Most tourists associate Tokyo's shitamachi (traditional downtown) with Asakusa, home of the ever-popular Sensoji Temple and the infamous 'golden turd' on the roof of Asahi Beer's headquarters. But only a few minutes east of the Sumida River on foot, in the shadow of the Skytree, lies a less thoroughly explored but equally attractive part of downtown. Instead of trendy and oh-so-serious 'third wave' coffee shops, these areas are littered with traditional kissaten – the kind of old-school Japanese cafés that specialised in artisanal coffee decades before anyone had heard of Blue Bottle or AeroPressing. Escape the crowds and follow us on a tour of four shitamachi spots that are sure to satisfy your caffeine cravings.
Four fine shitamachi coffeeshops
Hearing the owner of this café was something of a local big shot, we entered expecting some tough guy to welcome us with a true downtown grunt. Imagine our surprise when owner Yasutaka Inaba greeted us with a friendly smile and immediately showed us to a table. A favourite among locals stopping by to take a break from work, this spot caters to everyone from busy businesspeople to families with small children, so first-timers will feel welcome right away, The laidback Mr Inaba takes coffee very seriously, dripping each cup by hand to make sure the product meets his sky-high quality standards. Leaving without trying their homemade cheesecake would be a crime, and don't worry if you can't read Japanese – the shop has both English and Chinese menus.
Named after ukiyo-e master Katsushika Hokusai, creator of the '36 views of Mt Fuji' landscape prints – including the now all-but-cliché 'Great Wave off Kanagawa' – Hokusai Sabo is a fixture of the neighbourhood that gave birth to Edo's famed woodblock print wizard. Crowds gather here even on weekdays, with locals and visitors alike eager to sample the café's sweets. Their signature dessert is the Sabo Tokusei Anmitsu, a combination of homemade red bean paste, shiratama rice cakes, black honey and agar, topped with copious amounts of fresh fruit. They are served with shiratama made to order, which gives them a nice chewy texture, and there's really no way your sweet tooth won't be satisfied after digging into this voluminous serving. You can also go for some ice cream or warabimochi (jelly-like rice cakes with sweet soybean powder), but do consider bringing a Japanese speaker along with you – there are no English menus here.
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 – they're all for sale at the counter.
Upon entering this 70-year-old, beautifully renovated wooden building, you’ll be sure to spot the exquisite wooden counter that looks like it was made to order. Apparently that’s not the case: the owner tells us he picked it up on a walk after spotting the discarded piece of wood just lying around (for proof, take a closer look and you’ll see the saw marks). To the right of the counter sits a small millstone used to grind the coffee, which surprises with its sweet, mellow taste and is best combined with some soba noodles or a buckwheat galette – the wheat for these is also ground on the millstone. Add a little yuzu-kosho (citrus seasoning) for an extra kick, and enjoy the eccentric-sounding but unexpectedly tasty combo of craft coffee and handmade noodles.