Mexico City, Mexico
March 25, 2002
Japan is one of the world’s largest coffee consumption nations.
Traditionally the Japanese prefer their coffee strong. Coffee shops are often a
haven to escape from the rat race and a place to linger over a strong and
expensive cup of coffee. In an old style coffee shop a cup of coffee will set
you back at least yen 700 ($ 6) and the $10 cup is not hard to find. However,
such coffee shop may be a specialist in brewing the perfect cup and have the
right ambiance to draw regular crowds. Big windows don’t feature - the idea is
to leave the crowds behind and to find peace and tranquility. Conversation is
There are many cheaper options in lesser settings. For the past two decades
this end of the market was dominated by Doutor, which still consistently
produces the best quality coffee at a reasonable price. Doutor’s yellow signs
are a presence in almost every street block in Tokyo. The coffee is good, served
in a porcelain cup and a limited selection of freshly produced sandwiches is
available. Knowing their customers the non-smoking section can be particularly
small and I have more than once seen a smoker put his ashtray neatly on top of
the non-smoking sign of the table.
However, an invasion of foreign coffee shops such as Starbucks, Tully’s and
Segafredo has changed the landscape dramatically in the past five years.
Starbucks’ success - new shops are opening seemingly daily - is probably the
hardest to understand: their coffee is universally weak and all shops are
non-smoking - both factors that fly in the face of traditional coffee shops in
Japan. In addition the shops are airy with enormous windows letting in not only
natural light but also allow customers to see the passersby! It has also become
acceptable to drink coffee from a paper cup rather than a porcelain one -
something that many Japanese customers still find odd.
Domestic competition has fought back against the foreign invasion and
invested large sums in modernizing establishments and even creating new brand
names. Excelsior is the modern looking version of Doutor and was even sued by
Starbucks to change the color of its lettering from green to blue. The Royal
restaurant group has opened a chain of Café Croissant shops with freshly
prepared sandwiches to compete with Starbuck’s rather dismal selection of
soggy sandwiches and overpriced pastries.
It still remains to be seen if the new boom in coffee shops in Tokyo will
stand the test of time or whether it is just the flavor of the month. In the
late 1990s faux French coffee shops were all the rage in Tokyo but the craze has
exacerbate - it is now so last century! The new style is more modern and
American. Maybe less ambiance but the prices have come down as well.
From journal Tokyo - bargain shopping and dining