Food & Drink

Portals of the past: Peering into Tokyo's traditional kissaten coffee shops

by Russell Thomas

Contributing Writer

“Sorry, we’re full,” I hear someone say as I open the door to Ladrio, a pre-eminent kissaten (traditional coffee shop) situated in a tumbledown alley in Tokyo’s Jimbocho neighborhood.

Ladrio is located in a tumbledown alley in Tokyo's Jimbocho neighborhood. | RIKO MONMA
Ladrio is located in a tumbledown alley in Tokyo’s Jimbocho neighborhood. | RIKO MONMA

I’m naturally disappointed and yet a part of me takes solace in the fact that such an old place like this — slowly fading from the landscape of Tokyo — is still managing to draw a steady clientele.

Peering through Ladrio’s opaque windows, the interior is decked out in dark wood and sturdy old furniture. The coffee shop is a place where time slips by effortlessly and yet it’s always busy. It features a limited menu in the time-honored kodawari tradition of paying attention to detail: Napolitan and chicken curry. That’s it.

However, it’s this intangible commitment to specialization, combined with its tangible Western-flavored indulgences of the Showa Era (1926-89), that gives Ladrio — and, for that matter, most traditional coffee shops in Japan — the air of stumbling into an eternal diorama of the past.

“Kissaten” literally means “tea-drinking shop,” but these establishments are so much more than that. Typically featuring wooden interiors, kitsch accoutrements, old-school table service and a notable absence of nonsmoking regulations, they’re anachronous in a contemporary world of Brooklyn-ified coffee outlets. Kissaten are virtual theme cafes — vaults of nostalgia in their own right.

Kanda Brazil's kitchen | RIKO MONMA
Kanda Brazil’s kitchen | RIKO MONMA

Birth of kissaten

To understand the country’s traditional coffee shops a little better, we first need to take a step back and look at their origins. This naturally starts with the state of coffee in Japan around 200 years ago, which began with trade, treaties and tentative tastings.

Poet and author Ota Nanpo made an early mention of coffee as far back as 1804, writing that “it has a burnt smell and the taste is unbearable.”

Coffee Taro | RIKO MONMA
Coffee Taro | RIKO MONMA

In those times, coffee was regarded as a medicine that could stave off the effects of the cold and a vegetable-deficient diet. Not surprisingly, it was sent to shogunate troops stationed in Hokkaido.

The coffee beans were typically roasted until they were almost black, coarsely ground, put in hemp sacks and then immersed in hot water. A small-scale version of this brew is still on offer in traditional outlets in the Aomori cities of Hirosaki and Tsugaru. It’s called hanshi no kōhī — “warrior’s coffee.”

Ota’s description of coffee is well known, but he wasn’t the first to partake in the brew. Those allowed to pass freely in and out of Dejima, a Dutch trading post in Nagasaki, were known to have drunk coffee, while prostitutes from the city’s red-light district, Maruyama, were sometimes given coffee beans as a gift by the traders.

Prominent rangaku (Dutch studies) scholar Shizuki Tadao (1760-1806) made the oldest mention of coffee in his 1782 atlas, “Bankoku Kanki” (“Selective Views of the Myriad Countries”).

Fast-forward to the end of Japan’s policy of isolation in 1853 and the adoption of Western ideas was growing. Coffee, slowly but surely, started to be embraced by consumers across the nation.

The first advertisement for coffee appeared in the Yomiuri Shimbun in 1875. Satori Kato, a chemist living in Chicago, came up with a way of vacuum-drying coffee extract as “soluble coffee,” which he presented at the Pan-American Exposition in 1901. (He wasn’t able to land a patent but that’s another story.)

Coffee Taro | RIKO MONMA
Coffee Taro | RIKO MONMA

David L. Howell, a professor of Japanese history at Harvard University, describes that period of time in the early 20th century as a “fashion of engagement with Western things and culture.”

“I wouldn’t call it ‘Westernization’ by any means but, still, people were interested in Western-style things,” Howell says. “The first fads for Western-style food, clothing and other daily items were still going strong, so it’s not surprising that fascination with Western-style coffee culture would manifest itself then.

“By the early 1900s, a lot of things had become domesticated and perhaps not even thought of as very ‘foreign’ anymore.”

Along with the modern establishments, Howell says, came modern, young Japanese people, specifically modān gāru (modern girls), a term coined by novelist Junichiro Tanizaki in his 1924 novel, “Naomi.” These young women came from a broad cross-section of society, including upper-class, middle-class and working-class consumers with disposable income, access to cheaper goods and an influx of Western fashion at their fingertips.

“Naomi,” which was partly serialized in the Osaka Morning News, tells the tale of a man rebelling against conventional life who falls in love with a 15-year-old mixed-race girl working in an Asakusa kafe (a forerunner of the kissaten proper).

The novel shows how influential these traditional coffee shops were to women of the time, so much so that when the Osaka Morning News decided to discontinue the series, the remaining chapters of “Naomi” were published in a magazine called Josei, the so-called “bible of the modern girl.”

The older generation of the time was appalled, the younger generation was enthralled. Young women, and men, embraced foreign ideas such as modernity and freedom, and hung out in spaces where these things formed themselves anew and flourished — the now innocuous kissaten.

Coffee Taro | RIKO MONMA
Coffee Taro | RIKO MONMA

Boom years

“Naomi” was published two years before the opening of Lion in Dogenzaka in 1926. This iconic traditional coffee shop was, like many, destroyed in the firebombing of Tokyo during World War II but rose like a phoenix in 1950 as a meikyoku kissa (a “masterpiece” kissaten, where classical music is played — usually on vinyl, sometimes live) and still survives to this day.

By 1935, more than 10,000 kissaten were operating in Tokyo alone. They became so ingrained, so part of the landscape, that they began to take on certain aspects of the capital’s neighborhoods.

Kanda Brazil | RIKO MONMA
Kanda Brazil | RIKO MONMA

Ginza, even then Tokyo’s fanciest and premiere shopping district, was renowned for its high-class kissaten; the student-friendly traditional coffee shops in Kanda were known, allegedly, for their attractive serving staff; an enclave of publishing, Jimbocho’s kissaten provided calm book-reading environments.

Eventually kissaten became as Japanese as anything else. They were opened, managed, staffed and frequented by Japanese people.

Yasuhiko Fukuzono, owner of Flau Records and a self-confessed fan of kissaten, says it’s important for traditional coffee shops to stick to their basic formula.

“Kissaten at the beginning of the Showa Era might have been imitating European cafes but over time they’ve changed in their own way and acquired a very unique personality,” Fukuzono says. “Each kissaten has its own unique history. … It’s great that you can feel the value and importance of not changing within the city’s constantly changing scenery.”

Traditional coffee shops in modern times are not rare, but they’re no longer as common as they once were. They’re almost stuck in a hazy limbo between being irrelevant and being a novelty. Not looming all that large in Japan’s psyche and often failing to attract a steady stream of overseas tourists, the kissaten population in Tokyo has been thinning each year.

Angelus — the first place in Japan to serve cold-brew coffee — closed its doors on Asakusa’s Orange Street in March. Akihabara’s Acacia followed suit not long after. Marimo, located in Yokohama’s Hiyoshi neighborhood, shut down in 2018. Shinjuku has lost hundreds of outlets in the face of new property development, including the meikyoku kissa La Scala (1954-2002).

The end of everything

Yoko Kawaguchi, author of multiple books on Japanese cafe culture, says younger generations simply want different things from the coffee establishments they frequent.

“People born in the Heisei Era (1989-2019) feel closer to Starbucks and other global chain stores,” Kawaguchi says.

Milonga Nueva | RIKO MONMA
Milonga Nueva | RIKO MONMA

However, she adds, the dearth of customers is only part of the reason that Showa Era kissaten are closing. Many owners are aging and the economic downturn of the early 21st century has put a strain on finances, she says.

Fukuzono agrees, adding that the future of traditional coffee shops hasn’t been helped by the recent increase in the number of nonsmoking customers as well as the age of the buildings many are located in.

He says younger generations simply prefer more natural surroundings.

“I don’t know about other people, but I don’t really want the taste of a Showa kissaten,” he says. “The artificial coloring used in melon soda drinks and kakigori (shaved ice desserts) or the thick margarine that is spread on bread probably isn’t great for your health.

“However, I do feel nostalgic about the colors and refinement of a kissaten.”

Likewise, Kawaguchi says the appeal of kissaten lies in nostalgia.

“In Japan, the ‘retro boom’ is still going strong for a wide section of society. For young people, kissaten that symbolize the Showa Era are fresh but nostalgic,” she says. “An old coffee shop is a rare and unknown thing for many of them and, at the same time, it’s filled with nostalgia.”

And that’s the charm. Jimbocho’s kissaten, for example, reek of old-school splendor.

Coffee Taro | RIKO MONMA
Coffee Taro | RIKO MONMA

Saboru offers up kissaten classics and neon fruit juices in a three-tiered room of gnarled wood and ornaments: shrine bells, daruma dolls, ganesha statuettes, figurines, Native American masks and snow globes. Dating back to 1955, the name derives from the Spanish term for “flavor,” but its similarity to saboru — that is, to skip work or class — has reportedly made it popular with office workers and students throughout the years.

Basement level Kanda Brazil, founded in 1972, exemplifies Japanese-style contemporary design with its floor of oversized quarry tiles, irori (Japanese hearth), traditional earthen plaster walls and thick wooden beams. You can even order coffee beans from this establishment via fax.

For all its closures, Shinjuku boasts more than a few kissaten, including the calm, unassuming Tajimaya, founded in 1964, and the meikyoku kissa L’Ambre — Fukuzono’s favorite — with its heavy red carpet and crumbling-luxe interiors.

This is all well and good for iconic kissaten that are located in prominent areas. But those in more suburban areas, without the nearby business centers to provide a steady stream of customers, face more difficulty.

The exterior of Coffee Taro | RIKO MONMA
The exterior of Coffee Taro | RIKO MONMA

The modest Coffee Taro in Musashi-Koyama, for instance, is a wonderful world on the second-floor of a drab precinct located on Tokyo’s longest covered shōtengai (shopping arcade), Palm.

It boasts chandeliers, dark wooden furniture, 1970-something paneling that seems to have stored all its years now reflecting back at you and coffee beans sitting in glass tabletops. Modest in spirit it may be, Taro speaks of this commercial district’s boom, when no one would think twice to use a sack of coffee as table fodder.

There are times in the day when Taro is empty, the space reverberating with the soft strings and piano of endless, nameless classical melodies: a soundtrack from hidden speakers.

However, there are times when Taro rattles with conversation and the elderly couple who run it are busy — the wife trembling, slow and bent over in a hunch; the husband tacit in the kitchen. Trays arrive for a mix of friends, regulars and retirees who are deeply engrossed in thick books of manga.

Coffee Taro | RIKO MONMA
Coffee Taro | RIKO MONMA

Preserving the past

The future fate of Taro, and dozens like it, may already be sealed. For Kayaba Coffee, Yanaka’s famous kissaten, this was almost the case. Set in a 103-year-old building, it has been a coffee shop since 1938. Or, at least, it was. The family running the business decided to close up shop in 2006 after the couple’s adopted daughter passed away. They simply had nobody to take over the business.

Much loved by the local community, it was revamped and reopened in 2009 by a tag-team effort of the not-for-profit Taito Cultural and Historical Society and SCAI The Bathhouse, the latter itself a former sento (public bath) repurposed as an art gallery. Today, Kayaba Coffee is thriving, a mix of locals and overseas visitors alike stopping by in the middle of a saunter through the shitamachi (downtown) neighborhood.

A small lamp lights up a corner of Saboru. | RIKO MONMA
A small lamp lights up a corner of Saboru. | RIKO MONMA

With NPOs on the case, kissaten would never have to close and with careful preservation, renovation, a presence on social media and, possibly, English-speaking staff, they could survive quite comfortably.

On the other hand, repurposing a coffee establishment could regenerate the business into something more. Struggling traditional coffee shops could, for example, follow the lead of Kissa Ginza in Ebisu. Operating as a coffee shop by day, Kissa Ginza offers up alcohol and Chinese-Western snacks such as sweet potato fries and fresh spring rolls at night. Under its original 1962 kanji, there’s a glowing neon sign illuminating the word “Ginza” and a martini glass. It’s a virtual kissa-zakaya.

More generally, kissaten may survive in the form of sub-branches such as maid kissa, jazz kissa, manga kissa and even cat kissa. “Traditional” kissaten themselves already are referred to as Showa kissa; with potentially so few outlets remaining over the next few years, it’s likely that the lure will be as it is now — that they are retro and, therefore, different.

As Fukuzono says, “Kissaten tend to attract attention as a unique coffee shop rather than the uniform, Brooklyn-style cafe.”

Even certain chain cafes in Japan have that distinct kissaten vibe. Renoir, with its table-service, is a viable contender, starting life as a singular senbei shop and establishing itself as a kissaten, Ginza Renoir, in Nihonbashi in 1964.

Likewise, Komeda’s Coffee started up in 1968 in Nagoya. Ueshima Coffeehouse began life in 1933. All three project a contrasting, yet very kissaten-flavored aesthetic in their stores: Renoir is classy, classic; Komeda’s Coffee is Japanese-modern, rustic; Ueshima is mid-century modern.

The exterior of Kanda Brazil | RIKO MONMA
The exterior of Kanda Brazil | RIKO MONMA

The next generation

And then there’s the new generation: What’s on the menu for today’s modern girls and boys? Shibuya’s kooky And People Cafe, with its drapes, houseplants and creative menu, feels like a magazine spread. In the same area of Udagawacho, Mobo Moga — literally shorthand for “modern boy, modern girl” — attracts youth looking for a nonchalant kissaten for their generation. At Shinjuku’s MOA Street area, Attic Room’s daytime offering comprises yōshoku (Western cuisine) classics, cakes and coffee — kissaten in spirit, at least.

Some of these come close to what Kawaguchi calls neo-kissaten. “Neo-kissaten have old-school interiors, like a Showa Era kissaten,” she says. “They offer a typical menu of old coffee shops — cream soda, Napolitan, curry, pudding and the like. However, these menus are more photogenic and designed to be social media-friendly.”

Neo Kissa King, which is located in Tokyo’s Yurakucho district, definitely offers a different experience to the garden variety kissaten.

It was crafted by Transit General Office, “a company that creates cultural playgrounds,” responsible for the now-defunct photocopier-boasting bar, Office, and shiny cafe franchise, Sign. Embracing a full cultural playground spirit, Neo Kissa King has the retro-futuristic aesthetic of how the year 2000 was imagined as in the 1960s: It’s cool. More importantly, it’s a kissaten.

A man serves customers at Saboru. | RIKO MONMA
A man serves customers at Saboru. | RIKO MONMA

Its classic menu of pudding, Napolitan and omuraisu (rice omelet), combined with new standards — kale salad, obviously, and wraps — has been sourced from the cream of the capital’s crop. Its curry, for example, was devised by a chef from 1-star Michelin restaurant Sincere in Sendagaya, while the pudding was created by the minds at Harajuku’s The Little Bakery Tokyo. Neo Kissa King is about good food that looks good in a good setting — it’s primed for Instagram and food blogs, today’s modern girl bibles.

Other neo-kissaten, with a decidedly public face for an SNS-fuelled generation, are made by — and for — those who want something different. They’re not pre-existing, something that isn’t yours, providing a brief sojourn into Showa for a bout of borrowed nostalgia. Neo-kissaten are, as the name intimates, new. They’re nostalgic, but on their young creators’ terms.

Kissaten set the standard and others will follow, inspired and influenced by the old to craft the new. The originals are essentially museums: Some will become famous institutions with age and popularity, others may be repurposed or somehow saved by well-meaning organizations. Others, however, will simply fall by the wayside.

At present, though, they persist. So to tangibly feel the atmosphere of that once exciting crossroads of modernity and tradition between Japan and the West, pitch up at a kissaten, order something classic with a side of caffeine and feel time slipping inevitably, sadly, delightfully away.

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