Food & Drink | THE HIGH GROUNDS

Kurasu: Yozo Otsuki’s blend of coffee and lifestyle

by Claire Williamson

Staff Writer

For Yozo Otsuki, coffee and daily life are inevitably intertwined.

While he was growing up, each of his parents ran their own jazz kissaten (old-school coffee shops) in Kyoto — his father’s was a typical jazz kissa, while his mother’s was more of an artistic gallery and kissa combination — so he grew up amid the scents and accoutrements of coffee.

And, the name of his company — Kurasu — is a romanized rendition of the Japanese word for “to live,” or “lifestyle.” It is a multifaceted business, one that combines an online shop specializing in Japanese coffee equipment and brewing accessories, a monthly coffee subscription service featuring domestic partner roasters, brick-and-mortar cafes in Kyoto and Singapore and, opening in Kyoto in December, its own roastery.

But, despite Kurasu’s global presence and broad range of activities, Otsuki never expected to end up in the coffee business.

Until 2012, Otsuki worked in finance at Goldman Sachs in Tokyo. Unsure of what he wanted to do, but knowing he needed to rethink and refocus, Otsuki quit his job and spent several months backpacking around Europe. Otsuki eventually moved to Sydney, where he connected with people from art and design backgrounds and immersed himself in Australia’s vibrant coffee culture.

According to Otsuki, learning of the overseas demand for Japanese-designed products, as well as the appreciation of Japanese culture, was an “aha moment.”

Brewed with care: Yozo Otsuki pours coffee at the Kurasu cafe in Kyoto.
Brewed with care: Yozo Otsuki pours coffee at the Kurasu cafe in Kyoto. | COURTESY OF KURASU

As he researched other stores that sold Japanese home goods in the city, he found the products either had dramatically marked-up prices or that the stores found it difficult to overcome both the language and cultural barrier to source directly from manufacturers in Japan.

So, in 2013, Otsuki launched Kurasu, an online shop for affordably priced Japanese home goods (such as porcelain and kitchenware) that was deliberately marketed toward the English-speaking community.

Included in the lineup of products Otsuki initially sold was a selection of harder-to-find Japanese coffee equipment, such as the acrylic resin Kono Meimon dripper — one of the first conical drippers — and the Tsukiusagi (Moon Rabbit) enamel pot. After six months, Otsuki noticed that more than 60 percent of his fledgling company’s sales were coming from his small lineup of coffee products. He refocused his inventory and, in 2015, moved operations from Sydney back to Japan.

As Kurasu’s cachet in the coffee world grew, it was natural for Otsuki to expand his range to include beans. In 2015, he launched the Japanese Coffee Subscription, to “open people up to (Japanese) coffee roasters that are not as well-known.” Past collaborations have included Glitch Coffee Roasters (Tokyo), Suiren+ Coffee Roaster (Hiroshima Prefecture), And Coffee Roasters (Kumamoto Prefecture) and more.

While the subscription allowed Otsuki to network with partner roasters, he wanted a physical space that would let him connect to all of Kurasu’s customers. He’d been looking for a space in Kyoto and, in 2016, his mother notified him of an open retail space near Kyoto Station, which he bought sight unseen. Formerly a casual teishoku (set meal) restaurant, Otsuki rebuilt the interior from scratch with low counters to break down barriers between the customer and the barista and open spaces to facilitate conversation (which, given Kurasu’s 50-50 international to local customer demographic, is apt to be multilingual).

Whether low-key or technical, Otsuki wanted a “place where people could just come in, have high-quality coffee and converse with baristas.” A second store, in Singapore, followed in 2017.

No coffee, no life: The shop front of Kurasu
No coffee, no life: The shop front of Kurasu’s Kyoto location, which opened in 2016. | COURTESY OF KURASU

And, starting Dec. 20, Kurasu customers will have one more topic of conversation: the brand’s new Kurasu Fushimi Inari roastery, located near the eponymous shrine. Located in the first floor of a guesthouse, Otsuki says that Kurasu’s beans will be roasted on a 6-kilogram Giesen and that, to prepare, staff embarked on a weeklong roasting session bootcamp. Although most of the roasts will be light, to highlight the unique flavors of each bean, Kurasu will also offer a medium-dark roast: Right now they boast two roasts from Ethiopia, one from Colombia and one from Rwanda.

Seemingly tireless, Otsuki has no plans to stop with this roastery. In 2019, he wants to visit coffee farms directly, design original Kurasu products and collaborative goods and compile a book with all the profiles and stories of the roasters featured thus far in his subscription service.

Although the primary aim is to establish Kurasu as a roaster in its own right, Otsuki speaks at length about expanding Kurasu’s physical presence into Southeast Asia and Japan’s overall ability to support and invest in up-and-coming coffee regions.

With Kurasu at the helm, coffee lovers are in good hands.

Kurasu’s new roastery opens Dec. 20 at Kurasu Fushimi Inari, Fukakusaharaigawacho 24-5, Fushimi-ku, Kyoto 612-0013; open daily 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Kurasu’s Kyoto cafe is at Higashiaburanokojicho 552, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto 600-8235; open daily 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more information on the company and its products, visit www.kurasu.kyoto.