Without coffee there’d be no mornings, no games industry, no Japanmanship and, let’s face it, no civilisation. Though Japan has a great and tasty tradition in a variety of teas they don’t do black teas very well. Luckily the same cannot be said for coffee, of which there is an enormous variety available for home consumption and an excess of coffee shops dotted around the country. I’ll be looking at some of the more famous brand shops and cast my opinion on them as a pro-am coffee consumer. Keep in mind that there are many more than the few mentioned below, but these are the most common in my experience.
Garish décor and limited, microwaved food makes Doutor (pronounced “Do’h-tor”) sit happily at the lower end of the market. Their coffee is passable and comes in a variety of sizes. Some shops have smoking sections separate from the non-smoking, some have it on separate floors, others have a glass wall. Regular coffee costs from 180 Yen for a small cup, to 280 for a larger mug, no refills. The cakes and muffins are all slightly too prepackaged and cheap to be really tasty but they do the job.
Though this place is slightly cheaper than any of the others, not offering specialty coffees, and its décor is pleasantly mock-European, with its small tables and barstool-high chairs, the whole experience feels a little unsatisfying. With the tiny tables it isn’t a good place to park yourself for longer periods to study, for example, but the seats are comfortable enough. The food on offer is the usual microwaved toasties and some cakes or muffins. The coffee is passable but more importantly it’s cheap.
This Italian chain tries the more trendy approach in décor and some shops have fairly decent and comfortable seats too. They offer a little more variety in foods and also serve alcohol. The larger shops have separate smoking floors but the smaller ones lump it all together. The coffee is pretty good here and though not quite the cheapest, it’s not that expensive. Small and medium coffees come in cups but the large is served in a paper mug like the expensive coffee chains, so this is a fair amount of black gold. The food is edible but really, with coffee and cigarettes who needs food?
This coffee shop, part of the Doutor Group, has a logo which bears more than a striking resemblance to that of Starbucks’, especially noticable on their shop signs. It’s a little cheeky but I’m sure it has lured some unsuspecting customers their way. It has a rather cavalier attitude towards smoking with the different sections often separated by no more than a bench, plant-pot or little sign. Some branches make more of an effort but generally the non-smokers will have to occupy the same space as us smokers. Obviously, for me this is hardly a problem but it does allow for the possibility of whiny non-smokers tutting and casting hurtful glances, which can really spoil your enjoyment of a good coffee and cigarette combo. Their Mocca has more cream on it than any of its competitors’.
Coming from the same city as Starbucks the resemblances are uncanny, from the logo to the silly naming conventions for the cup sizes and the wide variety of specialty coffee on offer. The biggest difference is that Tully’s doesn’t have that hoity-doity attitude towards smoking and usually offers separate, glassed off areas with nice leather chairs for us smokers. Usually, in fact, the smokers sit more comfortably than the non-smokers, as it should be. They also offer a variety of foods, from the usual cookies, which are very good, and muffins to sandwiches and some plate meals. It’s a little pricey but the coffee is great and the food tasty. On busy days the smoking fishbowls can become a little too dense but usually it’s a comfortable sit. They also offer a variety of coffees to brew at home; the beans are ground for you while you wait. Their one-shot Espresso Shake, though pricey at 450 Yen, is the best summertime pick-me-up I have yet come across and can give you both an ice-cream and caffeine headache at the same time. Great stuff!!
I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of this little mom’n’pop chain of coffee shops but there are a few of them in Japan too. Originally the chain that kicked off all its competition it is also the one with most hubris. Recently in a press announcement they told us of their plans to increase the prices a little. This was to keep the staff in good wages, which is fine, but also as a little payback for them investing so much in Japanese real estate, which is just taking the mickey. On top of that greed they also flatly refuse to allow smoking on their premises, a tactic that is bound to enrage people, well, like me. They are also the one chain store that has started putting up signs telling people not to hang around too long on weekends. So no studying or loafing around reading a book, just consume, pay and go away. Not very welcoming. And to cap it all off they have the silliest names for the various cup sizes their coffee comes in. No, Starbucks can go ingest itself, its competition in Japan has much better on offer.
Honourable mention: Dunkin’ Donuts is one of the few places where they do coffee refills. For those on a budget not concerned about greasy tables this is a passable alternative.
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In the end it’s a close run thing between Tully’s and Excelsior. Tully’s décor is a little less garish and I appreciate the separate, glassed off smoking sections with their comfortable seats, but Excelsior has wisely stayed away from the silly naming conventions for their differing sizes of cups and offers ceramic mugs for use to those who plan to utilize the shop’s many seats. Excelsior also has a stamp-card system where every 10 purchases gives you a free S sized drink or takes the price of one off of your larger drink purchase. Tully’s only has these kinds of special offers at selected periods, even though they do offer better freebies, like a free Tully’s mug or coffee beans for a full stamp card. But then again, Tully’s is about 20 yards closer to our office so I find myself drinking their coffee a little more often.