This article is part of a guide to Tokyo from FT Globetrotter
It is, of course, utterly crazy to produce a list of the best five places for coffee in Tokyo. If FT Globetrotter came up with a list of the top 5,000, the comment thread would still heave with howled indignation at names omitted and the worldly omniscience of those who know about that little place in Shin-Koiwa where they infuse a Yemeni-Haitian blend with pure Sumo tears. Or whatever.
Tokyo is absolutely drowning in coffee, and the intensity of competition means that a quite delicious proportion of it, even at the lower price range, is really very good. To illustrate the scale of the issue, consider the walk to my daughter’s school — a shortish stroll from Yoyogi into Shibuya which, without the slightest detour, takes me past 38 places from which good, hot coffee can be procured.
These include humble workhorses such as the convenience-store chain 7-Eleven, whose coffee is cheap and rich, and higher-end places such as Streamers, where the blend is so strong it makes the teeth throb. Honourable mention should also go to Doutor, which was turning itself into a top-quality speciality-coffee chain in the early 1980s well before the world had heard of Starbucks. The Ueshima, St Marc and Komeda’s chains are also rock-solid merchants of the black gold.
And, to really enrage the purists, that 38 tally doesn’t even include the scores of vending machines passed en route: silent, unsleeping baristas whose canned coffee offerings have improved immeasurably in recent years while snobs have sneered, flounced off with their $6 cardboard quiver of plastic lids and dolphin-choking stirrers, and forgotten the joy of a heated aluminium can of Tully’s Smooth Black on a cold station platform.
So what determines this top-five list? There are plenty of criteria that could have been applied, mostly unscientific and skewed to central Tokyo. Favourite places for a work meeting in the Marunouchi business district, near the FT office and most of the major financial institutions, include the ever-reliable Dean & Deluca, the Horiguchi Coffee branch in the new Mitsui building and the moat balcony of the Grand Kitchen at the Palace Hotel. To break a walk at glorious locations with lovingly prepared latte, there is Park Side Cafe in Ueno Park, Perch By Woodberry Coffee Roasters in Ebisu and Komazawa Park Cafe near the old Olympic grounds from 1964. The list could have accounted for the innumerable places where the coffee is a premium accompaniment to fabulous pastries, sandwiches, puddings and other magnificent roads to diet perdition.
And, of course, it could be the kind of list that might be drawn up by the most discerning coffee aficionados in the Japanese capital — the kind of expert for whom coffee is a sacrament, who sees their discernment as that of a master sommelier and who has endured the previous paragraphs with a mixture of pity and horror.
One of these people, Peter Galante, is a longtime resident of Tokyo and old friend of the FT. He maintains an elaborate coffee-shop spreadsheet, which tells you all you really need to know about both coffee and him. His top three run as follows. In first place is Drogheria Sancricca, a family-owned outlet in Shirokane that he describes as “like having an espresso in Italy, sophisticated Italy”. Next on his list is another gem called Nem that is regularly mentioned by the connoisseurs and sits off Arisugawa Park. “Coffee for coffee geeks,” as he puts it. His third recommendation is for Maruyama, a small but exquisite chain that “starts high on the food chain” in its quest for the perfect brew. It is known for securing some of the world’s best beans, giving it a heavy advantage in the Tokyo coffee wars.
But this list includes none of these. It is born of love, rather than a purist’s expertise; it is about the joy felt as the cup is handed over and the immediacy with which you fancy a second when the first is drained. Also, there being a state of emergency and all that, it is about places that are primarily take-out joints and always were.
This tiny, madly congested shop in the middle of Akasaka is, by common agreement, among the very best in the city. Absolutely superb coffee made from an extensive, ever-changing range of beans that they select and roast themselves. Staff are generous to a fault with advice, and their passion for their craft is written on their sleeves. As well as being around the corner from a part of town where politicians and their lackeys hang out, it is near the huge TBS television studios, which means that Mametora is excellent for spotting famous actors on a coffee break. They queue like everyone else, which is immensely satisfying.
A tiny place just outside Yoyogi Park and set on a side road, which gives it a calming atmosphere despite the constant ebb and flow of runners from the park and folks rushing towards the nearby station. There are a few seats inside, but the done thing — in all weathers — is to take your coffee outside and lurk about near the raised flower beds with everyone else. A perfect Covid-19 option, and a seriously good brew served by people who make it quite clear there is nowhere on Earth they would rather be than behind their espresso machines, looking out at the park.
Here Turkish coffee is served from a minuscule, fragile-looking van that has taken up long-term residence just outside the police box at the top of the main shopping street in Shimokitazawa. The ability of the owner, Masanori Koyama, to sit inside its claustrophobic rear cabin, chat amiably with customers, heat the long-stemmed copper pots on hot coals, raise and lower them at the precise moment of boiling over and then deliver them through the side window seems to defy physics and even the most basic sense of fire safety. Somehow, though, he serves a Turkish coffee that would compete fiercely with the best in Istanbul. Superb.
The Marunouchi area around Tokyo Station is more awash with coffee than anywhere else, with scores of places keeping the robusta lifeblood flowing even as the area has lost some of its pre-pandemic energy and urgency. For sheer quality, Saza Coffee, which specialises in siphon and hand-drip coffee in the Kitte building next to the station, stands head and shoulders above all of them. The brand originated over half a century ago in the obscure reaches of Ibaraki prefecture, and has a long and deserved reputation for being able to lay its hands on the absolute highest-quality beans. Plenty of space to sit, but also perfect to take outside and sit in the huge square outside Tokyo station.
With its blue neon sign, white-tiled decor and clinical poise, the Duct seems to emit — from the outside — a moody teenager’s challenge as to whether you could ever, in a million years, be cool enough to drink its coffee. It makes sense: Duct stands on the corner of two large roads, one leading into Ebisu and the other heading back up towards the demonically swish boutiques of Daikanyama. Get over this, and what you find inside is a crew of baristas who appear unable to cover their delight that you have walked in, however busy they get. Beaming like farmers sitting on the certain winner at a prize pumpkin event, they serve the most beautiful cappuccinos imaginable, and you leave feeling like a victor in life.
Photography by Yasuyuki Takagi
Where’s your favourite spot for coffee in Tokyo? Let us know in the comments
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