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Coffee, coffee everywhere but not a drop to drink

38 Comments
By Michelle

You can get coffee just about anywhere in Japan thanks to the millions (yes, millions) of vending machines littered around the country. "How convenient," you must be thinking. Yeah, if you like drinking awful coffee.

I’ve seen vending machines with two of the four rows dedicated to coffee in a can, but none of them are very good. Many of the ones that aren’t flavored with milk and sugar taste bitter and metallic.

You can also purchase coffee in cute little faux-paper coffee cups at the convenience store. Just stick a straw in the top and you’re on your way to “enjoying” a nice iced coffee beverage. That sounds great, except in reality, these drinks are only vaguely reminiscent of coffee and, frankly, suck.

If I need an afternoon pick-me-up while I’m at work, my only option is of the freeze dried, instant variety. Japan has perfected many things, but instant coffee is not one of them.

Starbucks, with its sickeningly sweet mochas America has come to know and…tolerate, is actually pretty good in Japan. Adapting to Japanese tastes, Starbucks Japan has toned down its use of sugar and syrups and churns out beverages that actually taste like coffee instead of a liquefied candy bar. The whipped cream isn’t even sweetened, but the caramel frappucinos still come topped with caramel syrup.

My husband Khoa and I visit a little coffee shop in Matsue, the capital of our prefecture, whenever we get a chance to get off of our island of Chibi. They brew a mean cup of joe, but you have to pay 450 yen for a tea cup of black coffee. Yikes! In the summer, we discovered a whole menu of fun cold drinks. Take a look at my coffee float. It’s just iced black coffee with a scoop of vanilla ice cream floating on top. It definitely takes the edge off of the summer heat.

Even in Chibu (current population 598), there are a handful of vending machines offering canned coffee 24/7. The general store shelves are lined with three varieties of instant coffee, but no coffee beans or fresh brewed coffee in sight. We have to cross an ocean for that. Coffee, coffee everywhere but not a drop to drink (that’s any decent).

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38 Comments
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Why not just buy good beans, brew yourself a pot and place it into a thermos to take along with you instead of spending it at Starbucks or the like. That is unless you like sitting at the coffee shops.

6 ( +7 / -1 )

Many of the ones that aren’t flavored with milk and sugar taste bitter

Coffee that tastes bitter ... who would have thought?

6 ( +6 / -0 )

I think Michelle wikll find that if you live on a remote island anywhere in the world, good coffee may not be easy to find. Try living in a proper city and plenty of place to get a good cup.

4 ( +6 / -2 )

I'll take a wild guess & bet there's a lot of things are difficult to procure on a small island. How about using that new-fangled Internet thing & order some beans? I live in Meguro with access to all sorts of decent java but I'd rather save money & brew a double espresso early with breakfast -hmm, benissimo!

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Oh, sweet Petunia . . . A coffee thread and the singularly baffling aficionados it brings out. The only thing more mind-numbing is a thread about anything produced by Apple Computers.

News flash: The vast majority of the coffee drinking world drinks it for the caffiene, and cares very little if the beans were hand picked and washed by virgins living in an isolated village in Bolivia where the coffee plants are tended in soil tilled only once every seven generations by the scions of some great ancestor or other. It's just coffee, folks.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

Never really understood the people who get so uptight about the vending machine coffee. Sure, it's not great, but it's not as terrible as people make it out to be. Maybe I've just been desensitized, since before I came to Japan, I worked for years in an office with really terrible coffee and learned how to swallow it down.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Yeah, if you like drinking awful coffee.

LOL. As somebody who drinks coffee for the EFFECT and not the TASTE, I'll happily chug down any caffeine filled swill so long as it's BLACK. I just hate it when it says BLACK but it's filled with SUGAR. Yuck.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Japan has perfected many things, but instant coffee is not one of them.

Didn't know anyone had perfected instant coffee. If it's instant, it's not coffee....

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Mos Burger do good coffee....

Then again, I'm English, so what would I know? ; )

2 ( +2 / -0 )

McD's has perfectly good coffee for only 100 yen, and sometimes between 6 and 9am it's FREE!

2 ( +2 / -0 )

May I suggest tea instead? It is plentiful and varied in Japan.

The British dropped coffee as the drink of choice about 300 years ago and took up tea drinking. At about the same time, Britain emerged as the world's preeminent power. That can hardly be a coincidence!

I did once have an absolutely incredible coffee shop near me in Japan. As well as having a varied coffee list, they sold about 20 types of coffee bean that they would roast for you on the spot and then grind and bag. Wonderful.

The shop closed down after about 6 months.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

gaijinfo - Surely the problem is that 'black coffee' (in English) tells us nothing about whether there is sugar in it. Japanese burakku ブラック has no sugar in it.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

She should buy a Nespresso machine and order capsules on the net. A quick, convenient way to have a nice espresso. Cheaper than Starbucks

1 ( +2 / -2 )

I live in Tokyo and it is still rare to find a GOOD cappuccino. Starbucks is often one of the better options, but almost all of the other cafes use automatic milk frothers which lack any sort of microfoam. Coming from Sydney, which has an incredible coffee culture, Japan was a bit of a shock.

Thankfully it has motivated me to improving my own techniques with my home espresso machine, so there is a silver lining to every cloud

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Another upvote for starbucks from me. The local independents are great until some salariman sits down next to you and starts puffing a foul cigarette.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Tully's, Dean & Deluca, Blenz, Ueshima (haters gonna hate), Hawaiian Breeze, Blue Mountain... I can go on. Convenience store black ones in a can that are decent (cold) - try a silky black.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Suddenly I'm happy to not be a coffee drinker. It seems like quite an ordeal to live in this country with the horrible coffee lurking around every turn for the unsuspecting mouth full of tastebuds. Hopefully there is a way this could be resolved...I heard that there is a thing called an "interweb" and people can put orders into it and then things magically appear at their doors after a sum of money is whisked away from their credit cards. Would that thing help out these pour souls?

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Just out of curiosity, why do people rag on Starbucks so much? Is it the actual coffee itself or the Mega Corp aspect of the business. There is no starbucks where I come from and coffee is esspresso Italian style and variations of that theme. But I can certainly say that Starbucks isn't a bad option in Japan because European style coffee houses are haaaard to find.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Coffee here is fine but the SMOKING inside is not fine at all. When is this going to change?

1 ( +2 / -1 )

And I do not mean a glass room for smokers with no danged door on it? What is up with that? I mean no smoking anywhere anytime inside.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Many gourmet coffee beans in high end supermarkets & department stores not to mention the internet. You can pre ground or fresh grind yourself. Nickel or ceramic filters for full flavour

1 ( +2 / -1 )

I once tried to substitute tea for coffee in the morning. My body just laughed and and then shut down except for the minimum movements necessary to make coffee.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

There are many many coffee shops (independently run) in Japan. You just need to know where to look. The only strike against these is that many use the tiny little creamers that may or may not be real cream...

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The best coffee I've had was in Kyoto at two different Ogawa locations. Outside of Vancouver, Seattle, most of Spain and Italy this was there with REAL coffee.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Spare me from coffee snobs. I can't taste the difference between "their" coffee and Starbucks. Your coffee machine does not impress me and actually makes me think of you as weak minded.

Instant from a thermos outdoors is nice.

0 ( +4 / -4 )

As a former Seattle-lite I am a bit of a coffee expert. Nearly everyone there is, afterall, it is the one thing keeping the entire place running during the 9 months of dreary wet weather.

And yes, we did unleash Starbucks on the world, apologies all round.

That said, most self respecting Seattle denizens have their own special coffee stand or cafe that is locally run where they know they can get a perfect coffee. And I really do mean perfect.

I gave up caffeine years ago but still love a good coffee. My complaint for Japan is that the only decaf I can get here would burn holes in rubber. Starbucks takes 10-15mins for a decaf order plain coffee and the result is something akin to the same kind of acid used in "Breaking Bad" to disolve bodies.

There is one passable instant decaf available in Japan that tastes more or less like coffee. But beyond that Tokyo, at least, is a desert as dry as the Sahara if your water is a good cup of coffee.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

The best coffee I've had in Japan was at the Illy Espressamente shop in Tenjin, Fukuoka. There are also some good smaller individual shops I stumbled across, but it can be difficult at times to find a good cup of coffee if you are a tourist and don't know where to look.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I use instant Vietnamese coffee better than most normal coffee i drink in Japan.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Chibi? Chibu? Where does Michele live exactly? Enquiring minds want to know...

I bought a packet of the Starbucks instant coffee sticks for the first time the other day. They aren't so bad. I do love a good coffee, but I try not to be a snob about it. I do hate the watery weak stuff you get in most coffee shops though.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

SImple solution: buy beans, grind at home, make coffee, drink, save money.

That said one of the things I love about Europe (not the UK though) is that you can get decent coffee everywhere. Portugal was great, as you can get a espresso and custard egg tart for a couple of euros.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

MoS Burger? McD`s?

Good God...

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I think my avatar is particularly apt for this thread.

That's me supping fine espresso in a fine German coffee shop selling fine coffee beans.

You probably cannot notice my elevated little finger which indicates my elevated social class (笑)

0 ( +1 / -1 )

@LFRAgain

The vast majority of the coffee drinking world has access to coffee of a standard that the naysayers on this thread would call "gourmet". In coffee drinking countries I have visited (with the exception of the US), your bog standard cup of coffee from just about everywhere was far superior to anything Starbucks or the average shop in Japan or the UK have to offer. And no one there is holding their pinky fingers up in the air.

I don't think you can say or not whether these people drink if for the caffeine or flavour. It is just part of their culture.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Completely agree with Dennis Bauer on the Vietnamese instant coffee - that is what I call coffee with a great taste. Other, than that, there are only 2 good coffees on the market Illy and Lavazza (unfortunately, you gotta be lucky which batch you get lately with Lavazza). Starbucks coffee is what the French call 'jus de chausette' (sock juice). I nver had a good coffee here.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

@Tamarama In Australia at least, Starbucks is staffed by university students/kids who just want a part time job, and it's main attraction is an abundance of sickly sweet, cream-topped liquid desserts popular with the same age group as those serving them. The cuppaccino they make is not bad, if they get the froth right, but it is more expensive than what you can get at a local cafe (where it is served by a barista who makes it his life's passion to serve great coffee).

I'll drink Starbucks coffee if the girls in my group want to go there, but i prefer the consistency (and price) of a real cafe.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Nearly as bad as the coffee itself is chatting to a salaryman who has had too many that day.....yikes!

I agree that Starbucks is the best cup of coffee I find in Japan. Dotour and Exelsior are really average cups of coffee, and the vending machine cans are terrible.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Best coffee in Japan? At my house.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

The can stuff is like soda, what I term SLOW POISON, if yr drinking the canned crap with any frequency its BAD for you, if its only on occassion when nothing better is around & you need the shot, down it, but one shudnt be drinking that crap everyday, it is killing you, sloooooowly. You have bean(haha) warned!

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

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