KISSATEN – Japanese Retro Cafés




Japanese tea ceremonies are famous all over the world. However, Japan also has a history of coffee consumption dating back to the late 19th century that you can experience at a kissaten – traditional cafés with a Japanese twist.

  • In Japan there’s a distinct difference between western style cafés, ”kafe” in Japanese, and the traditional Japanese coffee serving establishments called ”Kissaten”. At the latter, the coffee on offer is exclusively drip coffee.



    Espresso machines are a rare sight but nostalgic (at least for most Japanese people) drinks such as melon soda and coffee float are not. The food menu is usually youshoku – a Japanese take on certain western dishes. Different kinds of sandwiches are obligatory menu items, just like pasta Napolitano, hamburg steaks or omurice, an omelette filled with rice.

    The interior is more often than not several decades old. Expect dark colours and plenty of wood. Sometimes the walls are decorated with borderline eccentric pieces of art.

    The staff is more likely to be coffee lovers past retirement age than university students on a part-time job, and the clientele is mostly chain smoking salarymen with the occasional older couple here and there.

    The drink prices at a kissaten are often twice those at your average Starbucks or Excelsior Coffee. What you get in return is a level of personal service very different from at the major chain stores. The coffee is usually of the hand drip variety, flannel cloth filters are often used. Expect to have several different kinds of beans to choose from.

    Coffee lovers on a budget should visit during the morning hours, where usually a breakfast, or ”morning service” as it is called in kissaten-lingo, is offered. These traditionally consist of toast, a boiled egg and of course a cup of coffee, often for the same price as the coffee alone later on during the day.

    The kissaten concept dates back to the late Meji era (1868-1912), when the western coffee culture got a foothold in Japan. The golden era however, was during the 1960’s, when the economy was booming and the armada of salarymen were in need of places where they could spend time with friends or colleagues, or just relax with the morning paper before setting off to their offices.

    According to Japan Times, there was more than 200 kissaten in Shinjuku alone in the 1970’s, today the number is likely to be less than half, as the chain stores has snatched away a significant part of the customer base. Some of the kissaten that are still around have owners and staff dating back from this era too. Their days might be numbered, as there may not be anyone willing to take over once their owners get too old to work. Therefore, we suggest you should go visit one before it’s too late. Here are a few that we have been to ourselves and can highly recommended.

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    This shop in Ginza is perhaps one of the most famous of them all. One reason is the owner, Sekiguchi-san, is still coming in to roast their beans despite being more than 100 years old. L’ambre specializes in aged coffee beans, some of which are several decades old. Their prices are somewhat steep, starting at around 800 yen for a cup. But we still recommend them for the unique experience and friendly staff.

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    A kissaten that occupies two basement floors in a building so old it looks like it might collapse next time a minor earthquake hits. The interior manages to comfort any worries however, warm and cosy colours and smooth jazz coming out of the speakers. Everything here oozes retro charm, there are even some vintage toys in a display window next to the entrance. Located on the shopping street that runs parallel with the Yamanote line tracks, between Okachimachi and Ueno.

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    One of the more eccentric kissaten we’ve been to. The interior is a mixture between a mountain cave and a southern European church. There is even an organ at the far end of their premises. Kojo is located somewhat off the beaten path, but not that far from Ueno station. If you manage to find your way here, we strongly suggest that you try their Vienna Coffee (coffee with whipped cream).

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    This Yurakucho institution has been serving coffee and sandwiches for 50 years. Due to the location, the clientele here almost exclusively consists of salarymen from the neighbouring office buildings. Friendly service, good, albeit somewhat overpriced sandwiches, and a retro-modern interior with stone covered walls.

    Posts by Said Karlsson

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