Kissa-what? I’ll agree with you, the name Kissaten doesn’ roll off your tongue too easily, when it comes to coffee. The Japanese coffeehouse culture doesn’t have much in common with the local coffee culture as we know it from Europe, except for being served coffee and cake in these localities.
What’s so special about the Japanese Kissaten? What do you get to eat and drink there? And, which are my favorite Kissaten in Tokyo? More in this article…
What are Kissaten?
The name stands for the word meaning ‘business where to drink tea’ or translates to tea house.
These days you can also get tea in these cafes, but most guests actually drink coffee. There are all sorts of sweet treats such as chiffon cake or cheesecake. Coffee and cake is a thing in Japan, too, in fact.
You can still come across many types of Kissaten in Tokyo in the various parts of the city, many of them date back to the 19th century. From the classic to the modern, from the chain restaurant to the independent shop, where not much has changed since the opening. And that’s great as it is.
Because for coffee tourists like me, such shops are a gem of the Japanese (coffee) culture. I just love to watch the baristas or staff – mostly men – at work. It’s just fascinating to me how calmly and carefully they prepare each and every single coffee drink or when the chiffon cake gets its fine white cream layer.
What is special about the Japanese Kissaten?
Coffee Shops, Chain Cafes, Third Wave Cafes – there’s everything in Japan. Of these, however, the Kissaten are again quite different:
You’re allowed to smoke! In most Kissaten the smoldering is allowed, in contrast to the modern cafes in the big cities of Japan.
While Third Wave cafés are often very clean, bright and spacious, the Kissaten are sometimes disturbingly dark. Often times the coffee houses are even located in the basement of buildings. Some of the Kissaten are filled with furniture and decoration up to the ceiling, often the rooms are full of nooks and crannies and not much more than a long tube with a counter, bar stools and a few tables and chairs along the walls opposite the counter.
Whenever I visit a Kissaten, I prefer to take a seat at the bar. Why? Because I have the best view of what’s happening from over there:
The coffee preparation, which is always (!) done by hand in Kissaten, the neatly sorting of the roasted coffee beans, so that only the best are brewed for the guests and all the sweet delicacies that find their way from the refrigerated display onto the plates that are being chosen to the matching cup & saucer set with the utmost care. Often there is also the perfect set to the origin of the coffee.
And that’s exactly what’s so special about the Kissaten: The attention to detail, which not only stops at the carefully chosen porcelain, but also shows in the service and the hospitality.
In Kissaten you are served at the table – or the counter – without exception. There is simply no ‘To Go’ business. Each guest receives a glass of cold water and a moist cloth that is pleasantly cool in summer and warm in winter, unsolicited and served even before ordering to refresh oneself and prepare for the upcoming café experience.
For that is exactly what it is: An experience of Japanese coffee culture, in which the ultimate goal of Kissaten is to offer the guest a pleasant and relaxed atmosphere. Coffee and cake are – almost – an accessory.
Kissaten are a meeting place for friends and acquaintances, not infrequently you will find young people who meet there after high school or university. I’ve never seen it with my own eyes, but I can well imagine that some Kissaten are also used for dates.
Cafés are some of the few places in Japanese cities where you can meet in public almost undisturbed. At home this is not possible and even not wanted due to the small and poky apartments and the still existing multigenerational households.
But not only young people use the Kissaten, also the Japanese Sarariman, or English, employees, prefer the cafes for having meetings.
For many, the Kissaten are also a place where one can be alone for once, immersed either in a book, the smartphone or ones own thoughts. The pleasantly quiet atmosphere – there are even Kissaten, in which loud talking is prohibited and you’re only allowed to whisper – and the musical accompaniment by either classical music or jazz, only adds to this.
What is there to eat and drink in Kissaten?
I visited many Kissaten during my time in Tokyo, but I never drank tea in the small independent Kissaten. In several of the cafes you can find different coffee origins on the menu to choose from, sometimes as rare and expensive as a Jamaica Blue Mountain, as I was able to taste at Café Bach in Tokyo some years ago.
The beans – invariably dark roasted, because the Japanese love it! – are freshly ground and then poured by hand with hot water from an oversized kettle.
When brewing the Pour Over various utensils are used, Hario, Kalita, Melitta or Nel Drip, the cotton cloth filter.
Note, this tradition of coffee brewing existed decades before there were any Third Wave cafes! Probably that’s one of the reasons why Pour Over still works so well in Third Wave coffee shops in Japan.
In addition to the dark roasted and hand brewed coffee, often times with a tiny milk jug on the side, you’ll mainly be served homemade cake in Kissaten.
Guests that aren’t into sweet during their stay, can order a sandwich, too. Some Kissaten also serve hot food, which I personally never tried. A number of cafés also offer very unusual coffee creations with or without alcohol, which are perfect for Instagram and Co.
Japanese Kissaten in Tokyo and my favorite Kissaten
Among the Kissaten in Tokyo you can find everything from the chain to the fancy hidden gem with a somewhat unusual code of conduct:
At chain coffee house Hoshino Coffee you can choose between five breakfast options – the “morning set” – consisting of a tea or coffee and, for example, a French toast.
At independent Kissaten Tomunekogo in Kichijoji you are not allowed to talk or take pictures (I secretly took some anyways with my smartphone) – everything for the relaxed well-being of the guest!
I didn’t count, but I’ve been to at least 15 Kissaten during the last three times I visited Tokyo over the past years. Some of them have made it into the list of my favorite cafes in Tokyo that you’ll find below. I, of course, let you know why!
Café Bon, near Shinjuku railway station
This Kissaten is located in the basement and is almost invisible from the street. The coffee is prepared here with the Hario filter, dark roasts, as one is used to in Kissaten.
The highlight of this Kissaten, however, are the really noble collection cups with matching saucer. Nothing compared to the ones of grandma, trust me! For each of these sets, the guest receives a card – not for the coffee, but for the cup and plate set! On it you can read about the origin of the set and the design.
Kabuki, between Asakusa and Akihabara
A very simple Kissaten in which each (!) of the above characteristics applies! And yet Kabuki is something very special: The café has only a few seats at the counter and additionally at 3 to 4 small tables, which are quickly occupied.
Especially on that Saturday afternoon, when I visited the Kabuki. That meant for many, queuing for a coffee. And chocolate! Because Kabuki is not only a coffee, but also chocolate shop.
Everything is single origin and handmade. If you go there, please try the Coffee-Chocolate-Pairing. Or order a hot chocolate made from the small chocolate bars.
Moon Factory Coffee, Sangenjaya
This Kissaten is run by a couple who serve their famous home-baked white or dark cheese cakes in addition to the coffee specialties. Do not be surprised, the pieces are tiny, but worth every single yen!
By the way, this café is also a camera treat for the social media fans among you coffee lovers: every angle, every table and especially the bar can serve as a photo opportunity here.
Coffee House Nishiya, Shibuya
The Nishiya makes two hearts beat faster in my chest: coffee and signature drinks. The Baristas aka Bartenders at Coffee House Nishiya do not just prepare cappuccino and such.
But, also classics like an Irish Coffee and the Bicerin (see below), a coffee specialty originally from Italy consisting of an espresso, hot chocolate and milk foam or fine cream layered on top of each other are on the menu.
Attention, even at Nishiya you can wait a while for a spot in this rather small Kissaten.
Café de L’Ambre, Ginza
This Kissaten is an institution! Not just in Tokyo, but in the whole coffee world! For several reasons: the owner, Sekiguchi Ichiro, who passed away a couple years ago, was a regular at his café until he was very old – he turned 100 years old.
Also I was allowed to get to know him briefly, if not personally. On the day of my visit, he sat in a small adjoining room and enjoyed the atmosphere. I asked and learned then that he had visited the cafe that very day, because the weather was so nice …
Another reason for the fame of Café de L’Ambre are the aged coffee beans! No, not the roasted but the green beans!
Since 1948, the café has been serving coffee beverages from coffee beans, some of which have been stored for 10 up to 15 years until roasting.
I tried a Kenyan coffee that was harvested in 2004. The coffee prepared with the Nel Drip still had an acidity typical for a Kenyan coffee, despite the many years of its existence.
Chatei Hatou, Shibuya
The Chatei Hatou is my absolute favorite Kissaten. Everything is just perfect here for me! The decor and atmosphere, the coffee specialties – even Chatei Hatou serves its own signature drinks – and the cake!
Chiffon Cakes in different variations, such as Earl Gray, Caramel and Orange, Cheesecakes, Puddings, Flans and, and, and …
If I were in Tokyo more often, you would probably find me there at least once a month to feed me through the menu !
More wouldn’t be possible, though, because Chatei Hatou has quite hefty prices for his coffee and cake creations.
See Denny from TOKYOmaniacs and me trying some coffee at another kissaten – café les jeux – in Tokyo ward Harajuku in the Tokyo Café Guide on YouTube. (Only in German)
Have you ever been to Japan and / or a Kissaten? What are your experiences?