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THE STORY OF JAPAN’S TRADITIONAL KISSATEN COFFEE HOUSE

Picture a cup of drip coffee accompanied by a light pastry snack, all surrounded by an overly decorated interior, hummed chatter and a ton of cigarette smoke. That’s what you would get if you were to spend your tea break in a ‘kissaten’, a traditional Japanese coffeehouse. 

We live in the day and age of coffee chains and aesthetic cafes designed primarily to offer a cup of joe in an Instagram-friendly environment. Gone were the days where these establishments were used as a space to escape the burdens of reality – the ones that still are, like the kissatens, are a dying concept. 

How did this idea of traditional coffee shops rise to its glory and what’s causing them to regrettably plummet?

What Makes A Kissaten

Ask anyone I know out for a cup of coffee in Japan and every single one of them would be quick to load up the Google Maps pin of the nearest cafe. No one would even think of heading to a kissaten anymore. Heck, some wouldn’t even know what it is.

Back in the day, the kissaten is what we would call a cafe now, but today, the two have a distinct difference from each other. While the word “kissaten” literally translates to “tea-drinking shop”, the popular drink choice in these establishments is coffee. 

Kissatens were the “third place” for people back in the day, separated from their two usual social environments of home (first place) and work (second place). People of all ages would hang out in these spaces that, back then, were embracing foreign ideas like freedom and modernity. 

And they’re no ordinary cafes – kissatens are very strict on the concept of kodawari, the devotion to one’s art and attention to detail. So while modern-day cafes have about a dozen or two food and menu options, a kissaten would probably have around five. But rest assured that those five are of the finest craft.

Kanagawa Kissaten

Origins of Kissaten

We can’t deny the tea culture in Japan, but let’s not overlook the fact that coffee has also been around for a while – to about 200 years ago, thanks to trades and treaties. Ota Nanpo, a poet and author, mentioned coffee back in 1804, stating that “it has a burnt smell and the taste is unbearable.”

We can even take it further back to 1782 when Dutch studies scholar Shizuki Tadao mentioned coffee in his atlas, “Bankoku Kanki”.

In those days, coffee was not used as a pick-me-up but rather as medicine. Coffee beans were roasted until they were almost black, grounded coarsely, packed in hemp sacks and then soaked in hot water – there’s a version of this brew still offered in some kissatens today known as the hanshi no kōhī: “warrior’s coffee”.

When Japan’s policy of isolation ended in 1853, the country was quick to adopt western ideas – that included coffee. The first few kissatens began showing up in the Showa Era (1926-1989). These coffee houses were inspired by all over the world – American diners and European cafes were the main suspects – with a sprinkle of Japanese traditionalism, of course.

Kissatens became a place for hardworking Japanese salarymen to take a break in between their back-to-back meetings, students to pull an all-nighter before a test with a pot of bitter brew, and creatives to get their creative juices flowing with a few puffs of cigarettes. 

The traditional coffee shop was something different for different people – some treated kissatens as a refreshing space influenced by international culture; some wanted a peaceful environment filled with jazz and classical music; others couldn’t get enough of the morning scran which consisted of eggs, toast, salad and coffee, all for the same price as the coffee alone in the afternoon.

The Present: A Dying Establishment

That was all well and good until coffee chains like Starbucks set roots in the country. Not to mention that the younger generation today expects very different things from coffee establishments as compared to those back in the 1900s. The number of kissatens went from thousands to hundreds just in the past century.

Walk into any Starbucks in Japan and you’ll see at least a dozen people; walk in a local kissaten and you’ll barely see a handful. When I was in the northernmost part of Japan, in Hokkaido, I stumbled upon this local coffee shop called “Hikari Kissaten” (違喫茶店) when I was in desperate need of a caffeine fix – little did I know it was the Showa Era kissaten.

Show-era Kissaten in Hokkaido

But as soon as I stepped in, it was obvious: the smell of cigarettes hit me first, then the old-school decorations and red velvet seats, and then the hushed murmurs instead of chatters. The initial intimidation was replaced by intrigue and interest, especially for the huge collection of lamps. When asked about it, the staff member mentioned that “the owner would collect lamps during his travels all around the world and display them in the shop.”

This 1933-established kissaten is a perfect example of a surviving traditional coffee shop in the present day – nostalgic but not the first choice for a coffee spot. During my hour-long sit, the only people I saw entering and leaving were of the older generation. I can only assume why: no WiFi, no photography, smoke-filled air and limited menu options of drip coffee with castella, a traditional Japanese cake.

Kissatens have grown out of favour and are now seen as something old-fashion rather than trendy, as opposed to back in the day. Non-smokers wouldn’t choose to sit in an enclosed cigarette smoke-filled space as compared to a refreshing modern-day minimalistic cafe. Most people prefer more than two options of dishes with their coffee. 

Things are changing, and it’s not looking good for these traditional kissatens.

The Future of Japanese Traditional Coffee Shops

Not all hope’s lost – it’s not completely over for kissatens, and I’ve seen it with my very own eyes. Just around the corner from my old accommodation in Kanagawa is a former hospital that turned into a traditional coffeehouse called “Futatsubo Kissa Abe Coffee” (二坪喫茶アベコーヒー). On the outside, it looks like any other kissaten that got a modern revamp; on the inside, it’s part-cafe, part-rental space, part-office, part-coworking space. 

I was offered a mini-tour of the wooden-panelled building. When no one rents the rooms of the kissaten on the first floor, customers can sit in and enjoy their cup of coffee, across the hallway from the coworking space full of individuals typing vigorously on their laptops. The most impressive part was the second floor – rooms are rented out as office spaces for entrepreneurs like a local fashion designer and an interior designer, who were kind enough to invite me to their space that oozed a mixture of old and new(unfortunately, no pictures were allowed).

Some may argue that these changes to a traditional coffee establishment are going against the preservation of kissatens – but I argue, is it then better to let them all close down? Rather than seeing them all die out, I see this approach as an innovative way to stay afloat while letting others experience the sentimental space for more than the duration of a cup of coffee.

And from what I can tell, kissatens aren’t going away any time soon – author Yoko Kawaguchi, who has published multiple books on Japanese cafe culture, uses the term “neo-kissaten” to refer to cafes that look and feel like old-school Showa Era kissaten but aren’t. They’re just a “more photogenic and social media-friendly” version. It seems the newer generation is interested in the whole nostalgia factor that traditional kissaten brings, provided it’s presented in favour of the SNS-fuelled young creators. 

Conclusion

Some of us will treasure the relaxing yet smokey atmosphere a kissaten offers while sipping a cup of coffee, but not everyone is willing to go out of their way to track one down – the convenience and attractiveness of the third-wave cafes are the ones that reach the crowd. Whether it’s time for a change for these traditional Japanese coffee shops or to stand to their ground, one thing’s for certain: kissaten is an integral part of Japan’s past, present and future coffee culture. 

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