Monday, July 6, 2015

Favorite Places and Spaces: Kyoto Cafés

Cha Cha Café near Kyoto station
Coffee was one of those things I learned to like after moving to Japan. I thought it was all very silly in college, I mean if you're saying "I can't start my day without coffeeeee!" you have a problem and it's not cute, I thought. And I decided I'd always be a tea-person.

Things changed in Japan. Japanese love tea and do drink a lot of it, in place of water or soft drinks, but they also love coffee. And I don't mean in the way a college girl in Ugg boots loves the sugary syrupy concoctions from Starbucks. A lot of people here drink it black! 
It started for me as an exchange student in the church I attended at the time, when after the service they'd bring out coffee. It was instant, it was grainy, and it was black (well, I could have added ancient sugar from a sticky jar, or powdered cream, the funnily-named Creap brand). I thought I shouldn't refuse so I always drank it just as it was. Then I started ordering it for myself when I went to cafés with friends--and enjoyed it! My husband, a coffee aficionado, continues to guide me in the art of drinking coffee, and now we use our coffee maker every morning without fail.

One of my favorite things about Kyoto is the abundance of cafés. I'm not talking chains either, though there are plenty of those. The privately-owned, little specialty cafés are amazing. I've never been disappointed in terms of either atmosphere, food, or coffee quality. I think some tourists skip the café experience because "you can drink a cup of coffee anywhere!" and they want a very Japanese, Kyoto experience when they come here, so they avoid anything that looks too modern or Western. However the kissaten café culture is a Japanese tradition, and the café food (often fusion/modern takes on Japanese, French, or Indian cuisine) is in my opinion the best thing you will find to eat in Kyoto, unless tsukemono (Kyoto-style pickled veggies) are really your thing. Many cafés are actually repurposed machiya, old Kyoto-style houses famous in this area. Do not miss this particular cafe that was once a sento (public bath house). It was hard to choose three favorite cafés to introduce to the reader of this blog, but I chose three to represent those three things I look for in a café: atmosphere, food, and delicious coffee. You can expect to spend about $3-$6 for a cup of coffee in these kinds of places, but this is the good stuff!

Atmosphere: Cafe Independants 

 Located near the busy Sanjo and Shijo shopping areas, this café is literally underground, down a narrow staircase plastered with strange posters for live music events. The floor is covered in tiles and the walls with old brick and here and there a draped cloth or flag. It's dimly lit but the vibe is youthful and casual. The hand-made ginger ale I had there one time (served in a mason jar!) was amazing. The coffee is also great but I recommend this café anytime you start feeling too mainstream, or constricted by uptight Japanese society, or need a place to gather your companions and plot a student revolution.

Food: Prinz 

Prinz is a little out of the way transportation-wise in the middle of Sakyo Ward (upper right corner of Kyoto city), but husband lived nearby before we were married, so we used to go there every once in a while. Just last month we wined and dined out-of-town relatives of Yuya's there and it was a hit! The atmosphere is whimsical and there's random things like an art gallery, library, and hotel to explore but it's the FOOD that makes this place unforgettable. They use seasonal local ingredients and a blending of French and Japanese cuisine for one-of-a-kind, amazing homemade dishes. The meat (chicken and beef) I've had there was so good I thought I'd gone to heaven. It's also quite affordable (especially at lunchtime) and the Japanese attention to detail and presentation make you feel like royalty. But all in a very casual, artistic atmosphere. The owner is apparently a graduate of the local art school in the area and it shows, in both the decor and the creative food. 

Coffee: Hiiduru Cafe (no website apparently, but here's a map)

This place is cute and relatively new, run by a young married couple. It's getting good reviews on Japanese sites for its pancakes (eating sweet pancakes at cafés is a trend these days in Japan!) but we go there for the coffee. You can choose different roasts and blends from different countries, each listed in the menu with a description of the flavors, degree of bitterness, aromas, and after-tastes. It's like choosing a wine! The beans are ground fresh and brewed right there behind the counter, so it takes a little time for your cuppa to be ready, but it's so worth the wait! You can also enjoy the sounds and smells that go into good coffee-making. It's best black in my opinion but it does hold its own even with the addition of cream. 

So there are three cafés I'm confident no one visiting Kyoto would be disappointed in. I didn't even get into the Gion area kissaten, where you can find very pricey green tea parfaits and traditional sweets that look like works of art, as well as coffee. Those are worth exploring at least once. There is also a another component to coffee fanaticism here in Japan that I have to at least mention and that's latte art, the art of creating designs in the milky foam on top of a latte. There are many popular places here to try that, including one that will create a geisha's face in your Joe, but we've yet to get into it, since we are the kind of folks who like our coffee black as sin! Anyway, the cafés are one of the reasons I love living in Kyoto. There's always something good brewing around here! 

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