Kissaten: Slip Back in Time to The Old Coffee Shops of Japan’s Yesteryears
Amidst the thriving café scene in Tokyo, there exists a genre that has been quietly but constantly humming with life since decades ago. These are the traditional coffee shops, known as kissaten (喫茶店) in Japanese. The Showa period (1926-1989) saw a burgeoning of cafes, where it became popular to serve light refreshments along with coffee. Japan is well into a new era now, but the nostalgia of the 20th century continues to stay alive in these retro cafes where time stands still.
What distinguishes a kissaten from a modern café is the old-fashioned atmosphere evocative of the Showa period. They often have a small humble space, some crammed with antiques or preserving the weathered décor of their yesteryears. Some might see it as austere or even gaudy, but it’s this characteristic aura that’s so classic of the old Japanese coffee shop. Many kissaten boast a long history spanning decades, handing down the business through the generations and continuing to bring in old customers who faithfully visit as regulars. While they have an image of an older clientele born back in the Showa years, kissaten has been slowly attracting a younger crowd intrigued by the quiet and unchanging spirit of the kissaten.
In general, kissaten have a distinctly traditional menu. From heaping piles of spaghetti to vivid ice cream floats, these menu items have come to be associated with the traditional coffee shop. While it differs slightly from shop to shop, most keep to the standard offerings that have remained the same through the years. You might not see something as Insta-worthy as the fashionable offerings of today’s cafes, but you can count on the taste to be reliably satisfying. So what are some of the typical items you can find at the kissaten?
The faint bitter flavor of coffee complements the sweetness of ice cream to create an elegant, mature dessert that’s light on the palate. Since the Taisho era it’s been a staple at many coffee shops, and continues to be beloved for its classic and refreshing taste. It’s the perfect chilled treat for a hot summer day.
The kissaten menu can never be bland as long as there’s cream soda! These dessert beverages are strikingly colorful with a generous scoop of ice cream. Melon soda is one of the most popular flavors with its distinct bright green color, although there are other variations from Blue Hawaii to strawberry. Fizzy and sweet, It’s a drink that brings one back to their childhood.
The food at kissaten primarily consists of simple, homemade items that can serve as a light snack—sandwiches are often a fundamental part of the menu. Slices of white bread with crusts cleanly cut off and an assortment of fillings neatly stuffed in between make for the ideal refreshment to go with a cup of coffee. It’s a staple with the excitement of variety.
If you’re looking for some more crunch, toast is also standard kissaten fare. Usually thick and generous with toppings, the toast at these coffee shops is hot and filling. They often appear in the café’s morning set, where customers can get an ample slice to go with their beverage. It’s a satisfying way to start your day.
Napolitan spaghetti is perhaps one of the most enduring kinds of pasta in the country. Contrary to its foreign-sounding name, it was created in Japan as a classic Western-inspired dish. The dish itself is humble fare—spaghetti with tomato sauce and a variety of toppings. But the volume and satisfaction are what keeps people coming back to it. It usually comes in one big pile on the dish, steaming and ready to dig into.
Ice cream and cakes were already popular back in the Showa period, but they might look slightly different from what you’d find now. Kissaten desserts are often made in almost garish fashion, recognizable for their elaborate arrangements. Here, pudding takes center stage. Pudding a la Mode features an array of fruits, whipped cream and ice cream centered around a custard pudding, a quintessential item on the dessert menu.
And of course, back to where it all started from. You can’t have a coffee shop without coffee! The kissaten was conceived in the beginning to serve customers looking for a drink and some quiet time, so the very root of the café lies in the coffee. The mellow bitterness of coffee seems to encapsulate the essence of the kissaten itself, adding a deep flavor to its atmosphere.
These days we’re seeing a revival of the Japanese kissaten scene, so it seems like they’re firmly here to stay in both the memories of older patrons and the future. With many operating from the 1950s, you can experience the timeless quality of the old school Japanese coffee shop for yourself. Perhaps they might even become the ‘third place’ for you, providing a warm and familiar environment that invites you back again and again.
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