The Kissaten-Exit

Euromania in Japan’s Cafés

16 JULY 2016,
Café in Kyoto © Alma Reyes
Café in Kyoto © Alma Reyes

Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee? - Albert Camus

To those who knew Japan fifteen to twenty years ago, the diminishing sight of a kissaten (traditional Japanese coffee shop) by the side street—wooden entrance door that sometimes opens with a chime; dark wood bar counter with bar stools; low tables and small wooden chairs upholstered in leather; dim ceiling lights; and baristas dressed in clean white shirts and black vests, some wearing bow ties and sporting sleek hairstyles, primly combed in wax—carries a sweet air of nostalgia. There would be a highly probable chance of spotting an old man with a moustache, puffing his cigarette while leafing the day’s newspaper, or a middle-aged couple sipping black blend coffee at the table while exchanging bubbly banters with the salary man at the bar and the barista who is himself tapping his cigarette on the ashtray on the rear counter.

In the kissatens of “old” Japan, customers were neighborhood folks who liked to meet at a certain time of the day and chat relentlessly about the foul weather, sheer dismay for politicians and careless gossips about who, what and when. Except for the sight of Asian faces, the unruffled scenario reminisces Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings of story-filled Parisian brasseries during the late 1800s.

Kissaten” (喫茶店) literally means a room to drink or taste tea, which has a longer history in Japan (from 6th century) than coffee (from 17th century). Although the Dutch brought coffee in the 17th century, it wasn’t until the country opened its doors in 1868 that coffee was widely distributed around the nation, especially when the ports of Kobe opened. By the 1930s, more than 30,000 coffee shops had flourished rapidly all over Japan. The first coffee shop opened n 1888 right in Ueno, “Kahiichakan,” owned by a man named Tei Ei-kei. As it was in old Europe in the 1900s, kissatens in Japan became reclusive niches for artists and writers—Léonard Foujita (artist), Junichiro Tanizaki (writer), and Yoko Isaka (poet) were among the elites who frequented kissatens. Before the kissatens spread out, the “chaya” (茶屋) was a small tea pub that served as a private corner for juicy chitter-chatter, gossips, and cigar smoking while customers sipped tea and munched on dango (sweet mochi dumplings).

Naturally, kissatens have evolved quite drastically over the years. Today, the word hardly exists and has been pretentiously replaced by the more chic “café.” As more Japanese began to travel abroad, and the nation slid to being the third largest coffee importer in the world, the traditional kissaten look gradually transformed into more brightly stylized interiors, some with outdoor terraces desperately imitating French brasseries and Italian terrazzas. Doutor, Veloce, or Excelsior are some of such popular cafés that have become escape nooks for students studying for the coming exams, for exclusive moments in front of the laptop or Smartphones, for one-to-one private English lessons, for patient mothers waiting for their children to finish their late night juku (cram school) classes, for insurance agents pitching anxiously to prospective clients, for exasperated housewives who simply need that much-awaited coffee break, or for young couples about to break a relationship. Smoking and non-smoking sections have been clearly divided. Baristas come exaggeratedly in threes or fours, wearing diner-like uniforms, and are apparently not smoking. Unlike the homey kissaten, a café has become a universal conclave of city people hailing from all corners of life who have no particular connection with one another.

The menus in kissatens and cafés vary as well. A typical kissaten would generally serve solely the standard American or Vienna coffee and one conventional type of black tea. Desserts may be sparsely limited to traditional strawberry shortcake or custard pudding purin, Japanese-Westernized dishes, such as Napolitan spaghetti (that does not exist in Naples), omuraisu (rice omelet) and sandwiches made from shokupan (typical Japanese white bread). The trendy café, however, could delight you more favorably with a sumptuous tray of Western-like patisserie—Tiramisu, Mont Blanc, cheesecake, blueberry tart, Panini, cookies, pies and widely varied beverages from juices to shakes, infusion teas, matcha latté, cappuccino, and other inventive concoctions.

You can still find old-fashioned, classic-looking kissatens today, such as Renoir, Miyakoshiya, or the classical music hall Meikyoku Kissa Lion in Shibuya, which has not evidently changed since the 1950s. If you have not explored the Meikyoku Kissa Lion, please do so. You can take one of the seats with white covers on them, lined up as in a bullet train, and embrace the dark and spooky ambience amidst piped-in classical music while waiters and customers whisper, not talk.

Then, we find the overwhelming manga kissa, another distinct breed of coffee shops catering to a different slice of crowd. They are more compact and usually swarmed by teenagers and adults who have a fixated knack for manga readings. The jazz kissa, on the other hand, is favored by jazz-inclined music enthusiasts. Pet cafés have also recently been circulating around town to accommodate pet owners. Lest we forget, take a peek inside the over-rated maid’s café where young and “innocent-looking” waitresses dress in French aprons and entertain you with cute menus in their kawaii manner.

As the kissaten inevitably shifts to the café, cake shop to pâtisserie, bread shop to boulangerie, and beauty parlor to salon, one wonders how Japan’s bustling cities mirror themselves in the future. An Edo period-inspired painting would appear rustic and pure, but perhaps the imaginary canvas could just be a Montmartre copycat tucked in congestion.