The five-story pagoda of Hokanji Temple has crowned the skyline of eastern Kyoto for more than a millennium — give or take the few times when it burned down and was reconstructed. Just down the lane from the current incarnation (constructed in 1440) sits a rather newer landmark, % Arabica, which has become one of the most buzzed-about coffee shops in the city since its opening in 2014.
Anyone searching for a viable Japanese rival to the branding clout of California’s Blue Bottle Coffee should look here. In the shop’s sleek, minimalist interior, it feels like everything within sight — from paper cups and trashcans to a high-end valve amplifier behind the counter — has been embossed with the store’s logo.
The coffee is a major draw too, of course. Head barista Junichi Yamaguchi won first prize at the Coffee Fest Latte Art World Championship in Tokyo last year, and conjures intricate foam designs with casual grace. Meanwhile, customers looking to buy beans can choose from over two dozen varieties — including some from % Arabica’s own farm in Hawaii — then have them roasted to order on the spot.
“Customers love that,” Yamaguchi says, explaining that the whole process takes just five to 10 minutes. “There aren’t many places that let you do that.”
% Arabica is the brainchild of Kenneth Shoji, a trading company boss who’s been investing heavily in specialty coffee. In addition to owning a coffee farm, his company, Asiamix, is a distributor of high-end Slayer espresso machines and the sole exporter of the Japan-made Tornado King roaster. (The first branch of % Arabica opened in 2013 in Hong Kong, where Asiamix is headquartered.)
“He’s bringing a lot of new ideas to the coffee scene,” says Yamaguchi.
The shop opens at 8 a.m., and I’m asked to get there before 10 a.m. if I want to speak with Yamaguchi — he will be too busy to chat later in the day. Even on a drizzly weekday morning there’s already a steady stream of multinational customers.
While overseas visitors tend to discover % Arabica via the TripAdvisor website (where it’s currently ranked as the fourth-best “Restaurant in Kyoto”), Yamaguchi says that Japanese customers often come after word-of-mouth recommendations. Social-networking app Instagram is another major lure: Yamaguchi and his latte art have attracted more than 33,000 followers.
In July, the shop gained a Kyoto sibling, when a new coffee stand opened in the western Arashiyama district, another busy tourist spot. Yamaguchi explains that they aren’t just angling for new customers, they’re looking for international franchise partners.
“We had some customers from Kuwait who liked the concept, so that’s where we’ll be opening next,” he says.
Well, why stop at Kyoto?