It started as a night like any other. I’m a coffee writer; I’d been at it around a year at this point, and on that particular evening I went out drinking around Tokyo with some local coffee folks; roasters, baristas, cafe managers. That sort of crowd.
We went to a local bar in Shimokitazawa. Clinked beer mugs and ate yakitori. Talked. Everyone had a story that night. I told them I’d never made a good cup of coffee. Ever. Something was always off, I said—perhaps it was my destiny to write about coffee, not brew it. It just takes practice, they said, but I shrugged.
I didn’t think practice would help; I just couldn’t do it. Never had, never would, I thought.
Two beers turned to three, and three to four, and somehow we got to talking about yōkai, the monsters and spirits of Japanese folklore. I was fascinated by their scope; the mix of evil, playful, and good, and the sheer variety that existed—it seemed as though if you imagined them, they existed.
I’d come to think there was a yokai for every season and every occasion, so I asked if there was a coffee yokai, or a tea yokai. I wondered what form such a spirit might take.
I expected a fun story.
Instead, a silence fell over our group. Tension filled the air like a heavy blanket soaked with water. I listened to the sound of meat grilling in the kitchen, and 90’s pop music over tinny speakers. Everyone looked at their feet or their hands. Nobody made eye contact.
And then, after sharing polite excuses, we all went home.
The next day, a friend told me it’s bad luck to talk about the coffee yokai.
“Coffee yokai?” I asked.
He said they spent their time sleeping in the spaces between cracks, and the gathering dust in the corners of rooms—minuscule creatures descended from the funa yurei that once haunted ships at sea.
The coffee yokai woke to the sound of their name, and waited for someone to brew tea or coffee.
“Why?” I asked.
They need a way to enter your body, he said. Water alone makes them ill.
Coffee yokai soak into a fresh brew, and ride it to your belly. From there, they steal a sliver of energy to keep fed. The problem, my friend said, is they call all their friends. You make coffee and drink coffee, make coffee and drink coffee, and the coffee yokai gather, slowly stealing your life.
Eventually, there’s an imbalance, he said.
“You die,” he said. “They kill you.”
We sat, quiet for a time.
“So… why not just stop making coffee?” I said.
The coffee yokai makes coffee sweet and fruity, he said. It creates a taste the drinker wants more of. A flavor the drinker finds irresistible.
He paused to light a cigarette.
“Those old kissaten owners,” he said, “they don’t brew dark roasted coffee because they think that’s the best stuff. They brew that coffee because they want people to grow a taste for a flavor the yokai can’t stand. And the yokai hate dark black coffee.”
“Ah. I see.”
I thought of the coffee guys from the previous night, now too scared to drink a cup of coffee for fear of inviting invasion. I thought of all the kissaten I’d visited, and tried to think of the smoky, wooden flavor as a savior of people.
It all sounded silly.
The next morning, I woke up as I always did and brewed myself a cup of coffee. Rwanda Musumba, a nice, expressive light roast sent to me by my brother. Flavor notes of pomegranate and stone fruit, the bag said.
I sat sipping that coffee as I watched businessmen walk towards the train station. For the first time I could remember, the bag was right. The flavor notes were spot on. The coffee seemed perfect.
I realized then I was drinking the first cup of good coffee I’d ever brewed in my life.
I paused for a moment. I looked down into the mug I held, and thought of old kissaten owners. I thought of scared baristas and silly stories. Magical creatures.
My eyes became transfixed on the wonderful cup of coffee in my hand. A coffee so good I was suddenly a little frightened. A coffee so good I knew I would be powerless to stop myself from making another.
Hengtee Lim is a Sprudge staff writer based in Tokyo. Read more Hengtee Lim on Sprudge.