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When I first came to Japan about 15 years ago (eeek, did I just write that?!) The Doutor coffee chain was king. Now don’t get me wrong. I’ve got nothing against a cheap cup o’ joe and some equally cheap grub to fill the belly, but as a self-professed caffeine addict, I had to ask myself: Is this all there is?

Don’t know if this guy is smoking or complaining, but he IS sitting in a Doutor

You see, I wanted more than just coffee–I wanted atmosphere, a place to hang out. But at that time, cafes were strictly the realm of old guys who wanted to smoke while complaining about the world. Doutor was just another cafe designed for them, only as a chain-store. There are plenty of old-style cafes like this dotting Japan, and they have a place. But what about people who want to enjoy coffee and conversation sans smoke? What about nonsmoking women and families, huge demographics that would probably want to frequent such a place, were it to exist?

Well, somebody figured this out eventually and Starbucks thrived. I personally dig Starbucks, and there are plenty around to choose from even here. But now I’d like to introduce everybody to cafes that have thrived in the wake of Starbucks, and are making Japan a true coffee nation.

Tully’s Coffee

If you build it, coffee drinkers will come!

For me, Tully’s Coffee is kind of like “Japan’s answer to Starbucks.” Both chains put a premium on great atmosphere, and both serve very good coffee. If I had to think about the major differences between the two, I would say that Tully’s coffee is “lighter” as a rule–that is, it doesn’t sit quite so heavily in the stomach as Starbucks’ coffees do. Tully’s also features some “desert coffees,” like the “Tiramisu Latte” featured above, that I think are exclusive to Japan.In terms of food or snacks, my favorite Tully’s goodies are the doughnuts, which often include gourmet twists like glazed nuts. Salty snacks to balance out the sweet are sadly lacking, but you can’t have everything! I think that most Tully’s have a closed-off smoking section, so don’t worry if you like to light up.

Ueshima Coffee Lounge

I think this Ueshima may be in Taiwan somewhere…if so, I’m deeply (well, not terribly) sorry

Loving the old-timey detail here

Photo by Richard, enjoy my life!

Try not to drool like Homer…it’s not that kind of place, OK?

Ueshima Coffee is actually based in Kobe, Japan, and the chain stores that have grown around the concept are as elegant as the city itself. I was first introduced to Ueshima Coffee when I lived in Yokohama, and I must admit that I was taken in first by the space itself. As you can see by the pic above, stepping into Ueshima Coffee is like turning back the clock–they emphasize tiny turn of the century details, like old bookshelves or rotary phones. The feeling of having gone back in time will be complete once you sample the coffee, which has just the right amount of fresh-ground bitterness to it. Top that off with the waffles (imagine Homer Simpson saying, “Waffles!” instead of “Doughnuts!”) and you are guaranteed a wonderful cafe experience. The only downside to Ueshima is that it is more expensive than average, but you get what you pay for. Ueshima Coffee also caters to smokers with a separate smoking section.

Komeda’s Coffee

It looks homey even from the outside

Don’t go putting this burger on your head, now

Komeda’s Coffee, which hails from Nagoya, doesn’t bother with sophistication. It’s more like one of Japan’s ubiquitous “fami-resu” (family restaurants) where you can get lots of filling food at low prices…with the guarantee that you will also buy a cup or two of their excellent coffee. Above is a picture of the aptly-named “Hat burger,” which is so big that…well, if I need to finish that sentence for you, one of us is hopeless! 😉 The coffee is served with a side of deliciously crunchy beans, which I’m told are a staple in Nagoya. This is a family place, so feel free to bring to kids. Just don’t be surprised if your coffee is much more expensive compared to your food: Komeda’s is, after all, a coffee shop!

Common to all these coffee joints (and if I may say, just about everywhere in Japan) is a commitment to service that is rare in most other countries. Whether you are looking for sophistication, elegance or family fun, I can almost guarantee that your experience will begin with a helpful smile. Coffee drinkers rejoice!

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