American journalists liked to prove how shockingly expensive Tokyo was by quoting the cost of a steak dinner or a cup of coffee. In Tokyo in 1968, a cup of coffee cost a whopping $6.00 (U.S.$)!
Living there as a college student, I didn’t care about steak dinners, but I loved coffee at a Tokyo coffee house.
In 1968, there was a healthy coffee culture in Tokyo. You'd expect to see a plethora of tea shops. You know – tea, temples, and geishas. On the contrary, I found it challenging to find a tearoom on the city streets. Instead, I was so lucky to find that Tokyo sported the finest coffee shops and best coffee outside of Europe, perhaps the world. In the kissaten (tea/coffe shop).
After greeting me with an enthusiastic, "irasshaimase," the proprietor of the café handed me a menu of kōhi, a heavy tome listing coffees from Brazil, Kenya, Ethiopia, Costa Rica, Java, Guatemala, and lots of other exotic sounding places.
Holding my hot cup of Java blend, I sat at my table, and read Kawabata's Snow Country. "They emerged from the long border tunnel into the snow country. The night was carpeted with white." 国境の長いトンネルを抜けると雪国であった。夜の底が白くなった.
Living in a tiny apartment in Meguro-ku, the coffee shop was a place not only for solitude, but also a landing place between my university classes (上智大学), my intensive language classes (Naganuma School), and the many English conversation classes I taught. I didn't go home between classes, spending the day jumping from subway stop to subway stop, and class to class.
There were many coffee shops in the city and I could choose a coffee shop for its theme or its kind of music. In the Ginza I found a French style shop, dressed up in pink and white frills. I listened to French chanson, imagining I was in a romantic cafe on the Champs-Élysées. Jazz coffee shops were common. Some cafes had books or fine art hanging on the wall. Some were sophisticated, others were bohemian shacks.
Coffee is a very Japanese thing. It was brought to Japan by the Dutch in the 16th century – before American colonists protested tea and coffee taxes at the Boston Tea Party.
Those coffee houses were similar in many ways to today's local American gourmet coffee shops . Not cookie cutter, not like the pervasive Starbucks of the 21st century. They were more like our local coffee shops - General Porpoise in Seattle, Devoción in Brooklyn, or Spella Café in Portland. Still, Tokyo cafes were different. Better coffee. (Or, is that a memory of a youthful day?) Better service and, of course, no computers. Little noise other than the sound of jazz. Sometimes a café was just quiet. Quiet. A welcome and rare commodity in busy Tokyo.
Before 1971, the offering of gourmet coffee in an American cafe was pretty rare in the United States. In the States, coffee was made with old stove top coffee makers that served over-brewed Folgers.
If you are a fan of Haruki Murikami, you will be familiar with the coffee shops of the 60s and 70s. “I belonged to Tokyo and its coffee shops. But I had never felt this loneliness there. I could drink my coffee, read my book, pass the time of day without any special thought, all because I was part of the regular scenery. ” (Haruki Murakami – Dance Dance Dance)