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Stepping through the low, marble-tiled entrance, the first thing you’ll notice is the gorgeous tableware displayed behind a long hardwood counter. That’s not to say that the surroundings here outshine the coffee – on the contrary, Satei Hato’s hand-drip offerings maintain the absolutely highest quality. Choose from up to eight varieties of charcoal-roasted beans and watch as the formally dressed staff prepare your treat with almost religious dedication. At ¥850 and up, the coffee here doesn’t exactly allow for everyday consumption, but any true enthusiast will do well to visit Satei Hato at least once.
'Coffee Only' reads the sign outside Café de l'Ambre, which has been keeping the Ginza hordes well caffeinated since 1948. Remarkably, it's still run by the same man – Ichiro Sekiguchi, 103 – though he's entrusted some younger tykes to handle the day-to-day running of the place. Take your pick between a lone blend coffee and 30-odd single origin varieties, including a good number of aged coffees. The air of accessibility extends to English-language menus, and practically demands that you order something odd: we end up plumping for an 18-year-old Brazilian Bourbon variety that's downright intense.
Opened in 1980, Trois Chambres feels a world away from the busy streets of Shimokitazawa. Antique cups line the shelves, regulars strike up conversation over the counter and the corner tables are practically always occupied by someone reading a book – time truly appears to stand still at this kissaten, which might even feel a little intimidating for first-timers. But fear not: the fellow running the show here is friendly and subtle, the cheesecakes (both rare and baked) are heavenly and ¥250 gets you coffee with a free refill.
Not all kissaten (old-school coffee shops) in Tokyo are worth the moniker, but this one sure makes the grade: stained-glass windows, antique clocks and the soft jazz soundtrack make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. Founded in 1975, Monozuki offers a very simple menu – black coffee is the main attraction – but is beloved by both locals and former Nishi-Ogi-ites who come here to savour the flavours of a bygone era.
If you want to fully experience the Japanese way of drinking Joe, head straight for Sumida Coffee. Instead of serving their power-packed roast in ceramic mugs, these guys use Edo Kiriko cups, honouring the traditional, Tokyo-born form of glass manufacturing and decoration. Typically only associated with cold drinks, the Edo Kiriko ware here was made to order by a master of the craft and can't be found anywhere else. There are 11 different cup designs, and the owner pairs each one with a customer based on his impression of the person in question. If you like the one he picks for you, consider buying a cup with the same design as a souvenir.
Upon spotting this charming old house on Yanaka's Kototoi-dori, most passers-by probably wouldn't guess that it's been home to a café for well over 70 years. Inside, you'll find a fusion of the time-honoured kissaten tradition and the newly trendy craft coffee ethos – no AeroPressing, just honestly good Joe, best combined with a pick off the wonderfully retro food menu. Try the egg sandwich (¥450) for a quick bite, or the weekly lunch (¥1,000) for a more substantial option. Kayaba is one of those places where you can lose track of time and just drift away into daydreams, no matter what's going on outside the weather-bitten windows.
Regulars pack the room throughout the day at Muku, Nogata's top kissaten (old-school café). If you need a little something sweet, order the Cake Set (¥650) – a decent cup of coffee plus a choice of handmade cheesecake (our visit saw options like cream cheese, orange cheese, chocolate cheese and rare cheese) – and kick back while listening to the locals' chatter.
Surrounded by a whole load of ice cream parlours, this jazzy take on a traditional kissaten was named after Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki's movie Juha (1999), which the owner loved, inspiring him to put together a decidedly Scandinavian-vibe interior. Settle into one of the chairs and contemplate life or read a book while listening to the soothing music – but while doing that, don't forget to order the signature Masako's An Toast. This slice of bread was conjured up at a now-closed jazz café in Shimokitazawa named Masako, and is more or less faithfully replicated here in Nishi-Ogi.
This traditional kissaten, run by a charming old lady and located quite a walk from Asakusa Station, wouldn't honestly be that interesting if it wasn't for the traditional-style pancakes served in high stacks called towers (after the Skytree, they say). The soft, airy cakes come with flavoured butter and provide a fun break from the more-or-less-Hawaiian creations that have taken over the city in recent years. Bring a friend, order the five-storey tower, and spend a lazy afternoon working your way down. They also serve decent scones and other baked goods, as well as above-average tea and coffee.
All the beans are roasted on the premises of this dedicated coffee specialist in suburban Minami-Senju in northern Tokyo. Café Bach also happened to supply the coffee for the G8 summit that took place in Okinawa in 2000, a meeting that is commemorated on the Japanese ¥2,000 note. Brewing coffee since 1968, Café Bach have been hand-dripping their coffee with the same precision since they've opened their doors.
Perhaps, at some point in the distant past, this was the way local upmarket operations got to grips with handling newfangled foreign delicacies. At Asakusa's Angelus, founded in 1946, you're in for a real blast from the kissaten past: the joe is painstakingly brewed by hand and the clientele consists mainly of old folk who have been coming here for decades. Out front is a smart counter selling a fancy selection of Western-style cakes; further inside, the coffee shop section is a more spartan affair of plain walls and dark wood trimmings.
A former employee of Aoyama's legendary Daibo, which closed down in 2013 after 38 years in the kissaten business, Tatsuya Furuya is the man behind this Ebisu coffee shop where the day's beans are roasted in house every morning. Coffee Tram may not be as old as some of the cafés in this list, but it's commited to recreating the old-school kissaten vibes, albeit with a slightly modern touch. Furuya's brews, served warm instead of burning hot, pack plenty of punch, but can be watered down on request. The place switches identities at night, when you'll find the name changed to Bar Tram and the coffee abandoned in favour of herbal liqueurs and other quirky bottles.
Found directly in front of Aoyama Gakuin University's Ivy Hall, Tsuta occupies the former home of architect and Budokan designer Mamoru Yamada. Opened in 1988, it's a pleasantly quiet old-school kissaten with relaxing garden views. Specialising in high-grade Brazilian Santos coffee, Tsuta also spreads the unlikely gospel of cheese pairings with coffee – opt for the Coffee and Cheese set and try the combo out for yourself.
Need more coffee?
This roundup of the 50 best Tokyo cafés is meant to be a cross-section of the capital's creative caffeinated community, and features a sample of in-demand newcomers, golden oldies and everything in between.
Tokyo's coffee scene has undergone nothing short of a revolution in this decade. The capital is now one of the world’s great coffee cities, with more specialist shops than most people can hope to visit in a lifetime.