Even though the kanji for tea (茶) is in the word kissaten (喫茶店), a kissaten doesn’t actually specialize in serving tea (although it’s often available). A kissaten is a coffee shop. But it’s not just any coffee shop. Kissaten are a throwback to another era — and they’re making a comeback. They have style, they have grace and they give good… coffee. This article will go into the origins of kissaten, the diverse food and drinks they offer, and the ones you might want to visit when you’re in Japan.
Note: This article will use kissaten as the plural and singular form of the word. This is how it’s used in Japanese (so, no “kissatens” will be seen in this article, but — depending on who you ask — you may be correct if you say it with an “s”).
What Is A Kissaten?
A kissaten is — simply put — a coffee shop. However, these days most coffee shops are known as cafes in Japan. If you say you’re going to a kissaten specifically, it implies that you’re going to an “old-fashioned” coffee shop. Some people call these older cafes sepia (like the old, brownish color photographs). They’re also frequently referred to as Showa-style cafes or retro coffee houses. That’s because kissaten are really a throwback to another era. When you go to one, you’re aware of that nostalgic, or even romantic, feeling of a time gone by. Kissaten serve coffee (of course), but also meals, dessert and other drinks.
The History Of Kissaten
Just before we go into the history of kissaten specifically, it’s probably a good idea to mention the history of coffee in Japan. Most agree that the first appearance of coffee in Japan was in the 1800s. According to Ueshima Coffee Company, It was brought over by Dutch merchants.
The term "kissaten" itself translates to "tea-drinking shop." Obviously the word started having something to do with drinking tea. But, over time, the term kissaten changed to include the broader concept of a cafe where people would enjoy a variety of beverages (primarily coffee) and food.
According to the Japanese government, the first kissaten in Japan was opened in Ueno (Tokyo) in 1888. It was called Kahisakan and was focused on serving coffee. By the way, one confusing thing about the history of kissaten is that there were both coffee shops and cafes at the same time. Westerners tend to think that’s the same thing, but in the early 1900s a cafe was more like an adult entertainment establishment with loud music, alcohol and beautiful girls serving their customers. Although they also served coffee (at least at first), the focus at cafes went more toward the girls and alcohol. A kissaten, on the other hand, was distinguished as being more quiet with a focus on the coffee — much closer to what we think of as coffee shops or cafes today.
During the Meiji period (1868-1912), Japan was becoming westernized very quickly. Coffee was being imported and started getting much more popular. Coffee houses were starting to open up in the larger Japanese cities. As time went on, the word kissaten became synonymous with a specific style of cafe or coffee house experience. It had a focus on high-quality beverages, attention to detail in preparation and a cozy atmosphere. Oh, and there was often a lot of cigarette smoking.
Through the following decades, kissaten evolved and adapted to new trends and customer preferences. Some kissaten kept their nostalgic charm and vintage decor, while others went with more contemporary aesthetics and introduced new flavors and menu items to cater to modern tastes. Today kissaten are still a popular spot for both young and old to meet for a date, chat with friends or coworkers or even just to reminisce about the good old days.
The Kissaten Vibe
Kissaten have an atmosphere that takes you back in time. They’re known for their Showa era (retro) feel, and they serve delicious and eye-catching food and drinks (almost always). When you walk in, you’ll notice the old fashioned decor. For example, you might see vintage furniture, art or perhaps even stained glass (the stained glass is a surprisingly common theme). You will likely hear jazz or classical music playing in the background, too. So, sit back and let yourself go back to a different era.
Who Goes There?
All kinds of people go to kissaten — the customer base is surprisingly varied, but it really depends on the kissaten you go to. Many shops have a majority of customers that are in their 30s and below, but you might notice a slightly older customer base at other shops. This probably depends on the time of day you go, as well. Delishably said about older customers, “For them, these kissaten are a nostalgic place where they can relieve stress, or eat and drink in peace.” However, younger people definitely go to kissaten, too.
What You Can Buy at Kissaten
Kissaten have (of course) coffee, but they also have a wide array of drinks and food. It all depends on the kissaten and what they choose to offer. Some have just coffee, while some have tea and other drinks. Many have special morning or afternoon “service” meal sets, as well — a way to get a good deal on a good meal. Here are some common things you might find at a kissaten.
- Coffee - This is the one thing that you will no doubt find at every kissaten. It’s their specialty! Some even have different ways of brewing the coffee, like hand-dripped, siphon, or espresso. Occasionally, you might have different kinds of coffee beans to choose from, as well.
- Tea - Yes, many kissaten (not all) have tea.
- Other Drinks - If you're not in the mood for coffee or tea, you may be able to order soda, fruit juice, sparkling water or even alcohol.
- Meal Sets - There are usually meal sets available — like a morning or lunch set (often called “service”). An example might be an afternoon set that comes with a salad, a main dish (like omurice) and a coffee.
- Toast - The types of food you can buy at kissaten vary widely depending on where you go, but one very common item is toast. Yes, simple toast can be slightly different (or extremely different) from kissaten to kissaten. There’s everything from just toast with butter to pizza toast!
- Sandwiches - According to a Goo ranking a while back, sandwiches were the number one most popular food at kissaten among Japanese people. The types of sandwiches you can get will vary depending on the shop.
- Desserts - There are plenty of different desserts you can find at kissaten (some even have kakigori!), but one stands out in particular: the parfait. Parfaits vary in ingredients. They can be made with everything from custard to ice cream to fruits and cookies or all of the above! Take a look at some beautiful kissaten parfait options here (Japanese website).
As you would expect, kissaten prices vary by shop. But in general, you can expect to spend around ¥500-2500 ($4-18 USD) per person. It depends on how much you drink and eat. A coffee alone ranges from about ¥400-900 ($3-6 USD) while a set meal can give you some big savings running around ¥500-1200 ($4-9 USD).
Different Types of Kissaten
In the world of kissaten, there are some shops that have their own “flavor,” so to speak. Some kissaten are really unique. For example, there are shops that are focused on listening to music called meikyoku kissa (meikyoku means masterpiece, and kissa is short for kissaten). The Tokyo Weekender describes meikyoku kissa as “...dedicated to the experience of listening to music.”
There are other unique types of kissaten, too, but one is especially worth pointing out because it’s actually a misnomer — the manga “kissa.” Not sure how it got “kissa” in the name, but a manga kissa not a kissaten. A manga kissa is a place where you can read manga and enjoy drinks (from a fountain drink machine) — nothing wrong with manga kissa, just a totally different kind of place than what we’re talking about.
Independent vs Chain Kissaten
Choosing between independent and chain kissaten — how do you decide? Independent kissaten often offer a more personalized and unique experience. On the other hand, chain kissaten provide consistency and familiarity — along with pretty good quality. It’s up to you to decide. But, if you go with a kissaten chain, you might want to try Renoir or Komeda.
Which Kissaten to Visit
According to World Population Review, the country of Japan is the third biggest drinker of coffee in the world (after the US and Germany), so they know their coffee! And, there are plenty of kissaten to enjoy that coffee in, too. Here are a few you might want to try.
- Kissaten Seibu, Tokyo - Occupying two-floors of its building, this kissaten has a beautiful interior along with a nice view. You can watch the people walking by in the busy streets of Shinjuku, so get a window seat if you can! Also, take note of the huge stained glass ceiling (on both floors) and try the gigantic (two-person sized) parfait.
- Café de l'Ambre, Tokyo - If you’re looking for coffee only, this is a legendary kissaten that is recommended by TimeOut and many others. They say you can “take your pick between a lone blend coffee and 15-odd single origin varieties, including a few aged coffees.” They also use cloth filters for making their drinks. But, yeah, if you want a snack, too - this isn’t the place.
- Jun-Kissa American, Osaka - Although it has “American” in the name, it isn’t particularly focused on America. Although they do have famous pancakes — and (as an American here) we do love our pancakes! Kansai Odyssey said it has a “...distinctive atmosphere of a bygone time. It has even been certified by the city as a living museum.” There are plenty of sweets and snacks to accompany your coffee here, too.
- Kayaba Coffee, Tokyo - Founded in 1938, this kissaten is in a famous and old-fashioned part of Tokyo called Yanaka.