Food & Drink

The long pour: Tokyo Coffee Festival rounds up specialty coffee from across Japan

by Claire Williamson

Staff Writer

The second day of the Tokyo Coffee Festival Spring 2018 (TCF) might be overcast, but the atmosphere of the crowd gathered in United Nations University’s central courtyard was only a caffeinated sip shy of well and truly buzzed. The nutty smell of freshly brewed coffee wafts through the air. Attendees queue for their favorite shops, willing to wait that extra moment or three for the barista to pour their coffee; those already with brew in hand clink mugs and sip appreciatively, or munch on artisanal donuts. Though the various baristas smile and joke around, their meticulous standards for each cup never waver; like so many things in Japan, pour-over coffee has been elevated to an art form.

The TCF is a product of the unexpectedly long history of Japanese coffee. The country’s first coffee shop, the Kahichakan, opened in Tokyo in 1888 and quickly became a mainstay for cosmopolitan gentleman with Western sensibilities, offering coffee, billiards, newspapers and cigars. While the Kahichakan remained in business for only a few years, cafes in Japan began to function as public social spaces for both men and, increasingly by the 1920s and ’30s, women. The postwar period heralded the rise of the kissaten coffee shops as we conceive of them today, and by the 1980s there were around 155,000 of these shops tucked in back alleys and basements throughout Japan. But third wave coffee, which only took off in Japan around 2012, is still a relatively new movement — and one that still needs some nurturing.

“When (TCF) first started, it was mainly just a chance to educate people who didn’t know anything about coffee,” says Hengtee Lim, the Tokyo-based staff writer for Sprudge, the U.S. coffee website. Founded in 2015 by barista Yuji Otsuki of The Local Coffee Stand, the initial goal of the TCF was to transform specialty coffee from a mere trend to a lifestyle. “The theory was if you can show someone how easy it is to make a coffee, they’ll be a lot more likely to make that a part of their life, too,” says Lim.

Tokyo might be the center of the Japanese coffee scene, but the rest of the country has plenty to offer. Although Toshikazu Muromoto, the director of Standart Japan, a quarterly publication dedicated to the specialty coffee industry, acknowledges that Tokyo is where many of Japan’s diverse coffee trends emerge, distinct hubs of coffee culture exist in Sendai, Osaka, Fukuoka and Okinawa. And this growth shows in the data of this spring’s TCF: Of the 35 unique shops that participate over the weekend, only 11 are from Tokyo — just over 30 percent. Although “Tokyo Coffee Festival” might now be a misnomer, one of the event’s strengths is that it brings together consumers and industry professionals from across the country; in one place you can experience the full spectrum of Japanese coffee blends.

Chiba Prefecture’s Kakuya Ashida from Kakuya Coffee Stand hands out a steaming Ethiopian brew in cups with a uncannily accurate sticker of his face on them while the staff of Abe Coffee from Kanagawa Prefecture brew their coffee in a massive nel drip — a uniquely Japanese coffee-making technique that uses a reusable cloth cone instead of a paper filter. The line is almost always over 10-deep for Kyoto’s Hibi Coffee, with its iconic bearded, spectacled doodle on its takeout cup.

Other shops have traveled to Tokyo from even further afield — Okinawa, Taiwan and even Portland in the United States. Japanese coffee shops are more international than ever, yet manage to preserve a unique sense of kodawari, an uncompromising dedication to the craft.

While the purpose of TCF is to introduce and educate as well as show off some of the country’s best new coffee shops, specialty coffee can still feel overwhelming. According to Standart Japan’s Muromoto, though, the best way to learn is to “go to your local coffee shop and ask questions of your barista.” If nothing else, you’ll walk away having had a great cup of joe.

The Tokyo Coffee Festival runs twice yearly. Information about past and future events, participating shops and more can be found at tokyocoffeefestival.co.