancy Ginza line. There. We've told you everything! Now, let's move on to the coffee. Omotesando did the best espresso in town, and Toranomon may very well keep that mantle, with a smooth, full-bodied shot, and no traces of the bitterness and burnt coffee that's often called an espresso in Japan.
We know, we know — Allpress technically hales from New Zealand, and they have cafes across both NZ and Australia. But with queues of up to an hour on an average weekend day, Allpress has been well and truly embraced by Tokyoites. You'll find both the cafe and the roaster in a sizeable warehouse in the coffee zone of east Tokyo (other coffee notables Blue Bottle and Arise are just around the corner). Once you've managed to get in the door, try the freshly roasted beans in a standard NZ variety flat white, or the more Tokyo-friendly Americano iced coffee. As well as caffeinating the thirsty hordes, Allpress is pumping out beans to cafes around Tokyo, including fellow export Frankie Espresso Melbourne in Shimokitazawa (the latest venture from the good sorts who first brought you Melbourne's Little Ramen Bar).
Like a sommelier is to wine, so the baristas at the old-school Cafe L'Ambre are to coffee. This really is a temple to the bean — owner Ichiro Sekiguchi has been roasting coffee since the 1940s. The main difference about the beans here? Some of them have been aged for 20 years (or more). Pick your bean blend from the menu, and sit back and watch the show — the process is strictly hand-drip. When your coffee is in front of you, take a sip. Yup. That's one of the best coffees you've had in your life.
This little one-man coffee stand is proof that you don't need a killer social media manager (or much online presence at all) to be the best at what you do. Dongree doesn't roast any beans — the back of their stall is a tiny shop selling a beautiful hodge-podge of wares — but rather showcases a rotating selection from the best Kyoto roasters. Order an iced coffee and you'll be asked to select your beans, before said beans are lovingly weighed, ground, placed in the filter and slowly hand watered until, drip by drip, the best coffee in Kyoto slowly forms in the cup. It's worth hunting down.