Release Date: Nov 21, 2015
According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, there are more than 80,000 kissatens across the country. And it’s our goal to visit them all (anything is possible after your third coffee before midday) and feature a handful of the most impressive (and intriguing!) on a regular basis right here for you.
Firstly though, what is a kissaten? In short, a kissaten is an old Japanese café with coffee as it’s main offering. You’ll definitely know you’re in one when you feel like you’ve stepped back in time – as most of these cafes have been around for decades and were popular meeting spots for artists, writers and students back in the 60s and 70s. These days, they are still popular with the general public and with elderly people longing for a bit of nostalgia and of course an excellent cup of coffee.
Especially in a city like Tokyo where the majority of everything seems to be forever changing, kissatens are the among the few spaces that stay true to their industrial heritage – and they are the places where our goodcoffee.me meetings take place. We are excited to introduce Kissaten Vol.1 and we hope you’ll enjoy being part of these places being rediscovered.
Jimbocho is famous for it’s cluster of used bookshops and for the many “kissaten”, all within walking distance from the station. We could actually write an extensive column on Jimbocho kissatens alone – but we will start with this one – because when people talk about kissatens in Jimbocho, the first one to come to mind is usually Saboru.
Saboru actually has two shops, right next to each other; Saboru 1 and Saboru 2. Saboru 1 is for coffee and small snacks, Saboru 2 is for lunch. The shops are hard to miss; especially Saboru 1 which has a beautiful entrance with an old tree, a big totem pole and a red pay phone that have probably been there since the shop first owned in 1955.
Dimly lit and mostly wood, it’s a wonderful experience. Despite being cramped, it has a wonderfully authentic and relaxed atmosphere with classical music playing softly in the background, while the staff work frantically to serve the many customers.
We order a “hot coffee” and it doesn’t disappoint. Rich and strong, you can’t help but feel that the coffee has tasted like this for the 60 years that the shop has been in business. And they probably will continue just like this for many years to come.
An absolute hidden gem in Shinjuku is Dug. This cafe slash whiskey bar is smack bang in the middle of Shinjuku on Yasukuni dori, the main shopping street, with Kabukicho and Golden Gai within a stone’s throw.
An unassuming entrance and a sign above that reads “Jazz cafe and bar” give no indication of the Tokyo “jazz kissa” that awaits underneath. Down some narrow steps and you enter into this small jazz temple that hasn’t changed for over 50 years. The “master” is actually a fervent jazz photographer and has met and photographed many Jazz legends, including Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk and the likes. Be sure to check out his excellent jazz photo book with pictures from the 60s until now.
Despite being surrounded by big coffee chains, a steady stream of clientele trickles in, even on a Wednesday afternoon in the middle of the day. Mostly men by themselves and most likely all regulars. The main thing here isn’t the coffee, it’s the fact that these kind of places continue to exist and continue to be visited by people who want a little haven of authenticity where you can relax, listen to excellent jazz records and get away from the hustle of the busy streets above.
We’ll be coming back real soon when we’re in the mood for another dose of jazz. But next time we’ll be coming in the evening to try some of the Japanese whiskeys that are lined up on the counter.
When in any area, one of the best ways to find a local kissaten is to ask the locals. And on our way to buy beans at coffeeya 香ひい屋本舗 (which ended up being an amazing find itself!) we ask three people where the best kissaten is around here in Ogikubo, and in a matter-of-fact way they all say Ja-shu-mon. We arrive at around 1pm to a shut shop and are soon told by a passerby that it won’t open until 3:30. We’ve heard of cafes closing at that time, but we’ve never heard of them opening then. We return at about 5pm.
We notice there are lots of tables to choose from upstairs, but there seems to be just the one menu. After we’ve placed our order with the owner (who we guess is in her late 70s early 80s), we wait around 20 minutes for our coffee to be made. While we’re waiting we look around and count 8 clocks on the wall – each clock telling a different time. A few definitely no longer hanging straight – but no one is complaining. Speaking of time though, like at almost every kissaten, you really get a sense that time has stopped.
It turns out that Jashumon opened in 1955, and was opened by a magician (the current owner’s late husband) who had won international competitions and who had received a medal from the Queen – for magic not coffee. Originally it was amongst six cafes that opened under the same name around Tokyo, each by magicians who didn’t need the kissatens to generate money. 60 years on, Jashumon is indeed still a magical place!
Photography by Nik van der Giesen