Kissaten: Japan's traditional cafes

Kissaten: Japan's traditional cafes

It's not just about the siphon coffee. It's about the culture
A cup of coffee at the kissaten Gakuya in Shinjuku. (Photo by Flickr user udono)

Starbucks and Dotours may have taken over the Tokyo landscape, but the traditional 'kissaten' -- Japanese-style coffee house -- is still the city's true coffee hotspot.

The kissaten is not an auxiliary arm of the workplace -- cue in the coffee zombies chanting "Need coffee now" -- but an escape. No need to place your order in a rush, burn your tongue and hurriedly walk to a meeting. The kissaten experience is about respecting the art of coffee making.

Mainly family-owned, the kissaten has been serving customers for over 35 years and those who work there take immense pride in their coffee.

They choose a coffee house according to its mood and style. Often the décor (decorated to the owner’s taste), feels like you’ve stepped back in time -- dimly lit, dark wood paneling, vinyl chairs, a cozy, yet smoky atmosphere and a bar area that looks more like a science laboratory. Jazz is often on the soundtrack.

Many of these traditional coffee houses serve siphon coffee. Grinding fresh roasted beans seconds before brewing, the mechanical perfection of a siphon pot occurs when two chambers -- vapor pressure and vacuum -- brew the coffee.

Brewing time is 40-60 seconds and the optimum water temperature is 83˚c. Each cup is carefully brewed to order with great sensory involvement. The taste is delicate, smooth and flavorful.

No whipped mocha frappuccinos here.

The kissaten environment encourages customers to sit back, relax, and have the coffee brought to the table. The cup is laid down with all the grace of a tea ceremony. The owner has created an environment for customers to enjoy coffee, savor its taste, and to slow down.

The Japanese culture of siphon coffee is now inspiring hipster coffee shops in Portland and San Francisco. Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Portland use siphon techniques, and The Blue Bottle Café in San Francisco brews its coffee in a siphon bar that cost more than $20,000 to buy and import from Japan.

But the siphon alone can't replicate the kissaten experience: you need the gray-haired owner, the ancient décor, the refined atmosphere, the simple menu and nuance of history.

Each kissaten is a one of-a-kind place not easily imitated, nor easily transferred to another culture.