I Hated Tokyo Until I Discovered Its Coffee Scene
Five years ago, I took a business trip from New York over to Amsterdam down to Madrid, back up to London, down again to Paris, over to Karachi, and back home via Abu Dhabi, Tokyo, and Los Angeles. I arrived in Tokyo as puffy as mid-career Alec Baldwin, irritable and ready to throw my cell phone at someone. I launched into a day of meetings with Japanese publishers: miso soup for breakfast, OK! Chicken sushi for lunch, right on. Snacks and whiskey—yes, please.
That night it felt as if someone pulled a ripcord on my parachute in a wind tunnel. I don’t recall exactly what happened, but I’m pretty sure there were tears. I do remember my colleagues looking at me as if my face were melting. I hated Japan. I never wanted to go there again.
When I arrived back home in New York, I described this situation to friends who frequently traveled. You’re doing this all wrong, every one of them told me. You have to sleep on the plane. You have to drink as little as possible—that came up a lot. Try not to figure out what time it was wherever you came from. Just adopt the local clock.
And finally, If you do something at home, do it where you arrive.
Aside from working from the moment I could make a sentence until the moment I couldn’t, my days had very few patterns. Sometimes I exercised; most of the time I didn’t. I grew up delivering newspapers, up at 4:45 a.m., done by 6, from age nine or ten until I was 18, and I took from this a strong desire to never do the same thing everyday at the same time ever again.
I did have a few habits, though. I read, at some point, for an hour or more every day. I watched some TV. I put on my galabea, the loose-fitting robe worn by men and women in the Middle East. My partner, who is from Lebanon, gave me one a dozen years ago, and I haven’t worn pajamas since. Yes, it looks like a dress—and that’s what she calls it, my dress—but I challenge you to put one on and crave something with buttons.
But most of all, whenever home, I'd get up and go to a cafe. I’ve done this every day of my life since I was 18. I emerge from sleep mid-sentence, and most people don’t. I take the edge off this desire for sociability by leaving the house and heading to a coffee shop. As I type this I’m at Luna Cafe on 29th Street in New York City. I’m drinking their extra-strong drip coffee, and people are sitting around me, having meetings, taking a break. The city is waking up, it’s warm. Everything is right in the world.
Travel ceased to be an ultra-marathon when I brought my habits with me. The galabea, the book, TV time, and coffee at breakfast. The cafe at breakfast was the most important thing. I haven’t been back to Muscat or Shanghai again, cites I ruined by stomping through them like I was in a competitive-eating contest, but I did return to Auckland last spring with the galabea, a book, running shoes—I added a habit, which has helped—and a map of coffee bars in tow. How had I missed what a beautiful city it was?
I needed a control city to test this theory, though, and this spring I received it. I was invited to attend the Tokyo Literature Festival, to which I said a big yes. In March, I boarded a plane back to Japan with suitcases full of Natuso Kirino and Haruki Murakami novels, my autumn-weight galabea—yes, I have dresses for all seasons—and a list of coffee bars that two friends recommended.
I arrived mid-afternoon, past coffee time, so I checked in to the hotel, went for a run, ate an early dinner, and conked out watching TV in my dress at 10 p.m.. Perfection. Eight hours later, I woke like a dog sprung from its pen at a race track. Too early for breakfast, so I went to the gym for another run. The treadmill computer that calculated caloric intake informed me via tiny pixelated icons of food that I’d just earned the right to eat a hamburger and french fries and six pieces of sushi.
At 7 a.m., I was aboard a train gliding across town toward Lattest, the first stop on my Tokyo coffee tour. I’d chosen Lattest based on its proximity to a restaurant which only serves pork cutlets. Nothing wiggled in my peripheral vision on the way there. The bright yellow metro train moved efficiently toward Ometesando and was packed with commuters so quiet it seemed we were playing some kind of silent game of Twister.
Lattest proved to be the best way to ease into Tokyo. I might have been in New York’s the NoMad. Brushed-steel countertops and prices in English, cement floors and distressed-wood tables, magazines cascading artfully across them. A guy with his laptop looked up every ten minutes with that writing-my-novel-in-public face.
I’m not a coffee snob. I drink a lot of it, from the dehydrated stuck-to-the-pot-cop-coffee brewed in my office to the silty Cafés Richard espresso served all over Paris to the pretentious stuff titrated out as if it is some rare victual by baristas in Brooklyn with chemistry degrees. I occasionally like a New York deli hazelnut coffee with milk and sugar.
The espresso I had at Lattest was extraordinary—the crema a rich chocolaty brown. As it cooled, thick brown foam melted into the shot like light dissolving into dark water. The espresso was strong and unfussy but smooth and without a hint of bitterness. I took out a book and read for a while as my partner finished her latte, which looked like art and tasted like sex.
And so the days went. No tears or meltdowns. Every day, we made sure to hit a cafe in the hours before shops and museums opened, before publishers were taking appointments. As a result, we crisscrossed Tokyo many times, venturing into neighborhoods we’d never seen, stumbling upon gardens and noodle shops and out-of-the-way galleries we didn't know were there. I didn’t know whose Tokyo I’d been visiting before, but I liked this one.
To top it off, I learned that Tokyo had been in the middle of a coffee craze for some time. Just as the Japanese had taken to jazz, baseball, whiskey, and the hamburger, suddenly small-batch brewed coffee inspired by Blue Bottle and other American outposts was all the rage.
The territory was spread far and wide, from the Tokyo branch of Oslo’s Fuglen coffee bar in Shibuya to Lo Spazio, an Italian transplant in the suburbs, to the Ebisu branch of Sarutaiahiko Coffee, where I ignored the evidence that I really ought to stick to lattes in Japan, and ordered a fairly pedestrian Rwandan drip coffee.
More than sunlight, more than eating food at the right times, drinking coffee at the same time every morning made me feel like a part of the city. Each morning had a routine: wake, run, then wrap myself around a stranger in the Tokyo metro and hang on until my partner and I were ejected into the sunlight to follow the Google Maps bread trail to a new cafe, where the day would begin to the rhythm of spent shot pucks being thunked out into a trash bin.
I found, to my surprise, it was possible to keep a habit and experience something different. One morning before an appointment, I wiled away 45 minutes at Kanda Coffee in Ebisu, one of the city’s oldest coffee shops, where businessmen sat in sober silence smoking and waiting for slow-pour cups that took as long as 15 minutes. As I sat there it occurred to me that the point of the cafe was that downshift in time, as much as it was the brew itself.
My favorite coffee shop—the one where I’d be right now if I weren’t at Luna—was Turret Coffee, which is nestled down a side street near the Sumida River. I found it by spying a sign that said, “Welcome to the Most Outrageous Coffee Shop in Japan.” The shop itself might have been 175 square feet. Rain fell outside, lending the shop a feel of an urban crow’s nest. People walked by clutching dark umbrellas. The city was up and heading to work. A barista stood behind a machine with exposed boiler and grouphead, ready for an order.
John Freeman is the editor of Freeman’s, a literary biannual, the first issue of which is themed to arrival.