Kissaten: A Slowly Dying Part of Japanese Culture

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Photo by photoantenna
May 29, 2015

Back in 2003 during my first Japanese class, one of the first vocabulary words I learned from our textbook at the time was 喫茶店 (kissaten, which the textbook translated to “café”.) Over the past 12 years, there has been a significant change in the understanding of the word “kissaten” since western style cafés have engrained themselves into the culture in recent years.

These days, if you say “喫茶店に行こうか” (Let’s go to a kissaten) your friends will probably laugh because most young folks do not frequent kissatens. As the word “カフェ” (kafe) has become a much more prominently used word for café, kissaten has been left in a bit of obscurity. Many may ask “then how should we translate it?”

To me at least, kissaten has joined what I call the “as is Japanese words” category. These are Japanese words that, while they may need a little explanation at first, are essentially the same word as their Japanese counterparts.

Let’s take “sushi” for example; in this modern age most people know what sushi is. However, at some point in the past it had to be explained that sushi is a slice of raw fish on top of rice. You may notice that the translation did not ever become “raw fish on top of rice”. This does not roll off the tongue very well and it is much easier to just say “sushi.”

Consider other fairly popular examples as well for this point, such as “izakaya”, “wasabi” or “sake”. These words simply work better “as is”.

So what then is a kissaten? A kissaten is an old style Japanese tearoom that also serves coffee and sweets. As those who have lived in Japan for many years can attest, kissatens seem to be dying out in a number of respects. There were many more kissatens to be found 20 years ago than there are today, and many of the ones that are still standing are small and arguably run-down for the most part.

kissetan-1Photo by Kazen

In the not too distant past, kissatens were places frequented by students and salarymen alike, often to have breakfast and to grab a cup of coffee. So what led to the gradually growing disinterest in going to kissatens? The simple answer is the influx of aforementioned western style cafés.

One of the most obvious of these western style cafés is Starbucks, the international coffee selling giant. Because many kissatens are privately owned (some are chains), it has become very difficult to compete with Starbucks, which has a reputation in Japan for being the おしゃれ (oshare, hip, cool) place to be.

With competitive prices, its international hold on young and old folk alike, it’s no wonder that Starbucks is beating out the kissaten. Following suit, many other western style cafés have come up in Japan such as Tully’s coffee.

So is this the beginning of the end for kissatens? While it’s hard to say, at this point they are still around. Miyakoshiya is a kissaten chain that has 26 locations all across Japan, and they are still going fairly strong.

You can expect the prices to be a little steep, ranging from 500 to 700 yen for drinks, but they are quality drinks and the atmosphere is great for those who want a quieter more personal setting than the crowded, narrow seating and loud ambience of structured western style cafés of the current day in Japan.

So do you prefer kissaten or cafés? More importantly, why?

Topics:    

Musician, Japanese language and food lover.
  • Jesse

    One thing makes the biggest difference to me: Smoking

    Kissaten are typically bastions of smoking while the newfangled western cafes typically don’t allow that inside.

    Side note: is it just me or does it seem that most Japanese loan words in English pluralize more naturally without an ‘s’?

    • Moogiechan

      I’ve seen “two kanjis” and “two kanji”, although “two kanji” somehow sounds better. But when ordering sake, I’d order “two sakes”, just like I’d order “two beers”. Two sakes could also mean two varieties or brands of sake, just like “two great wines”. I think words that have been in English longer tend to take an ‘s’: kimonos, sakes, etc.

    • Agree. They are a smoker’s heaven and that’s why I choose to go to a Starbucks instead.

  • Dan

    I’ve been to cafes in the US where the there was a quiet room or separated space for those who preferred to read or study. I prefer kissaten, as it allows me to quiet my mind for a while.

    • Kyle Von Lanken

      I’m the same way. A quiet atmosphere and a hot drink make for an ideal thinking or calming down time for me. As many others have stated however, kissaten are full smoke usually, which detracts from the experience for me.

  • maulinator

    I still don’t get the difference between an old style kissaten and a newer western style cafe. I don’t really think that smoking is the only difference. Starbucks might not allow smoking, but Tullys does as does Doutour and Excelsior. I don’t know about Segafredo though. The atmoshpere at some of the older kissatens like Chat Noir is right out of the 70’s and they probably haven’t remodeled since then, but what they serve is pretty mucht eh same as the western cafes.
    I like the smaller kissaten/cafes rather than the big chains, as the coffee and tea is usually much better. A lot of the older places still use the old manual coffee drip devices and they use better beans.
    I personally don’t have a issue with smoking, so that is an advantage too. The smaller kissatens also have much more character than a typical Tullys or Starbucks but usually no free wi-fi. But then you don;t have to deal with the wanna-be/hipster “working” at Starbucks on his/her macbook for hours on end hogging the comfy sofas forever.

  • RACHAEL MOODY

    I would go with the old style kissaten because It’s traditional and is and should be part of the culture. Me even though I’m am an American I would not agree with most of the Western style restaurants. Simply because IN my opinion I personally don’t like them. Me I would prefer a quiet place to read and think.I’m not forcing my opinion on anyone. RayRay Li

  • Dotto

    I guess I prefer cafés by default. Like the author, kissaten was one of the first words I learned, but since coming here I have been to relatively few “true” kissaten. On the other hand, café chains are everywhere and provide the same kind of atmosphere.

    You could also argue that the café in Japan is simply what the kissaten evolved into (for lack of a better word). There are chains like Kohikan which are definitely cafés but have a certain traditional feel to them, not unlike a kissaten. I guess Japanese people have just fallen in love with coffee. 🙂

    It is kind of a shame that the local-owned shops are losing to all the café chains out there. But the proliferation of chain stores is not limited to coffee/tea houses.

  • If they have WiFi, then no problem. Can’t let Starbucks destroy everything!!!

    • Kyle Von Lanken

      Yes, I wholeheartedly agree. As long as the drink prices aren’t too atrocious, if they have WiFi that is definitely a plus.

  • Marcela Oliv

    Interesting theme,,Thanks! I don´t know the Kissaten.

  • Although it’s been years since I’ve been in Japan (probably long before the rise of Starbucks,) this is a global trend – a coffee version of David vs Goliath being played out in many towns around the world. As others have pointed out, there’s a little of something for everyone.

    Whether it’s sustainable depends on your local economics. At the moment I’m sitting in a Starbucks working because the cafe across the street had to close its doors. Meanwhile down the road a novelty ice cream cafe in a busy shopping area is thriving and showing no signs of quitting anytime.

    I actually stumbled on your blog post from a search for kissaten after reading a comment by Blue Bottle founder James Freeman. He was talking about how there’s a reverse trend back to these “old-fashioned” establishments.

    Sometimes what’s old is what’s new. What do your customers value? Maybe it’s a quieter atmosphere as some have mentioned. But is this sustainable?

    Kyle talks about many kissaten places having a dated vibe. They have to decide whether their most loyal customers really want wifi to log on, or if it’s better to keep the European atmosphere of no tech, all social vibe. Certainly, there’s plenty of 5G coverage anyway.

    Maybe what the kissaten need is a bit of coffee otaku – the kind that Blue Bottle fans value. But the bottomline is to offer something that the Starbucks of the world don’t, right?

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