Travel Adjustments: Coffee Culture Japan

Well, darn. I was doing so well with posting on the website, and now it’s been several months since I last wrote anything.

Whoops.

To be fair, I had quite a bit on my mind. Or rather, I had a new obsession that distracted me from any and all writing.

And what was this incredible distraction? Well, my 30th birthday trip to Japan, of course.

Yes, starting back in December, my hours were spent researching the country, booking hotels and tickets, and learning as much Japanese as possible before my departure. I was going by myself and for two weeks, so I was a bit nervous and wanted to be as prepared as possible. Everything else in my life took a backseat to this amazing adventure that I was about to experience.

But of course, with all of my trips, there was one consideration that took priority over all the rest: Where was I going to get my coffee?

My initial research lead me to a couple of items of concern:

  1. Coffee is really not that popular of a drink in the country. At least, not in the way I usually drink and experience it.
  2. Coffee is treated more as a drink to go with dessert than something to go with breakfast.

The first issue was a minor one to me, but one I knew I needed to prepare my coffee-snob self for. I immediately verified that there were Starbucks stores in Japan, and many travel blogs explained that the 7-Elevens and vending machines all carried a variety of very tasty and interesting iced coffee drinks. I figured that, with those two options, I would at least be able to find something to soothe my caffeine addiction, even if the coffee wasn’t the greatest that I had ever tasted.

This iced coffee drink was necessary on the Shinkansen from Kyoto to Tokyo as I had been drinking whisky at the Suntory Yamazaki Distillery all day.

The second issue, while not majorly problematic, did end up being rather annoying while I was in the country. I had a list a mile long of coffee shops that I wanted to visit, especially while I was in Tokyo, but I was only able to visit a small handful because many of them were just not open when I would have liked them to be. In addition to that, while some of the places sold dessert foods along with the drinks, many did not serve food at all. Not an issue if I needed an afternoon pick-up, but in the morning, my stomach required some sort of food to get me going. Finding a place open for breakfast was a bit of a struggle those first couple of days.

I found breakfast. Hoshino is a chain in Japan, but I tried it out in Osaka.

And of course, even though I researched like crazy before heading to Japan to adjust my coffee expectations, as with any international trip, there are going to be a few surprises.

The first surprise came in the form of foreign language shock. I tried to learn some Japanese before the trip, but it became very clear, very quickly that I was in no way prepared to have even the slightest interaction in Japanese. Also, while many people in the big cities know basic English, not many that I met could be considered fluent. This required a bit of a confidence adjustment, and it really wasn’t until halfway through my trip that I was able to get over my embarrassment and discomfort and not hesitate to enter a coffee shop with only Japanese menus and point at what I needed.

The second surprise, oddly enough, took me a few days to recognize, but it was something that I just didn’t think I would have to adjust my expectations for. What was this surprise? Well, coffee shops in Japan are more akin to coffee drive-thrus than to coffeehouses.

In the US, there are, of course, many coffee kiosks or to-go windows that don’t provide seating where individuals can grab a cup of java quickly on the way to the office or some other destination, but it is much more common to have full sized cafes with a variety of seating for customers. It was the creation of that kind of space that helped put Starbucks on the map before there was a shop on every corner. I am definitely a fan of this kind of space, and I love to kill time in coffee shops, reading, writing, or meeting with friends while drinking my cappuccino and chowing down on a danish.

But the fact of the matter is, Japan is a small country with a sizable population. To put it into perspective, it is smaller than the state of California with a population greater that that of California. There just isn’t space for the coffee shop set-up that I have come to love. So unfortunately, when I wanted to find a coffee shop and grab a afternoon caffeine pick-me-up while doing some journaling or reading, I would find that there was no place to actually sit down and do those things. That’s not to say that those spaces don’t exist in Japan, but they are a bit harder to find.

With all that being said, I did visit some amazing coffee shops while in Japan, and I hope to spend the next few weeks discussing those spots. When one of those places gives you the best cup of coffee that you’ve ever had in your life, it deserves its own dedicated blog post.

So until then,

The one and the only Pookachino

First morning in Tokyo. Enjoyed coffee in the gallery room at the Park Hotel Tokyo. I highly recommend staying here, especially if you can get an artist room.

P.S. Coffee in Japanese is コーヒー (Pronounced koh hee).

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