Tokyo’s retro coffee palaces are in a class entirely their own
A room with a view: There’s no shortage of things to look at in Ueno’s Kojo. | JAMES HADFIELD
The archetypical kissaten (traditional coffee shop) would probably be a cozy neighborhood joint with faded ’60s decor, one of those vintage pink pay phones that only take ¥10 coins and a couple of elderly customers smoking furiously as they squint over their newspapers.
If you look in the right places, though, you’ll find a few opulent relics scattered around the capital that have strived to be something more — something truly fabulous. These parlors of pomp may have taken inspiration from the storied coffee houses of Vienna and Budapest, but the pleasures they evoke are distinctively Japanese.
If you didn’t experience the heady excesses of the ’80s bubble era firsthand, Tokyo’s classier kissaten offer the next best thing. And if you did — well, consider it a trip down memory lane.
At Ikebukuro’s Cafe de Paris, a gold-plated deer statue greets visitors as they step off the escalator and enter a time-warp of retro luxury, with plush red seats, chandeliers and way too many mirrors. It’s deliciously over-the-top, even if the contemporary Western pop hits playing in the background rather spoil the illusion.
It’s too bad that Cafe de Paris no longer stays open all night like it used to: One can only imagine what kinds of exotic creatures must have gathered here in the wee hours of the morning.
There’s always an eclectic clientele at Coffee Seibu, on the east side of JR Shinjuku Station. The spacious two-floor cafe has been open since 1964, and it’s managed to make a few concessions to modernity (the upstairs is now entirely non-smoking; there’s free WiFi) without diminishing its old-school charm.
On a typical afternoon, you might find a young couple devouring ice cream sundaes at one table while a group of suited executives hammer on laptops next-door. I always gravitate toward the more gaudily decorated smoking floor, where vibrant burgundy seats and dung-brown floral carpets — offset by stained-glass ceiling features — heighten the sense of grandeur.
Just up the street lies Cafe de L’ambre, an even older kissaten with a split-level basement whose lofty ceilings, chandeliers and sweeping staircases would have made a fitting setting for an Errol Flynn duel. Don’t be put off by the smoggy antechamber on the first floor — the downstairs is entirely non-smoking.
Ueno is home to a cluster of fancy coffee houses, and none is more ostentatious than Kojo, or “Old Castle.” There’s so much ornamentation here that it’s hard to know where to look: the extravagant light fittings with their glass crystal pendants, dangling like earrings; the Yamaha Electone organ stood at the far end of the room, under an art deco stained-glass window; the jagged slabs of rock bisecting the room; the Tutankhamun mask in an alcove, which looks suspiciously like it’s made of plastic; or at the decorative plants, which definitely are.
You’d think that a place billing itself as a kōkyū (high-class) kissaten would be courting ridicule. At Kojo, however, the only appropriate reaction is awe.
Cafe de Paris: 1-23-1 Nishi-Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku; Coffee Seibu: 2F, 3-34-9 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku; Cafe de L’ambre: 3-31-3 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku; Kojo: 3-39-10 Higashi-Ueno, Taito-ku