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Tokyo Coffee Crawl

a cup (or five) of coffee, in the land of the rising sun

Story by Andrew Kam June 8th, 2015
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The walk

Near the latter end of my trip to Japan, I stayed in a capsule hotel in Akihabara with the intention of going on a coffee crawl the whole day. Akihabara is a district (prefecture?) that’s apparently obsessed with anime/manga. I would comment on my experience there, but that is neither here nor there. I’ll focus on the coffee for now.

Japan is a city that is extremely commuter friendly. I would estimate that 90% of salary men/women (Sararīman or サラリーマン) walk and take the subway to work. So no matter what time of day you’re out, you’ll be in the company of intense foot traffic.

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#1. glitch Coffee Roasters

Winner of the 2014 Japanese Barista Championship - Kiyouzaku Suzuki. I was extremely lucky to have a cup of coffee here. While making my cup, I was offered a complimentary cupping, As I went around counter clockwise, my last taste was the Ethiopa Yirgacheffe. I got chills.

An explosion of fruitiness and nuttiness, without any acidity. I was blown away. How could a cup of coffee be this complex? Luckily, I had ordered the same roast for my cup.

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on the move again

I’m now on my way to my second location. I stopped by a convenience store for a quick breakfast and hopped on the subway.

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#2 Bear Pond espresso

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Bear Pond Espresso, located 3 stations away from Shibuya, on the outskirts of Tokyo in Setagaya-ku, a Mecca of sorts for any coffee fanatic. Its location is so out of the way it only attracts those who are really committed to making it there. Believe you me, I tried - twice. Unfortunately, there was a strict no-photo policy inside of the coffeeshop, so I am unable to provide any photos of the preparation or consumption of the shot. Rightly so, as Katsu-san’s espresso method (BPE-method) is the only one like it in the world. They opened at 10:45a, a bit late by my western standards, but everything seems to happen for a reason here in Tokyo. A line of about 10-deep formed shortly after I arrived, all of whom were waiting for the world-famous espresso pulled by Katsu-san.

The Espresso: the most unique shot I’ve ever tasted. It was viscous and thick, syrupy almost. Think molasses, or honey. The aroma was chocolatey, earthy, and sweet. I spent a few moments with my eyes closed and allowed my nose to take over. I mulled over the smell for a short while and took my first sip. Guess what happened?

goosebumps. again.

Maybe it’s my expectations, or lack thereof that allow me to have almost a spiritual experience every time I take a sip of these coffees. Take it as you will, this pilgrimage to some of the finest coffeeshops in the world has opened my eyes even more, to the craftsmanship and precision involved in crafting coffee. Whew, let’s take a breather now.

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Lunch - Maisen tonkatsu, harajuku

I hopped on the JR Yamanote line to meet up my brother for lunch. His office is quite close by so I’m glad I was able to meet him for lunch. We decide to have Katsu (breaded, fried pork) for lunch at Maisen. I plan my route so that I walk through Harajuku, and if you know about Harajuku, then you know…

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Boom.

I never thought that katsu could be refreshing. Using the highest grade of pork available in Japan, this establishment has a detailed explanation of what region each pig was grown in, as well as the cut involved. I went with the highest grade (obviously, I mean, who wouldn’t? You know the saying? When in Tokyo… never mind). It was so tender, so juicy, so well seasoned. The side dishes that came along were simple, but so complimentary to main part of the meal. The cabbage acted a palate cleanser, so that each time you take a bite of the pork you feel young all over again. The rice provided a solid base of carbs for the tiny cut of meat, the pickled vegetables were a sweet and tangy addition, and the pork miso was savory yet so refreshing, not sure how they managed to do that. I highly recommend stopping by here the next time you’re in Tokyo!

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#3 - Omotesando Koffee

Harajuku, Tokyo. As you can imagine, at this point I am so freaking sick of taking the subway and walking around. I’ve walked a total of 42mi in my time in Japan so far. 42 freaking miles. I’m not moving anymore. A quick peek at google maps (lifesaver, btw) showed a highly rated cafe right around the corner, score!

However, like everything else in Tokyo, I walk back and forth at least 3x before realizing it. It’s directly adjacent to a small patch of grass in the Omotesando district of Tokyo; its entrance is shrouded by a wall of greenery. Once you walk in, it’s like you’ve entered a coffee zen temple.

Like everything else in Japan, my drink was so finely crafted and the service was impeccable. I ordered a shakerato and was invited to sit in the small foray out front. Enough words, pictures below.

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Last stop - chatei hatou

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This place was by far the easiest/most accessible coffee shop to get to. It was about a 5min walk from Shibuya station and right off the main road.

It was funny how this ended up being my last coffee venture in Tokyo, because as I was planning this trip, this was supposed to be my first stop. But among all the j-craziness, I completely forgot about this spot until somebody mentioned it to me. Glad that they did.

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Like most other places in Tokyo, nobody in the establishment spoke a lick of English. Luckily, my friend who has been living in Japan joined me for coffee and was able to order for us. The inside was unlike any other coffeeshop I’ve ever been to. Japan is a country that still allows smoking indoors, so the smell of coffee and cigarettes welcomed me in as I stepped through the doors.
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cupping

(Below)

It was interesting to see the baristas’ cup choices. As I observed, he seemed to look over at every table to see who was sitting there, who had ordered the coffee, and who they were with. Based on his judgement, he would carefully select a cup/saucer set for each individual. It was really peculiar.

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bloom baby bloom

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Set, brew, pour

I was so intrigued by the baristas’ movements as he made each cup of coffee. It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen… his movements were so mechanic but free form. Calculated, but experienced enough to know not to measure every minute detail. I was hypnotized.

The Coffee: We ordered Kenya via V60; although I did want to try a hario woodneck brew, the waiter that took our order seemed hesitant as he kept saying and gesturing long time, and shaking his head. Oh well, next time I suppose.

In terms of the taste, the first sip did not give me goosebumps. In fact, it gave me burns. I scalded my tongue on the first sip. I let it cool down a bit and took in a nose. It smelled fruity, and strong.

The coffee itself was lackluster. Nothing too flashy nor impressive. But I would still come back here in a heartbeat. Often times, craft connoisseurs focus too much on one aspect, be it taste, atmosphere, or the clientele it attracts. I loved Chatei Hatou because of the authenticity involved in the whole experience.

This last stop summed up my Japan experience wonderfully.

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Verdict

It’s hard to say which place I liked best. They were all so different in their own way and offered something new. Glitch was best in terms of flavor, Bear Pond was just an incredible experience getting there and finally trying the espresso, Omotsando was unexpectedly zen (and delicious), and Chatou was authentically Japanese.

The next time you’re in Tokyo, I would highly recommend trying all of these places.


Footnote: 1. Glitch Coffee, Chiyoda, Tokyo, Japan; 2. Bear Pond Espresso, Setagaya-Ku, Tokyo, Japan; 3. Omotesando Koffee, Harajuku/Omotesando, Tokyo, Japan; 4. Chatei Hatou, Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan.
Tokyo, Japan