I walk the quiet streets of Ryogoku, and I think about travel.
I think of the people who make their lives in foreign countries. Of the fear, the stress, and the language barrier. There’s risk in travel, but there’s also great reward. There’s the food and drink you never forget, and the scenery that burns itself into the back of your mind. And it’s this feeling that Yu Yamamoto, head roaster at Single O Japan (Single Origin Roasters) wants to bring to Tokyo.
As he opens the doors to Single O Japan, Yamamoto tells me about how it started. How he quit his job and traveled with his wife. How they planned a trip around the world, and made it through Africa, Spain, and Asia, but ran out of money in the Land Down Under.
We walk past bags of green beans on wooden pallets. This is the Single O Roastery, where the Australian coffee roasters look to make a start into the Japanese market. There’s no café yet—just the roastery—but Yamamoto says their coffee is already circulating Tokyo at Bills, Gumtree Coffee Company, Mosscore and Be A Good Neighbor.
It’s a modest roasting space with a few tables, a La Marzocco espresso machine, and a Probat UG-22. Yamamoto tells me it’s the same model as the one they use in Sydney.
“Getting the same roaster was essential. It means what they’re roasting in Sydney, we can recreate here. We share roast profiles, talk over Skype, discuss Cropster results—it’s great to have such clear communication across the sea.”
We sit on empty containers, and we talk. Yamamoto says running out of money was, ultimately, a good thing. He says saving money became a love for a new home. In Sydney, Yamamoto searched for jobs in the local community. Single O was hiring, and Yamamoto was available. The rest was easy, though surprisingly, he started as a kitchen hand.
Yamamoto says he didn’t like coffee initially. He drank the canned stuff mostly. Tried an espresso at Starbucks once and vowed never to drink another.
He continues, “But one day, the baristas at Single O were working on espressos. They passed me a cup and told me to drink it. It wasn’t what I expected. It was delicious. I was really impressed. I wanted to know why it tasted like that. From then on, I started learning more—I worked my kitchen hand shifts, and afterwards learned coffee.”
It was a time of passion and flavor. And somewhere in the mix, thoughts of home. Yamamoto wanted to bring it all back. Share the flavors with Japan. And so he studied roasting. Learning the ropes meant cupping, quality control, green beans, and of course, roasting itself. At the end of 2014, he returned home and set up Single O Tokyo in Ryogoku.
“I never worked at a coffee shop in Japan, and it was coincidence that I even ended up learning about coffee in Australia. But because of that coincidence, and because I happened across Single O, I could learn about the many different worlds of coffee, meet amazing, passionate people, and be given the opportunity to share this with Japan. We have a wonderful history and culture of coffee in Japan, and I hope to bring something new to that.”
I asked if he noticed any differences between Australia and Japan. Was perception different?
“I think you can compare it to sake—Japanese people are used to the wide variety you see in liquor shops. They know how to find what they want. An Australian person in the same shop likely wouldn’t have the depth of knowledge—it’s simply not a part of their culture.
“The opposite effect is a little like coffee in Japan. Australians are more used to having a range and selection of beans at coffee shops. In Japan, it’s only just starting to become more widely accepted.”
Yamamoto says people are growing more knowledgeable of coffee here in Tokyo. He says chefs understand flavor, quality, and freshness, and he hopes that through Single O, he can help improve the end-of-service coffee that comes with fine dining. He’s confident people here know quality—they just need the opportunity to experience it.
But that’s still a way off in the future, Yamamoto says. First and foremost, it’s about quality beans, and quality roasting. It’s about finding the right partners to work with Single O coffee, building the brand, and going from there.
It’s quite the journey, when you stop to think about it. On one side of the coin, fate. On the other, coincidence. Would Yamamoto have ever met specialty coffee if he’d stayed in Japan and worked the office life? Somehow, I doubt it.
And that’s the best reward for traveling, isn’t it? It’s that chance meeting with something or someone you could never meet anywhere else. And sometimes, it’s bringing that experience back home and sharing it.
Travel changed Yamamoto’s life. It brought him something special. And though you might not know it on a quiet walk through Ryogoku, this is a starting point. This is where Single O hopes to bring a slice of Australian coffee culture to Tokyo—one roast at a time.
Hengtee Lim (@Hent03) is a Sprudge.com staff writer based in Tokyo. Read more Hengtee Lim on Sprudge.