Some wonderful connoisseur experiences in Kyoto, however, are under the guidebook radar. And the beverage that flavors scenic paths and hidden hostelries is not green tea. It is, surprisingly, coffee.
Coffee came with Portuguese missionaries and Dutch traders in the 16th and 17th centuries. At first it was medicine to Japanese, but they quickly learned its pleasures and by the 19th century, cafes drew savvy customers. Now there are Ethiopian Yrgacheffes, Brazilian Santos, and Kenyan Kilimanjaros, and performances of brewing far beyond most Americans’ experiences.
A Japanese cafe has a finicky coffee “master” devoted to the making of a perfect cup of coffee for a customer whose devotion matches his. The two most “Japanese” of coffee-making methods are pour-over and siphon, which have now come to our shores. Siphon is theater: the two-chambered glass pot sits over a heating element on the counter. The water at the bottom bubbles up through a narrow neck into the upper glass bowl where it meets the grounds, is stirred carefully, and after it is removed from the heat, falls dramatically into the bottom chamber, ready to serve. This method, brought from Europe by the Dutch traders, has remained a particularly “Japanese” way of making coffee, and “siphonistas” rank above espresso baristas in coffee competitions in Japan. In Kyoto, Hanafusa specializes in siphon coffee. Sit at the counter for the experience.
More common is “pour-over.” In Noda-san’s Otafuku Cafe in central Kyoto, you sit at the counter and watch as Noda spirals a tiny stream of hot water through a pinched spout over freshly roasted and ground coffee, in a filter set over a one-cup pot. Watching and sniffing prepare you for the experience of taste.
Each cafe is different: There are Viennese style cafes with Mozart playing, bright cafes with mid-century-modern furnishings, cafes where you play with very nice cats while you drink your coffee, gallery cafes with exhibits of local artists’ work, and many more.
Kyoto, protected from bombing in World War II, has some older cafes redolent with literary and social history. In the red velvet seats and dark wood of Café Francois you envision the smoky conversations of novelists such as Junichiro Tanizaki. In Shinshindo, near Kyoto University, the political debates of young Marxists took place in the early 1930s before police shut them down. In the minimalist Bauhaus style cafes of the 1930s-1960s, art hung on ceilings and walls, and decorated coffee cups.
Today’s cafes are stunningly beautiful or cozily worn at the edges. Everyone needs a cafe: students to study (you won’t see many laptops; Wi-Fi is rare and most people read books and write by hand); businessmen to have breakfast before and respite after work; housewives and retired people to meet their friends. Most of all, people go to be alone. In a society where personal space is a luxury, being alone in a public place allows for a welcome moment of urban anonymity.
Here is a small selection of what Kyoto has brewing for you.
Take a walk on the peaceful Philosopher’s Path (Tetsugaku no michi). This was philosopher Nishida Kitaro’s (1870-1945) favorite walk on the east side of Kyoto, allowing him a meditative stroll on his way to and from the university. It runs along a small canal, where in summer fireflies flit and in season, there is a riot of pink cherry blossoms overhead. It is always 10 degrees cooler on a hot day. The path, lined with temples, stretches for a mile between Nanzenji and Ginkakuji temples. Towards Ginkakuji (to the north) there are crafts shops and the Café Sagan, a cafe with a French feel and windows facing the canal path. The husband and wife who run this cafe are cheerful and attentive. Ask for a delicious egg sandwich or a “soufflé cake” light as air to have with your coffee — made a cup at a time by the owner wearing a bow tie and white shirt. Note the collection of lucky owl figurines to the left of the bar, the gifts of customers over the years.
Mo-An is a cafe in a restored old tea house on the top of a wooded hill. You sit in an upstairs room ringed with windows overlooking hills and the town below, a perfect example of what Japanese call “shakkei” (borrowed landscape) in which a place is enhanced by nearby scenery. The coffee, lunches, and desserts are served in handcrafted pottery and glass. The hiking paths leading to Mo-An take you through Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, through views of Daimonji, the large hill with the character for “big” emblazoned on it.
Hachihachi Infinity is the most “hidden” of these experiences, surprising in many ways. A traditional house deep in woods but in the middle of Kyoto, this hermitage is a cafe-bakery owned by Yokota-san. He makes only about 10-15 loaves of tightly textured multigrain bread per day, all organic and risen with airborne yeast. The best in Japan — or anywhere — the bread is delicious in lunches he makes with cheeses, tapenades, and prosciutto, accompanied by his own vegetable soup. Sitting at the long wooden table in his cafe space, gazing out the back at the comfortingly scrubby garden, you grasp the rustic concept of wabi-sabi, perfect imperfection.
Try today and get two weeks FREE.Merry White, a professor of anthropology at Boston University and author of the recently published “Coffee Life in Japan” (University of California Press), can be reached at