What Makes a Good Cafe?

written and photographed by Lee Hanae Ung (岡山県)

In her first year as an ALT in Okayama Prefecture, Lee Hanae Ung has become a budding cafe connoisseur. Between organizing cafe nights with ALTs and locals and writing reviews for the Okayama AJET lifestyle blog, coffee has become her second job of sorts. Now, on the eve of the release of her current blog project profiling competitive Japanese baristas from around the country, she tries to put her love of the Japanese cafe experience into words.

My parents started their first business in their mid-twenties. As two poor kids growing up in Los Angeles, they had nothing to lose, and their entrepreneurial adventures paid off. By the time I was in high school, they were running the largest minority-owned graphic design agency in LA.

Early semi-retirement hasn’t taken the edge off my parents’ eccentricities either. My father has rigged an entire room in his house with flat screens that he uses to predict stock market trends by tracking minute visual patterns, and sometimes I still find the ceiling in my mother’s house temporarily streaked with black ink from a particularly impassioned session of Japanese calligraphy.

My childhood, as one might imagine, was atypical, and it could be (and has been) argued that I am somewhat unusual. But where am I going with this?

Since arriving in Japan, I have found myself drawn, almost compulsively, to the independent coffee shop culture here to the point where I’ve started getting questions, such as: What is it about cafes that you find so interesting? What makes a good cafe?

Free pour is a style of latte art where the design is formed by pouring only without any etching.
Free pour is a style of latte art where the design is formed by pouring only without any etching.

These are simple questions with complicated answers, but, for the sake of anyone who might benefit from this, I will try to answer.

In a country like Japan, where cultural norms make intimacy and forming relationships difficult, especially with foreigners, baristas are more willing than most to warm up to strangers. But why?

1. Coffee is inherently an internationalized product. Beans exported from major tropical centers around the world, including Indonesia, Africa, Hawaii, and South and Central America, are roasted in a number of regional styles and served to patrons all over the world. Coffee promotes interest in world cultures simply by existing.

2. Baristas and world travelers are both risk-takers. A cafe is a window into the mind of its creator–everything from the brewing equipment to the interior design chosen is an extension of the owner’s personality and philosophy. This requires a willingness to be open and vulnerable that many would shy away from.

What makes a good cafe is the relationship you want to have with it. Whether you want to sit in a corner and people watch or experience life like a local, cafes provide a myriad of possibilities for any traveler or foreign transplant–you just have to go out and look.


Junichi Yamaguchi's signature "ballerina" design.
Junichi Yamaguchi’s signature “ballerina” design.


Tokyo-based The Theatre Coffee's Junichi Yamaguchi with his signature pour, "the ballerina."
Tokyo-based The Theatre Coffee’s Junichi Yamaguchi with his signature pour, “the ballerina.”

To me, a good cafe makes Japan feel like home, despite the language and cultural barriers. The baristas and coffee shop owners that I have bonded with in Japan are kindred spirits. In a country of rigid expectations, the new generation of Japanese baristas are people who have rejected traditional social roles and shot themselves into the abyss. It’s a beautiful thing. 

In the same way that my parents experimented and evolved to perfect their craft, these men and women spend their days challenging their skills at coffee making. Their eccentricities comfort me in my times of homesickness, and being a part of their growing movement is an inspiring and enlightening experience.

In the next two months, I will be launching a site of my very own, The Naked Portafilter (www.thenakedportafilter.com) where I will showcase talented baristas from around the country in hopes of building a better connection between English-speaking coffee enthusiasts and this new generation of coffee makers. Have a look if you feel so inclined. I know my friends would be happy to meet you. ◆

Me and Kyoto-based Kiyomizu Kyoani's Kazunori Matsubara.
Me and Kyoto-based Kiyomizu Kyoani’s Kazunori Matsubara.
Kazunori Matsubara's rosetta.
Kazunori Matsubara’s rosetta.

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