If you like the occasional cup of coffee, you can probably skip this page. If, like me, you require at least three strong cups of coffee every morning before you’re capable of doing anything even remotely complicated (like walking up stairs, or remembering your phone), you’ll probably want to know where to get a good cup in Japan. In which case I have good and bad news for you.
The good news: coffee is everywhere.
The bad news: quite a lot of it is pretty bad, and surprisingly expensive.
It’s still possible, though, to manage a European-sized coffee problem without spending a fortune. Here’s how to get caffeinated on the cheap.
Starbucks has invaded Japan, and you’ll find branches in many cities – usually in the posher shopping centres. And, you know, it’s just Starbucks – not very good coffee at a fairly high price, drunk by people who seem to like sitting in Starbucks for whatever reason. So, why not go somewhere that’s, you know, not Starbucks?
Doutor Coffee is probably the biggest chain you’ll spot on Japanese shopping streets. It sells just about every espresso-based drink you’d expect, plus the two Japanese-coffee-shop staples:
- ‘Blend Coffee’ – fiercely overbrewed filter/drip coffee; a bit like setting a filter machine to work then drinking the first cup that comes out of it. If I remember correctly, Tully’s calls this 日本のコーヒー(Japanese Coffee), everywhere else look for ブレンド.
- ‘American Coffee’ – weaker coffee. In some shops this is ‘americano’ (espresso plus water), and thus actually pretty drinkable; in others it’s filter. Look for アメリカン on the board.
As with any Japanese coffee shop, remember that you’ll normally need to specify hot coffee, rather than iced (unless you want the latter, of course). Don’t do what I did on my first visit and ask for 暖かいコーヒー (hot coffee) – the Japanese for hot, in the context of coffee, is “hotto”. Doutor also sells cheap breakfast sets including a big cup of coffee and some sandwich-y things for a few hundred yen in the morning, which can be a good option if you’re traveling early.
Cafe Veloce is a cheaper chain where you can pick up blend/american coffee, as well as espresso and tea drinks, for a much lower price. The coffee’s averagely poor but really very cheap, and you can also grab pastries for a cheap breakfast – just watch out for the smoking areas (I’m not particularly bothered by cigarette smoke, but some Veloce branches are like walking into a fog of it).
Mister Donut is, yes, a strange ersatz-American doughnut chain. The doughnuts are good, and the blend coffee is, well, at least hot. And – unlike anywhere else in Japan – if you prop yourself up for half an hour to read the news, you might get your coffee refilled.
Oh, and finally, a word about tea. Are you British? Do you drink strong tea by the bucketload? Would you perhaps, in a moment of weakness, consider ordering something – normally called something like ‘Royal Milk Tea’? Don’t. Just don’t.
Canned coffee is big business in Japan, and can be found in most streetside vending machines for 100-120yen. Look for a coloured light by the can, or on the button: if it’s red (usually in the morning), the cans are heated. If it’s blue, they’re chilled.
Most cans include milk and sugar, so they’re really quite sweet, but there are also black coffee cans (the easy one to spot is the one with BOSS BLACK). Besides Boss, other brands that you’ll find everywhere include UC and Georgia (notable mostly for its amazing/terrible Twin Peaks commercials).
The bottom line on canned coffee: it’s not really coffee, more like some kind of strange, coffee-flavoured soft drink. I’ve come to quite like it (Georgia Emerald Mountain Blend, in the blue cans).
You’ll find a Doutor / Cafe Veloce / Tully’s in just about any Japanese city. But what if you’re out in the middle of nowhere, with no sign of even a vending machine? As with all things, Japan’s ‘combini’ – convenience stores – are there to help.
Just about every 7-Eleven, Lawson, Sunkus or (insert name of some other local convenience chain here) sells coffee from any store where people might want it – roadside ones in particular. Normally you pay for a cup, then vend it from a machine on or next to the counter. If you don’t speak Japanese, and the staff don’t speak your language, try opening with: “Hotto cou-hii kudasai” (hot coffee, please). The next question will probably concern whether you want a small cup or a big one – small is “chiisai”, big is “ookii”, or you could break out the “big space between hands” or “small space between hands” gestures.
Convenience store coffee varies in quality from “this is really quite bad coffee, but at least it’s coffee” to “this is surprisingly not as awful as I’d expected, and at least it’s coffee”.
Actually Good Coffee?
If you like really good coffee, and you don’t mind paying for it, then of course Japan has you covered there, too – but, rather like in London, you’ll need to know where to go, as it tends to be found in independent shops rather than chains. I’ll always include any particularly good spots in my city guide pages.