Hot, Fresh Coffee On The Go!
Tokyo Is A Coffee Lovers Paradise!
Make no mistake. If you love coffee, Tokyo is one of the best cities in the world. As it is with so many other types of food and drink, you can find just about anything your caffeine-craving soul could want here.
Tokyo's love affair with coffee started after the end of World War II, when the GIs brought it over during the occupation. Coffee, of course, was around before that, but it didn't have a wide following and was considered an "exotic foreign drink" back then.
In the years after 1945, hundreds, if not thousands of tiny coffee shops (called kissaten 喫茶店) sprung up all over the city (and, well, the country, actually). Many of these coffee shops were small, family-owned and operated stores with a very local clientele. They were often dim, smoky and more resembled bars than what we would consider a coffee shop today.
Many kissaten had a niche they covered in addition to the coffee itself. For instance, the owners could have a very extensive jazz record collection and they could channel that into the kissaten by playing jazz exclusively. An old kissaten in Kobe I used frequent back in the day had a wide collection of rare, early 20th century American toys displayed.
These kissaten were, for a long time, the only place to get coffee outside the house. They had the market sewn up and things stayed that way until Starbucks came into the market in the mid 1990s.
The entry of Starbucks into the Japan market changed the image of coffee shops from little holes-in-the-wall to bright, open stores. They move also precipitated more chains, foreign and domestic, as competitors and imitators started fighting for a slice of the coffee market. Tully's is another foreign chain with an established presence, and domestic chains such as Excelsior Cafe are giving the foreign heavyweights a run for their money.
Small, independent coffee shops are not dead, though, and there are still plenty of those stores in and around the city (and that may be a topic of another article!).
So, if you don't have an hour to kill, what do you do?
Coffee shops are a great place to go if you have some time on your hands. An hour before or after meeting with a client, or waiting for a movie, they are good places to bide a bit of time.
However, if you are on the go, what are your options? Japan's famous canned coffee was one option. Straight from a vending machine to your hands, warm or cold, canned coffee is, in my opinion, only for the brave. Either agonizingly bitter or sweet to the point of insulin shock, canned coffee is not something I would consider a viable coffee choice. Sure, you can get a canned coffee just to say you had it, but I can guarantee that it won't rank up there with your top-10 experiences of Japan. What else is there?
Well, starting a few years ago, convenience stores (often called "conbini" in Japan, コンビニ) in Japan started selling coffee. One could be excused for cringing - the thought of Lawson's and other stores selling their own brands of coffee had many coffee lovers on the defensive. Expectations were low, and the general consensus was that another substandard coffee offering was going hit the market. But then, something wonderful happened.
They did it right.
Instead of brewing pots of mysterious black liquid and letting them sit for hours, the conbini installed coffee makers which ground beans and brewed the coffee there - on the spot per cup. It wasn't made until you pushed the button. Beans were added by the staff as supplies ran low, and the freshness of the beans actually meant that the coffee was not bad at all. Actually, it was pretty darn good!
Conbini Coffee 101
While most conbini chains (Lawson, 7-11, and others) now have these coffee machines in their stores, my personal favorite is Family Mart coffee. Not too bitter, not too strong, not too weak, Family Mark coffee is right in that "Goldilocks Zone" I look for in coffee. It's just right.
Coffee shops (independent and chains both) charge somewhere between Y350 to Y800 for a cup of their basic coffee, but Family Mart offers 3 sizes starting at just Y100 for a small, Y150 for a medium and Y180 for a large. On other words, two large Family Mart coffees cost the same as a regular basic coffee at Starbucks or Tully's.
For coffee on the go, it makes sense.
I am not a Family Mart employee, so in the interest of fairness, I suggest you try them all (Lawson, 7-11, MiniStop and others) and see which one suits. Either way, a fresh brewed coffee on the go certainly gets your day going right!
I made a quick video on getting coffee at Family Mart...check it out and enjoy!