I didn’t always like coffee. In fact, for the two and a half years that I worked for Starbucks in Seattle, I didn’t drink coffee at all. (We had to taste all the different coffee blends, but I never drank it of my own volition. I’ve always been more a tea guy.) It wasn’t until I visited Italy that I discovered the breakfast perfection of a good espresso and pastry. Still, while I could enjoy Italian style espresso, it wasn’t until I arrived in Tokyo that I came to really appreciate plain, black, drip coffee. And suddenly, I craved it daily.
Ironically, I have discovered that Seattle style coffee shops are not quite ubiquitous in Japan, especially in more rural areas. The typical kissaten (喫茶店 – café, teahouse) in rural Japan is a little too homey for my tastes. Many cafés are simply a bar countertop built right into the ground floor of a large house. The resulting feeling is akin to literally hanging out in someone’s living room—because you are essentially doing just that. It’s possible to find cafés more like what I’m used to in a big city, like Sapporo, but I think the standard Japanese café more resembles a jazz club built in the 1960’s than a Starbucks.
That’s not to say that Japan doesn’t love coffee, because it clearly does. In fact, Japan’s fondness for the beany brew has united with their passion for vending machines, to form a new invention: Canned Coffee (缶コーヒー). Canned Coffee is exactly what it sounds like, and this fusion of caffeine and convenience is extremely popular in Japan. You can find it in anywhere, in all vending machines and convenience stores. [In Japanese, the words for “vending machine” and “convenience store” are jidouhanbaiki (自動販売機) and conbini (コンビ二), respectively.]
There is cold canned coffee and hot; plain black coffee and coffee that has a desirable amount of milk and sugar already in it; a variety of flavors produced by a variety of competing beverage companies. For example, there’s Fire (made by Kirin), Boss Coffee (made by Suntory and advertised by Tommy Lee Jones), and Coca-Cola’s brand, Georgia. Even Tully’s Coffee has their own Japan can brand. The Ueshima Coffee Co. (UCC) apparently gets credit for introducing the original canned coffee way back in 1969. Coincidentally, I think that the UCC Black canned coffee is still best that I’ve tasted so far.
The Japanese coffee cans feel heavier, and more durable, than your typical can of soda. I had assumed that they were made of thicker aluminum; however my theory was a bit off. It turns out that these coffee cans are usually made of steel, not aluminum. For some reason, I think that’s kind of badass.
In addition to the canned coffee, there are other varieties of espresso drinks that you can find in convenience stores and supermarkets, like prepackaged café lattes and mochas. There are Starbucks brand drinks of course, and usually a conbini like Lawson’s or 7/11 will have their own generic versions as well. One brand that I found particularly interesting is called Mt. Rainier. Their circular green logo is clearly designed to look like Starbucks and the cups sport the slogan “The Mountain of Seattle”. Considering the aesthetic similarities, and the fact that Starbucks is a Seattle-based company, I almost thought that this was another brand owned by the coffee giant, but I haven’t been able to confirm it. If they aren’t owned by the Galactic Coffee Empire, then I have to commend them on their superb mimicry. It has been nostalgic to find a product sporting a Seattle landmark on its packaging.
So when you’re looking to enjoy a simple cup o’ joe and read a book in Japan, what’s a Seattleite to do? Well, I’ve done some café scouting for you and here are my recommendations:
First off, avoid any place selling “Blend Coffee”. This generally means that they consider their plain coffee to be really special (probably based on where the beans came from), so it will cost more. A cup of “Blend Coffee” generally costs between ¥350 and ¥500—often right around the ¥450 mark—and in my experience, it never tastes much better than drip coffee. In fact, the taste is almost always worse. Skip the blend and save your money.
Next, if you’re looking for a latte, cappuccino, or—god forbid—a frappuccino, you could always patronize a Starbucks. [In Japan, Starbucks (スターバックス) is often abbreviated to “Staba” (スタバ) in conversation.] You can find multiple Starbucks stores in Sapporo. However, for plain coffee, Starbucks is a really expensive option. A tall-size drip will cost you ¥340. If it be coffee ye want, sailor, best look elsewhere.
The absolute cheapest cup of coffee I could find was at McDonalds. [It’s called Makudonarudo (マクドナルド) in Japan, or simply “Makku” (マック) for short.] Over the past five or so years, Micky-D’s has been vigorously stepping up their “McCafé” options to compete with coffee giant Starbucks. (Apparently they want to usurp Starbucks’ globally dominant position as “The McDonalds of Coffee”.) At ¥136, the small coffee at McDonalds was cheap as dirt, and it tasted like it too. Definitely, the most repulsive, disgusting coffee I have ever tasted. Don’t even bother.
In Japan, doughnut shops are almost as ubiquitous as Staba or Makku, so chances are you can easily sit down for a cup o’ joe at a doughnut joint, even in a more rural location. With that in mind, I’d recommend Mr. Donut. [The name is pronounced “Mister Donuts” (ミスタドナツ)—as if it was plural, due to Japanese pronunciation—or else it goes by “Mis-do” (ミスド), the abbreviated version.] Mr. Donut coffee is surprisingly tasty, and reasonably priced at ¥262. The kicker though, is that if you decide to drink your coffee there in the store, the staff will come by and pour you refills! [The term for refills or a second helping, in the context of a meal, is okawari (お代わり).] Good taste, good price, and refills to boot; Mr. Donut coffee is hard to beat.
Another place I have to recommend is Excelsior Caffé. I’ve seen them in Tokyo and Sapporo, and they consistently have a clean café atmosphere that most resembles the more standard café vibe I’ve been looking for. Their coffee is good, and not too expensive at ¥280. But where Excelsior really excels is their bagels. Bagels aren’t always even to find in Japan, theirs are delicious, topnotch. If you are looking for a coffee and a pastry, I’d head to Excelsior Caffé.
But the champion—the very best plain, black coffee that I’ve had in Japan—comes from a café/restaurant chain called Pronto Il Bar. I’ve only seen Pronto in major cities, but for regular coffee, they’re amazing. This coffee comes from a brewing machine at the press of a button, much like the super-automatic espresso machines that I used to work with at Starbucks. While such a machine usually makes inferior espresso shots, the high-pressure brewing style creates a cup coffee that’s actually a lot like espresso—with a delicious crema on top and everything. And since the small coffee at Pronto is only ¥200, it’s also one of the most affordable options around. Pronto è il vincitore.
Luca’s Coffee Review
Pronto Il Bar
Cost: ¥200 Taste: 5/5 Bonus: Legit sounding Italian name
Cost: ¥280 Taste: 3/5 Bonus: Bagels!
Cost: ¥262 Taste: 3/5 Bonus: Unlimited refills!
Cost: ¥340 Taste: 2/5 Bonus: Always the same, EVERYWHERE
Cost: ¥136 Taste: 0/5 Bonus: Type 2 diabetes, heart disease