A cup of coffee cost a whopping $5.00 or $6.00. That is more than $20 in today’s money. American journalists loved to report how exorbitantly expensive Tokyo was by quoting the cost to buy a steak dinner or a cup of coffee.
I didn’t care much about steak dinners, but I loved my coffee shops.
In 1968, I was surprised to find a booming coffee culture in Tokyo. I expected to see a plethora of tea shops. You know – tea, temples, and geishas. Actually, I found it challenging to find a tea room in the city. Instead, I found that Tokyo had the finest coffee and coffee shops outside of Europe, perhaps the world. The kissaten.
It was in Tokyo that I learned to love coffee.
After greeting me with an enthusiastic, Irasshaimase, the proprietor handed me a menu of kōhi, from Brazil, Kenya, Ethiopia, Costa Rica, Java, Guatemala. The menu was often the size of a book, and the coffee shops had the best iced coffee.
Holding my one good cup of coffee, I sat at my table and read my book or did my homework. Living in a tiny apartment, the coffee shop was a place not only for solitude, but also somewhere I could park between my university classes at Sophia University, my intensive language class, and the English language classes I taught. I never went home between my classes, spending the day jumping from subway stop to subway stop and class to class. The coffee shop was my refuge, my home.
There were many coffee shops and I could choose my coffee shop for its theme or its kind of music. Jazz coffee shops were common. If I preferred, I could choose a charming French style coffee shop all dressed up in pink and white frills. I could listen to French chanson, imagining I was in a romantic cafe in Paris. Some shops were filled with books and fine art.
Coffee is very Japanese. It was brought to Japan by the Dutch in the 16th century – before American colonists in 1773 protested the tea and coffee taxes during the famous Boston Tea Party.
“The first coffee house or café in Japan, named Kahiichakan, was established by Nishimura Tsurukichi in 1888 with the idea of “doing something for the younger generation by opening a coffeehouse, which would be a space to share knowledge, a social salon where ordinary people, students and youth could gather.”(History of Coffee in Japan)
These coffee houses sound similar to some of our coffee shops today – Starbucks and Peets. But, before the mid 1970s, the offering of gourmet coffee in an American cafe was nearly unheard of in the United States. These elegant, sometimes funky, little coffee shops in Japan were pre-Starbucks in the United States. Here in the States coffee was served from coffee makers that served over-brewed Folgers or instant coffee.
If you are a fan of Haruki Murikami’s books, you may be familiar with the coffee shops of the 60s and 70s. “I belonged to Tokyo and its coffee shops. But I had never felt this loneliness there. I could drink my coffee, read my book, pass the time of day without any special thought, all because I was part of the regular scenery. ” (Haruki Murakami – Dance Dance Dance)