Coffee in Japan is more of a vague allusion to coffee.
Just like Japanese conversations. You don’t really say anything too straightforward. You hedge a lot. You tease out the meanings.
Perhaps it’s coffee. It’s probably coffee.
My morning walk goes through a park and through a shrine. On the way, if I have time, I stop at a conbini for a coffee and an onigiri or banana breakfast. If there’s no time, I stop at the vending machine on the corner.
Either way, the coffee comes ready-to-drink in an aluminium can. I’ve poured it into a mug, and the amount of liquid exactly fills a coffee cup. That’s about the only thing normal about it.
The machines have two varieties for each brand – hot and cold. The exclusive difference is temperature. There are standard black coffees, “European” blends – usually with milk and sugar – and occasionally a mocha latte. Often there are stranger things in the machines, such as a pancake-and-maple-syrup flavored latte or corn chowder (with real corn).
The liquid is altogether foreign. Probably formulated to rival the subtlety of green tea (macha), the flavor is more of a suggestion. The coffee has to use a preservative or other chemical (or organic, who knows?) to survive canning and storage. The milk blends, of course, have to avoid becoming cans of coffee-flavored cheese.
The result isn’t unpleasant, but it’s not what I’d call coffee.
A Brief History of Canned Coffee
Canned coffee came around in 1968. According to corporate legend, Ueshima Tadao, president of Ueshima Coffee Company, was late for a train, but obligated to return the glass bottle of coffee-flavored milk he’d been drinking. Being Japanese, he missed his train. The idea for coffee in a can was born.
While canned coffee may have reduced the number of recycling-related train delays, Japanese customs are resilient. Curiously, no one drinks or eats while walking in Japan. It’s not that it’s rude, it’s just that it’s odd.
The Taste of Aluminium Coffee
Brands and products are always shifting in Japan, so here’s a broad overview of the coffees I’ve tried:
Boss Coffee. The brand’s logo is Tom Selleck smoking a pipe. Boss also has the weird brand name “Black Boss” for its no-frills coffee and the sexy name “Silky Black Boss” for it’s higher-end black coffee. Right now there are Japanese ads starring Tommy Lee Jones, the official spokesperson for Boss coffee, as an alien who takes the shape of Tommy Lee Jones and tries to live in Japan. (Ichigone has everything you want to know about Tommy Lee Jones ads in Japan, with video).
Georgia is manufactured by Coca-Cola and named for Coke’s home state. This has confused Japan into thinking Georgia is a coffee bean mecca. Coffee isn’t even grown in Georgia, and it earns the state less than the sale of hay. Georgia makes a damn fine “European” blend, though, by canned coffee standards.
Roots Coffee has a less appealing brand name when you find out it’s produced by Japan’s top tobacco manufacturer. It’s always pitching itself as having “aroma,” which it doesn’t. Ewan MacGregor and Brad Pitt both starred in Roots Coffee ads, the only boring celebrity endorsement ads in Japan.
Tully’s and Starbucks have both entered the canned coffee market; Tully’s is actually strong enough to pass the iced-coffee-latte test. Starbucks is technically not “canned” (it’s in plastic cups with holes for straws) so it doesn’t count but, yeah, it’s alright.
The Japanese Coffee Shop
All of this explains why I spend a lot of time in a Japanese Starbucks. I’m not alone. While Starbucks in Japan doesn’t rival a typical American city’s 1-per-block saturation, the handful in Fukuoka are closely packed and always crowded.
Because I was never a Starbucks regular in the States, I don’t know if it’s unique, but Japanese patrons seem comfortable with never leaving. I’ve spent nearly five hours writing and had the same neighbors to both sides when I left.
Because of this, patrons wait for seats on the perimeter and are guided to them, restaurant-style, by a staff member on busy days. I finished an entire mocha latte while standing and was quickly offered a free refill for the inconvenience.
Other coffee shops do exist, mostly based on Starbuck’s Parisian-cafe model, or incorporating pastry shops. “Native” Japanese cafes, such as “Art Coffee,” were a product of the in-and-out culture of the business-centric 1980s. Art Coffee had no booths and many individual seats on small islands. You can smoke. The whole place feels like it’s 1983 in Manhattan. Patrons came in, have a coffee and a cigarette and go back to work. A French-ish cafe, Doutour, rivals Starbucks in coffee awesomeness and notably combines French and Japanese seating arrangements, keeping some of the national charm of a “Japanese cafe.”
The only Art Coffee I’ve seen in Fukuoka just closed. Sadly, another French-derived Starbucks clone is taking its place.