Tokyo has grown to become one of the world’s great coffee cities. From hipster espresso spots to cozy cafes that specialize in latte art, the Tokyo coffee scene is thriving. What sets the city apart, however, is the resurgence of old-school Japanese coffee houses (kissaten) that combine the finest baristas with surroundings you are unlikely to find anywhere else in the world. The Showa period in Japanese history stretched from 1926 to 1980—so not only can you enjoy a wide range of coffees inside a kissaten, but also a wide range of interior designs too.
Enter one of these small, dark establishments and you’ll find yourself stepping back in time to an era without skyscrapers and in-your-face modernity. A period where everything was just that little bit more refined. A trip to a Showa-style coffee shop might be slightly more expensive than you may be used to paying for a cup of coffee—but the ambiance and experience you take away will most certainly make up for it. Be warned though: many of these places allow smoking, and so the atmosphere can be foggy at best.
Want to try one for yourself? Here are five kissaten in five different neighborhoods to get you started.
Café de L’ambre – Ginza
A Tokyo institution, Café de L’ambre in Tokyo’s upscale Ginza shopping district has been in business since 1948—with 2018 playing host to the shop’s 70th anniversary. If you are new to the kissaten scene this is as good a place as any to start, mainly because of the welcoming (and at times, admittedly noisy) vibe. Many kissaten tend to be quiet, reflective places not unlike a library, but Café de L’ambre is quite the opposite: a place where people chat, laugh and catch up over 30 varieties of coffee. English menus are available and the menus themselves are extensive. This place gets busy, so a weekday afternoon may be your best bet for a seat without a queue. 8 Chome-10-15 Ginza, Chūō, Tokyo
Coffee Seibu – Shinjuku
If plush interior design is top of your agenda then head to Kohi Seibu in Shinjuku, with its red velvet seats and bright stained-glass panels on the ceiling. Dimly lit tulip wall lamps also add to the vibe, one that is surprising cozy despite it being a big room. Getting a seat usually isn’t a problem, with food options that may mean you end up sitting here longer than you intended. The all-you-can-eat toast set for 650 yen is a sold choice if you want to start your morning with caffeine and carb overload. 3F, 3 Chome-34-9 Shinjuku, Tokyo
Chatei Hatou – Shibuya
Just a short walk from Shibuya’s hectic scramble crossing, the interior of this kissaten couldn’t be more different: an oasis of calm, hidden away from the bustling outside world. Step inside the unassuming entrance and you’ll be greeted by a long hardwood counter featuring hundreds of cups hanging behind it. The baristas will try and choose a cup that matches your personality or the outfit you are wearing—but the attention to detail doesn’t end there. The hand-drip coffees are expertly and meticulously poured, and it’s well worth sitting at the counter at least once just to see the whole process at work. The prices here are admittedly more expensive, with cups starting from 850 yen. But the atmosphere—as well as the cakes—make it well worth a visit. 1-15-19 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
Trois Chambres – Shimokitazawa
Even if you lived in Shimokitazawa for many years no one would blame you if you never knew this place existed. Now over 35 years old, this shop serves up amazing cheesecakes and coffee that comes in well under the price of some other kissatens in Tokyo. Totally unassuming from the outside, the interior is awash with antique cups and a relaxed vibe—and it’s a great place to just read a book and enjoy your surroundings. Shimokitazawa is home to an increasing number of modern, minimalist coffee shops, so it’s nice to know that this place still exists, content to sit quietly in the background. 2F, 5 Chome-36-14 Daizawa, Setagaya, Tokyo
Gallant – Ueno
While many kissatens pride themselves on elegant 1930s surroundings of dark wood and velvet, others are perfectly content to embrace the downright gaudiness of the 70s and 80s. If you want to surround yourself with retro tiles, retro sofas, retro… well, everything, head to Gallant in Ueno. On the surface it’s almost a cross between a coffee shop and an American diner—with a melon soda float on the menu only further reinforcing this claim. It even has a cherry on top. 6-14-4, Ueno, Taito-ku, Tokyo
A famous park, a former black market and a whole heap of museums—get to know Ueno: