Monday’s Never Blue with Espresso

Curio showed us that Kanazawa’s got a bit of a special relationship with coffee. In fact, there are some special gimmicks mostly unique to Kanazawa such as coffee with gold flakes. Possibly more surprising is that there’s a coffee stand in the network of basements connected to the station. Well that’s not the surprising part, the surprising part is that it’s actually good!

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It’s called Blue Monday, hence my tortured attempt at making a relevant yet interesting title. They offer what Japan still lacks a bit, good espresso.

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The espresso is well balanced with a medium body, which means it’s hard to talk flavors. However it is slightly tart and earthy on top of everything.

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Did I mention it’s about 3 minutes from the station?

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Kanazawa, the New Kyoto

You may have heard recently that everyone’s going to Kanazawa, especially now that the shinkansen line to the city was finished. Japanese people have been traveling there as an alternative traditional cultural spot for years, and now all you lucky people who qualify for a rail pass can do it too.

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So what about Kanazawa gives it this title of being an alternative to Kyoto? It’s a cool place with some artisnal stores and cafes, but so is Kamakura. It has a nice modern art museum, but so does Aomori. It has a nice castle but so does almost every other city I’ve covered. They put gold flakes in coffee and on ice cream but why are you trying to eat gold?! It’s likely because it sports not only a historical tea house district but also a samurai district.

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Higashichayagai is the name of the tea house district, where you can walk through alleys and feel like you’ve really went back in time until you hit a main street and run into 20 tourists taking selfies.

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The name of the samurai district is Bukeyashiki, and is the only “samurai district” I’ve heard of in Japan. While there aren’t many places to go inside compared to Higashichayagai, it is one of the more worthwhile places to wander around in Japan.

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Curio, Kanazawa’s Third Wave

Seattle’s had it tough ever since grunge died haven’t they? Jumpstarting the second wave coffee movement that cemented so many bad business practices and mediocre coffee, the sight of Seattle Style Coffee doesn’t really evoke a good image, does it? However, that’s an image that can be easily shattered by a trip to Curio.

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If Curio truly is Seattle style coffee, then sign me up. I found none of the negative things I would associate with such a label and instead found a cafe where the owner knew exactly what he wanted his espresso to taste like and went for it. I told the guy I was surprised, and the reason being is that nowadays having a Mazzer and La Marzocco doesn’t signify that the coffee will be great, it could just mean a cafe has money. So not only was I ready for the worst, but I was also not prepared to be smacked by the hand of deliciousness.

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The espresso is essentially a blast of milk chocolate flavors accompanied with a bit of a brown sugar note as well. It’s a medium-heavy body with a nice silky  mouthfeel. Sometimes when this part is short, it’s a good thing, this is one of those times.

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Kanazawa actually has a pretty thriving coffee scene, but Curio is worth the visit and you have to choose. With Kanzawa being so condensed,  and  the cafe being so close to the centre of the city, there’s almost no excuse.

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Kitano Iijinkan

One of the most popular sites in Kobe city are the Iijinkan, in Kitano. Iijinkan are buildings that were built by the mostly European foreign residents of the early 1900s. It’s usually passed over by most American or European tourists who feel like it’s a waste to see the same style of building that they’re used to and I admit I didn’t go that deep for such a reason, but it’s hardly boring and gives you a good sense of what the city of Kobe is all about.

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There are three main Iijinkan, even though there are quite possibly hundreds. These buildings are the Rhine House, Moegi House, and Weathercock House. The Weathercock house is arguably the largest and most popular. It was built by a trader living in Kobe named G. Thomas and designed by a German architect named G. de Lalande. I guess their mutual hatred for full first names starting with ‘G’ made them a perfect match. Unlike most buildings in Japan it has a brick exterior and gets its name from a rooster statue on top of its spire AND NOTHING ELSE.

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The Moegi house is mint green, the same color I wanted for my first car when I was young. It was built by Hunter Sharp in 1903 who was the US General Consul, which I didn’t know we had. After that it became home to the former president of Kobe’s Electric Railway, Hideo Kobayashi in 1944.

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Lastly is the Rhine house which was built in 1915 and handed down over generations until being opened to the public in 1976. It was damaged in the Hanshin Quake in 1995,  which has also been called the Great Kobe Earthquake in English, but has been restored.

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For me, the mixture of cultures proves to be almost more interesting than what’s  is traditional and seeing this little europeanized neighborhood in the middle of Japan is quite interesting, but I guess if you’re only going for the full on traditional experience I can understand skipping it. However, if you’ve been in Japan for a while now, you may find just how interesting it is to see these types of places again.

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Rhine house: Hours: 9-6. Closed the third thursday of June and February.

Moegi House: ¥650 combination ticket with Weathercock House. ¥350 just Moegi House. Hours: 9-6. Closed third wednesday and thursday in February.

Weathercock House: ¥500 without a combination ticket. Hours: 9-6. Closed The first tuesday and third thursday in June and February.

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Tsudzuki Sakura

Ikea, industrial zones, and nature are hardly ever linked together (well the first two usually are) but in the mostly nondescript industrial zone of Tsudzuki-ku in Yokohama, you can see one of the best sakura paths in Japan before you go get your meatballs.

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Sadly the season is just about over in the central Kanto area, meaning you can probably catch a few falling petals if you go to Tsudzuki, or it’s time to consider going to Tochigi or even Aizu.

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The best part about this location in Tsudzuki is that it’s not nearly as crowded as other parts of Yokohama, which aren’t as crowded as most of Tokyo. Meaning you’ll actually have time to sit with friends and enjoy yourself instead of moving along a human conveyor belt.

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Coffee in Osaka’s Hood

Hood by Vargas is a third wave coffee shop located quite close to Umeda station in Osaka. The walk from Umeda station takes a few minutes but has the added benefit of getting you away from one of the cities’ busiest stations and giving you a quick look into Osaka life.

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I’m not sure if it’s ironic or not, the owner of Hood by Vargas is a fan of Brooklyn Roasting Company which is largely taking the city’s coffee scene by storm.  Perrying if you would.

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It is quite likely that the reason for his honesty is that he’s skilled enough to hold his own against such a large brand. Hood by Vargas is, simply put, a great place to get hand drip coffee and as an added bonus is quite easy to reach if you’re just passing through the city.

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Fukuoka’s largest shrine

Dazaifu Tenmangu is a large shrine built over the grave of and dedicated to Sugawara no Michizane. He was a scholar of poetry and Chinese literature in the Heian era, arguably the last and only courtly period in Japan’s history.

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As such, Sugawara’s life was full of study, governing, and political maneuvering. Though he rose to quite a high rank in his society, he gained the negative attention of the Fujiwara family, the family in control of Japan for most of the latter Heian era. He was given an apparently low position in Dazaifu where he died.

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The Fujiwara who had worked to get him to Dazaifu started to die off and figured Sugawara’s vengeful spirit was targeting them. Sugawara is today regarded as the diety Tenman, who is fittingly a diety of poetry and literature.

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While it is quite a bit out of the city, Dazaifu Tenmangu is one of few places in Fukuoka with an old feel and large shrine. Reminiscent of Shibamata, Nikko (though not as huge), or even Asakusa.

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Stylish ‘Spresso at Coffee Stand frank…

Kobe made its image in the late 1800s as the first naval academy was opened in Hyogo (Kobe’s prefecture). From there the city grew reflective of its international roots and as such is well known in Japan for Beef, Bread, Sandwiches, and old style cafes. Coffee Stand Frank is a new style cafe, that brings that identity into the 21st century.

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The actual name is apparently ‘Coffee Stand frank…’ And is written in white cursive on a stark back panel over a symbol similar to an infinity sign. But this isn’t all style over substance, rather a reflection of the area it’s located in as the inside of the cafe is an espresso machine surrounded on all sides by a counter and whole beans off in the corner. They apparently offer coffee classes, and hold other similar events. They even apparently just opened a second shop, Coffee LABO frank…, 5 minutes away.

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At Coffee Stand Frank, spro is the way to go. It’s an espresso that starts off sweet with a good flavor of molasses and slight smokeyness. It feels creamy with a medium body. Towards the end there are more prevalent slight juice and pomegranate flavors.

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While there are some other shops trying to make it in Kobe, Coffee Stand Frank was a standout choice that shouldn’t be missed if you’re in the Kansai area. You’ll be hard pressed to find other cafes that nail espresso like they do.

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Check out Coffee Stand frank…’s owner on Instagram @mr.frank_kosuke

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The Oldest Shrine in Kobe

Kobe is a wonderful place that seems to often get passed over by the common tourist. In many ways, what it offers is a kind of europeanized Japanese culture (from a Japanese perspective mostly) which is a hard sell compared to the heavily traditional sights of Kyoto or Nara.

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However, if you want to see a beautiful slice of traditional Japan whilst also enjoying some curry bread or a cup of coffee, or your night bus arrived way too early; you can always go to Ikuta Shrine. This may be one of the most easily accessible places I’ve written about since it’s honestly just about 5 minutes north of Kobe’s main station, Sannomiya. However, don’t write it off for that, as it is also one of the oldest shrines in Japan and definitely a point of pride (as much as any shrine is) for Kobe people. “Oh you went to Kobe? Did you eat steak? Did you see Ikuta Shrine? Did you have sandwiches?” is a common question you’ll get in Japan.

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As Kansai (Kyoto, Nara, Kobe, Osaka) is a very rich historical area, Ikuta’s importance stems from the Gempei War, a time that’s overshadowed by much more violent times in history. Whereas Shimonoseki held the most famous sea battle of that war, Ikuta Shrine held arguably the most famous land battle.

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As far back as the middle of the Heian Era 794-1185, the Japanese Emperor had lost all ability to govern or have any effect on politics or the country. This first occurred because older emperors didn’t want to relinquish power and acted as regents, and later turned into three major families fighting to become the common lineage of regents. This is an event that dictated the rest of how Japanese government operates even until this day, the removal of the public figure’s ability to dictate and establishment of a less public dictator or oligarchy led to not only every war on Japanese soil, but also every war and crime committed abroad. It was also what established Japan’s warrior culture and brought them that much further from good relations with China and Korea.

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The war and battle was fought between the Minamoto and Taira families. The Taira family had for many years until that point been acting as regents and when a new emperor was about to be born from a Taira mother, the most powerful warrior family from the east, the Minamoto, decided they would have to step in to stop the Taira from solidifying their control. This battle in particular also introduced warrior monks, who had also played a large part of all Japanese wars up until the 1600s.

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Japan’s New Coffee Style

Without wishing to sound too grandiose, there are some moments that restore your faith in humanity, Manu Coffee in Fukuoka restored my faith in Japanese espresso. If you look back in time at this blog (please do) you may notice that besides Bear Pond Espresso, a near-mythological shop to some, I wasn’t able to find great espresso in many other places in Japan. Part of this is because the third wave coffee scene didn’t come into full swing in Japan until about two years ago, and the other is because I had never been to Fukuoka.

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Though some other shops are making a good case for it, Manu Coffee is probably one of the nicest cafes I’ver ever been to. Meaning the baristas were ridiculously nice. Within a few minutes I felt as welcome as a year-long usual and spent far longer than I expected chatting with the baristas there. One of whom also offered to bring me to their roastery, something I wouldn’t pass up.

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First arriving at Manu Coffee, I wasn’t sure what to think since it’s a very unassuming shop. So much so that I actually learned that one of my former students who couldn’t really care less about coffee hangs out there a bunch with her friends. The moment came when I ordered an espresso and when bringing it to me, I was told that it was a Single Origin Yirgacheffe. After about a month of navigating around (still amazingly lovely) cafes in Korea that wanted to offer a million options to not alienate those who want to have Grandpa Pasquale’s espresso, it was so refreshing to see a cafe with the courage to drop down a SOE like it was no big deal. Like a sushi chef boldly dropping a plate of fresh sea urchin in front of you as if to say “You either eat this and love it, or fuck off back to your california rolls.”

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The Ethiopia was at the same time, earthy, sweet, and fruity. It was only slightly tart and very heavily milk chocolate in taste and mouthfeel. Considering Yirgacheffe’s natural tendency to be very fruity and tart, getting such a wide variety of flavors is really commendable.

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The cafe not only kept me coming back, but even made me go visit one of their other locations. That day, I tried the Ocami Blend, which is named for their roastery Ocami Roasters. The blend was a bit smokey, but faded to give way to a great sweetness. There was a bit of earthy tea flavors, as well as a bit of molasses.

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Manu Coffee definitely knows what they’re doing, and are worthy of being at the forefront of Japan’s coffee scene. More importantly than that, while there I was given the names of other cafes around Japan, many of which will show up on this blog soon. I was also told about Honey Coffee which is apparently the father of the Fukuoka coffee scene, I didn’t have time to go there but there is always next time…

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