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Japan: Ginza (Cafe de L’Ambre)

When I first started studying Japanese, one of the first words I was introduced to was “kissaten.” I was taught that a kissaten (きっさてん ) meant a tea/coffee shop and that there was a distinct difference between a café and a kissaten. In recent years, kissatens were deemed old fashioned and less popular as chain coffee shops such as Starbucks came into the picture. Today, Japan represents the second largest market for Starbucks as the kissaten owners struggle to keep their shops open.

But, if you want to take a trip back in time, there is a kissaten in Ginza which is just a few short minutes on foot from the Shinbashi station worth visiting.

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Cafe de L’Ambre is somewhat of a Tokyo legend, having been around since 1948 and still being operated by its 96-year-old owner. The interior has remained unchanged over the years and is rather charming compared to the stark minimalist décor of modern cafes. The large bar seems more suited for serving cocktails rather than coffee and don’t be surprised by the ancient ice box behind it. The sign outside the shop states “Coffee Only” and you will soon come to realize that this place serves coffee in any way imaginable. Whether you want your coffee straight, blended, hot, cold, mixed with liquer, in pudding or jellied, you can get it all here. The menu is in English so it is easy to navigate the many offerings. Although you cannot order a latte or an expresso here (those drinks are usually the signature offerings of the modern coffee shops) you can order a coffee with an egg yolk in it! Seriously!

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Café de L’Ambre specializes in beans of various ages and origin including coffee beans dating back to the 1950’s. There are close to 30 different single-origin varieties on the menu, including Colombian and Cuban beans from the 1970’s. The prices are “takai” (not cheap) as a cup may run anywhere from ¥ 700 to ¥800, but then again, this is no ordinary cup of coffee. The owner roasts the beans himself in small batches to maintain freshness, and each cup is methodically ground and brewed to order. The strength and size of the coffee can be customized, and every cup comes with a glass of water.

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Like many independent coffee shops, Café l’Ambre thrives on repeat customers and wrestler-turned-politician Antonio Inoki is among them. So leave your cell phones and laptops behind, forget about the free Wi-Fi and step into a kissaten with a friend and enjoy a nice, old-fashioned conversation with a friend over a nice cup of coffee. I guarantee that it will be an experience like no other.

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Café de L’Ambre is open from Monday- Saturday from noon to 10 PM and Sunday from noon to 7 PM.

Address: Ginza 8-10-15, Chuo Ward. 03.3571.1551

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