An Expert's Guide to the Must-Visit Cafés and Coffee Shops in Kyoto
In recent years, a growing number of specialty coffee shops have appeared in Kyoto | Courtesy of WIFE&HUSBAND
From familiar chains to kissatens (Japanese-style retro cafés), there are hundreds of coffee shops in Kyoto. And in recent years, a growing number of specialty coffee shops have quietly appeared around the city. Existing within the hectic work culture of Japan, these shops offer an experience that embraces just the opposite – a slow and deliberate process, embodied in the almost-meditative ritual of pour-over coffee – while maintaining a very Japanese focus on quality and hospitality.
Yozo Otsuki has great coffee in his blood; his parents both owned jazz kissatens (jazz bar-cafés) when he was a child. Otsuki opened his own café, Kurasu, in 2016 and has watched Kyoto’s coffee scene develop over the years. “The past 10 years have been really interesting, with a shift back toward independent shops in the form of specialty coffee. Right now, Kyoto has a unique and diverse combination of big commercial brands and convenience stores, along with traditional independent kissatens, and newer specialty coffee shops coexisting,” he says. Although Japan is traditionally a tea-drinking nation, the coffee trend has extended throughout the country. “We’ve seen the quality of coffee increase throughout Japan, especially in the past five years. Many of the younger owners of specialty coffee shops have seen what the older generations established and are building upon that with a modern approach,” Otsuki says.
Coffee shops in Kyoto have a very Japanese focus on quality and hospitality Courtesy of WIFE&HUSBAND
The quality of coffee has increased across Japan Courtesy of WIFE&HUSBAND
Coffee Shop, Coffee, $$$
Courtesy of Kurasu
Kurasu has two locations: one on a side street five minutes from Kyoto Station, and the other in the south of Kyoto, which also houses their roastery, near Fushimi Inari Shrine (24-5 Fukakusa Haraigawacho). The business, which is now international, began as an online shop selling Japanese coffee equipment, and grew from there. “I wanted to start a business that incorporated my personal passion and love for Japan… to connect some form of Japanese culture to the world,” Otsuki says. “Kurasu is a coffee shop, roaster and retailer, but moreover we like to think of ourselves as a lifestyle brand.” Kurasu also offers a monthly coffee subscription service, featuring a Japanese guest roaster each month. Espresso drinks, pour-over coffee, sandwiches and sweets are available at both cafés.
Weekenders Coffee, which opened in 2005, was one of the first cafés to bring artisan coffee to Kyoto. It has a solid reputation among Kyoto residents, and many cafés use their locally roasted beans. Yozo Otsuki, owner of Kurasu, says, “I really respect Weekenders Coffee – they’re the pioneers of a Scandinavian type of lighter roast coffee in Kyoto. They’re always looking to push the boundaries of coffee. I also respect their aesthetics and minimalistic approach.” Two blocks north of Nishiki Market, the café sits unpretentiously at the back of a parking lot. The shop serves pour-over and espresso coffees made from both light and dark roasts, as well as cold brew. You can visit their nearby roastery on weekends (11am–5pm).
alt.coffee roasters is a 10-minute walk from Nijo Castle, one of Kyoto’s most popular tourist destinations. It’s a one-woman operation: owner Chihiro Nakamura roasts her own beans and makes all of the drinks and food (sandwiches and sweets, all vegan) herself. It’s a small, cosy shop, and seats about six people. Here, you can choose from a handful of fair-trade, single origin light roasts. Nakamura serves her pour-over coffee in delicate wine glasses to both enhance and call attention to its varied flavours and colours. She also believes the wine glasses heighten the coffee’s scent and preserve its flavour. “As the temperature changes, the coffee changes flavour. I prefer the customer to enjoy the coffee for as long as they can, even as it gets cold.” Coffee flights are on offer for those interested in comparing the different roasts, with an optional cake pairing. Gluten-free options are available.
Akatsuki Coffee is located in the north-east of the city, a 20-minute walk north of Shimogamo Shrine. “The owners are a couple. The wife bakes and the husband makes coffee. They love working together; they create a lovely atmosphere,” says Chihiro Nakamura, the owner of alt.coffee roasters. The small café doesn’t allow laptops, which allows for a uniquely serene ambience, enhanced by sky-blue walls and cream-coloured ceramics. The setting is intimate; with only a few rustic wooden tables, it’s best for small groups. The café specialises in light meals that come with coffee: toast or scones for breakfast, and sandwiches or soup and bread for lunch. Cakes, toast and parfaits are also available. Both pour-over and espresso drinks are on the menu.
Vermillion is named for the deep red of the thousands of torii gates found at the nearby Fushimi Inari Shrine. There are two locations within walking distance of the popular shrine, an espresso bar and a café. Both locations serve cakes, toast and granola all day; the café also offers lunch, with vegetarian and vegan options available. Both espresso and pour-over coffee are on offer, as well as a matcha latte using green tea from the city of Uji in the south of Kyoto Prefecture. The café’s setting is particularly tranquil, as its wide terrace looks over a quiet pond. In opening Vermillion, owner Shigeo Kimura is continuing his family’s legacy: his family has owned a tea house in the same area for nine generations, serving visitors to the shrine since ancient times.
Yuuya Takaoka opened astrea, a 15-minute walk from the Shijo Karasuma shopping district, after studying to be a barista in Australia, where he discovered his love for coffee. “My friend recommended I try a flat white, and I was surprised. I was like, ‘Wow! This is tasty!’ If I hadn’t gone to Australia, I wouldn’t have become a barista.” Now he offers a flat white at his own café, alongside other espresso drinks and pour-over coffee, with both soy and almond milk available. To eat, he makes thick toast with three toppings – including the delicious chocolate banana option – as well as cakes and cookies. Along with cakes, toast is a popular snack at kissatens (tea shop). “Especially in Kyoto, everyone loves toast with coffee, even though it’s not our traditional food,” Takaoka says. Friendly and amiable, Takaoka chats easily with all who visit.
WIFE&HUSBAND is a small, somewhat hidden café in the north-east of the city, directly across the river from the Kyoto Botanical Gardens. The menu is appealingly simple: pour-over coffee and thick homemade toast with butter, or honey and cheese. WIFE&HUSBAND’s beans are roasted by the owners who, as the café’s name suggests, are indeed married. The shop has a homey vibe, with antiques hanging on the walls, but on a sunny day, it’s best to take advantage of the café’s picnic equipment. Choose from stools, benches, mats, and folding tables, all rented individually for a small fee for 90 minutes at a time. A picnic basket complete with a thermos of coffee, mugs, sweet treats and a tablecloth is also on the menu. Customers can take everything down to the bank of the river to enjoy a luxurious picnic. The couple’s beans are sold at DAUGHTER/SON, a combination roastery and antique store near Kyoto Station.
Mamebaco is located on the southwest corner of the Imperial Palace grounds in Kyoto. It is designed to look like an old-fashioned tobacco stand: jewel-toned boxes of coffee beans are stacked neatly in the display case instead of cigarettes. Baristas stand in the open window, carefully serving pour-over coffee on a small brass stand. The owners roast their own coffee in a former art school on the edge of the city, which they sell under the name Travel Sound. The shop serves both espresso and pour-over coffee, as well as unique concoctions such as a fragrant olive latte and a grape espresso tonic. Delicate canelés (French-style pastries with rum and vanilla) are also available.
Kyoto is best explored by bike, meandering down narrow alleyways that hold the city’s best-kept secrets. THE GOOD DAY VELO BIKES & COFFEE, a coffee and bike rental shop one block from top attractions such as The Museum of Kyoto and a 10-minute walk from Sanjo Station, allows visitors to organise their own two-wheeled tour. Pick the owner’s brain for Kyoto’s best bike routes over fresh coffee made with beans from Tokyo’s Obscura Coffee Roasters, then go off on your own adventure on a retro-stylish bike. The café truly embraces its motto, ‘slow bike, slow coffee, sweet life’, and the menu has a few unique options, such as a nitro brew and craft beer (what better way to finish your day?). The shop also offers a picnic set for a meal on-the-go: a basket, thermos of coffee for four people, cups and a mat to sit on, as well as stools and hammocks for rent.
Located in the old geisha district of Gion, Dongree is both a coffee stand and café. The café is small and cosy; the tatami floor – and shoes-off policy – offers a taste of traditional Japan, and shelves containing local crafts and goods line the walls. The small menu has two different hot sandwich options – bacon, egg and cheese, and lemon, honey and gouda – as well as a granola bowl. Dongree’s specialty is pour-over coffee made with a selection of beans from five different coffee roasters from around Kyoto. Choose one or try all five with the tasting sampler. You can also take home a set of a small bag of beans from each roaster, a great gift or souvenir.