Photographs and GIF by Ari Beser for National Geographic
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A coffee artist at Streamer Coffee Company in Tokyo pours the perfect latte
Photographs and GIF by Ari Beser for National Geographic

The Way of Coffee: Japan Brews Up Its Own Unique Culture

After a particularly long day of listening to atomic bomb survivor testimony for my Fulbright research, I turned to my translator Kanade who already knew what I was going to ask. We needed to go for coffee.

Having spent the previous year in Rwanda living in a Youth Village for vulnerable teens, I not only grew a taste for well-sourced coffee, I developed an affinity for places where the local farmer would get as much of my money as possible. Starbucks wasn’t going to cut it for us. Luckily, Hiroshima is overloaded with fair trade, independent coffee roasters. She knew the perfect place to take me, and it wasn’t even a coffee shop. “I come to this store all the time to do work,” she says. “It’s basically a thrift shop, but the owner loves coffee.”

Coffee has been brewed for centuries for its energizing effects. But in a land historically known for its tea, it may be surprising to learn that “the country is now third in terms of total consumption among importing countries,” according to the All Japan Coffee Association. Euromonitor puts Japan fourth, but it’s fair to say the market is growing.  However, to understand coffee culture in Japan requires one to understand the philosophy of the Japanese.

After allowing us to browse his antique shop, owner Soramoto Kenichi whips out an old style percolator from Germany and tries to explain what is so Japanese about coffee over a fresh cup of a fare trade Guatemalan roast.

“Japanese people believe that there is no highest form of any practice. Instead we follow ‘the way’ or . For example, sadō is the way of tea. Judō is the way of self-defense. Kendō is the way of the sword,” explains Soramoto. “One always exercises a discipline, but one never becomes the best at it. This is how I view coffee. There can be many ways to brew it, but there is no best way, only improvements.”

It’s not only the nuances of roasting the beans that has transfixed this shop owner. Soramoto believes in the power of hospitality and creating an atmosphere. Tea is the traditional way of doing this in Japan. For him, coffee is more modern, but still infused with old world traditions. Among the perfectly arranged flowers, antique record players and vintage garments, his store, Rickle!, hosts regular “coffee and cigarette” nights with live music or slam poetry.

In the scale of Japanese history, coffee is relatively a new addition. In Japan’s self imposed isolation from the outside world from 1638 until 1853, or sakoku, as it was called, Nagasaki was the only city where foreign merchants were allowed to enter. They were however confined to a tiny island off shore called Deijima. Originally, Dutch merchants were the only ones who drank coffee in Japan. The Japanese didn’t immediately take a liking to the bitter brew, but by the end of Japan’s isolation–in the Meiji restoration in the late 19th century–coffee shops began popping up in Tokyo and imports peaked at around 140,000 bags. Coffee didn’t really surge in popularity until after World War II, when Japan could resume imports.

How did a country known for its ceremonious tea become a global consumer of the world’s favorite pick me up? Everywhere you look, coffee is canned and sold hot or cold in convenient stories and vending machines. Starbucks has a chain in every prefecture, even the most rural. Beyond international chains, two types of cafes exist that are holistically Japanese in culture, and are often preferred by locals.

The older crowd prefers old style “Bubble era” cafes reminiscent of Japan’s economic bubble in the late 1980s, when money surged and so did over confidence in the market that burst in 1991. In Japan, smoking laws are slowly taking effect, but most of these dimly lit, lavishly decorated stained glassed and brass interior parlors are filled with old salary men puffing away on cigarettes and sipping delicate china full of the black brew as if they were still in Japan’s economic Golden Age.

Trendy new cafes, complete with latte artists and sleek designs that could be easily mistaken for New York City or LA, are the new attractive hangouts for Japan’s youth. In Tokyo’s upscale neighborhoods, Harajuku girls meet up, order well-crafted cups and snap photos for Instagram at places like Streamers Coffee Company.

Tokyo isn’t the only city with a culture steaming up around stylish coffee shops. Cities like Kyoto, Hiroshima and Osaka are teeming with places new and old that all compete for the young Japanese crowd, and foreign tourists as well. In Hiroshima Miyajima Island, famous for the world heritage listed Itsukushima Shrine, has become an unlikely hub of cafes. The tiny island off the coast of Hiroshima City is home to two independent roasters and at least 16 cafes.

“Japanese culture is intricate and difficult to explain even for us,” says Soramoto as he puffs away on a Meiji era tobacco pipe called a kiseru, and ashes in a traditional ash tray that he boasts is over 100 years old. “But I believe that we have a unique way of adopting foreign cultures and making them completely our own. Like my practice with Kendo, I guess you could call our coffee culture coffeedō, or the way of coffee.”

Ari Beser is a Fulbright-National Geographic digital storyteller, currently eating and living in Hiroshima. He is the author of Nuclear Family, a part-memoir, part-history book about nuclear survivors. He tweets @AriBeser.

His most recent piece for The Plate was Beyond the Bomb: Hiroshima’s Beloved Okonomiyaki Pancake.