In a city known for tea and temples, Kyoto is also home to a surprisingly vibrant coffee scene.
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
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.
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.
really succeed in the Kyoto cafe scene, you need a strong sense of
originality," Takayama explained.
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
The classic cafe
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
The article 'Kyoto’s coffee culture' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.