Saturday, March 21, 2015

Coffee on the Otherside

"David... my urine still smells like coffee"- Daniel, the day after our trip

I hail from Portland, Oregon. Portland is known for it's majestic green landscape with gorgeous snow-capped mountains outlining the horizon. The splendid beauty come at a price though, rain and gloom doom from November through May. How do Portlanders cope? The finest way possible: coffee. In fact, Portland is the second highest consumer of coffee in the United States, only behind Seattle, Portland's lovely friend fiend up north.

But truth be told, Portland doesn't just cope with coffee; Portland thrives on the stuff. One of Portland's distinguished cultural building blocks is it's love for the art of coffee.  

Portland has been fueled by stellar coffee shops such as my personal favorite: Jim and Patty's

It's been fun learning more about the coffee culture in Japan too. This past May, when an opportunity arose to help create an open mic, cafe night at our local church, My good friend and fellow coffee connoisseur Daniel Wheat and I jumped at the opportunity to provide the coffee. It immediately became my favorite activity at church. The goal is to make everyone feel warmly welcomed. I think it's been wildly successful. Every time we get newcomers to cafe night, people come who either heard about it online or others who come with a friend. The demographics are diverse as well. In a Japanese culture which can tend to stay insulated and busy without a real purpose, the cafe night has filled a need for the community to enjoy relaxing together. Providing high quality coffee has further enhanced everything good about the event. Before every cafe night, Daniel and I walk down to our favorite little coffee roaster, Maruni Coffee, located just north of the Church in Mito, to provide the best beans possible.

Maruni Coffee

Daniel and I at Cafe night

Admittedly, I hadn't explored the coffee scene in Tokyo. With my time in Japan winding down I wanted to make this happen. I asked Daniel to join me and the trip was beautiful.

The night before our trip, I researched as many noteworthy coffee shops as possible. We hoped try out about five. Of course, five shops is only skimming the surface of the possibilities in a huge city like Tokyo. We compared our collected notes on the train and rather easily arrived at a consensus. Our pursuit was not only great coffee but special coffee shop environments. Daniel had been to critically acclaimed Omotesando Koffee before and highly recommended it. Visiting brand new Blue Bottle Coffee was at the top of my list and that's where we began.

Blue Bottle Coffee

Blue Bottle Coffee opened a brand new shop in Tokyo the day before we visited. It is Blue Bottle's debut in Asia. Blue Bottle is a hip American coffee brand from the Bay Area. It's located in the affluent district of Tokyo called Kiyosumi. I was especially interested to see the culture of the Bay Area shop in Japan. How would the company blend it's American heritage with a new store in Japan? Would the staff be quick and efficient like the Japanese are known for or more laid back but genuinely friendly like American coffee shops? Unfortunately upon arrival we were welcomed by a two hour line just to get in the door. We should have predicted the wait; the Japanese have an affinity for brand new, high quality and most remarkably, long lines. Daniel offered me a wry smile, thinking to himself, "You're not gonna be so stubborn as to make me wait this out are you?" After taking a few pictures we easily decided to forgo the craziness and find another cafe. 

(Daniel's picture)

Arise Coffee

Without any trouble, we stumbled upon a small coffee vendor just a block around the corner called Arise Coffee. The barista (called a master in Japan) was super friendly, despite some visible anxiety, overwhelmed by others who had also forgone the Blue Bottle wait. All the customers inside the small shop were so friendly and interested in the two white guys. A few spoke English fairly well and wanted to hear about what brought us to Tokyo. The Japanese are typically timid, but everyone at Arise was so friendly. While waiting for my pour over coffee, it struck me that some of my favorite activities in Japan, such as exploring the outdoors and coffee, are also the mediums in which I've encountered the friendliest, most gregarious Japanese. The timidity around non Japanese speakers dissipates in the midst of a common love. Do certain activities lead to more gregarious personalities or do these Japanese people already have a more friendly, gregarious persona? I'm not exactly sure. Japan has taught me how fearful we can be of the unknown, of things different from us. The friendly Japanese in the coffee shop or on the mountain may be more comfortable being uncomfortable and more keen on the little adventures of life, even something as small and beautiful as finding interest in the two foreigners. 

Daniel's picture inside Arise
photo credit: arisecoffeejp

My pour over coffee was delicious, the wait for my first cup was worth it. It was a light dominican roast with definitive blueberry notes. I was pleased I agreed to take the Barista's recommendation; a light dominican roast with distinctive blueberry notes. The cost of the coffee was just 350 yen, (about $3). I felt sorry for all those waiting in line around the corner at Blue Bottle.

After steadily enjoying the quaint and friendly environment at Arise Coffee, Daniel and I headed out for the next cafe by train: the legendary Omotesando Koffee stand.

Omotesando Koffee

Daniel's picture

Once we maneuvered through the back alley neighborhoods of Tokyo's affluent Omotesando district, we came across the legendary coffee stand, tucked in by a beautiful Japanese garden. The famous cafe is anchored by a man in a white lab jacket. A scientist, both in appearance and manner, the barista was honed in on his craft. 

It was about a 15 minute wait to order our cappuccinos. Omotesando Koffee is a take out stand. Within the small garden outside of the stand, if there is room you can sit down to enjoy your drink. Daniel and I enjoyed our drinks to go as we walked around the ritzy Omotesando neighborhood.

The cappuccino was fantastic. Perfectly balanced, smooth, creamy foam, sweet and acidic notes, but not bitter. The barista balanced the art and science of his craft. It would turn out to be my favorite drink of the day. It was small, only 6 ounces (there are no size options on the simple menu) and cost 420 yen (a little under $4). 

Sweet business cards

Daniel's cappuccino

Content with our drinks in hand, we took a train and made the 15 walk to another fabled Tokyo coffee spot, Streamer Coffee in the middle of Harajuku, a district in Tokyo famous for it's shopping and fashion. Streamer Coffee's owner, Hiroshi Sawada, won the Seattle latte art championship in 2008 Streamer had the most room inside of any shop we would go to. It would be a perfect spot if you wanted to take a break from the busyness of Tokyo, read a book and relax. The atmosphere reminded me of a trendy American coffee shop, upbeat, easy going with a vibe that encouraged creativity. The barista was from Quebec and spoke great Japanese. Daniel and I both ordered Streamer's specialty: cappuccinos. Our cappuccinos were as massive as they were beautiful. They did cost the most of any cappuccino we had, coming in at 550 yen (just under $5). But they were definitely worth it. Again, we encountered some warm and friendly fellow customers at Streamer. 

Sawada, the owner of Streamer is on the right.

Photo credit to Daniel

After Streamer, we had the option to stay in the area or travel by train to Ebisu, another district of Tokyo with a couple of coffee shops on our list. We decided to stay in the area. We walked to Paddler's Cafe just a few minutes away and would then make our last stop at Bear Pond, also within walking distance.

Paddler's Cafe sells only Stumptown Coffee, a Portland, Oregon originated brand Paddler Coffee is located in Shibuya, a famous district known for upscale shopping, adjacent to Harajuku. We had to find our way through a dress shoe store, climb up the stairs and go through another detour of the dress shoe store before finding Paddler's coffee inconspicuously tucked away in a small corner of the building. 

Paddler's decorated their interior with a surprisingly high volume of Portland memorabilia, including a Japanese magazine dedicated solely to the City of Portland and all the hipsters who live there (apparently only hipsters live there). While the reading material and some of the Stumptown memorabilia was a nice Rose City touch, it lacked the energetic, freeing, and easy going atmosphere found in a typical Portland coffee shop. It felt like a corner of a shoe shop to provide increased revenue for the dress shoe store. It was 4:00 pm by this point. There was one other couple in the small store. While the vibe lacked the vital atmosphere Daniel and I were looking for, the coffee was really good.

Daniel and I both ordered the Honduran pour over. It was really good, a much darker blend than the light blend at Arise Coffee. This coffee stop was the most expensive, selling for 600 yen a cup (just over $5). There was also a 1000 yen cup we were tempted to try. It was tasty, but put us over the top after enjoying our fourth coffee in the span of four hours. Daniel's minor headache got a little more noticeable. My body was asking for anything but more coffee. Leaving Paddler's, my prevailing thought was the lack of atmosphere. The coffee didn't disappoint, but the atmosphere certainly did.

Bear Pond Espresso

Our last stop was Bear Pond Coffee at about 5:00 pm. The cappuccinos were terrific, although the cream was a little too bitter. But the service left a more bitter taste. One of the workers was visibly upset and stern with me when I tried to take a picture. Originally, I thought the lady was a westerner, but after talking with Daniel while writing this post, he disagreed. Daniel thought she was Japanese. Maybe her crankiness built up stress, visibly evident by her accumulated wrinkles, just made her appear as an entitled, jaded New Yorker, rather than the typically, well aged, beautiful Japanese women. Inside the small, cramped confines of Bear Pond, the seats were not comfortable. Bear Pond was bigger than Arise Coffee, but the unfriendly environment made it feel more cramped. Despite the excellent cappuccino, neither of us will return, there are plenty of other places in Tokyo with great coffee and more inviting environments. Bear Pond left bitter vibes despite a delicious cappuccino.

The drinks were just right, but Bear Pond was too small, the chairs too hard and the Bears much too cranky

Some heart on the outside, little where it counts

Final thoughts:
1. If in Tokyo, make Omotesando Koffee a priority. The incredible Japanese atmosphere, and the amazing quality make it my top recommendation. Omotesando is also located in an quiet, affluent neighborhood which may give you a new perspective on Tokyo.

2. If you're looking to find a place to rest your feet while in Tokyo and want to enjoy it with a delicious drink, my top recommendation is Streamer Coffee in Harajuku. Spacious cafes are a luxury in Japan (one reason I think Starbucks thrives in Japan). Streamer is spacious with comfortable seating and offers a rejuvenating atmosphere. Starbucks is the lazy choice, easy to locate, and known but discover something new and better at Streamer's Coffee instead. You'll be happy you did.

3. Explore. Make your time in Tokyo count. You're sure to run into handfuls of Starbucks and McDonalds, often in the most convenient locations. Bypass these giant, known, cheap commodities and explore something fresh and new. There's a story behind each of these cafe's and it's worth discovering, if nothing else than for the adventure of exploration.  

4. After the day trip, I returned to my apartment by 10:00 pm on Saturday night and fell asleep by 10:30. Daniel was up later and apparently felt the caffeine streaming through his veins the next day. 

Capping off the night at a rare, great Japanese hamburger shop. Thanks to Daniel for making the journey so enjoyable.