Visiting one of Japan traditional coffee shops, known as kissaten, is a unique way to start to the day.
For breakfast, many kissaten offer a “morning service,” which includes coffee and a small meal — often with toast, some meat, an egg and a salad. Western food is served, but with a twist: the toast is extra thick, and salads are sometimes prepared with either boiled spaghetti or canned fruit. But it’s not all wonderful; the air inside kissaten is often thick with cigarette smoke.
Japan’s first kissaten, Kahiichakan, opened in 1888 in Ueno, but coffee culture didn’t pick up until after the turn of the century. Originally the so-called morning service included coffee with a small serving of peanuts or a hard boiled egg. As Japan modernized and industrialized — and as more people took office jobs in the cities — it evolved into a light breakfast that was ideal for workers on their morning commute.
If you can only make it to one kissaten, it should be Meikyoku Kohi Mugi, which has remained almost the same as the day it opened in 1964, with its Bordeaux velvet banquettes and tobacco-tinged walls. The ¥500 morning set will get you a cup of coffee, thin slices of ham, a cooked egg, toast and two salads with fruit (while classical music plays in the background).
No laptops and iPhones were to be found on a recent morning, but I did spot a professorial looking fellow doing editing work with a pen.
Mugi is easy to find: take Exit 2 of Hongo-Sanchome Station and walk straight for about a minute, you’ll see it on your right.
Just off one of Ginza’s main arteries, Tricolore Honten occupies a handsome brick building with a grand revolving door that is reminiscent of a fancy department store. Tricolore opened in 1936, and the interior is classically modern. Coffee beans are freshly ground for each order and made with a Nel drip pour-over.
The morning service was standard, with extra-thick toast and salad, but the coffee was exceptional — it was the best I have had at any kissaten in Japan.
In Shinjuku, Kohi Seibu features plush red velvet seats and a yellow stained glass design on the ceiling that gives the illusion of sunshine. There are two options for breakfast, and both come in large portions: a chicken toast sandwich (¥750) or an all-you-can eat toast option (¥650) served with a boiled egg. It’s a large space, making it easy to avoid the smokers. However, avoiding the accordion background music is much harder to do.
Unlike the chain cafes they compete with, kissaten are places where time seems to stand still and you can linger over a cup of joe. I find them peaceful and relaxing, maybe because of the classical music or the dark red chairs, or maybe because they’re there for one thing: enjoying coffee (and not staring into any screens).
Meikyoku Kohi Mugi 2-39-5 Hongo, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo; 03-3811-6315; open daily for breakfast 7-11:30 a.m.; twitter.com/mugi_hongo; Tricolore Honten 5-9-17 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo; 03-3571-1811; open daily for breakfast 8-11:30 a.m.; www.tricolore.co.jp/ginza_trico; Kohi Seibu Metro Kaikan 2F, 3-34-9 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo; 03-3354-1441; open daily for breakfast 7:30-11 a.m.; metro-net.co.jp/business/food/coffee_seibu