Enjoy the Many Exquisite Cafes of Kiyosumi-Shirakawa, Tokyo's Leading Coffee Neighborhood!
Have you ever been to a Japanese cafe? Although our cafe-loving Vietnamese editor’s first impression of Japanese cafes were crowded, cramped chain stores with small tables and chairs upon first arriving in Japan, the popular coffee neighborhood Kiyosumi-Shirakawa in Tokyo introduced her to some of the many stylish and relaxing independent cafes the country has to offer. For our “Area of Japan” series, she headed over to Kiyosumi-Shirakawa to find out why there are so many good cafes there. And, of course, to enjoy some delicious coffee!
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A Town of Coffee and Art! The History of Kiyosumi-Shirakawa
Kiyosumi-Shirakawa is located in eastern Tokyo near the Sumida River in the Koto ward. Before it became known as a coffee and art district, it used to be a blue-collar downtown area known as “Fukagawa” that was famous for its many temples, earning it the nickname “Fukagawa Temple Town.” Today, about 70 temples still remain in the area.
Besides its many temples, Kiyosumi-Shirakawa used to be known for its many warehouses storing important materials such as lumber, energy sources, and daily necessities essential for large-scale urban development during the Edo Period (1603 – 1868). This made Kiyosumi-Shirakawa a transportation hub and a center for the distribution of goods. After WWII, however, the area became a typical downtown district of residential houses and small factories.
Why Are There So Many Cafes in Kiyosumi-Shirakawa Today?
Once Tokyo was rebuilt after the war, Kiyosumi-Shirakawa’s warehouses gradually fell out of use, having outlived their purpose. In 1995, that all changed with the opening of the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo. Art museums need large spaces to store artwork and other exhibits... such as warehouses, what with their high ceilings, few columns, and plenty of room.
After the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo opened in Kiyosumi-Shirakawa, other local warehouses were transformed into galleries, and the district started to attract more and more art lovers. As this trend continued, Kiyosumi-Shirakawa became known as an “Art Town.” But in addition to art galleries, many other warehouses are now also used to roast coffee. Kiyosumi-Shirakawa’s location is perfect for roasting coffee without negatively affecting the neighborhood by directing the roasteries’ ducts towards the many rivers flowing through the area.
The first coffee shop opened in Kiyosumi-Shirakawa in 2004, but the number of cafes there exploded after the famous American coffee brand Blue Bottle Coffee opened its first Japanese branch in the area in February 2015 (now called “Blue Bottle Coffee Kiyosumi Shirakawa Flagship Cafe”). This attracted a lot of media attention, and since then Kiyosumi-Shirakawa has gradually become known as a “Coffee Town.” After I discovered why there were so many cafes and coffee shops in Kiyosumi-Shirakawa, I naturally started craving a cup, and so I headed over to investigate the area!
My Visit to Kiyosumi-Shirakawa's Unique Cafes and Coffee Shops
fukadaso cafe: A Charming Cafe Housed in a Renovated 50-Year-Old Warehouse and Apartment Building
The first place I stopped by was fukadaso cafe. A 50-year-old warehouse and apartment building that was transformed into a popular cafe after renovation work. After learning about the history of Kiyosumi-Shirakawa, I was intrigued and wanted to see for myself what a cafe housed in a renovated warehouse would look like.
fukadaso cafe is located a 5-minute stroll from Exit A3 of Kiyosumi-Shirakawa Station. After I started walking, I quickly spotted the warehouse-like building with exterior walls covered with white tin and yellow rust stains that give it a kind of old-fashioned charm.
I was lucky and had a chance to speak with the cafe’s owner, Sato. According to him, this building was built by his grandfather Fukuda. Before it became a cafe, the first floor of the structure served as a warehouse with apartments on the second floor where family members could stay when visiting. The original plan was to rebuild the entire building from the ground up, but after consulting with a renovator, it was decided that a better idea would be to age the framework in order to maintain the building’s original look and old-fashioned charm.
What struck me most during my visit was the exterior of the cafe. The old, rusted appearance of the tin walls was a testament to the building's historic connection to Kiyosumi-Shirakawa. The interior is spacious and airy, and the tables and chairs have a retro feel to them. Some of the tables are actually made from old dressers, creating a nostalgic and unique space that is hard to find in the busier parts of Tokyo where the latest, most-advanced trends reign supreme.
The blended coffee that I ordered that day was sweet, rich, and absolutely delicious. I also got a piece of cheesecake that was moist and refined, and pancakes with a rich, buttery flavor that paired perfectly with the bitter coffee.
Coffee is the star of the cafe’s menu, but they also do desserts such as blueberry pancakes, cheesecake, and scones. Personally, I loved the interior and atmosphere. The highlight of fukadaso cafe is that you can not only relax with a cup of coffee here, but also feel the history and charm of Kiyosumi-Shirakawa. For those looking for a stylish cafe and a place to relax amidst a nostalgic atmosphere in Tokyo, this is the place for you.
Arise Coffee Roasters: Offering 15 – 20 Types of Coffee Beans
My next stop was Arise Coffee Roasters, which offers drip coffee made from beans roasted right there on the premises. It’s a popular specialty store that takes a lot of pride in how they handle its coffee beans. Arise Coffee Roasters is a small operation located at an intersection less than 100 meters from fukadaso cafe. When I saw it for the first time, I was surprised at how compact it was. The store is only about 20 m² in size, with a large roasting machine, a counter lined with roasted beans, a bench seating four people, and two small chairs.
The owner, Hayashi, does the roasting himself. Before opening Arise, he worked for 10 years as a roaster at a wholesale company called Yamashita Coffee in Tokyo, and was involved in the launch of The Cream of the Crop Coffee store, where his responsibilities included roasting coffee beans and customer service. Then in 2013, he went independent and opened Arise Coffee Roasters. As for why he chose Kiyosumi-Shirakawa as the location, Hayashi says: "My hobby is skateboarding. Kiyosumi-Shirakawa has many good roads for skateboarding, and I wanted a place where I could skateboard to work. That’s why I chose this place.” I wasn’t expecting that kind of answer! Hayashi has been involved with Kiyosumi-Shirakawa for 22 years now.
I have never experienced a store like this before. First, Arise has only hand-drip coffee on the menu. Second, the owner helps you decide your order by chatting with you and listening to your preferences. Customers can choose from 15 – 20 different types of coffee beans coming from Dominica, Colombia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. If this is your first time drinking single-origin coffee and you don’t know which bean to go with, just ask Hayashi for help. When I mentioned that I wanted to try something different and from outside my native Vietnam, Hayashi suggested Dominican coffee beans, a staple of Arise. It was the first time I drank drip coffee brewed with those beans, and it had a pleasant flavor that wasn’t too acidic or bitter.
The next thing that surprised me was the store’s interior. Although the space seemed a bit small and cramped at first, once inside, it felt very friendly and comfortable. Hayashi wanted to create a store with a relaxed atmosphere where customers could feel comfortable talking to each other. In fact, sitting on the bench at Arise Coffee Roasters and talking with the owner about coffee and Kiyosumi-Shirakawa, I already started to feel like a regular.
When I told Hayashi that I am Vietnamese, he enthusiastically started talking about the store’s coffee that was carefully selected by his Japanese friend currently living in Dalat, Vietnam. He then said that Vietnamese coffee beans have recently become a hit at Arise Coffee Roasters. In recent years, the store has also started raising awareness of high-quality Asian beans from Thailand, Laos, and the Philippines, which are still relatively unknown in Japan. If you love coffee from South American countries like Brazil and Colombia, or if you’re interested in trying out new coffee beans, please stop by Arise Coffee Roasters. You’ll surely find something unforgettable here!
Even among the many cafes and coffee stores of Kiyosumi-Shirakawa, Arise Coffee Roasters has a lot of discerning fans. Most of its customers are locals who come here to buy coffee beans, but there are also many who travel all the way from other prefectures and even overseas to sip Arise’s freshly-roasted coffee.
The amazing thing about Kiyosumi-Shirakawa is that even though there are so many cafes and coffee shops around here, sometimes right next door to each other, there’s no fierce competition between them. Instead, they cooperate to help make Kiyosumi-Shirakawa even more popular. For example, Arise Coffee Roasters only serves in-house-roasted black coffee, so if anyone comes in wanting a latte, Hayashi will give them directions to other stores such as Blue Bottle Coffee. Similarly, other cafes will often recommend Arise to customers who want to try rare single-origin coffee. These kinds of cordial relationships are what create the warm and calm atmosphere of Kiyosumi-Shirakawa.
Blue Bottle Coffee Kiyosumi Shirakawa Flagship Cafe: Serving Coffee in Style
The last store that I visited was the famous Blue Bottle Coffee Kiyosumi Shirakawa Flagship Cafe. fukadaso cafe’s Sato and Arise Coffee Roasters’ Hayashi both said that the opening of Blue Bottle Coffee helped transform Kiyosumi-Shirakawa. Before the store came to the area in February 2015, there already were several cafes in Kiyosumi-Shirakawa, but most of their customers were local seniors. Once Blue Bottle Coffee appeared on the scene, though, the area became more and more popular with young people and foreign tourists. Without this cafe, Kiyosumi-Shirakawa probably wouldn’t have become known as “Coffee Town.”
When I asked a representative of Blue Bottle Coffee, which was founded in Oakland, California, why they chose Kiyosumi-Shirakawa for their first overseas expansion, here’s what they said: “James Freeman, our founder, was inspired by the Japanese cafe culture where each cup of coffee is carefully brewed one by one, and so he decided to open the first overseas branch of his chain in Japan. We ultimately decided on Kiyosumi-Shirakawa because of the openness of the area. There are few tall buildings here, the streets feel spacious, and the surrounding parks and other places provide a relaxing atmosphere. James liked the area because it reminded him of Oakland where Blue Bottle Coffee started. He also fell in love with the building and location where our Flagship Cafe is now located.”
Today, Blue Bottle Coffee has stores in Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, Roppongi, and other locations throughout Japan, but the original Blue Bottle Coffee Kiyosumi Shirakawa Flagship Cafe continues to remain very popular.
Like many other cafes in Kiyosumi-Shirakawa, Blue Bottle Coffee is located inside a renovated warehouse. The interior of the store is very spacious with high ceilings that give it a relaxing sense of openness. To the left of the entrance is the drip station where baristas brew the store’s coffee. There are also tables where you can relax and enjoy a chat while observing the baristas at work.
The secret of Blue Bottle Coffee's brewing process is that they pay special attention to the temperature of the hot water and the amount of coffee beans. The baristas place a scale under the cup to measure the correct amount of coffee, and pour hot water slowly in a circular motion, starting from the inside of the cup and moving outwards, then the other way around. In total, the hot water is poured in four separate batches. If you want to learn how to brew the perfect cup of coffee, visit Blue Bottle Coffee and observe and talk with the baristas there.
In addition to delicious coffee, Blue Bottle Coffee also serves tea, fruit juice, hot chocolate, and even pale ale beer. They also boast an extensive food menu, including homemade baked goods, pudding, steaming-hot waffles and other sweets, granola, and freshly-made hot sandwiches. I ordered a non-coffee carbonated drink called Coffee Cherry Fizz, which was refreshingly sweet and sour. It’s the perfect drink to enjoy on a hot day!
There’s free Wi-Fi at the cafe, so it’s a great place to work as well.
Feel the Artistic Atmosphere of Kiyosumi-Shirakawa at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo
Aside from coffee, Kiyosumi-Shirakawa is also known for art thanks to it being home to the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, which opened in 1995, bringing many casual visitors and art lovers to the area. This museum’s purpose is the research, collection, preservation, and exhibition of contemporary art from Japan and abroad, with a focus on domestic postwar art.
Designed by renowned architect Takahiko Yanagisawa, the building has a very modern feel to it with its massive entrance, interior corridors surrounded by triangular columns, large glass windows, and steel walls with round hole decorations. The museum reopened in March 2019 after three years of renovations that started in May 2016, so if you visit it now, you’ll be able to enjoy its fresh, new look!
Currently, the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo displays approximately 5,500 works and houses a total of 270,000 books on contemporary Japanese art. The museum is divided into five areas: exhibitions, research, art library, artwork collections, and educational programs. There is also a restaurant and a cafe on the premises.
Also, right next to the museum you’ll find Kiba Park with plenty of greenery, a large garden where children can run around and play, and tables and chairs where you can sit and rest or have lunch. I recommend buying a cup of coffee and enjoying it here.
Visit the Coffee and Art Neighborhood Kiyosumi-Shirakawa!
Kiyosumi-Shirakawa is not only a place where you can find great coffee. It’s also a place where you can feel the retro downtown atmosphere of Japan thanks to the many temples and warehouses in the area. And you of course can’t forget about its art! If you’re looking for a quiet day-trip destination where you can relax, then Kiyosumi-Shirakawa is just the place for you. So go grab a coffee and look for more treasures hidden throughout this quaint part of Tokyo.
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.