KANAZAWA, ISHIKAWA PREF. – On first glance, the city of Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, seems focused on the past, a center of traditional performance arts such as noh and home to streets of wandering geisha. Understandably, the city’s impressive array of storied arts is relatively well-known, however, its vibrant food and drink scenes remain a local secret.
Coffee is one way to find out a little bit of what contemporary Kanazawa has in store. Coffee shops scattered throughout the city offer a glimpse of how locals live and enjoy this ancient city situated on the Sea of Japan.
Near the hallowed greenery of Kenrokuen, a landscape garden that is one of the city’s main attractions, is Katsura (Kenroku-Motomachi 1-14, Kanazawa 920-0931; 076-262-8448). This is a junkissa, a classic coffee shop where time feels like it’s been at a standstill since the 1960s or ’70s: dark wood paneling, cigarette smoke and soft classical music. Enter for the coffee, and you’ll slip into another era. Here, Toshio Sakaguchi, the owner, blends and roasts all of the beans, just like he’s done for years.
“I choose the coffee blend and the cup to suit the customer,” he says. Locals come here because they want a cup of his blend coffee and a chat. “I moved to Kanazawa because it’s safe, small and has few earthquakes and tsunami,” Sakaguchi continues. “I wanted to devote myself to coffee in my retirement. Before, I’d worked in fashion merchandising and roasting for a big coffee company. Here, I get to talk to people and make coffee for them cup by cup. I get to be precise and as perfect as I can get.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Curio Espresso and Vintage Design Cafe (Yasuecho 1-13, Kanazawa 920-0854; bit.ly/curioespresso), a coffee shop that revels in its non-Japanese styling and laid-back, contemporary feel. Curio was opened by husband-and-wife team Sol Gallago and Yuko Otoku. Gallago, a locksmith by trade, says that the city is so safe that his work is in little demand, which is one of the reasons the two opened Curio after they moved from Seattle to Otoku’s hometown of Kanazawa.
The place operates as a bit of an unofficial Kanazawa expat and tourist hangout, and the tables are often filled with American tourists or even expats using the coffee shop to teach English. Curio is also a destination for locals in search of a slice of Americana.
While Curio isn’t particularly influenced by Kanazawa, the food and coffee reflect the city’s devotion to quality. The cafe serves an American-style breakfast sandwich complete with cheese, egg and bacon that, when accompanied by a flat white, is perfect fuel for a brisk walk around the city. Curio is one of the few places in Kanazawa open for breakfast, a plus for visitors whose lodgings don’t include food.
Tachibana Coffee (Ibaragicho 56-3, Kanazawa 920-0994; bit.ly/tb-coffee) is different again, located on a small side street just down the hill from the D.T. Suzuki Museum, which was founded in honor of the man who introduced Zen Buddhism to generations of Westerners through his translations of Japanese religious texts. Quiet and airy, Tachibana Coffee is the perfect place to continue with philosophical musings after a visit to the museum.
According to owner Hiroshi Tachibana, “almost none of our visitors are tourists,” which gives the place a truly neighborhood feel. There, locals pop in and out for a chat and quick cup of coffee. Like Katsura and Curio, keeping standards high is priority. “After I quit my job training horses, I wanted to make coffee of the highest quality,” Tachibana says. “I roast all my own coffee in small lots and rotate my selection based on the season.”
While these three shops have different approaches to coffee and ambience, together they show the breadth of contemporary culture in Kanazawa. So the next time you’re in the city, why not take a moment to sip like the locals?