Japan's dated, smoky cafes unfazed by Starbucks success


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It's ironic because while these old folks scoff at Starbucks and non-smoking chains, claiming people can take their time and enjoy a cup of coffee in these smaller places, many go to Starbucks precisely to avoid the cramped, smoky atmosphere of these often overpriced caves. And one more thing, I don't buy into the legitimacy of Japan being the 4th largest coffee consumer as the number includes the stuff bought in vending machines. That stuff shouldn't count as "coffee."

11 ( +24 / -13 )

The coffee craze percolates in Japan.

1 ( +6 / -5 )

That stuff shouldn't count as "coffee."

Nor should that overrated soup at Starbucks.

16 ( +25 / -9 )

The dimly-lit wooden interior of his cafe, which sells nothing but coffee, is busy with customers sipping their 700 yen brews...

I'm sorry but as much as I love coffee I can't ever see myself spending that much for a cup no matter how good it is. Even Starbucks feels overpriced.

I do like the interior and feel of these traditional coffee houses and the coffee to me tastes great - rich and smooth.

If they'd allow refills at half price, I'd probably frequent and hang out at them even more.

3 ( +7 / -4 )

Sorry, not overrated... That's true too but I meant to write over roasted. Spell checker override.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

Sorry, not overrated... That's true too but I meant to write over roasted. Spell checker override.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Sorry Mr.Sekiguchi - I promise you I would not find your coffee tasty with all those nasty pipe and cigarette fumes being forced into my respiratory system!

16 ( +22 / -6 )

There is room for both. Starbucks is the MacDonalds of coffee, cheap and bad, but sometimes you need it. The wifi also makes it good for work & study. But Japan has a great range of excellent high-end cafe's where you go and enjoy a coffee, like a good restaurant.

2 ( +7 / -5 )

I don't know who's the head of training at Starbucks, but they're doing a terrible job. Coffee is consistently burnt & the beans also taste burnt - horrible aftertaste. Probably bottom-of-the-barrel variety. The beans are kept in the baskets for much longer than you're supposed to - overnight in most cases I'd say.

You can't even get an espresso & they disguise bad 'coffee' by haphazardly pouring it into a paper cup. Not to mention cheating with spoons & thermometers. That is NOT how baristas make coffee.

THEN, they have the audacity to give you your burning hot, overpriced garbage without a cardboard sleeve (that's how stingy they've become - you have to ASK for the damn sleeve)! That's right guys, keep jacking up your prices!

2 ( +7 / -5 )

Sekiguchi, who smokes a pipe, said that he thought new cafes that ban smoking have got it wrong, as “after drinking delicious coffee, you want to smoke tobacco.”

No I do not want to increase my chances of getting lung cancer (among other diseases) and making my breath and clothes smell foul after a cup of coffee.


Even Starbucks feels overpriced

True. I'm just glad that Starbucks and Tully do exist so that there are places to go if I am forced to find a cafe. When I first came here, I once went to Doutors and sat down at a table which had a no smoking sign. I was shocked when I saw an ashtray on the table right next to me. I guess the wall separating the two tables was invisible.

11 ( +14 / -3 )

I love coffee therefore not a big fan of Starbucks especially since they teamed up with Monsanto. However 700 yen for a coffee is way too much, especially if this is the entry price for a "standard" coffee.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

One of L’Ambre’s loyal patrons has drunk a cup of coffee made from beans meticulously hand-roasted by Sekiguchi and his staff every day for fifty years, said the centenarian.

Can't be much flavor left in those beans after fifty years!

-3 ( +6 / -9 )

"Sorry Mr.Sekiguchi - I promise you I would not find your coffee tasty with all those nasty pipe and cigarette fumes being forced into my respiratory system!"

"No I do not want to increase my chances of getting lung cancer (among other diseases) and making my breath and clothes smell foul after a cup of coffee."

The old saying is "With age comes wisdom" but for 100-year-old Sekiguchi Oscar Wilde's version might be more appropriate: "With age comes wisdom, but sometimes age comes alone."

3 ( +5 / -2 )

These places are for coffee elitists and/or smokers.

9 ( +10 / -1 )

Starbucks tastes terrible, but it is still better than getting cancer and hurting your immune system by going to other places.

12 ( +14 / -2 )

Japan really has to do some more effort about banning smoking in cafes, bars and restaurants.

Anyway who goes to starbucks for the coffee, everyone is going for the latest "frappucinocapuccinomochaccinoalpacino"

12 ( +13 / -1 )

If a shop's claim to fame is that John Lennon/Yorko Ono had coffee there, then we are talking 30 plus years ago. Things have changed since 1980

6 ( +7 / -1 )

One very reason why Starbucks took off in Japan was precisely their strict non-smoking policy, which has attracted many patrons--especially women--who want to get away from the smoke-filled old-style coffee shops.

This is why I expect within the next few years places like Doutor and UCC's Ko Hi Kan to phase out allowing smoking, not only to win back customers lost to Starbucks but also to (at least in the Tokyo area) attract visitors going to the 2020 Summer Olympics.

18 ( +18 / -0 )

Starbucks might not have great coffee but it's excellent value if you want a comfortable place to do some work for a few hours as they give you a 100 yen refill. As others have pointed out, I would happily give the independent cafes a go, but I really can't abide the smoke (which, strangely, doesn't bother me if I have a beer in my hand). Sekiguchi-san is nuts if he thinks that no-smoking cafes have got it wrong. There are LOTS of people like me who specifically seek them out and would rather drink mediocre coffee in a smoke-free atmosphere.

15 ( +16 / -1 )

We need Tim Horton's coffee in Japan. It's great and half the price of Starbucks.

6 ( +7 / -1 )

If a shop's claim to fame is that John Lennon/Yorko Ono had coffee there, then we are talking 30 plus years ago. Things have changed since 1980

I don't know; there are hotels in England whose only claim to fame is that Henry VIII slept there five hundred years ago.

And all he ever wrote was "Greensleves"!

4 ( +5 / -1 )

Have yet to have a good espresso coffee in either type of establishment in Japan.

-1 ( +3 / -4 )

The problem with that even with a double, or triple shot, it still tastes like watered down two week old burnt slop.

2 ( +8 / -6 )

Yes, Starbuck's is way too bitter. The only thing I can drink there is a latte (if friends want to go). The milk tones it down a lot. They hand out brewed samples but I've never been able to manage more than a sip of one.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Starbucks I go for the frappuccino or any other drink with coffee jelly in it....

But for a cup of coffee... I got my favorites...whenever I have time I made my trip to My favorite coffee place (they only serve coffee and some minor side dishes) (don't let the name fool you, it is one of the best coffees you can ever taste)... and the ambient is great!!!... If I want to relax that is the place to go

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I honestly always felt like I could relax more at Starbucks or at Dotour, as opposed to a kissaten. The kissaten are just too quiet, and the regulars always stare at you when you come in. And, when you yourself become a regular, then you have to make lame bar-style small talk with the owner when you just want to get some work done.

Don't get me wrong, I love kissaten. They're atmospheric and moody and fun. But I would never go there to work or study.

7 ( +8 / -1 )

Owner of single, successful 100 year old business comments on 33 year old multibillion dollar corporation: “The way they make (coffee) is totally wrong...,” rails Ichiro Sekiguchi.

I like Starbucks ok-ish and go maybe once a year... and this guy may make a great cup of joe..but he has no idea what he's talking about. Tasty or not, Starbucks SELLS.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

I agree Starbucks coffee is pretty ack, but at least I can actually breathe clean air while I am drinking it. This coffee could be liquid nectar but no oxygen in the place kind of ruins the effect.

6 ( +7 / -1 )

he has no idea what he's talking about.

That's not necessarily true. This guy almost definitely knows how to make a good cup of coffee, or he wouldn't be in business for 30 years with his prices.

Starbucks is excellent at what they do, or they wouldn't be the worldwide corporation that they are. But their strength isn't particularly the quality of their coffee. Their strength is in their sweet drinks, food, and atmosphere.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

Choosing Starsucks over a kissaten is like choosing McDonalds over a good old izakaya. Starbucks coffee tastes awful.

2 ( +8 / -6 )

While I like the atmosphere of the old-style kissatens (but not the smoke) I always found their coffee far too bitter and far too strong. For someone who prefers their coffee that way of course, I can appreciate the stuff they serve at Starbucks probably doesn't even count as coffee. But I like it, and I like the variety. If I want just a plain ordinary cuppa coffee made just the way I like it, I can make it at home.

1 ( +4 / -3 )

“after drinking delicious coffee, you want to smoke tobacco.”* yes but non smokers have the right not to breath in your second hand smoke, it just ruins the coffee. there should be by law a seperate room for smokers/non smokers in Japan. or just makes smokers go outside and do that filthy habbit
6 ( +7 / -1 )

The truth being said, one does not know how coffee tastes until one tries an old style Japanese Kalita (or even an American chemex), with some hand roasted batch of city-roast Arabica. Charbucks will never reach that level...

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Interesting how Mr. Sekiguchi claims his coffee to be one of the best when he smokes piped tobacco that probably kills the good coffee aroma. Or is he claiming that his coffee taste only good if you smoke?

My go to coffee in the States used be at golden arches or dunkin donuts. Now I'm into cold brew coffee which is just amazing if you make sure you use good water. But then almost all coffee will taste good if you don't use tapped water.

1 ( +4 / -3 )

I love old school kissatens. They are quieter, more relaxed and in general have better food and other beverages on offer. I can sit and chill in relative peace for a couple of hours, have a chat to the master and read a good book; the key here is the peace. I just like going to places that are quiet.

Starbucks serves its purpose though, and I do not blame people for going to them, but I think it you are better off going to some place with drinks bar and having a chat there.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

I like my coffee weak/mild, and my experience of Japanese cafes is that they serve coffee so strong it could leap from the cup and do 5 rounds with Henry Cooper

2 ( +3 / -1 )

The only reason I go to Starbucks is because its on my way home, can comfortable use my laptop and its kinda cheap but it is bad coffee. But coffee at smaller shops is always better including those smokey old kissatens. Coffee here will never be as good as back home.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

"The way they make (coffee) is totally wrong, it’s not tasty,” rails Ichiro Sekiguchi, the 100-year-old owner of long-established independent Tokyo coffee shop Cafe de L’Ambre.

Yup. Then again, coffee surrounded by chain-smoking oyajis isn't tasty, either.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

There's nothing better than have a cup of coffee without the stench of tobacco and second hand smoke. I would pay any price for the coffee as long as it remains non-smoking even if the coffee tastes bad.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Starbucks isn't world class coffee by any means, but the place is not an invitation for cancer like the Kissa is. What's more, the atmosphere is a whole lot better, and if you happen to want to relax and read a book or study, you can. I don't go to a cafe to relax on my own so that I can talk to others that I don't know. In any case, to each their own.

-4 ( +4 / -8 )

If the prices were competitive and there was no smoking allowed, I'd happily visit the 'local' cafes.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Hell, if you don't like smoky coffee shops don't go into them. You have the ability to keep walking and find an overpriced overrated Starbucks almost everywhere in Japan. That is the fun of living in a consumer driven nation, you have the right to go where you want to spend your money.

-1 ( +4 / -5 )

I have always believed in the adage There's no arguing about taste. The old geezer is no longer in touch with reality. I am not about to tell him what real coffee should be like, even after I've listened to people tell me similar stories in Brazil, Italy, the U.S., Germany, France, and at least another dozen countries. And neither should he tell me which is the correct, authentic brew. Reason is a correct, real brew does not exist. The data indicate that it is the customer who decides what is right for him/her. Mr. Sekiguchi, not the first person on earth to start roasting and serving coffee, may have found a method to please himself and a small following, but that does not mean everyone else outside his proclaimed 5 dedicated places are completely wrong.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Joe Bigs, Fine. Put signs on the doors indicating that smoking or non-smoking is inside. Let consumers decide before entering. Frankly, the only solution is a national law banning all smoking indoors. It works economically as proven worldwide. I would love to visit the place featured in the article but no way in hell will I go into a smoky, cancerous environment.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

100-year-old owner

Most likely one of the most second-hand smoke exposed guy in the world. And still making coffee.... Keep moving guy!

2 ( +4 / -2 )

For those complaining about "bitter" coffee... eh... coffee IS bitter!

“The way they make (coffee) is totally wrong, it’s not tasty,” rails Ichiro Sekiguchi, the 100-year-old owner of long-established independent Tokyo coffee shop Cafe de L’Ambre.

Let's see... how to make coffee: 1. Grind up coffee beans, 2. put ground-up beans into a filter system, 3. pour hot water over the ground beans to extract flavor, 4. pour resulting liquid into a drinking container. I have a feeling Mr. Sekiguchi makes his coffee the same way Starbucks does. I guess he's making it wrong as well.

Smokers have had their sense of taste and sense of smell shut-down by their addiction, so anything a smoker says about flavor is skewed into the absurd.

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

He's 100 years old, still working, and his business is doing well. He must be doing something right. Strong coffee, second-hand smoke, and his pipe haven't seemed to hurt him so far (but maybe he's just lucky).

1 ( +2 / -1 )

“There are many people who drink coffee in Japan, but they drink bad coffee,” said Sekiguchi, who estimates that there are only “around five” truly good coffee shops in Japan."

It's true. And strange, when you think about it. Japan usually gets the imported food and drink stuff right. The beer and whiskey is world class. The pastries and bread shops kick ass. True, they are adapted somewhat to the native palate, and do not show the range, for example, of what you may find in Germany regarding bread, for example, but the Japanese palate is quite good IMO. And in certain parts of the country, like Kobe, you can find a real Austrian bakery! And often, you can find that hole-in-the-wall shop opened by some strange dude who spent 5 years in Tuscanny learning how to prepare Tuscan food.

But the coffee traditionally sucked. I'll say this for Starbucks: as mediocre as it may be, it did bring the level of coffee up in Japan. I think all the older expats here can attest to that.

[As an aside, regarding Japanese beer: Japanese beer was heavier and more full flavored back in the day. Back in the 90s, Kirin progressively released their early Meiji, late Meiji, Taisyo and early Showa lager beer. Both the Meiji beers were outstanding -- but they did not necessarily go well with flavor profile of the food Over the years, brewers progressively lightened the lagers, to what we have now.

And then Asahi created the bane known as "Super Dry." Which ain't all that bad, but compared to Sapporo Black, and Malts, well, if you know what I'm talking about, then you know what I'm talking about...

1 ( +1 / -0 )

It's not a choice between smoke-free Starbucks and "smokey old kissaten." Japan has a large number of independent excellent coffee shops and smaller local chains that are smokefree. Just one example: Ogawa coffee in Kyoto. Smoke-free and the coffee is real and outstanding.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

Fadamor, you have little idea about coffee. Good Arabica coffee is never bitter, but syrupy and a bit sweet, and leaves an aftertaste, depending on origin, of licorice, nuts or dried fruits. You get bitter sludge in over extracted burnt, not roasted coffee only (charbucks included). Or in much cheaper Robusta coffee.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

My distant memories of kissatens. Bad expensive coffee, smoke, loud TV, smoke, gross manga, smoke, loud old men, smoke, sounds of gaijin da, smoke and more smoke. That was out there. In Kobe we had cafes before Starbucks.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Hmm, I think coffee shops in Japan are in a different market to the west, due to the lack of public benches. Mostly they seem to be a place where you can sit down for 290 Yen-ish, with a cup of coffee thrown in. Starbucks coffee in Japan is pretty mediocre, and it just seems to be a place where people go to commune with their smartphones.

//a cup of coffee without the stench of tobacco and second hand smoke

(in the voice of Rorschach in Watchmen) Give me back my smoke!

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Sekiguchi, who smokes a pipe, said that he thought new cafes that ban smoking have got it wrong, as “after drinking delicious coffee, you want to smoke tobacco.”

Wrong, Sekiguchi-san, Starbucks and the like have got it right. When drinking delicious coffee, you want to take in its aroma, and flavours. Ash doesn't compliment the flavour of coffee.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

The oldest one I know in Tokyo is DUG, the jazz cafe in Shinjuku that was operating when I came here in 1969 , which retains the same atmosphere, though I'm not sure how the coffee quality compares with others.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

“The way they make (coffee) is totally wrong, it’s not tasty,”

For me, it's not always about 'taste'. It can be about richness, and even bitterness within the coffee that I prefer.

Starbucks no smoking policy is always a win win situation. I can't stand smoke, and I guess neither do they. I would still go to Starbucks, even if I don't like their coffee. (As long as they still have the no smoking policy.)

Smokers always have the option of smoking when they want at a smoking cafe. Not fair for the non-smokers. This is just my opinion, I respect smokers if they want to smoke, just not when smoke settles and smells my clothing up, my lungs as well.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

“...after drinking delicious coffee, you want to smoke tobacco”, says Sekiguchi. After reading that comment I want to punch the geriatric on his insensitive nose.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

Most of the kissaten i go to are 100% non-smoking, simple reason they often are part of a bakery and/or cake shop.

The owners sez the cigarette smell affects their wares.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Regarding the headline" Unfazed by Starbuck's Success"...let me know how you die. No doubt, in a hospital of any assorted variety of CANCER because you choose to allow selfish smoker's addictions. Every smoker is fine until the health bill comes in. I don't care how fine your coffee is. Combining it with smoking suicidal and you could have had much more business if you were 100% smoke free. Typical addict self justification rationale. you get it? Leave the rest of us sane nonsmokers free of your vicious, cancerous addiction.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

I really really Don't know why people think Starbucks is the "it" in coffee, I don't find them that delicious. Plus they offer a lot of sweets to go with your coffee and the tea they serve is also awful. I Agree that Starbucks is the McDonalds of Coffee Houses. Their customer service isn't that great either.

The only plus side they have is an international, somewhat standard brand that tastes the same anywhere you go (so it tastes horrible anywhere you go). And of, course their strict non-smoking policy.

As for traditional coffee houses, you can´t expect to instill a non-smoking policy overnight, many customers do enjoy a coffee and a cigar, pipe or cigarrette, I've seen in many LatinAmerican Countries like Cuba and Brazil (two that are big for tobacco and coffee). And is kinda part of a lifestyle, you may not like it, but it would be far from banned though.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Interesting title: "Japan's dated, smoky cafes unfazed by Starbucks success"

Incorrect. They weren't unfazed...they were put out of business.

I first got to Japan in '92, long before Starbucks arrived. And all there was back then were these same über-smoky cafes that had no more than three brews, all bad, and all 900yen+. Then Starbucks showed up. A few years later, you could get a cappuccino (not great one, mind you) even in family restaurants. New copy-chains sprung up that embraced the basic reason for Starbucks' success -- more options, faster service, (relatively) cheaper prices, a brighter atmosphere, and appealing to a wider audience with the foofy blended drinks. They all did well.

Meanwhile, the mom and pop coffee shops stuck to their guns that their way was better. It was always on the news about how they were losing customers. And within a few years, they were gone.

I respect this old coffee shop owner for his dedication to his life's work. I'm sure he makes a great cup of coffee. But he's one of the very few who has survived not only Starbucks, but the change in the demands of coffee consumers. But writing that traditional cafes remain unfazed is just so off base, it's ridiculous.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

I like to sit outside and drink McDonald's coffee when in tokyo

0 ( +0 / -0 )

actually never quote understood starbucks, the coffee is not that great, very strong, different from store bought or the junk in convenience stores - but not great. biggest pull is wifi

if you are putting it all to the ability to have smoke free to non- smoke free- i am unsure if that is the pull either, it still remains atmosphere and coffee.

one is a global leader for those who only had bad coffee before has much more money that the mom and pop stores, they have a single plan. I am unsure if the Trendy Starbucks will be able to pull it off and be the sole KING of COFFEE once the trend passes away

0 ( +1 / -1 )

“Here you can relax, take your time,” she said. “The young people who go to Starbucks and the like can’t because they’re on their computers and cell phones.”

lol, I didn't know Starbucks forced you to use a computer or cell phone.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

BurakuminDesNOV. 12, 2014 - 09:14AM JST Sorry Mr.Sekiguchi - I promise you I would not find your coffee tasty with all those nasty pipe and cigarette fumes being forced into my respiratory system!

Actually you are not forced into anything. Simply do not grace his establishment with your custom if you dislike tobacco smoke.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Ive often wondered what the kitchens of these places look like if you pull out the equipment etc. Does Japan even have an inspector for resturants etc? You can look up at the diffusors and see years of smut buid up. Japanese only do heavy cleaning during shogatsu otherwise its just let the nasty build and build. Ive seen rats scurry out of garbage bins near some of these small ramen shops etc. If you want to trade cozy for clean to each his own

-5 ( +0 / -5 )

I first got to Japan in '92, long before Starbucks arrived. And all there was back then were these same über-smoky cafes that had no more than three brews, all bad, and all 900yen+.

Like wipeout says, total rubbish.

In the late 1960s and early 70s kissaten with coffee, tea, cocoa, fresh juice drinks on the menu charged 400 yen for a cup of coffee, a well brewed coffee in a syphon filter. Tasty coffee. For people with a bit of cash to spare. And then the word got around that was more expensive than people in Europe or the US paid for a cup of coffee. True, But the difference in taste and environment was not factured in. Maybe Doutor was the first outlet that changed the rules of bringing coffee to the people. Their coffee was cheap, bland and readily available, in a bland, cheap and noisy environment. Also spiced with tobacco smoke like in many of the ancient kissaten. But in many kissaten of the earlier periods the people who paid 400 yen or more in an era where incomes did not afford luxuries like drinking expensive coffee the clientele did not smoke as they liked the taste and smell of the pure coffee not diluted by the smell of burning tobacco. And in those days, even if they were smokers, they respected the other customers who did not.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Starbuck$, a lovely business driven by marketing. $moking, a disgusting business driven by addiction. Two points: Starbuck$ has some of the worst coffee and cigarettes destroy the ability to taste anything but cigarettes.

The exquisite complexity of fine coffee is not enhanced by tobacco. However, and this point has been made before, your choice, that does me no harm, is your unique pleasure and should be your contented right to enjoy. Whiskey burns and Bourbon is beautiful and to each his own and to every taste its time.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

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