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What a grind!

What a grind: a guide to Tokyo' best coffee shops

In search of the elusive perfect cup, caffeine addict Richard Eaton takes on Tokyo's cafes for a day.



5am Up at the crack of dawn to line my stomach. Consume vast quantities of cereal and milk, but decide to give All Bran a miss.

6am Stumble out the door, haul myself onto a bicycle and wobble in the direction of Takadanobaba. Break up the journey with a pit stop at DENNY'S. Two things going for this place: it's open twenty-four hours, and it's home to that elusive creature, the bottomless coffee cup. Feel compelled to get my money's worth, and undermine Corporate America in the process, so scoff down three refills. According to the menu, what I'm drinking has been freshly brewed in the last thirty minutes. Shame it's freshly-brewed black water.

7:30am Back on my bike. Now I'm buzzing.


8am Arrive in Takadanobaba just as RENOIR opens. This is the king of Tokyo cafes, with over 100 branches dotted around town, but my fellow customers seem to have come here despite, not because of, the coffee. The salarymen are camped out at their tables, and look like they'll suck the hand towels dry before they order a second drink. Waitresses bring round complimentary green tea, to wash away the taste of the coffee, presumably. This is true kissaten country, and it's strangely attractive: the plush green chairs, potted plants, pungently cheesy lighting-it's lounge lizard heaven! As Muzak trickles from the speakers and the blend coffee (JY490) kicks in, I cha-cha-cha my way out the door.

9am Perfection's proving elusive, and Shinjuku wouldn't be the obvious place to find it. But the next contender is at least an independent establishment: CHIARO, at the end of the Southern Terrace (3374-5066, 8am-10pm; JY600 for the first 90 minutes). Chiaro imports its beans from Seattle, but the staff is homegrown. Irasshaimase! howls the girl behind the counter as I enter. Consider making a run for it, but realize this place has potential-the music is funky, the big windows lend it a real sense of space and, geographically, it's as far from Shinjuku as you can be without actually leaving the place. So, plump for a caramel-flavored caffe latte (JY330). Tastes remarkably like caffe latte-flavored caramel, but what the hell, I'm not desperately in need of a caffeine boost right now.

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10am Walk back down Southern Terrace. Heads turn in my direction-I seem to be moving like Kramer. Need something to take my mind off the coffee... a manga-kissa perhaps. YOMU-YOMU, next to Kinokuniya in the Metro Promenade (exit B6), is one of the best in town (3352-6065, 9am-10pm, JY600 for the first 90 minutes). It's clean, well lit, and has enough Japanese comics and magazines to make a spoilt child whine with envy. With JY600 coffee pumping through my veins, the kanji become a bit of a blur, but I manage to gawp at photos of female tarento. Try not to dribble.

11am Not even sniffed a really good coffee yet, so silly-walk my way to the Keio New line and get off one stop later at Hatsudai. Apparently DOLCE VITA (5353-0325, 11am-10pm), the cafe-bar-restaurant on the second floor of Tokyo Opera City, can make a good cuppa. Dubious-sounding pop music is playing inside, so sit on "the terrace," a slab of pavement capped by a high glass roof. Opt for the latte machiato (JY500 at the table, JY450 at the counter). When the waitress brings a cup of milk, I wonder what effect this caffeine is having on me. Breathe a sigh of relief, though, as she whips out a jug and tips in some coffee. We both watch as espresso drifts down inside the glass and settles below the milk; I feel obliged to applaud. But the drink itself gets a standing ovation. The latte is long and smooth, perfect for those who prefer coffee as a drink rather than a lethal injection. Instantly try and reserve a table for one day next summer. Get bombarded with reams of polite Japanese which I concisely translate as "no." Still, I'll be back, oh yes...

12pm Return to Shinjuku, buoyed with renewed optimism. Chiaro: good location. Dolce Vita: good coffee. Now, how about good music? A Chuo train later, find myself in Nakano. March confidently out the North Exit, left just after a McDonalds, and see a katakana sign, Kurashikku, a.k.a. the coffee shop CLASSIC (3387-0571, 12-9pm, closed Mon.). Step through the door and into a different world, a world of dark wood, creaking floorboards and wonky tables. It's a gothic, David Lynch-esque take on a country pub, and the soundtrack is of course classical music, belted out on a dusty record player. The effect is like nothing else in Tokyo. Coffee's not up to much-tastes like it's been filtered through a pair of underpants, in fact-but the water's drinkable, so I sit back and conduct a concerto or two, exhilarated by a new hideaway.

1pm The caffeine's starting to vibrate in my stomach. Desperately search for the one coffee chain where everyone goes to eat (and not to drink): DOUTOR. Buy a sandwich and get a lungful of cigarette smoke, free! Cool.

1:30pm Time to meet a friend in Ginza; being a business type, he won't be seen anywhere but STARBUCKS. "It's the phenomenon of the year," he enthuses. I suck on a mocha frappuccino (grande size JY380) and nod in blissful, caffeine-fueled ignorance. Over thirty Starbucks have opened in Tokyo since 1996, and apparently each store rakes in JY100 million a year-three times more than your common or garden coffee shop. Suggest to my friend that "Mr. Starbucks" is in cahoots with that other Seattle behemoth, Microsoft, to try and take over the world. "Oh no," he tuts. "On the contrary, Starbucks has carved a unique niche for itself: its coffee is better than Doutor's, and cheaper than Renoir's." And boy, don't we know it. By the time I reach the counter, I've memorized the prices, plus the exact ingredients, of the cappuccino and caffe latte, thanks to the (ahem) "subliminal" advertising plastered all over the walls. Buy my friend a Starbucks T-shirt and take him to TULLYS (Harumi Dori, 3561-0135, 7:30am-11pm), which just happens to be Starbucks' chief rival in Seattle. Blame my irresponsible behavior on excessive caffeine consumption.

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3pm Brain's feeling like a shriveled old prune, but got to think of somewhere more original than this. Omotesando is where all the artistes congregate (well, all the hairdressers, anyway) so bundle myself onto the Ginza line.

3:30pm Scuttle out of 'Mote station, B2 exit; right at Muji-whatdoyoucallit, and down the road to LAS CHICAS (3407-6865; 10:30am-11pm). Yes yes yes, all right, so it's the best restaurant in Tokyo; but have you ever just reclined by the fire and savored the coffee? I "amble" through to the back room and try to perch myself on a plastic-covered barstool. Slide straight back off again, much to the amusement of the Trendy People. Skulk over to a sofa that looks strangely like a psychiatrist's couch, and comfort myself with a caffe latte in a bowl (JY700). This would be the most relaxing place in Tokyo, if I weren't shaking and twitching and blinking like a character from a Jack Kerouac novel. One of the waiters taps me on the shoulder. He states that the couch is solely for decorative purposes; any psychoanalysis I require must be conducted elsewhere. I stammer for the bill.

4:30pm Omotesando's swanky establishments whirl by in a caffeinated frenzy. There's CAFE DE FLORE (3406-8605; 10am-11:30pm), a Parisian replica complete with citron presse and Paris Match, where I'm escorted to a "cheap seat" on the strange indoor terrace and forced to stare at the backs of other customers' heads. The espresso's great, as far as I can tell, and the art deco interior so spacious that it induces a fit of agoraphobia. Run out screaming... Then comes PERBACCO! (5466-4666; 10am-11pm Sat and Sun, 10am-10:30pm weekdays), part of the same group as Cafe Aux Bacchanales, the place that gave us chocolat chaud or "the chocolate orgasm." Perbacco's Italian to a fault: soft chic lighting, faux-marble tables-the staff even say "por favore!" According to the menu, it's cheaper to drink at the "banco" than at the "tavolo," but from where I'm wobbling there doesn't seem to be any counter space, let alone counter seating. Plonk myself at a table and pay JY550 for a beautifully presented cappuccino, with a chunky, crusty head of milk. Sip that and gawp at the slabs of meat hanging behind the cash register. Am I hallucinating, or are they the remains of difficult customers? Far too Sicilian, so bolt for the door. Next comes CAFE DE ROPE (3406-6845, 11am-11pm, Mon to Sat, 11am- 10:30pm Sun and holidays), which after twenty-five years is the cool granddaddy of the coffee world. The queue is a bun fight, the coffee's pricey, but even I look hip in here. Maybe it's my bulging eyes and increasingly pallid skin, but everyone assumes I'm one of the cast of Trainspotting. Try to keep my trembles and spasms in time with the kickin' music...

6pm Forget ecstasy and all those other illicit substances-coffee's the trendiest thing on the streets of Omotesando, man. But where can I go to come down from this caffeine high? Wander dazed and confused down a side road opposite The Body Shop, and find just what I'm looking for. It's called TRANG CAFE (3478-2508, 11am-11pm): it's small, pokey, cluttered, it whiffs of curry, and it sells stuff called "cafe sua" and "cafe nong." In other words it's a perfect escape from the posing and posturing that surrounds it. Trang is a Vietnamese coffee house decked out in pink and green, and today it's full of young Japanese, who chat quietly to each other and chill out. I'm starting to calm down myself-until the earthy Vietnamese coffee fires me straight back up again. Time to make a decision: get my stomach pumped, or eat some more food...

7pm Haul myself past Laforet and HMV, up the stairs to BAGELS AND MORE (3479-0978, 9:30am-8:30pm). Half a dozen cinnamon raisin bagels don't help much. Conclude that this is some kind of hangover, which must be overcome with more of the black stuff. Duly order the Coffee of the Day (tall size JY250), and discover one of the best no-nonsense beverages in Tokyo. If you've been pining for coffee like they make it back home, then pine no more. But if you're struggling with a caffeine meltdown, get the hell out of there...

8pm Scramble up the hill to Harajuku, gurgling and spluttering like a dilapidated car. The freak show kids spot me outside the station, and invite me to join them. They cite my black tongue and bloodshot eyes as my most kawaii features. Oh dear.

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8:30pm Nearly there, nearly there... On the train to Shibuya, and a ninety-year old obaasan gets up and offers me her Silver Seat. A station assistant kindly informs me that I'm two months late for Halloween. I catch my reflection in the window; The Exorcist springs to mind.

9pm Lie on the floor of a taxi as it trundles from Hachiko, past 109, to SEGAFREDO ZANETTI (5459-6085, 8am-11pm). This is the new kid on the block, and I want to hate it-opening in time for my coffee crawl, the stinker-but I can't. The coffee's yasui and oishii:, the cappuccino (JY280) might be the best in Tokyo. Shame I have to have it intravenously...

10pm An ambulance takes me home-and I don't mean to my apartment. BEN'S CAFE (3202-2445; 11am-10pm), back in Takadanobaba, is the first foreign-owned coffee shop in Tokyo, but more than that, it's the first with a heart and soul. The eponymous Ben spent five years learning the ropes in New York. Now he and his equally affable wife Yoshiko have put that experience to very good use. The cafe is simply and cleverly designed, on open-plan lines; the music is loud enough to offer privacy, yet doesn't drown out any conversation. And the coffee...caffe lattes (JY380 to JY430) that rank as works of art. As buzzing as I am, I can still fit one more for the road...

 

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292: Multiplicity
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291: After a Fashion
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290: Used and Abused
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289: Microbrew - a mini guide
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287: Live and Learn
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286: Are you quaking?
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