Most checklists for trips to Japan are sure to include two major destinations: Tokyo, the capital city, and Kyoto, Japan’s cultural center. While Tokyo is ever-changing and ever-bustling, Kyoto moves at a slower pace and is committed to the preservation of its history. Still, Kyoto has kept up with the times: bullet trains, neon lights, and modern architecture are at home here too.
Kyoto Station, Kyoto’s transportation hub, is a wonder of plate glass and steel—with elements of futurism and cubism on display. Step outside and you’ll be greeted by the Kyoto Tower, a Space Needle–shaped observation deck plucked out of a 1950s time-traveler comic book. Walk a few blocks in any direction from the station, however, and you’ll likely stumble upon a house or temple that has been standing for hundreds of years. The juxtaposition of Japan as hyper-modern and deeply traditional can be seen here in real time, which is perhaps why new wave coffee is so at home in Kyoto.
Once you’ve absorbed the architectural marvel of Kyoto Station, head a few blocks west to find Kurasu Kyoto—a stellar example of the way Kyoto blends tradition with the modern. Kurasu is small, but the cafe’s open and clean layout keeps you from feeling cramped. Traditional stonework floors are trafficked by patrons holding pour-overs, and the white ash counters make a good home for a matte black La Marzocco Linea PB.
Before a physical location was developed, Kurasu found its place in the coffee community by selling curated Japanese coffee-ware online, and later as a subscription service featuring Japanese roasters. Now in the real world, Kurasu Kyoto is part cafe and part showroom for the team’s favorite coffee tools and beans. A handcrafted mug filled with coffee from Single O Japan makes a good start to any day, especially one in Kyoto.
Weekenders Coffee Tominokoji
Winning the award for Kyoto’s most interesting cafe location is Weekenders Coffee Tominokoji. Here in the back corner of a parking lot is a beautiful cafe built in the tradition of the city’s homes—a purposeful rebuke to the trend of Western cafe fads influencing coffeehouse design. Weekenders thinks of the parking lot as an air pocket between the quiet oasis of a cafe and the cramped Kyoto streets. While sipping on an espresso and staring at a mini fish pond, it’s true that the town feels miles away.
Weekenders Coffee roasts its own, and its coffees are on the lighter and brighter side of the spectrum. Fans of Scandinavian coffee will be pleased by the tart and vibrant flavors in each cup. Fans of Kyoto will be pleased by the hospitality and traditional design.
Drip & Drop Coffee Supply
Located below Piece Hostel Sanjo, down a suspiciously narrow set of stairs, is Drip & Drop Coffee Supply. Space is often at a premium in this old city, but this cafe is roomy. The lighting is dim, the seating is cozy, and the atmosphere is distilled hip. Those searching for a spot to recharge with a book, get a simple coffee cocktail, or grab a light lunch should steer toward this coffeehouse.
The baristas at Drip & Drop are friendly and experienced when it comes to communicating with weary travelers. With four coffee blends to choose from and several brew methods on the menu, most visitors will find a combination that works for their palette. After hiking through a few hundred temples, a cup of iced coffee spiked with frozen fruit and mint ice cubes will amp you up for the next wave of sightseeing.
Light Up Coffee Kyoto
The scrappy young team from Tokyo’s Light Up Coffee recently took a big step in its mission to spread better coffee across the country by opening a location in Kyoto. Steps away from the banks of the Kamo River, nestled in a shopping street, Light Up serves specialty coffee to locals and tourists.
Light Up Coffee’s offerings are subtle and understated, allowing the drinker to pick out the flavors of each cup carefully while slowly sipping. Kyoto seems to be a perfect match for this style: deliberate, careful, and full of hidden beauty. Traveling coffee geeks will notice that the ceiling lamps are modeled after espresso tampers. Everyone will appreciate the cheery brightness of the decor and the coffee.
% Arabica Higashiyama
% Arabica (Percent Arabica) sits among some of Kyoto’s most iconic spots. With careful attention paid to every inch of this cafe’s design, it’s no wonder that % Arabica is beginning to outpace the surrounding historic sites on Instagram. The cafe’s walls, floors, and counters are all in shades of white but the warm yellow glow of the lighting keeps the space from feeling sterile.
Widely known as a latte-art specialty shop, this store places a lot of emphasis on presentation. That being said, a creamy latte crafted on a Slayer espresso machine may be just what you need for your walk over to Kiyomizu-dera or Ninezaka.
One of Kyoto’s newest cafes is also one of the more interesting corporate cafe combinations around. This coffeehouse is part coffee oasis and part Smart Car showroom. The combination of traditional Kyoto motifs, new wave coffee, and tiny automobiles may hurt your brain, but the coffees from And Coffee Roasters and Single O Japan might help you through.
A quaint Japanese garden is right outside the doors, a Mahlkönig EK 43 and a Slayer grace the counter, while a decorative La Marzocco sits on a tatami mat. Oh, and there is a Smart Car or two parked in there as well. Considering this eclectic combination, it seems appropriate that the National Museum of Modern Art is just a block away.
This local cafe is a bit farther north than the average traveler might venture, but if you find yourself heading that way, add Akatsuki to your itinerary. The married couple behind the counter serves up Weekenders Coffee Roasters and beautifully prepared homemade cakes. Be warned, Akatsuki has a strict no-computer policy, which some may find refreshing.
Opening at 9:00 a.m., Akatsuki starts earlier than most cafes in the region. This is a shop that locals frequent and its homey feeling can be comforting to homesick travelers. If you’re not feeling nostalgic, you can still benefit from a quiet and serious cup of coffee at this hidden gem.
For many Japanophiles, Kyoto is the ultimate destination. There is history, striking scenery, and hospitality at every turn. Kyoto is home to 17 Unesco World Heritage Sites, which can be humbling under any circumstances. With so much history, art, and culture in the region, it’s good to take a step back occasionally and attempt to absorb some of what you’ve seen—and what better way to reflect on these things than with a good cup of coffee?
Eric Tessier is a freelance journalist based in Providence. Read more Eric Tessier on Sprudge.