Retro cool: Kyoto’s kissaten cafes offer the ultimate time warp

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Kyoto's classic "kissaten" coffee houses date back to pre-WWII

Nostalgia features strongly in the DNA of kissatens, most of which feature retro designs

CNN  — 

For centuries Kyoto has been a tea town, its dominance reaching an apex in the austere and highly ritualized tea ceremony.

But, for the past century at least, Kyoto has also been a coffee town.

Kissatens – faux European-style coffee houses – are the birthplace of Kyoto’s thriving cafe culture.

Fortunately, in a town that preserves traditions, it’s possible to find kissatens (pronounced key-sa-ten) dating back prior to World War II, evoking a time before cafes were synonymous with free Wi-Fi and baristas.

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The classic kissaten is retro in design: mirrors, dark paneling and elaborate light fixtures and replica paintings from the European masters.

The mid-century furniture has a charming miniature quality to it – often it feels like a few inches have been shaved off the legs of the sofas and chairs.

The long-established kissatens nearly always play classical music – more often than not German – while younger kissatens might have jazz, blues or Japanese ballads from the 1970s.

Others just leave the TV rolling all day.

More often than not two aromas dominate – cigarette smoke and roasted coffee.

Nearly every table in a kissaten has an ashtray and some cafes such as Rokuyosha (Kawaramachi-dori Sanjo-sagaru +81 (0)75 221 3820), Tobira (Sanjo-dori Bojo, Higashiiru, +81 (0)75 841 4620) and Uzura (104-3 Nishinokyo, Nakagyo-ku,+81 (0)75 200 5534) offer their own branded match boxes.

At Togenkyo in the north part of the city, the tables even have a little stand for a retro lighter.

Presiding over the kissaten is a master, usually outfitted in a white shirt, sometimes with a bow tie.

“It’s a type of cosplay,” says Kyoto-based writer and editor Mikako Sawada, only half jokingly.

The house blend at Uzaru. No foam art here.

Kyoto’s classic kissatens

We’re seated just inside the door of Salon de The Francois (184 Sendomachi, Shijo-kudaru, +81 (0)75 351 4042), opened in 1934, sipping on the house specialty: an expensive frothy creamy coffee.

Notably, in October this local icon broke rank: for the first time in its 82-year history it’s gone smoke free.

On a far-off wall there’s a reprint of Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring.”

The waiting staff, all young women, wear long, dark and green one-piece gowns.

Standard kissaten fare: Crust-free sandwiches.

Ignore the smartphones and it could well be the 1930s.

A little farther north in Inoda (69 Masuyacho, Sanjo-dori, +81 (0)75 223 0171) one of Kyoto’s oldest chains of coffee houses, the staff are dressed in impeccable white jackets with matching hats and black bow ties.

The best seats here are at the smoky circular coffee bar at the back of the cafe. Inside the bar a team of master brewers tend to enamel jugs, filling them with boiling water.

Across town in Tea House Tobira, the elderly reticent master is attired in a crisp white shirt, black pants and bow tie.

He stands in more or less the same spot all day, shuffling about only when he has to take an order and ferry food and drink.

My plate of crustless sandwiches – ham, cucumber and Japanese omelette – arrives with a bright red cherry planted in the middle.

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A meeting place for friends, family

Sawada says the kissaten was originally a place to smoke and drink tea.

Most kissatens still offer tea as well as classic dishes like crustless sandwiches, thick slices of buttered toast, Japanese-style curry, spaghetti, omurice (Japanese omelette rice) and pudding.

But coffee – and a cigarette – became the mainstay of the kissaten in the period after World War II.

“It’s the quirky, eclectic nature of Kyoto’s old kissatens, and their individuality, that makes them interesting,” says Eric Johnston, a Japan Times reporter based in neighboring Osaka.

Johnston notes that the kissaten serves two functions.

First, they’re neighborhood institutions that act as a meeting place for friends and family.

“Second, traditionally, business people met in kissatens rather than office buildings to meet customers and conduct business, and some older kissatens are still used for this purpose.”

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Dara Han, who writes about Kyoto’s cafes and restaurants on cafe blog Hitori Kyoto, adds that the kissaten functions a lot like a neighborhood bar.

“Sometimes a kissaten is a home away from home, where you go to be alone but don’t feel alone,” says Han.

Not just a cafe

The distinction between a kissaten and a cafe is one that most people living in Japan understand instinctively.

But explaining it… well, that’s a little trickier.

Sawada says kissatens are a portal to the Showa period, covering the 1926-1989 reign of Emporer Hirohito.

Their enduring appeal is that they transport us back in time.

Han says that nostalgia features strongly in the DNA of a kissaten.

“They have preserved the ambiance of European tea culture by stylizing it as only the Japanese can while serving nostalgic meals and drinks in an atmosphere just as nostalgic,” he says.

Yozo Otsuki, an entrepreneur from Kyoto, opened Kurasu (552 Higashiaburanokoji-cho, Shimogyo-ku +81 (0)75 744 0804), a specialty coffee shop close to Kyoto Station, earlier this year.

He says there’s a continuity between the kissatens run by “masters” and specialty – or third wave – coffee shops.

Common to both he says is an earnestness to making coffee, dedication to service and attention to detail.

“The masters take coffee as an art form,” says Kurasu.

Many use the siphon technique, a theatrical method of brewing coffee that dates back to the 1830s.

Water and coffee grounds are mixed together and heated over a flame. The ‘vacuum’ effect produces a delicate coffee.

Each step involved in the process of making coffee, from cracking the beans to boiling the water, has a meaning.

Given how entrenched coffee culture has become in Kyoto, it wouldn’t be surprising to see it get its own version of the tea ceremony.

One thing’s for sure: a kissaten “coffee ceremony” would be as quirky and eccentric as the cafes themselves.