In Japan, the preparation of tea has become a rite, a ceremony in which the ritual is more important than the tea. But visitors to Japan, given a cup of tea in every office and every home they visit, may notice that little attention is usually paid to the actual flavor. Even expensive tea is carelessly stored and brewed with foul-tasting tap water poured while nearly boiling over the delicate green leaves, ensuring a bitter cup.
Coffee in Japan is a different story. Like baseball, the coffee shop has become a completely Japanese institution since the first one opened in Tokyo in 1888. You can feel sure of finding a pretty good cup of coffee--freshly brewed, strong and fragrant--in almost any establishment big enough to have a single coffee shop. Self-styled “coffee specialty shops” ( kohii senmonten ) brew each cup to order and most sell beans as well.
Grinding the beans, choosing the brewing method, heating and cooling the water to just the right temperature, scalding the cup, brewing the coffee with the greatest of care and setting the steaming cup--handle to the left, the spoon placed just so to the right of the saucer--are all part of the ritual. Siphon, flannel bag or paper filter are probably the most popular brewing methods. Therefore, for me to say that one coffee shop makes the best coffee in Japan, or even in Tokyo, is saying a lot.
For the past 15 years, I have dedicated myself to searching for the best coffee in every town I’ve visited, from Naha in Okinawa to Sapporo in Hokkaido, and I have drunk many excellent cups of coffee. But it wasn’t until my first visit to L’Ambre in 1991 that I found extraordinary coffee.
To get there, I had to pass under the overhead tracks of the Yamanote line at Shinbashi station, along one of the Ginza’s narrow willow-lined streets, past Hakuhinkan (a large toy store) and around a corner behind tenkuni, a famous tempura restaurant. In a narrower, nondescript street of small businesses and stores, the shop’s sign stood out in English; amber-orange, a bold claim to perfection:
Inside, L’Ambre’s decor is undistinguished: dark wood-paneled walls, linoleum floors, a curved wooden counter with the varnish worn away in places, a few small tables with built-in ashtrays. Comfortable and dim.
At four in the afternoon, all the customers are men, most in gray suits and white shirts. “Well, what should we have today?” one asks another in Japanese, as if discussing the choice of a prize brandy. Red pots for boiling water and a large red coffee grinder are the only touches of color.
Behind the counter, an old ice box--here since L’Ambre’s founding in 1948--holds a large block of ice (replaced every three days). The young man behind the counter, Fujihiko Hayashi, places a cocktail shaker filled with brewed coffee into a round groove worn into the ice, spins the shaker until the coffee is chilled, and deftly pours it out into a champagne glass. On top he floats a layer of evaporated milk. “We don’t use heavy cream here,” he explains, based upon his 13 years’ experience at L’Ambre. “It overwhelms the flavor of the coffee.” And of course, they don’t stoop to the unpleasant-tasting, non-dairy creamer found in many coffee shops.
L’Ambre takes pride in serving nothing but coffee--no tomato juice or Lipton’s tea here. Reading the coffee menu (in both Japanese and English) requires the dedication of a wine expert. The “creative coffees” include specialties to entice the dilettante, such as coffee with egg yolk, coffee liqueur sherbet, black iced coffee with Cointreau, coffee pudding and “iceless iced coffee,” which turns out to be chilled coffee poured over ice cubes made of frozen coffee so that when they melt, the coffee is not diluted. But serious coffee drinkers will turn their attention to the other side of the menu, where the straight (unblended) coffees are grouped according to price. These can be ordered in cups of 50 cubic centimeters (1.69 ounces, about $6-$9) or 100 cubic centimeters (3.38 ounces, about $7.50-$11) of thin white porcelain.
An Air France captain who had come to the shop a few times commented, “You can’t drink coffee like this in France now. It tastes like the coffee my grand mother made for me when I was a child.”
What is the secret of L’Ambre’s coffee?
The quality of the beans, for one thing. Poor quality beans will never become wonderful coffee. Of course, each cup is brewed to order at L’Ambre (the name comes from the deep amber color of coffee, rendered in French because the coffee is French style, brewed strong and of darker roast than would be commonly served in American restaurants).
Hayashi gives his full concentration to the process. First he weighs out the beans on a small brass scale. He pours hot water into the porcelain cup to scald it. Then he grinds the coffee (rather coarsely) and transfers it to a cotton flannel bag (fuzzy side out) fitted to a handle. Using a one-cup-size stainless-steel pot to catch the coffee, he pours not-quite-boiling water slowly, in a circular motion, over the grounds
“If you let the flannel bag dry out,” explains Hayashi, “the coffee oils clinging to the cloth, even after washing it, will oxidize and leave an unpleasant aftertaste. So we rinse them and keep them soaking in cold water, then wring them out in a spin dryer just before using them.” He quickly empties the hot water out of the shell-like, handle-less coffee cup, carefully wipes it dry, fills it with coffee and sets it in front of his customer. Proprietor Ichiro Sekiguchi now spends most of his days sitting in a snug alcove next to the coffee-roasting room, a scarlet tartan blanket over his knees, wedged in by stacks of magazines. He’s happy to talk about aged beans, which aren’t much appreciated nowadays.
Sekiguchi himself came to understand the value of such beans through circumstances that arose during World War II. “Early in the war, Germans who were very keen on good, strong coffee demanded the best quality beans and imported large quantities from Indonesia. The Germans came in war ships to Indonesia and carried it back through the Suez Canal.” But this route was too long and difficult, so they began to have it shipped from Indonesia to Japan, where they would store it and then transport it to Germany on the Siberian Railway. With the onset of war between Germany and the Soviet Union, Sekiguchi explained, “their coffee supply was cut off.
“So the stock of coffee piled up in Japan, kept in a warehouse in Maebashi that had once been used for raising silkworms. The conditions were perfect for aging coffee--cool and dry.” Then Germany lost the war and could not claim the coffee that had kept for years in the silkworms’ warehouse in Maebashi, northwest of Tokyo.
“The coffee itself was very fine coffee, and had been aged a long time before it was sold. That was really delicious. When I understood how good it was, I got the idea to stock and age fine coffees.” Sekiguchi opened L’Ambre from the ashes of defeat, only three years after the end of the war. Now, Sekiguchi’s aged coffees are allowed to mature a minimum of 14 years and as long as 19.
L’Ambre also sells roasted beans at about $6.50-$8.50 per 100 grams (.22 pounds). The beans should be stored, in whole bean form, in a dry place in an airtight container for up to one month, and ground just before use. As a result of tests he has conducted, Sekiguchi insists that there is no point in freezing or refrigerating them.
There are rumors that Japan has a monopoly on all the world’s best coffee, but Sekiguchi says this is not so. He shows me a chart of several years of statistics, listing quantities of coffee imported into Japan and other countries, and the total value of these quantities.
“If you look at the figures, you can see that on the whole the coffee Japan buys is cheap--poor quality,” Sekiguchi said. “But when coffee sales are negotiated, the producing countries demand that Japan buy some high-quality coffee along with lots of cheap, so that these countries won’t get a reputation for producing only poor-quality coffee. This fine coffee is very expensive, but coffee merchants know about my interest in good coffee and bring it to me.” Sekiguchi has about five metric tons of excellent coffee beans stocked up and waiting to become superb.
Sampling Java in Japan
Where to drink coffee: Cafe de l’Ambre (English is spoken and there is a menu in English). Ginza 8-10-15, Chuo-ku Tokyo (in Tokyo, telephone 3571-1551). Open Monday to Saturday, noon-10 p.m.; closed Sunday and holidays.
The author has so far found no other coffee shops that stock aged beans, but can recommend the following for carefully brewed coffees: In Tokyo--Ri Haku (English not spoken but has menu in English), Kanda Jinbocho 2-24, Chiyoda-ku (tel. 3264-6292), open daily except Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. In Kyoto--for ambience, decor and a sense of tradition, as well as for quality of coffee: Decoy (formerly Hanafusa; English not spoken but has menu in English), Teramachi Nijo-agaru, Higashi-gawa, Nakagyo-ku (in Kyoto, tel. 222-1580), open daily except Sunday, 7 a.m.-5 p.m.; Tsukiji (English not spoken but has menu in English), Kawaramachi Shijo-agaru, Hitosujime Higashi-iru, Nakagyo-ku (tel. 221-1053), open daily, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Daikichi (behind Kyoto City Hall; English not spoken and does not have menu in English), Teramachi Nijo-agaru, Nakagyo-ku, (tel. 231-2460), open daily except Monday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m.