Kiyomi is a former Canadian pharmacist who is now living in Japan, where she enjoys being immersed in her Japanese roots.
Despite being known for their matcha and other types of green tea, Japan actually has quite a widespread coffee culture. Imported coffee beans were first introduced in the late 1800s, and the first café was said to have been opened in the early 1900s (Meiji period). A kissaten 喫茶店 is similar to a café in that they are both considered coffee shops, but there are a few important differences. Once you've read this article, you’ll understand why I recommend a visit to the former.
History of the Kissaten
The first cafés in Japan were based on those seen in Paris where artists of all types could gather and discuss topics related to their works over a cup of coffee. Eventually, coffee became more popular and the import of beans grew in the Taisho period (1912-1926). Cafés started branching out into bars and cabarets where not only coffee but alcohol was served, as well.
The beginning of the Showa era (1926-1989) saw the birth of the kissaten. These were places that put emphasis on coffee. You could get light meals to go with your coffee and no alcohol was sold. Even today there exists a Kissaten Business Permit, which allows a shop to sell food and drinks excluding alcoholic beverages. A café, on the other hand, often has a Restaurant Business Permit, which allows alcohol to be served.
This is not to say that a café will always have alcohol on the menu or that a kissaten will never have alcohol in-house, as there is no rule that limits what the owner names the shop. For example, the restaurant may have the word "kissaten" in its name, but if the owner has obtained a Restaurant Business Permit the sale of alcohol would be allowed, and vice versa.
All throughout the Showa era, the kissaten business grew and you could find a kissaten anywhere, in city centers or nestled between houses in residential areas. Ever since cafés became more popular in the 1990s (Heisei era), the opening of new kissaten became rare.
As such, the kissaten remaining today are often run by the older generation, and the shops have kept their Showa period look and feel. You may see low, red velvet seats, old china tea and coffee cups, lighting fixtures that reflect the era, old coffee grinders and other antiques kept on display. Often times, smoking is allowed and televisions are set in one corner for both customers and staff to watch. Here in Japan, all of these characteristics would be considered very retro. In many shops, you'll find that the owners are there all the time and are very friendly, not afraid to start a conversation with the patrons.
Cafés, on the other hand, are usually more modern and are designed to look very chic. They are often well-lit and have a brighter atmosphere compared to a kissaten which uses dimmer lighting, or darker coloured furniture to create a relaxing feel.
The older generation seem to have a special attachment to kissaten. You may find that a large portion of the regular customers are seniors and say “I’ll have the usual” as they walk in, or they needn't see a menu to think about what they’d like to order. For them, these kissaten are a nostalgic place where they can relieve stress, or eat and drink in peace.
The visitors to cafés may be mostly younger and the ratio of women is usually higher than men. The atmosphere is one reason why this may be case. The clean and chic image makes it easier for women to enter, especially if dining alone. It also attracts groups wanting to have a nice day out with the girls.
Another factor has to do with the relatively new term, "café meguri." It refers to going around town checking out different cafés. Those excited about this trend are largely younger folks. This hobby is so widespread that there are many magazines and books dedicated to introducing cafés worth visiting in and around Japan.
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Often times kissaten are family-run. You'll see couples, one behind the counter cooking and brewing coffee and the other taking orders and serving the food and drinks. You may see their children or even grandchildren helping out as well. I once met four generations of women working at one kissaten (the owner was in her 90s and was still brewing coffee and making sandwiches behind the counter!).
Although not always the case, the café entrepreneurs are often about a generation or two younger than the kissaten owners. Thus they do tend to be more modern and creative in terms of both interior decor and menu items.
Kissaten usually offer a variety of manga books and magazines for their customers to pick up at will and enjoy while eating their lunch or drinking coffee. It is a good place to keep up with the news or get caught up on weekly published manga.
Alternatively, cafés may or may not provide reading materials. The ones that do seem to stock magazines about art, the latest news from the city’s food scene, music, or flyers of events happening throughout the city. Sometimes these give a clue to the café owner’s hobbies or affiliations.
Food and Prices
Menu items in kissaten are often very similar wherever you go. They usually include a teishoku section, or set meal that comes with miso soup, rice, a side dish and Japanese pickles in addition to the main. Commonly found mains are kara age (fried chicken), tonkatsu (pork cutlet), croquettes, hamburger patties, yasai itame (vegetable and meat stir-fry), and panko-breaded fried fish.
Then there are the rice dishes that usually come with a salad or soup, such as curry rice or hayashi rice (a type of beef stew cooked in demi-glace sauce). Noodle dishes may also be seen at kissaten; for example, yaki soba (stir-fried ramen noodles with pork and cabbage or other vegetables) and naporitan (spaghetti with wieners and veggies, all seasoned with ketchup). Sandwiches may include mixed sando (usually crustless, thin slices of white bread with egg, ham, cucumbers, lettuce and mustard mayonnaise), tonkatsu sandwiches, and tamagoyaki (rolled egg omelette) sandwiches.
Teishoku, which often includes an after-meal drink of coffee or tea, may range from 650-950 yen, while sandwiches may be less than 600 yen. These affordable prices draw regular customers in multiple times during the week.
The food items in cafés vary widely; however, a common item on the menu is the “one-plate lunch." This is exactly what it sounds like, veggies (often a salad, or ratatouille), carbs (rice or bread), and a main all on one large plate. It is often labelled the "daily lunch," and its contents change every day.
Sometimes the menu will overlap with kissaten items such as curry rice, hamburger patties, chicken kara-age, or sho-ga yaki (sautéed pork with a ginger sauce), but for the most part cafés tend to try to make their dishes unique in some way by either adding novel flavours or by plating the dish in a photogenic way.
Dishes seen in cafés include chicken or pork sautés, fish muniere, hot sandwiches, pastas, or big bowls of multi-grain rice topped with ingredients like sashimi and avocado, or okra and tororo (grated yam). When soups are included, they tend to be Western-style chicken or veggie broth-based instead of miso and dashi. Many cafés try to follow the current food trends in order to attract customers. Prices are usually higher than kissaten and can range from about 900-1800 yen for lunch.
Another difference is that cafés tend to specialize more than kissaten in the dessert and bread area. Some provide house-made bread, and others are known for their pancakes or chiffon cakes, French toast, puddings, mont blancs, rolled cream cakes or fancy layered cakes.
The dessert menu in a kissaten often features fruit sandwiches (fruit and whipped cream between crustless white bread), ice cream, ogura toast (red bean paste and margarine smeared on toast) or sweet coffee jelly (served with cream to pour over).
Coffees in kissaten are usually either made with auto-drip machines which make a whole pot, or are hand dripped into individual cups. Sometimes, they even reheat coffee gone cold in a small pot, which is why you can get inconsistent coffees in one kissaten depending on how fresh their brew is. If you order just a coffee it may come with some peanuts, arare (rice crackers) or a bite-sized, light prepackaged pastry.
Cafés on the other hand seem to be more particular about their coffee quality and as a result may cost one or two hundred yen more than kissaten coffee. If the café carries various blends of coffee, they may grind and hand-drip their coffees upon each individual order. Otherwise they may invest in a modern automatic coffee machine that with a push of a button allows just one cup to be brewed at a time, enabling the coffee to be made with a consistent fresh aroma and flavour.
Hours of Operation
In the early morning hours at the break of dawn, kissaten are the ones that you can find serving coffee with a small breakfast. Those who work at unconventional hours or seniors who wake up at 4 or 5 in the morning will make their daily visits just as the sun starts rising. Because the owners are in the shop from open until close, and because kissaten are not associated with dinner or drinking, they often close by 5 or 6 in the evening.
Cafés, although also open for breakfast may have later opening hours such as 9 or 10am. Many cafés have dinner menus and also have a bar that serves alcohol, so you'll see them open until late in the evening.
Independents vs. Chains
From the differences I have mention thus far, you can probably guess that kissaten tend to be mostly independent shops. While café owners may be independent as well, many popular ones are chain stores found throughout Japan such as Starbucks, Doutor, Mister Donuts, Café de Crie, Pronto and Tully’s, to name a few.
Because there is a fine line between a kissaten and a café, there are a couple of stores that are chains but can be said to have a kissaten quality; Komeda and Ko-hi-kan are two that come to mind. They have a franchise feel, but perhaps since they both gained popularity in the Showa era, they still maintain some aspects of a kissaten, Komeda’s Coffee in particular.
In the end, there isn’t a clear distinction as to what counts as a kissaten and what defines a café. Many institutions could be considered a fusion of both. However, it can be said that the café meguri trend is allowing the new cafés and a handful of old kissatens to thrive. Although finding an old kissaten may be harder to find, I do recommend visiting one before they gradually disappear! (Hint: in the Aichi prefecture, central area of Japan, look in residential areas for a revolving light. Many kissaten in this area have these lights outside the entrance which makes spotting one easier.)