Author’s note: ** I would like to dedicate this piece to my loving family, to my husband who reluctantly but devotedly helped me locate, plot out and navigate my way to my coffee shops and my 3 kids, who never once complained when mommy was dragging them to yet another espresso bar and sitting patiently while I sip my coffee in silence. I wouldn’t have been able to have these great experiences without you guys.
It was my very first trip to Japan. We were headed for Tokyo – me, my husband and 3 kids. Weeks before, my husband asked me to take note of the places we could go to, kid-friendly, family places that the kids will enjoy. I set to work on this list, handed it to my husband and he then proceeded to plot a daily itinerary for them. Of course, I had another list, one that was near and dear to my heart, a listing of coffee shops I wanted to visit on the trip. I knew it was going to be a challenge even getting to these places, let alone enjoying them in solace because I was with the whole family, but doggone it, I wasn’t going to give up on the dream! And so with a little help from Google Maps, I plotted my Coffee Crawl to fit seamlessly into our daily schedule. Needless to say it turned out to be quite an ordeal at times to find my cafés but I am proud to report I was able to hit most of the shops on my list plus a few surprises along the way. Here is my Nihon Kaku coffee experience.
SUNDAY COFFEE STAND SHIBUYA
Touchdown Tokyo. After a bus, train and walk to our Airbnb in the heart of the bustling district of Shibuya, I was hankering for my first taste of Japanese coffee. Just across the street from our place, I noticed a bright bold sign that read, “Sunday Coffee,” posted above a quaint little nook with dim, yellow lighting and tropical touches. The barista was busy handling both the cashier and the espresso machine, the tantalizing aroma of coffee filled the small space. I walk up to the counter and learn that they serve Kona coffee, a variety cultivated on the slopes of Hualalai and Mauna Loa in the North and South Districts of Hawaii, a prized varietal indeed and so I was excited to try it.
I ordered a Latte and watched as the hip, Japanese lady made my coffee right in front of me. She finishes her delicate latte art, hands the cup to me with a bow, and I choose a nice spot by the standing bar to have my drink. Chocolatey, rich, bold, with hints of caramel as well as a whisper of citrus. What a great welcome to Tokyo.
BLUE BOTTLE COFFEE SHINJUKU
As I mentioned, our Airbnb was located right smack in the middle of the busiest areas in Tokyo. We got to cross the famous (or infamous) Shibuya Scramble several times each day, a multipoint intersection that allows seas and seas of people to cross over with masses of bodies traversing one another amidst towering, flashy billboards and huge LED screens. Just a few train stops away, and equally populated, is Shinjuku Station.
I was all giggly like a little girl in a candy shop when we finally found Blue Bottle Coffee, nestled as if an oasis within the urban jungle. With its high ceilings, 360o open coffee bar and zen aesthetic, I was in coffee Mecca. Blue Bottle Coffee is a specialty coffee institution and the golden standard to many when you’re talking about master brews and roasts.
I order my Gibraltar, a Blue Bottle brainchild, which is a double shot of espresso and a bit of milk served in a small Libbey “Gibraltar” tumbler, hence the name. Legend has it that this was originally a drink Blue Bottle baristas made for themselves behind the bar. I sip mine and I am instantly blown away. It had the complexity and depth unlike any other coffee I’ve ever had. You know every single step in the coffee process – growing, harvesting, roasting, grinding, brewing was done exceptionally well to arrive at this one stellar cup. Golden.
LITTLE NAP COFFEE STAND
On our scheduled “Park Day” I strategically planned to swing by Little Nap Coffee Stand. I must admit I was getting more and more anxious by the minute as we were walking around what seemed to be suburbs, with hardly any crowds nor big shopping complexes or malls. With our trusty Google Maps, we walked and walked and walked until we came to a small side street by the railroad tracks and found a cute little shop, about the size of a container van, just big enough for a coffee bar and a few bar stools and seats.
The café is just across the street from Yoyogi Park and on a nice, breezy, drizzling morning like that day, it was the perfect place to have my coffee. Manned by only one barista (because he’s the only one that’ll fit) whom I take to be the owner, Little Nap is a charming little nook that offers eye candy everywhere you look in that small space. I also order their version of the Gibraltar and it came in the cutest little receptacle, imagine, a baby food jar. This cup of coffee, plus the chill atmosphere and the marvelous weather set my mind at ease and energized me for our next adventures that day.
COFFEE HOUSE NISHIYA
As I have mentioned in the past, I am a big Instagram freak. It truly is my favorite creative outlet and my window to the world. I follow a few random Japanese instagrammers that usually post about food, fashion and, of course, coffee. Since I was in Tokyo, I messaged one such instagrammer for a coffee shop recommendation. Within minutes of my message he replied, “You have to go [to] Coffee House Nishiya in Shibuya.” And that’s just what I did.
A good 10-minute walk from the Shibuya Station, Coffee House Nishiya is an Italian-style bar and café run by Kyohei Nishiya. He personally runs the bar and makes your coffee himself with a huge grin on his face. He hands me a menu, which was, thank God, a picture menu and my eye goes straight for their Caffe con Panna, and I just had to have it. Made with a shot of espresso and a dollop of whipped cream, the contrast of the hot and cold, bold and subtle flavors, and the play on creamy textures make this coffee luxurious and indulgent. Service here was just excellent, Mr. Nishiya and his staff were very hospitable and gave me quite an unforgettable coffee experience.
Yes. You read that right. Coffee is so good here in Japan that even their convenience store varieties impress and wow. Since we were staying at an Airbnb in a condo complex in Shibuya, we decided to rely on the convenience stores just below us for our breakfast each morning. Intrigued by their shelves and shelves of instant, ready to drink coffee, I decided to give one a go one morning and was pleasantly surprised by the quality of these very affordable, easily accessible drinks. I’m telling you, I wanted to hoard these things and bring them back to Manila because sadly, the only ones I’ve encountered in our groceries and convenience stores have been sugary and lackluster versions of my beloved beverage. The brand I particularly enjoyed was the Mt. Rainier ready to drink Caffe’ Latte. It comes in a sealed takeaway coffee cup, chilled, and comes with or without sugar. I chose the one sans sugar. The Japanese do know how to take their coffee seriously, even their “low-end”, pedestrian kinds are amazing!
SUNDAY COFFEE STAND
Japan, 150-0043 Tokyo Shibuya
Open 8AM-12AM daily
BLUE BOTTLE COFFEE SHINJUKU
Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 160-0022
Open 8AM-10PM daily
LITTLE NAP COFFEE STAND
5-65-4 Yoyogi Shibuya-ku
Tokyo 151-0053 Japan
Open Tuesday-Sunday 9AM-7PM, Closed Mondays
COFFEE HOUSE NISHIYA
1-4-1 Higashi Shibuya-Ku
Open 10AM-8:30PM every day except Tuesday
(various shops around Tokyo)