Japan’s cultural hub, Kyoto, has long been regarded as the best place to experience the soothing art of the traditional tea ceremony and I’ll happily admit that I’m as loved up with matcha and wagashi (whisked green tea and Japanese confectionery) as the next Japanophile! But I also appreciate a good cup of coffee and a welcoming place to kick back and drink it in.
Over the last decade or so Kyoto has developed a cracking coffee culture with a brew that no longer tastes of tar and burning rubber. We are talking black gold people. The cafe spaces themselves are often situated in really cool old machiya (traditional shop houses) or converted public bathhouses, complete with traditional tiles and tap nozzles. From the bohemian to the super-streamlined – there is a long list of excellent cafes available to park your behind in – and they don’t mind you lingering with a good book or your laptop either!
Here are a few of my favourites:
Niti Cafe and Bar (above) A little gem tucked away in a Gion side street
Slap bang in the centre of town (in the Sanjo Arcade between Kawaramachi and Teramachi streets) you will find some of the finest coffee to be had in Kyoto town at Ogawa Cafe. (sadly no longer open but look for other Ogawa Cafes such as the one further east on Sanjo dori ( a bit old school) and another at Kyoto station.
Literally, a 1-minute walk, around the corner from (where) Ogawa (was) you will find Smart Coffee -above . I love the old school vibe more than the coffee to be honest – this is a real institution and I tend to avoid it when full, as it can get a little smoky. Food wise there is a limited offering on the ground floor – hotcakes, French toast and the like but duck up the stairs to the smoke free dining room for really tasty, simple yoshoku (Japanese interpretation of “western” food). Situated on the west side of Teramachi shopping arcade – just north of Sanjo arcade.
Just a few minute’s north of that in the same arcade but on the eastern side is one of a chain of coffee shops that sells decent coffee and light snacks The name is Ueshima (above) but it is written in Kanji. .Look for the words Precious Coffee Moments in English! It has a menu board out the front with images so keep an eye out for it – the bonus here is the inner courtyard Japanese garden. I’ve spent hours in a quiet corner listening to Jazz (on the old record player) while I gaze onto this private oasis.
Cafe Bibliotec Hello (above) is a seriously attractive café in a restored machiya. The smooth as silk, hand-chiseled wooden floors, book-lined walls, leafy palms and an outdoor area all add to a sense of welcome and relaxation. Good coffee – including some frou frou numbers (I’m a fan of the white chocolate mocha below) and a range of foods from interesting salads to a very good wagyu steak sandwich and excellent homemade cake selection. The café is only just north of the very centre of town – but just far enough away experience a sense of real calm. On Nijo dori (street) between Tomonikoji and Yanagibaba streets.
OK – so Salon de The au Grenier D’or (above) is more about the tea and amazing cakes and desserts but the coffee is pretty good too. The service is delightful, complete with polished silverware and napkins!
There’s a gorgeous little inner garden here too. Tres lovely. Take your mum.
On the eastern side of Sakaimachi dori – 2 minutes walk north of Nishikikoji dori.
Another top spot for excellent coffee , for either a quick throw-down there or packaged grinds to take away and make your own, is Unir on Gokomachi street below Oike street. They also do a cheap and tasty sandwich/coffee set at lunchtime. These guys really know their stuff. Very good brew – they also sell all the accoutrement for making the perfect drop – and if you don’t know how – they even run classes.
Grains De Vanille (above) – let’s face it – I go here for the cakes but the tea and coffee are very good too
If you find yourself in the Nishijin textile area – situated roughly halfway between the imperial palace and Kinkakuji (the Golden Pavillion) you will want to know about Sarasa Nishijin (one of several Sarasa cafes in Kyoto – photo above). This gorgeous old sento (bathhouse) serves a mix of laidback ska, reggae and jazz alongside decent coffee, cakes and cheesecake – try the spiced apple and walnut cake with their hot chocolate in winter. They do a really good lunch plate too and occasionally there’s live music in the evenings. Within a few metres, either side of the cafe, you will find some funky little artisans making everything from stunning papers to hand-woven “lace” earrings, from tiny blown glass bottles to earthy ceramics. Worth the side step if you have the time.
A little further afield
Gospel Coffee and Pubhouse (below)
If you are in the vicinity of Ginkakuji (silver pavillion) its worth taking a little wander around the corner to find this gem. On the 2nd floor of a European style building, which looks very much out of place in this neck of the woods, you will find this charming cafe – Gospel – serving simple but very tasty food and homemade cakes and tarts.
Situated on Shishigatani – the street that run’s parallel and just west of the Philosopher’s path or Tetsugaku no michi (which runs along the north/eastern edge of Kyoto city). If you are on Ginkakuji michi – turn south onto Shishigatani and its just a few minutes walk to the front door. On the West side of the street.
Petit Japonais (above) – a pocket sized cafe above a patisserie – stylish Scandi vibe
Efish (above)– is an open, modern café/design store on the river’s edge in the southern part of town. It is a little out of the way unless you are wandering between Kiyomizu temple and Kyoto station – but the food is light yet wholesome ‘westernised’ fare – in decent portions. Refreshing drinks. In the warmer weather the glass wall is opened up to let the breeze flow through –much appreciated in Kyoto town’s humid summer.
Café Cheka (above ) was my local for a while – I miss it so. A tiny, ethereal café located on the street that runs along the north wall of the zoo – and very close to the Heian Shrine. Seek it out if you are temple hopping in the Sakyo- ku area. Choose one of the stunning little cakes in the glass cabinet downstairs then head up to the second floor to order your coffee. The charming waitstaff will deliver your cake to your table as your coffee arrives. So civilised. Sit at the window bench and watch the world do its thing.
Kyoto nama chocolate teahouse and cafe (above) A cosy hideaway with housemade chocolates, tea, coffee and light meals
There are plenty of average cafes in Arashiyama’s tourist hub but a little off the main drag is a wonderfully light and breezy café called Sagano yu. Very stylish yet relaxing with French style bowls of coffee. Lunch is good value too and there’s a little homewares shopping to be had on the second floor.
PS- use google translate for the Japanese sites!
A few others below: