In Japan, it’s always time for coffee

There is a well-founded stereotype of Japan as a place where people take their job seriously. One sip told me they take their coffee seriously here as well. For a country associated with green tea, this was a big surprise.

There is no watery diner coffee here. If even grandparents make this strong a drink, you know Japan must really love its coffee.

Beginnings

Our first morning in Tokyo, fresh off the plane and jet-lagged, we stopped for a simple breakfast. Next to the Senso-ji shrine in Asakusa, a mostly low-slung neighborhood of covered shopping arcades and quiet alleyways near the center of Tokyo, we found a small cafe run by an elderly couple. It main features appeared from the outside to be warmth and tiny cuteness, two ubiquitous attributes in Japan.

We were served a hard boiled egg, buttered toast sticks, and coffee. It was 400 yen or around $4, and was just what we needed to get the motor running at 9am. That is roughly 9pm New York time. This simple cafe meal served as our introduction to both the simple Japanese breakfast and Japanese coffee.

Note: Japan doesn’t seem to be big on breakfasts, many establishments, even those that serve coffee or pancakes, don’t open until lunchtime. Those that do serve simple plates like the one we had.

Coffee Everywhere

Brewed on what looked like an hourglass with water in the bottom and thick black liquid in the top, our first coffee was strong. Later I found that this scientific-looking device is called a siphon and is similar to the Italian Bialetti or moka pot.

Further exploration found little coffee shops around nearly every corner. Strong coffee would prove to be a trend. Some offered fresh-roasted beans and pour-over coffee. Most memorably, the elderly owner of a tiny nameless coffee roastery we stumbled upon on a corner in Osaka took time away from his equally aged machinery to fix us a fresh cup in the corner.

Others, such as Enseigne d’angle, offered jet-black French-press at a wood-paneled bar with white-suited waiters and a vibe straight out of the 1930s. Sitting down in a quiet corner with plastered walls and dim light-shaded illumination, we took a break from the hustle-and-bustle of Tokyo.

The most “mod”, such as Rokumei in Nara, offered airy seating, third-wave coffee cred, and a meal of fresh salad, yogurt, and a card with tasting notes and bean origin. Awards from coffee championships hung on the wall above brewed samples of the different origin beans for sale.

Still others, like the top-notch Vie de France offered fresh French pastries and the aforementioned siphon. The most humble offered toast, a machine espresso, and little pods of concentrated creamer.

When in Japan

Yet when you’re in the process of adjusting to jet lag, those rules about coffee in the mornings and none after dinner go out the window. Who remembers what time it is anyway? Any hour is potentially a good time to sit down with a warm cup, and any coffee shop has a great pour waiting for you.

Thank you for breakfast, England

Loaded with fried and fatty deliciousness, the Full English Breakfast is most definitely the father of the American diner breakfast.


Both are widely available, often around the clock, and full of staples more filling than nutritious. In fact, the British seem to have a complex about their love of a good fry-up that equals the stereotype of Americans as McDonald’s-loving slobs. Fatty food is universally loved and shamed.

The McDonald’s stereotype comes from the same place as the Coca-Cola stereotype: both are well-loved American brands that have had great success overseas. Europeans love McDonald’s and then feel as bad about it as we do.

History shows us with the fry-up that the classic artery-buster lives on in unbranded form with no need for the Golden Arches’ marketing savvy. Fat is its own marketing.

Compare the core ingredients:

Full English

  • Two fried eggs
  • Back bacon
  • Rashers (sausages)
  • Deep-fried Hash browns
  • Toast
  • Grilled tomato
  • Stewed mushrooms
  • Coffee

American

  • Two fried eggs
  • Bacon, sausage or ham
  • Pancakes with syrup or
  • Hash browns and Toast
  • Coffee
  • Orange juice
  • Fresh fruit if you’re lucky

Note the similarities: eggs, fatty meat, fried potatoes, coffee. We can thank Peru for the spuds and Ethiopia for the beans, I guess. Four centuries are enough to make them both a staple of half the countries on the globe.

Interestingly, instead of fresh fruit, the English variety has tomatoes. Hey, tomato is a fruit, right?

Perhaps the idea of the bottomless “super-size” started with US diner coffee, strong European roast being substituted for the watery American free-refill variety.

The stateside version is not all lacking in quality, however. The American breakfast plate incorporates syrup, real maple ideally, from Vermont, New York, or Quebec, and orange juice, fresh-squeezed California or Florida if you’re lucky.

Drawing its inspiration from around the globe, this classic American meal is uniting in its ubiquity, not only a working man’s meal like its progenitors in the Old World, and it is here to stay, at least for add long as we’re around to eat it.

Our Personal Best-of-Europe

How was Europe? I don’t know, how was your childhood?

I’ve never had such trouble answering a question in the span of a few sentences. Possibly because I’ve never visited five very distinct countries in two weeks. Either way, now that we’re back from our grand tour, I feel like I need to sum it up since everyone keeps asking.

I can’t pick a favorite because they’re all so unique, I can’t even play the “where would I most like to live” game because we had such a great time in each place and stayed with such welcoming families, both my own and strangers-turned-friends (thanks to CouchSurfing).

Either way, here are the highlights:

Best Food Culture: Taste and value-wise, we had our best meals in Paris and Versailles. First dinner was duck, cooked medium-rare, and then we had the same the next night because it was so good the first time around. Those that think the French are thinner because of their food have definitely not had a nice red duck filet or any of the half-dozen ways they fry their potatoes. It’s hearty food from the countryside, we were both very impressed and also very full.

Best Breakfast Tradition: The Full English breakfast is a plate of fried things and vegetables that would be good for any meal: a huge plateful of deep-fried hash browns, eggs, grilled tomatoes, stewed mushrooms, baked beans, sausage, and back bacon. Oh, and four buttered half-slices of toast in case you weren’t full yet. Plus coffee, and good Italian non-watery coffee, I might add. I salute this British dish as the progenitor of the modern American diner breakfast, which happens to be my favorite meal when at home.

Eating the Animal: There is a trend, which I believe is unique to our generation, of being afraid of food that is still shaped like the animal it came from. Case-in-point: boneless chicken breast, the ubiquitous protein object. In life, and especially in travel, I aim to get to the source and eat the animal-shaped animals.

Eisbein, known in English as ham hock, is the fat-encased salted joint and foreleg of the pig. Germans love their pork in bulk, together with sauerkraut, mustard, potatoes, beets, and cabbage. I realize that the staple globalized ethnic foods like ramen, sushi, gyros, pizza, etc. are probably more common for dinner for the average German of our age, but we wanted some authentic grandma’s home cooking. We did not go hungry.

Most Like Home: Paris reminded us both of Mexico City: old boulevards and claustrophobic little streets, cobblestones, the tall interconnecting 19th-century style of architecture and the Haussmann layout of the city, including the subway. Also the noise, traffic, and general mess on the street. Not that we don’t both love Mexico City, but I think we were looking for something more out-of-the-ordinary and for Paola, something “cute”.

Best Tourist Sight or Museum: Versailles was monumental and well-worth the hour trip outside the city. This palace built to escape the heat of Paris in the summer has its own mini-palace to escape its heat, which then has its own mini-mini-palace. It’s like a nautilus shell of opulence.

Cutest: Rings of canals and row houses, canal boats, flowers, dozens of bridges, cobblestones, trams, bicycles, plus tiny little trucks the size of motorcycles. Amsterdam was the prettiest of the cities we visited. It was walkable and full of little shops, restaurants, and beautiful little homes. It felt human-sized and also easy to get around. There were bicycles parked literally everywhere to the point where they became part of the cluttered background, like trash on the curb in the East Village or scaffolding in Midtown.

Cinematic Deja Vu: We stayed outside of central London in a suburb called Walthamstow. Rows and rows of identical row homes and apartments and a Tube-to-red-double-decker-bus trip from the city center. Imagine visiting Manhattan but realizing that most families can only afford to live in one of the outer boroughs. It felt like we were in an episode of Skins, accents included, innit?

Most Unconventional Accommodations: Was it the boat in London or the train in Amsterdam? These were both former modes of transportation, if you’re asking. We did wake up both times in the same place we went to sleep the previous night.

Best Beer: Belgium. There’s a reason why both Dutch and French bars serve Belgian or Belgian-inspired beers. Their local stuff is serviceable, but not great, LOL.*

* LOL = Lots of lager. Germany too.

Of all the endless lagers, I’d cast my vote for one of the pours from the Carlsberg brewery tour or Bintang which went great with our Dutch Indonesian chicken satay dinner.

Most Hipster: Paola would say it was Amsterdam, which is one giant Instagram feed of a city. I would say it’s Berlin, with its inexpensive pre-war apartments, gritty charm, Cold War nostalgia, graffiti, and the lowest prices of the trip.

Smallest Big City: Ever get the sense when you visit a place that everyone knows one another? It was hard to escape that feeling in Copenhagen, which must have been a function of the wonderful host family we had and the human-sized architecture, which made you feel enclosed, not dwarfed by the city around you.

The center of the city was reminiscent of soldiers’ barracks: tall apartment buildings built efficiently close together with courtyards in between.  At the Carlsberg Brewery tour, we learned that the city of Copenhagen was originally a garrison and the gates were locked at night. Counter-intuitively, this gives the city a feeling of unity and togetherness, not the drab Soviet vibe you might expect.