Coffee has a unique place in Japanese culture. It was, as it was many places around the world, introduced hundreds of years ago. However, until the 1970’s, coffee was not the drink of choice in Japan. The ubiquitous green tea has long dominated the beverage culture in Japan, beating out competitors left and right until a faster postwar economy really took hold and rocketed Japan towards the high-octane, bitter, black drink we all know and love, coffee.
Kissaten, with their roots firmly planted in the business world, are very different from the American cafes you find here, there, and everywhere in the States. Whereas our national coffee chain, Starbucks, strives to create a “third place,” where consumers can come and relax with a cup and a friend and have a chat with their baristas for a second about how so-and-so’s brother-in-law did what at that weird thing at that wedding last week, Japan’s national chain, Dotou, is focused on the quick, in-and-out experience of many business people, rendering their baristas pretty much incapable of having the time to discuss what did or did not happen because of the imbibing of copious amounts of grain alcohol. Or whatever, it was probably their fault for having an open bar.
So, Japanese kissaten are often about getting in, out, and on with your life. They’re about helping you with a quick recoup from your morning commute which, for business people and students, is a huge part of your day, or for helping you grab a delicious coffee before battle. Like you do.
Kissaten also spawned the canned coffee craze, which has come to America through Starbucks as those bottled frappuccinos that Starbucks sells, or those big, huge cans of “coffee” that Monster and other energy drinks infuse with as much sugar and caffeine as possible. This iteration of coffee has made it even newer-seeming to younger generations, making it a more attractive option for its audience and increasing its popularity, not just in Japan, but worldwide. There have been a few notable brands that came out of this trend, like UEC and BOSS, with clever advertising campaigns of their own. Some of them even have some pretty familiar American names behind them.
Kissaten itself means something else, though. These kissaten are not synonymous with modern-style cafes, like Dotour and Starbucks, no, these kissaten are usually aimed towards a clientele seeking to sit down and enjoy a cup of coffee. Until recently, many of them didn’t serve lattes and mochas and such, but that culture is shifting towards a more global-style approach. Kissaten used to be a place you came and sat down and had a little cup of coffee with almost nothing else on the menu, but more and more kissaten are popping up all around Kyoto and Tokyo as, instead of business-meeting-type places, social gathering areas, much like cafes are here in the United States and around the world. These kissaten are all about staying for a while and enjoying your surroundings.
Though these may be a little more pricey, the atmosphere is nice, and it can be relaxing to get out of the busy streetlife of modern Japan for a few moments. Some of the more popular kissaten and cafes in the Tokyo region are Gakuya in Shibuya, a place to sit and relax, enjoying coffee “with all the grace of a tea ceremony.” This is a more traditional kissaten, complete with a gray-haired owner and postwar decor. Hipper, newer cafes in Tokyo are the ever-preset Dotour coffee joints, as well as Ben’s Cafe, a more western-style cafe, in the style of Stumptown Coffee Roasters or Blue Bottle Coffee. We may not have any kissaten in Salt Lake, but if you’re looking for some great coffee and a good atmosphere, check out the Rose Establishment on 400 west and about a block south of the Gateway Mall, or, if you’re looking for some really amazing cakes and pastries with your coffee, try Salt Lake Roasting Company at about 300 east on 400 south as well.
Keep eating the good stuff!