During a time when there’s a Starbucks or Dunkin’ on nearly every city corner, it’s not surprising to go to a play such as Tokyo and see coffee shops lining every street. Among these coffee chains, though, if you look hard enough, you might find a smaller, more intimate coffee house, known traditionally as a kissaten. While many have since closed in favor of larger chains and cafes – which kissaten are technically not – there are still some in existence and for those who have had the chance to visit one, the experience is nostalgic and magical.

Kissaten are intimate and personal coffee shops that go beyond the realm of simply serving coffee. They’re places for regulars to gather, a home base for the community to have some alone time or catch up on the news, or a destination for those looking to have some simple, delicious food and unwind from the day. They’re owned by families within the community and are often filled with family members who make the coffee, cook the food, take orders, and help to run the kissaten. This is why the experience of dining or having a cup of coffee at one is so magical because, in a big city such as Tokyo, these kissaten provide a little closeness and familiarity, even if you’ve never been to one before.

The Beginnings Of The Kissaten And The Void They Filled

During the late 1920s, the advances of coffee and coffee culture allowed the kissaten to thrive, as these small locations were responsible for brewing and making fresh coffee and this is where the emphasis was. While food was served and menus eventually grew to expand various dining options from breakfast to lunch, coffee was always the main focal point that kept regulars coming back and caught the attention of newcomers. The main focus was so set so much on coffee that those who planned to open a kissaten could obtain a Kissaten Business Permit, which allowed the selling of coffee and food, but restricted alcohol, unlike a cafe or coffee shop which is permitted to do so.

After the 1990s, people stopped opening kissaten, for the most part, due to the advance of other coffee shops and commercial chains. Therefore, and kissaten that are seen today are likely owned by an older generation and have been open for some time, with generation after generation coming in for a cup of coffee and their regular food order. In fact, it’s not uncommon to walk into a kissaten and see customers who have been coming in for years – or even decades – ordering the same thing and simply asking for their ‘usual.’

This is where the family-feel of a kissaten and the closeness of a community is evident, as opposed to larger chains or coffee shops that serve the purpose of bringing entertainment or a gathering place for large groups. A kissaten is personal and provides a quiet space for anyone to sit for a while, bringing familiarity with its simplicity. Many times, kissaten will have a retro appearance to them, with red seats that are often set low and lined with velvet, old-fashioned coffee makers or drip pots, coffee grinders, antiques from the kissaten’s first years, and vintage lighting.

The Food And Coffee At A Kissaten

It’s not uncommon for a kissaten to provide reading material such as manga, magazines, or the daily news for its customers, but they also provide other services. Food and drink – coffee, of course – are served at most of them, with a menu that’s good yet simple. Traditional Japanese dishes can be found on these menus and anything that counts as a light breakfast or lunch option, such as sandwiches or omelets, is quite traditional for a kissaten, as well. Some kissaten even have a set special, such as rice, miso soup, a small side, and Japanese pickles. Along with this, tamagoyaki (Japanese omelet), sando (sandwiches), kara age (fried chicken), tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet), yaki soba, fish, and even curry rice can be found on the menu.

The prices for these dishes are usually incredibly affordable which allows customers to visit kissaten multiple times a week. The prices of both food and coffee are usually far lower than that of modern cafes or coffee shops, for food that’s homemade and, oftentimes, made with recipes that have been handed down through generations. The coffee that’s served is usually dripped coffee and, as opposed to modern coffee shops, each cup is taken from a batch brew as opposed to being made individually by the cup.

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