Kissaten: Japanese Cafés, Past and Present


Kissaten, cafe, Japanese cafe, Tokyo, Japan, NYC, Japan Society, Merry White

Kissaten: Japanese Cafés, Past and Present

Thursday, May 21 at 6:30 p.m.

Japan Society – 333 E. 47th Street (between First and Second Avenues)

Tickets: $16/$12 Japan Society members, students, and seniors

For nearly 150 years, kissaten, Japan’s inimitable coffee houses, have been remixing the experience of Western cafés. Of the estimated 80,000 kissaten in Japan, no two are quite alike. “Each kissaten is a one-of-a-kind place not easily imitated, nor easily transferred to another culture,” says CNN Travel. Discussing kissaten cuisine, The New York Times writes “European or American dishes were imported and, in true Japanese fashion, shaped and reshaped to fit local tastes…these dishes may make [one feel] that they have wandered into a parallel culinary universe.”

In Kissaten: Japanese Cafés, Past & Present, Boston University Professor Merry White, author of Coffee Life in Japan, discusses the history of the kissaten and trends in the types of food and drinks traditionally served. Followed by a tasting reception, the event will feature Western-influenced Japanese food typically found at kissaten, such as katsusando (pork cutlet sandwich with a sweet and savory sauce), naporitan (spaghetti with ketchup, stir fried onions, ham and puréed tomato), and a strawberry shortcake which is much lighter and less sweet than its American cousin, but with a richer, more complex flavor. According to Pogogi, “Yoshoku began in the Meiji era [1868-1912] in Western-style restaurants that catered to foreigners.” Because Western ingredients were rare, cooks used what they had and adapted the recipes for Japanese tastes.

Writing about kissaten for The Boston Globe, White notes that the art of kissaten is considered a serious craft in Japan, where coffee masters seek to create the perfect cup of coffee from two methods of either pour-over or siphon. Each kissaten is different with a unique charm expressed through the menu, music selection, artwork, and other unique flourishes. Often kissaten will go against popular trends to maintain its identity; for example, many enforce a no Wi-Fi policy. “In a society where personal space is a luxury, being alone in a public place allows for a welcome moment of urban anonymity,” writes White.

The New York Times “T” Magazine traveled to Tokyo for the kissaten experience and to understand how the kissaten grew and evolved after the Dutch introduced coffee to Japan 400 hundred years ago. Tokyo’s first kissaten opened in 1888, and by the 1960s it was estimated that some 160,000 were in business. Though Japan is one of the world’s top importers of coffee, the article notes “a kissaten is more about the experience than what’s in the cup.”

For more information and to purchase tickets, please visit Japan Society’s website.