On the outskirts of central Shibuya—just past the towers of H&M, Don Quijote, and the Bunkamura department store—is a curious space with a small van inside it. That van contains an espresso machine, a grinder, a hanging plant, two stuffed animals, and a few other miscellaneous bits and pieces. If you can find this van, you’ve found Garage Coffee.
Owner Shinichiro Yamashita says the shop is named for its short history—before Garage Coffee, the space was literally a parking garage. When that endeavor went south, Yamashita was invited to turn the space into a dedicated coffee shop and roastery, and he opened Garage Coffee in June of 2016.
Yamashita says his van is ideal for coffee deliveries and outdoor events, but it’s also a subtle nod to his humble beginnings with Motoya Express, a van-based coffee catering service. At that time, he liked the freedom of the work more than coffee, but eventually he discovered roasting and opened a small coffee shop in the quiet neighborhood of Heiwajima to follow his passion. The old Fuji Royal at the back of Garage Coffee has been his trusty sidekick ever since.
“Although I get better at roasting with time,” he says, “I’ve really come to realize that, no matter how good you get, the beans are everything.”
This is part of the reason Yamashita serves a comparatively small range of coffee: Ethiopia Yirgacheffe, Burundi Buzira, and two blends. These days he’s less interested in variety and more interested in serving a selection of his favorites, which run the spectrum from light to dark.
When I first met Yamashita, he said he saw light roast as sashimi (raw fish) and dark roast as grilled fish: While one pursues a purity of flavor, the other looks to craft something new through cooking and experimentation. And playing with these ideas is clearly his favorite thing about working with coffee.
“Roasting is just really interesting,” he says. “I get excited when we get new beans to roast, and I love the anticipation of discovering the potential in a new coffee. I also like that blends offer a chance to create something new. It’s fun.”
The interior of Garage Coffee feels like a rehearsal space for a ’90s indie band: a chain-link fence, simple bench seating, plastic drums for stools, and walls dotted with posters and postcards. There are even a few amps by the wall, playing the day’s soundtrack.
Although the cafe space is usually quiet and relaxed, Yamashita says the pace of the neighborhood took some getting used to: There are more tourists and fewer regulars. He loves the variety of people that visit, but he misses connecting with the local community. The area has both benefits and drawbacks. He says it’s a popular location he never thought he’d find himself in and attributes the luck he had finding the location to the changing identity of Tokyo’s population.
“I don’t think coffee has changed a lot, but I do think that people are changing,” he says. “They understand coffee more and know more about it. There’s also more media, both domestic and international. The change hasn’t been big, really—it’s been slow and steady.”
And when I think about it, slow and steady is a good description for Yamashita and Garage Coffee as well. In his little coffee shop with his little van, he has introduced a slower pace of life into one of Tokyo’s busiest locations, while finding steady work doing the thing he loves most.
Hengtee Lim is a Sprudge staff writer based in Tokyo. Read more Hengtee Lim on Sprudge.