When Starbucks arrived in Japan in 1996, it should have spelled trouble for Doutor, the dowdy coffee chain that had dominated the market since the 1980s. In fact, the opposite happened: by cultivating demand for gourmet coffee, Starbucks actually revived the fortunes of its hot dog-vending homegrown rival.
There seems to be something similar happening with kissaten, the venerable coffee houses that flourished back in the pre-Doutor days. The recent invasion of so-called third wave coffeeshops (think: baristas with artisanal beards talking knowledgeably about “mouthfeel”) has prompted a re-evaluation of Japan’s older coffee-making traditions, with their emphasis on patient, finicky technique.
This makes sense. The third-wavers may prefer single-origin beans and lighter roasts, but many of the methods they use behind the counter — notably their preference for pour-over brewing — were perfected by earlier generations of kissaten owners.
James Freeman, CEO of third-wave heavyweight Blue Bottle Coffee, has been quick to credit the influence that Japan’s old-school coffee doyens had on his approach. His 2012 book, “The Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee,” features a lengthy encomium to Chatei Hatou, a nearly 30-year-old kissaten in Tokyo’s Shibuya district.
Admitting that he’s both overawed by and a bit jealous of the shop’s masterful service, Freeman writes: “I’m sure I think about Chatei Hatou every single working day.”
Coffee nerds visiting Japan now make a point of including some of the top kissaten on their itineraries — Ginza’s wonderful Cafe de l’Ambre is another popular destination for pilgrims — but the enthusiasm isn’t just coming from overseas. Japanese magazines have taken to featuring kissaten on a regular basis, and Brutus devoted an entire issue to the subject in 2014.
At Cafe de Rope Ginza, which opened last spring in the trendy The Park-Ing Ginza retail complex, shoppers can experience what’s basically a superfluous modern remake of the kissaten experience, complete with retro food offerings such as fruit sandwiches and toast with cheese and whitebait.
You’d do better to skip this fashionable rehash and head straight to the source, though. Just be warned that kissaten aren’t for everyone. They’re dark (some might say dingy) places, where the coffee typically costs twice as much as you’re probably used to paying, and smoking is almost invariably allowed.
Some of them don’t even serve particularly notable coffee, but that definitely isn’t the case at Chatei Hatou. Their demitasse — dubbed the “5-Bancho” (“5th Avenue” in English) — is the kind of coffee you think about for weeks afterwards: bitter yet unctuously smooth, without any trace of astringency. At ¥950, I’d consider it a bargain.
Then again, the coffee is really just part of the experience at kissaten. Call it personal preference, but the minimalist chic favored by the third-wave brigade is starting to feel a bit oppressive to me. There’s nothing at Tokyo’s multiple Blue Bottle branches that makes me want to linger once I’ve finished my cup. Sat at the counter at Chatei Hatou, amid decor more redolent of a Tudor farmhouse, it’s almost impossible to leave.
Chatei Hatou is located at 1-15-9 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; 03-3400-9088; open daily 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; nearest station: Shibuya.