I’ve had tons of time to leisurely check out all of these wonderful coffee places in the past year, but most people reading this won’t have such luxuries and only a few weeks in Asia at best. There are great things going on coffee-wise in Asia and this is a fantastical sort of tour I thought up, though if anyone is able to pull it off please let me know. The only restriction is only two coffees per day and a reasonable way to travel, since this is geared towards tourists, this will assume you have a JR Rail Pass for Japan.
Let’s start in the north with Baristart Coffee as well as The Lighthouse Coffee. Baristart is a wonderful gem that uses beans from And Coffee Roasters in Kumamoto which is a pretty recent powerhouse of a roaster in Japan. The Lighthouse Coffee is also a great cafe that uses Allpresso who are still great despite the sin of Perrying, and the shop itself is local which balances it out. Both will give you a great outlook on Japanese coffee and get you ready for your flight or long Shinkansen ride to Tokyo. If you do want to make a stop, make sure its in Morioka for Nagasawa Coffee or Utsunomiya for Gibbs5 and or Coffeeshop Tera Coffee.
Tokyo’s going to take more than just one day, but it’s likely you’ll be hitting the east side first due to the structure of the city. Kiyosumi-Shirakawa is the place to be for coffee in East Tokyo, this will give you a good idea of Japan’s drip coffee and small roasting scene especially if you hit up Arise Coffee Roasters and Cream of the Crop Coffee. Yes, the Allpresso store and Blue Bottle are also in the area but that should be a pass for New Zealanders/Australians and Americans respectively. If you’re from New York, I see no reason to go to Blue Bottle when visiting here since you can’t sneeze without ending up near a Blue Bottle in New York nowadays.
West Tokyo runs the espresso show, and at the top of that is Bear Pond no matter what. Make sure you arrive early before they open or you might not even have a chance for any espresso. Whether you love it or hate it, he’s got a vision so experience it to the fullest. Don’t forget the other big fish in the area and hop two trains over to Meguro to get to Switch Coffee. If you’re a fan of interesting things, make sure you try out their espresso tonic.
Next city? Don’t be daft, this is Tokyo! West Tokyo. You got the feels for the espresso giants, but what about the places that add some more style into not only their atmosphere but their taste as well? Head over to Ebisu station and walk a minute over to Sarutahiko Coffee, a place that speaks to me stylishly on many levels. With carefully thought out espresso blends and single origins to accentuate a single flavor and call back to the best of kissaten culture, this is probably THE Japanese coffee experience you wanted. When it gets kinda late at night (Tokyo late, not New York or Seoul late) head over to The Roastery by Nozy Coffee, located somewhat near Harajuku station. The Roastery actually isn’t open that late, just tip 10pm, but it’s above and beyond later than most cafes. With espresso being served in wine glass style glasses and low lighting this is a welcome sight in a city that’s dominated by the absence of late night transportation. It’s time to move on to Kansai though if you wanted you could always make an extra stop off at Bukatsudo Coffee to meet some of the coolest people I’ve met in Japan. You may even see me there.
Ah Kansai, a beautiful place where three incredibly different cities are all about half an hour away from each other. Kyoto’s the first stop on the Shinkansen and a wonderful place to stay so let’s start with the new king of the hill, %Arabica. This cafe is making ripples across the country in a great way and their marriage of sleek style, kickass espresso, and variety reminds one of 9th Street Espresso in a good way. From there, even though I don’t recommend leaving Kyoto so soon, for the purposes of this tour head over to Osaka to Lilo Coffee for a different scene. Lilo coffee is quite local and seems to have a tight knit group of regulars, but this is Japan where the group of regulars will usually invite you tin open arms. Where %Arabica seems to be growing rapidly, Lilo is doing well and staying small to continue doing so.
I hope you stayed overnight in Osaka, it really is a better place for nightlife. Make your way over to Takamura Wine and Coffee Roasters for another awesome espresso-based drink or one of many available drip coffees. If you buy a bottle of wine above a certain price you also get a free drip coffee so there’s that incentive as well. Head over to Kobe afterwards for Coffee LABO Frank, formerly known as Coffee Stand Frank… which seems to be at the very forefront of Kobe’s coffee scene which actually has a long and rich history. Good thing Kobe’s got a nice Shinkansen because it’s time to head over to Hiroshima city.
In Hiroshima, you need to go to Coffee Obscura, the super professional cafe that makes coffee that simply blow it out of the park every time. Yes there is one in Tokyo but who wants to keep it so simple? After that ride over to the ferry station to go to Miyajima, which you should be going to anyway if you’re in Hiroshima, and hit up Sarasvati Coffee for anything but espresso. If you’re feeling lucky you can check out the two other third wave coffee shops on the island but if they aren’t serving anything besides their obnoxiously dark espresso blend I’d highly recommend against espresso drinks. My Great-Grandfather didn’t leave early 1900s Italy to have over-roasted espresso! You’ll be heading to Fukuoka city afterwards, arguably the birthplace of Japan’s third wave movement.
Speaking of Fukuoka being the birthplace you should one-up me while you have the chance and go to the real Honey Coffee in Itoshima. I’m not going to say who started in Japan first because I don’t really know and it doesn’t really matter, but they were among the first and apparently have some interesting honey-centric coffees. Don’t forget to hit up the place that restored my faith in Japanese coffee, Manu Coffee, though. Manu coffee has a boldness to experiment and try great things with the coffees that they use for espresso and otherwise as well as competing for a spot in the “nicest baristas in Japan” spot. Did you know that Fukuoka also has a ferry to Busan, Korea? It’s great because that’s what you should be using to get yourself into Korea.
Busan, a place where the coffee style isn’t just different from other countries but also different from the first city in the country, Seoul. Considering the location of the ferry terminal, it would be really easy to make a trip over to Blackup Coffee. I’ve gushed over Blackup a bit in the past over the fact that they have an espresso blend and espresso-based drink based solely around accentuating a that coffee’s natural apple flavor. This is coffee nerdiness to a whole other degree, which I can totally get behind. From there you owe it to yourself to hit up MOMOs Coffee right near Ocheonjang station. MOMOs is another cafe that helped start the whole third wave coffee thing in their country, in this case Korea. It’s a huge place with an interesting atmosphere, great pastries, and of course great coffee.
Head on down to Songjeong beach to get some amazing coffee at RBH, another cafe full of people who take coffee as seriously as I do. Across the street is also In Earth Coffee which is often eclipsed by RBH for being so close and not having as warm of staff. As far as coffee goes, it’s also amazing and deserves your patronage. Alternatively you can choose to go to the newer location of RBH which I understand to be near Seomyeon station and hit up FM Coffeehouse as well. You would be robbing yourself of an adventure and the experience of In Earth Coffee though. Make sure you get those KTX tickets to Seoul because it’s time for the last leg of this tour.
Seoul has its own coffee style in its own right as well, and I think no cafe could demonstrate that better than five extracts. Five extracts is a pretty small place compared to what other Seoul cafes I’ll suggest, but it’s a place that roasts small batches for their own use, and has achieved a lot through barista and roasting competitions. At night it will be time to head to the truest night coffee shop, Anthracite. I still have a pamphlet from Anthracite listing all of their espresso blends, it’s longer than two normal papers stapled together. The amount of variety and late night lifestyle make me wonder why I chose to live somewhere so far away when that’s obviously what my life goal has truly been. Anthracite is huge and keeps getting bigger, and with the choice I’d choose the location in Hongdae.
It’s possible that the original Coffee LEC store in Gangnam makes up for the amazing disappointment of their branch but you’ll have to just wait tip I go back to Seoul. Based on coffee beans that I used myself, I’d recommend Tailor coffee on your last day of your amazing coffee tour. Savor the cutting edge of Seoul’s coffee scene before going to the leader of that scene. Of course I mean Coffee Libre. I’ve said enough about Coffee Libre in the past in both languages I’m comfortable with, so let’s just leave it at the fact that it deserves all the praise I’m willing to throw at it. It’s also a great place to get some drip bags, beans, or memorabilia for your trip back and as a reader mentioned in a comment recently, the beans are well priced at 11,000won (~$11) and come with a free coffee!
If you think that’s long, you might be surprised to know that I cut out a ton of places I’ve personally enjoyed to keep this to a level where it would be realistically possible.