A cafe called Reissue sits on the second floor above a small restaurant and fashion boutique on a narrow, winding street in Harajuku. It feels similar to many others—a few tables and sofas, art, and old records on the walls—but this place has a novel take on latte art that makes it unique among coffee shops in the neighborhood.
Reissue is home to Kohei Matsuno, a young man who uses milk foam to craft and sculpt 3-D images on his lattes. Using a little chocolate and a steady hand, he’s able to turn a simple milk beverage into a canvas for cats, rabbits, cars, and even sushi.
Matsuno started out at an Italian restaurant, drawing images and portraits on lattes to bring smiles to his customers. After moving to Tokyo around four years ago, his desire to surprise and delight led him to experiment with milk foam. Eventually he teamed up with a fellow latte artist named Jo-ji, who was—and is—also developing the craft.
For these two baristas, Reissue is a place where they polish their skills and experiment with ideas. Matsuno says his style is spontaneous and fun, and his art ranges from portrait pieces of David Bowie and Iron Man to 3-D sculptures of lazy animals and a cheeky Totoro.
“People usually enjoy cute latte art the most, but recently I enjoy making pieces that surprise,” he says. “I like watching people’s reaction to the unexpected.”
This fun, carefree, and creative approach is what initially draws people to the cafe—after all, nobody expects to find a cat in their coffee, and it’s hard to believe a latte cat is even possible until you’ve seen it yourself—but Matsuno hopes his art might also act as a doorway to coffee culture.
“Even though our work prioritizes the visual aspect of the experience, our cafe is an easy way for people to learn about and drink coffee too,” he says. “Cute cats and novel art help to attract people who might not usually drink coffee.”
Matsuno’s 3-D pieces begin with a latte, a pourer filled with foam, a few spoons, and a needle-like tool for painting details. He works with smooth expert speed, quickly creating three rounded foam mountains in a matter of seconds. He says this is simply the result of practice; a regular day sometimes means making between 50 and 60 lattes.
When his foundation is in place, Matsuno adds chocolate-flavored details—eyes, ears, whiskers, fur, and smiles—turning a few foam mountains into two cats and a rabbit. The whole thing takes maybe four minutes.
Each cup here feels like its own distinct experience, because each is different and each is transient. Drinking your coffee means destroying the art, and leaving it to sit means watching it melt.
Matsuno makes it look easy, and he insists that it is, but it’s still a fascinating skill to watch up close. Seeing characters and objects grow from a cup of coffee gives customers a new perspective on the ordinary, and makes us wonder what other creativity might exist in the shadows of everyday life.
While Reissue may not be pushing coffee toward new flavors or single-origin discoveries, Matsuno’s latte art strikes me as a good example of the way coffee is still a playground for experimentation and creativity. From cocktails and desserts to craft beer and nitro cold brew, it seems as if most interesting food and drink experiences start with a novel idea and develop from there.
And as I sit in Reissue, watching two cats and a rabbit slowly wilt in a cooling latte, a part of me hopes that this is just the beginning and that in the future we will see even more surprising sculptures. Reissue has carved out a small corner of Japanese coffee culture for itself, and hopefully will continue to surprise us.
Follow Matsuno on Instagram and his fellow latte artist Jo-ji on Twitter.
Hengtee Lim (@Hent03) is a Sprudge.com staff writer based in Tokyo. Read more Hengtee Lim on Sprudge.