As I’ve written before, I discovered coffee at university and my tastes evolved from gussied up dessert/coffee combinations to pretty much main-lining espresso doppios. I am quite willing to admit I’m an addict, don’t understand why you are not, and that I’m a bad person before I’ve had coffee (and only slightly better after). I’m also quite willing to admit that although I’m a reasonably patient person, the exceptions to that involve family, people who walk and smoke, a handful of Canadians, morons on bicycles and people who mess with coffee.
I bring this up because one of the cliches about Japan is that it’s a smoker’s heaven and a coffee drinker’s hell. At one point a cigarette company had a great commercial about smokers from the USA arriving on Japanese shores via makeshift boats and being welcomed by the locals with a pack of smokes. One town used to have a “tobacco tax” goal meter to encourage people to light up.
When I first arrived in Japan, though, there were only a few coffee shops around and I was shocked that, although the cake part of the Coffee and Cake Set was delicious, the coffee was a tiny little half cup that wasn’t even an espresso and that cost seven dollars.
Now, a few wishy-washy artistic types have argued that the half cup is special and that some Japanese have raised coffee making to the level of a martial art. They have carefully selected and hand-roasted the beans and carefully ground them in a burr grinder. Some of the beans have been carefully “processed” by civets (i.e. eaten and crapped out by civets). They boil carefully filtered water and pour it over the perfectly measured grounds which sit in a special canvas filter hand made from organic hemp by a 120 year old zen master in a secret location in the Japanese Alps. The coffee masters pour slowly until it seems as if the water is about to flow over the brim of the filter. Then they tap it and the water and coffee flow into the pot below.
At this point some people give polite little golf claps and say “That’s amazing. He’s a true artist. The coffee is beautiful.” while I’m in the back shouting “just pour the damned coffee!”
When the coffee is finally served it is typically half a glass. I’ve asked if it was just a sample and been told that, no that was my four dollar cup of cat poop coffee. (For the record, civet coffee is actually a hundred dollars a cup so I’ve never actually tried it, also, it’s cat poop.) I’ve also made them bring the pot out and add more coffee to the cup.
I did this in front of She Who Must Be Obeyed once and she was pretty close to walking out of the coffee shop. I told her I loved her and would do anything for her and that I’d catch up to her once I got my cup of coffee filled properly.
Mercifully, since those days, the Japanese have discovered coffee. This is important because, as shown in the book The Devil’s Cup, the strongest empires are those which hold coffee in high esteem. Once they switch to tea, they are doomed. (r.e. Turkish Empire, British Empire). This also means that there are now many chains to choose from, including Starbucks which I never patronize outside of Japan, unless it’s in an airport. There are also some Japanese chains serving decent and cheap coffee now.
If there’s ever a ban on coffee, I will start my own mafia and smuggle it in. Well, at least as far as my house which, I admit, will make it hard for me to keep my goons well paid and well fed, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
I need a cup of coffee first.