I am constantly surprised by the popularity of coffee in Japan. One autumnal Sunday, I set off for the Yokohama Coffee Festival, determined to celebrate Japan’s unique coffee culture.
Japan is famous for fields of green tea and intricate tea ceremony rituals. Who would have thought this island nation is also the world’s third largest consumer of coffee beans?
When I first came to Japan I thought the ubiquitous signs for coffee were designed to appeal to western tourists. I was wrong. Co-hee (the Japanese adopted the Western word and modified it slightly) was HUGELY popular with a domestic Japanese audience.
That Yokohama should have a coffee festival made perfect sense – Yokohama was one of the first ports in Japan to open to foreign trade following its self-imposed period of isolation from 1639-1853.
The Japanese take their beans seriously. When I was in Jamaica a decade ago, I went on a tour to the Blue Mountains with a Japanese man who boarded the bus with two suitcases. We had assumed that he was heading directly to the airport after the tour. Instead, we watched with bemusement as he carefully filled his two (empty) suitcases with bags of Blue Mountain coffee.
He was neither a salesman nor a coffee shop owner. He simply loved coffee and was thrilled at getting premium beans at wholesale prices.
Yokohama Coffee Festival
Yokohama had picked a gorgeous day for a coffee festival. The sky was clear, and a mellow breeze balanced the sunny temperatures. Due to the anticipated popularity, the organizers had wisely chosen to host the event at Yokohama Park, near the enormous baseball stadium.
Youth handed out full-sized pamphlets with the names of the 12 participating shops and the specialty brews. The main attraction of the festival was the chance to sample four different specialty coffees for a bargain ¥1000.
I was caught by surprise by the length of each line. (In my head I had imagined coffee being poured out of giant cardboard cartons, and a swiftly moving line.) I ought to have known better. This being Japan, special care was being lavished on each tiny cup. The Japanese were willing to wait for that level of detail.
After hunting in vain for a ticket booth, I found a staff member who spoke English and asked how to purchase the tickets.
“I am afraid that you need advance reservation,” he said, bowing apologetically. “They only have full size available now.”
“Thank you. May I ask. how long do you think those lines are?”
He studied the lines of patient customers, each with a miniature cup in their hand. The visible portion of his face bore an expression of utter concentration as he made some calculations.
“I think one hour.”
Four cups…waiting in four lines…FOUR HOURS?
Yikes! I love coffee. But I draw the line at 15 minutes.
I wandered outside the coffee area, enjoying the live music and performances by talented dancers and singers. And then I headed for a nearby popular Japanese coffee chain – Douters.
History of Coffee Japan
The Doutor coffee shop I entered was the brainchild of Hiromichi Toriba. The Japanese businessman had correctly anticipated that a modern urban Japanese workforce would want convenient jolts of caffeine, and opened the first Doutor store in 1980.
As a Sailor, I’m fascinated by the history of coffee in Japan.
Coffee first arrived in Nagasaki in the 1700s courtesy of the Dutch, Japan’s only Western trading partner during that period. At the time, the bitter taste of coffee beans did not appeal to Japanese taste.
In 1888, a business man named Eikei Tei opened a shop in Tokyo’s Ueno district. He had spent years living in France, and when he returned to his home country he wanted to share French cafe culture with his native country. Unfortunately, he was several decades ahead of his time, and the sole store closed after five years.
It was not until the Meiji era in which Japan re-opened to foreign trade that drinking coffee again became fashionable. This love for an exotic drink came to a halt during World War II, during which coffee was viewed as a “Western” drink and fell out of favor. It’s worth noting that the U.S. banned green tea exports from Japan during the war.
Once the war ended, coffee experienced a resurgence of popularity in the 1960s and 1970s.
Hence, the popularity of coffee chain shops such as Doutor. You can get a medium cup of coffee for ¥270 ($1.83).
Craving a more exotic bespoke cup? A medium-sized Okinawa brown sugar latte is yours for ¥470 ($3.19).
One of the things I find fascinating about this chain is that there’s a price differential based on whether you dine-in or take-out: getting your latte to go will save you ¥8 ($.05)! . 🙂
Coffee at Every Price Point
Anyone coming to Japan is certain to notice that coffee is readily available – hot OR cold – in almost every vending machine. Given that Japan has the highest concentration of vending machines in the world, this means your coffee is never far away.
Although Japan invented coffee in a can, it was not until 1970, at the World Exposition in Osaka, that canned coffee began to catch on.
Don’t sneer at canned coffee until you’ve tried it!
I’m no expert, but I think the taste is pretty darn wonderful. Moreover, as a Sailor, I can vouch that the cans are wonderfully convenient and make great hand warmers in a pinch.
If you’re looking for something a little more refined, Japan’s non-chain coffee shops are a thing of beauty. They’re inevitably small and seat less than 10, and have one-of-a-kind, deeply personal decor. At my favorite coffee shop in Yokosuka, the shop is full of 1940’s style artifacts and the soft sound of big band music. The owner always provides customers a cold glass of water and neatly rolled washcloth before handing them a bound formal coffee menu.
You’ll pay a little extra for the ambiance and thoughtful details. (A Viennese coffee goes for ¥750 ($5.09). But it’s an utterly lovely experience.
If You Go
Although I did not have a single cup of coffee AT the Yokohama Coffee Festival, I did have a fantastic time observing all the non-brew festivities. I remain in awe of the utter commitment of Japanese coffee drinkers to brave four, one-hour lines.
Yes, I cheated by ducking inside a line-less chain coffee shop. I’d encourage anyone coming to Japan to give Japan’s unique coffee culture, be it a can straight from a vending machine or a masterpiece lovingly crafted by a Japanese barista.
Are you more of a tea lover than a coffee aficionado? Do you prefer the beautiful ritual that comes with a traditional tea ceremony?
If so, there are many awesome places throughout Japan that allow you to pick leaves at a tea plantation, or savor a perfect cup of matcha tea while contemplating a gorgeous outdoor rock garden.
Regardless of whether you prefer coffee or tea, I’m thinking you’re in for a delightful treat and a memory you’ll savor…long after the cup is empty.
Here’s wishing you an AWESOME adventure ahead!