Tokyo’s venerable coffee houses unfazed by Starbucks’ muscle



Above the converging crowds at the famous Shibuya scramble crossing in Tokyo glows the unmissable bright green sign of Starbucks, a magnet that pulls in a steady stream of hip, young customers.

The American coffee company is so popular in Japan that it recently announced plans to buy out its Japanese partner for $900 million and take full control of operations in its second-largest market.

But not everyone is a fan of the customizable drinks and free Wi-Fi on offer at over 1,000 branches of the global chain, soon to be found in every prefecture, including remote, rural Tottori.

“The way they make (coffee) is totally wrong. It’s not tasty,” says Ichiro Sekiguchi, the 100-year-old owner of long-established independent Tokyo coffee shop Cafe de L’Ambre, not far from Shinbashi Station in the Ginza district.

The dimly lit wooden interior of his cafe, which sells nothing but coffee, is busy with customers sipping their ¥700 brews, which Sekiguchi claims are the best in Japan.

The coffee is strong and rich, with a deep flavor that his customers think is worth the price — at least twice that of Starbucks.

Like many independent coffee shops, L’Ambre thrives on repeat customers and counts wrestler-turned-politician Antonio Inoki among its regulars, while nearby Cafe Paulista boasts that it was once frequented by John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

One of L’Ambre’s loyal patrons has drunk a cup of coffee made from beans meticulously hand-roasted by Sekiguchi and his staff every day for 50 years, said the centenarian.

Sekiguchi opened L’Ambre in 1948, when occupying American soldiers made coffee popular in a land where green tea had long reigned.

Japanese are now the world’s fourth-biggest coffee consumers (after the U.S., Brazil and Germany), drinking 446,392 tons of the stuff in 2013. Some of that comes in the form of canned coffee, served hot or cold by ubiquitous vending machines. One brand has been endorsed by Hollywood star Tommy Lee Jones for years.

A growing proportion is being sold in the country’s plentiful convenience stores, where big chains like 7-Eleven and Lawson are slugging it out for customers, offering freshly ground coffee for ¥100.

“There are many people who drink coffee in Japan, but they drink bad coffee,” said Sekiguchi, who estimates that there are only “around five” truly good coffee shops in Japan. Naturally, that includes his.

While smoking is banned in Starbucks, the acceptance of clouds of toxic cigarette fumes may be a factor keeping old school coffee shops like L’Ambre afloat.

“Japan is still way behind in terms of anti-smoking policies, especially measures against secondhand smoke,” said Hiroshi Yamato, a doctor and smoking expert at the University of Occupational and Environmental Health in Kitakyushu.

“You can still smoke in a lot of public places in Japan such as office buildings, coffee shops, restaurants and bars,” he said.

Sekiguchi, who smokes a pipe, said new cafes that ban smoking have got it wrong, as “after drinking delicious coffee, you want to smoke tobacco.”

A smoky mist also fills the air at Aroma, another long-running cafe tucked away on the second floor of an old building near the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo.

Aroma opened 30 years ago during the excesses of the bubble period and, like many local coffeehouses, hasn’t changed much since. Round glass siphons bubble behind the counter of the mirrored saloon, which is decorated with pot plants and reproductions of old paintings.

An ashtray and packets of coffee creamer piled up in a glass sit on every table while “Stand By Me” plays on the stereo.

An aging lady drinks her glass of iced coffee through a straw and nibbles a plate of French toast next to a pair of chain-smoking young nurses, who have chosen to take their break in the antithesis of the cookie-cutter shops run by big chains.

“Their style is so impersonal, whereas if you’re on your own here, you can have a conversation,” said 63-year-old owner Junko Koshiba, who runs the cafe with her daughter.

“There’s a warm feeling here,” she added, giving out free bananas to the cafe’s customers.

While the blend at Aroma is no match for L’Ambre’s smooth brew, Koshiba is adamant that the popularity of Starbucks and homegrown chains like Doutor and Cafe Veloce, won’t spell the end of old-fashioned cafes like hers.

“Here you can relax, take your time,” she said. “The young people who go to Starbucks and the like can’t because they’re on their computers and cellphones.”

  • zer0_0zor0

    Round glass siphons definitely make far better coffee than anything available at SB.

  • airtonix

    Smoking is disgusting, the ashtrays, the left over butts, the bad breath, the stale chemical smoke smell…

    None of it belongs with good coffee.