Kyoto’s coffee culture
Sarasa Nishijin cafe is housed inside a former bathhouse, with the original tiling on the walls. (Rebecca Milner)
In a city known for tea and temples, Kyoto is also home to a surprisingly vibrant coffee scene.
Owner-run cafes are flourishing as locals seek peace in a new kind of space, and the best ones build on the city's natural charm, taking into consideration its historic buildings, the quiet side streets and that famous attention to detail that Kyoto artisans have long applied to their work. Hand-painted signs, scalloped awnings and wonderfully restored traditional facades mark the entrances to many of the city's alluring coffee haunts.
The new wave cafe
Daisuke Takayama’s Kamogawa Café is one of the many new coffee shops that have swept through Kyoto in the last 10 years, taking both the beverage and the space in which it is consumed very seriously.
The cafe occupies a lofty, second floor space that overlooks a side street near Kyoto's central Kamo River, which runs to the east of the Imperial Palace grounds. The front windows -- checkered panes of coloured and frosted glass -- resemble a Piet Mondrian painting, the floor and tables are made of warm, unstained wood and the menu is hand-drawn.
"To really succeed in the Kyoto cafe scene, you need a strong sense of originality," Takayama explained.
But it is the coffee, which Takayama hand roasts daily, that has nudged Kamogawa Café into the upper tier of Kyoto cafes. Left to percolate slowly through a flannel filter, instead of an ordinary paper one, the coffee is thick and strong.
The classic cafe
Rokuyōsha Chikaten, (36 Daikoku-chō, Kawaramachi Sanjō-sagaru; 075-241-3026), an unassuming basement cafe on one of Kyoto's main drags, is a family operation that has been going for more than 50 years. It is a classic kissaten -- the original Japanese word for coffee shop before the import “cafe” came into vogue. The words are not, however, interchangeable: a kissaten is specifically a mom-and-pop operation that serves its coffee in small, delicate cups with saucers and little pitchers of cream. Lattes are conspicuously absent.
This particular coffee shop looks like something lifted from the golden age of rail travel between the first and second world wars -- an era of trunks and porters and dressing for the dining car. Long and narrow like a railway carriage, the kissaten has a single counter and richly stained wood panelling.
There is only one man behind the counter, who makes only one cup of coffee at a time. He juggles two fat kettles that take turns boiling on the gas hob. On top of freshly ground, hand-roasted coffee, he adds a little water. He waits; then he adds some more, gently swirling the small glass carafe. Then he waits some more. Before pouring each cup, he gently warms the carafe over an open flame.
A sense of place
New cafes cannot compete with the history of a place like Rokuyōsha, but they can adopt a legacy of a different sort. Take Sarasa Nishijin, housed inside the old Fuji-no-mori Onsen, a former bathhouse from the 1920s.
The coffee shop still looks like an old bathhouse, with wooden latticework and a distinctive, bell-shaped awning. The light-handed renovations kept the original ornate jade and bubble-gum pink tiles intact. A crumbling wall that once separated the men and women's sides of the bath runs down the centre of the room, and vintage armchairs are set under the tapered ceiling that rises up to a central chimney.
Another local fixture is the enthusiastically named Café Bibliotic Hello!, installed inside a century-old machiya, a traditional two-storey wooden merchant home. The second floor, which would have been the living quarters, is now a loft, and one whole wall is given over to a bookshelf. The first floor, where a shop would had been, retains the exposed wooden beams and showcase windows. But the gloomy atmosphere that young Japanese often attach to old houses has been replaced with a hodgepodge of stylish retro lighting fixtures and convivial chatter.
Not all of Kyoto's popular cafes look to the past for inspiration. Efish, the work of local product designer Shin Nishibori, is entirely in the present. With glass walls that overlook the Kamo River on one side and the Takase canal on the other, it is a prime place to observe the rhythms of the city and its waterways. It is also the kind of place that seamlessly transitions from day to evening, and like many of the city's newer cafes, Efish stays open late, making the most of its riverside location.
The designer's modern, minimal creations furnish the narrow, two-storey cafe, and a few of his works are also on sale, including a ceramic coffee roaster shaped like a gourd that works on an ordinary gas range, should you be inspired to brew your own perfect cup.