I’m tickled to be home. And by home, I mean my adult home of Tokyo. Naturally, the prospect of seeing friends and students is lovely. As is eating my way through the city (get your eat on with this list of local Tokyo restaurants). But in the midst of leading a group of hyperactive high schoolers on a study abroad trip, I dream of Tokyo coffee. Thankfully, Tokyo rules when it comes to this very subject.
Tokyo coffee cafes are flourishing (and foaming) with popularity. Combine a love of anything Westernized with a trend in third wave coffee and you got a delicious repertoire of options no matter where you land in the city. And while junk places like Starbucks and Tully’s have their time and place, divine alternatives exist in the same price range. The following list consists of lesser know options for Tokyo coffee. If you want a crowd, albeit delicious java, head to cafes like Streamer Coffee Company in Shibuya or Blue Bottle. For the rest of you, carry on.
If you’re heading to Tsukiji fish market— will it ever move locations?— stop by this cozy cafe tucked right around the corner from Starbucks. Dog-friendly and with a super hospitable owner, Turret is named after the carts seen at the fish market itself. There’s even one to sit on! All beans are sourced from Hiroshi Sawada’s coffee line, Sawada being Japan’s first barista to win the prestigious Free Pour Latte Art Championship. Opt for their flavor of the month— often Japanese in theme— or see my personal favorite below.
Best for: Sea salt caramel latte
Closest station: Tsukiji
Cafe de l’ambre
Though it has made a few Tokyo coffee lists, the backstreet haven of Cafe de l’ambre continues to fly under the radar. And I have absolutely no idea why. It is here— under the supervision and roasting skill of over 100 year-old Sekiguchi Ichiro and his lovely family— that magical concoctions are dreamt. The shop looks like something out of the 50s (it opened in 1948) and touts a menu solely consisting of coffee. Good coffee. In cold and hot varieties. Some served in fancy cocktail glasses. Others in shots so strong it’ll make you reconsider your life choice. Most of which are pre-aged before roasting, all 30-some single origin varieties listed by year for you to chose. But whatever your selection, it will be prepared with love at the counter in plan sight. Using old-fashioned techniques.
Best for: Old school atmosphere
Closest station: Ginza
Peace Coffee Roasters
It’s kind of a pain in the ass to get there, but you’ll be grateful. Peace is all about their speciality coffee from all over the world. And they love to educate— think coffee workshops and continuous research. As a drop-in customer, their roasted selections are made so using a Smart Roaster, fun technology from the States that prevents beans from exploding. Which they normally do upon roasting leading to a “clearer” flavor… so they say. Whatever that means, I’m not sure. These days, the shop is run by one very genki owner who displays a very simple menu. Can’t go wrong with their latte.
Best for: Beans, baby, and for a good price
Closest station: Onarimon
Directly above the hustle and bustle of Electric Town, lies Vault Coffee, a beacon of light in the madness. This long cafe seats 26 and features a counter with a dedicated barista who takes his coffee more than seriously. Their coffee float is extremely popular, but whatever you get will be made with love. Their other speciality is toast. Thick Japanese style “gourmet” toast. It usually takes awhile to come out so just order another cuppa and listen to some more Jack Johnson.
Best for: 90s bar style
Closest station: Akihabara
Out of all the Tokyo coffee cafes on this list, 30 year-old Chatei Hatou definitely gets the most press. Probably because of its location, a stone’s throw from busy Shibuya station. And its cute cottage home exterior. It was also the inspiration for Blue Bottle coffee, as mentioned above. The coffee— especially the demitasse— is meticulously created (hope you have time on your hands!). My favorite part of ordering was having my coffee mug chosen for me. Based on your selection and just the damn look of you, the barista tries to pick a cup to fit your personality. Nice touch. Each day, the dessert case is piled high with their signature chiffon cakes in flavors like banana and earl grey tea. Note that like many other old Japanese establishments, smoking is permitted and the place can get kind of stuffy.
Best for: Classic Japanese chic
Closest station: Shibuya
You won’t find this hole-in-the-wall in any English magazines. Super traditional and super old school, it’s a simple kind of place with a killer coffee game. Zehn is family owned and operated and within walking distance from Ueno station. I’m throwing this one in the list because of welcoming vibe and loveliest interaction I’ve had at a coffee shop in Tokyo.
Best for: Supporting a local
Closest station: Yushima
It’s not a likely spot for a gourmet Tokyo coffee shop— butt up again a busy highway at a particularly inconvenient location between two train stations. That’s why it’s surprising how very warm and comforting it feels inside. Great music. Plushy couches. Dim lighting. And an excellent selection of espresso drinks like an aesthetically appealing orange macchiato and a variety of brewing methods. It’s one of the few places in the city that offers single origin Chemex (my personal favorite brewing method). Make sure you opt for a slice of cake too… the coconut cream pie and banana bread are indulgent and hit the spot. Beans on sale too. Pets allowed.
Best for: Escaping with Chemex
Closest station: Ryogoku or Kinshicho
Little Nap Coffee Stand
This is hipster trendiness in its finest, Banksy prints and all. As implied in the name, it’s little— just a few stools and a bench to take a load off. Which is why their coffee is served best to go. Yoyogi Park is super nearby, and what better way than to people watch and revel in one of Tokyo’s expansive green spaces, than with coffee. Little Nap also doesn’t have Wi-fi, no matter how much you beg. Fair enough, it’s LITTLE. Pair your cup with a donut or scoop of roasted butter caramel ice cream, made locally by company partners.
Best for: Coffee to go
Closest station: Yoyogi-hachiman
This cafe is all about getting shit down, especially given the excellent Wi-fi available in the loft-like second floor and numerous outlets. Smart wooden interior. Business-like service. Try their “three peaks”— essentially a coffee flight consisting of a mini espresso, latte, and drip using the same beans (Obscura roasted beans). Not the greatest food selection but a few cakes and biscuits to snack on. It’s a great place to wither the day away indoors.
Best for: Working on a deadline
Closest station: Ikebukuro
I first visited this cafe in Omotesando on request of a former student, who currently works there. But then I became a fan… and it’s clear from reviews that I’m not the only one. LATTEST stands away from the shopping haven of Omotesando and is technically a sister shop of Streamer (see above). Minimalist with its industrial chic design. Intimate. With cheerful baristas who are happy to chat. Try the cold brew or a cute latte (my student is kicking ass at this) and settle back to get some work done.
Best for: Latte art and conversation
Closest station: Omotesando