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I heard that it is difficult to find real coffee in Japan as most places don't serve it. We are planning to stay at Ryokans and eat traditional breakfasts as muc as possible but can't really give up coffee!

I also heard you can get anything at vending machines which are everywhere - does this include hot good coffee?

I am thinking of taking a travel plunger and some plunger coffee, so all I would need is hot water. Is this a good idea, worth bothering with?

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Yes, you can get (hot) canned coffee in vending machines everywhere, every two meters. (It's totally identical to multinational commercial product available anywhere, eg identical to Starbucks canned coffee. Obviously like anything in Japan, quality is Toyota-level, i.e. it defines the world's best production quality systems. But it's just canned coffee like in the US.) For traditional hotels, what about just simply taking some instant coffee? (Bring a few sachets, or easily buy in shops/supermarkets.) I find instant is fine for a caffeine boost - save you the huge hassle of hauling a plunger! – Joe Blow Feb 27 at 13:11
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As others have said, canned coffee is readily available in machines, and Starbucks (which is consistent throughout the world if not "great" coffee) is easy to find in larger cities. I've had some of the best coffee I've ever tasted in Japanese hotels. I love coffee, but not enough to carry equipment and brew my own every day. Usually when I travel, I bring along some packets of instant coffee (I carry Starbucks Via Iced coffee for travel -- it's drinkable cold if there's no not water available, but that probably won't be a problem in Japan) – Johnny Feb 27 at 15:59
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@Johnny I infer from the question being asked that the asker is somewhat fussy about coffee. Instant probably isn't going to cut it. – David Richerby Feb 27 at 16:43
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@DavidRicherby Yes instant is not going to cut it. Sure its got caffeine in it but I like to start the day with a somewhat decent cup of coffee. Doesn't have to be freshly ground espresso, but needs to be better than instant. – mike nelson Feb 28 at 2:09
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This question depends a lot on what you consider coffee. As in, an Italian might be surprised that something deserving the name coffee even exists in New Zealand ;) – Hagen von Eitzen Feb 28 at 11:31
up vote 24 down vote accepted

Coffee (コーヒー kōhī) is very readily available in Japan in a variety of forms and quality. Yes, you can find a large variety of super cheap canned coffee in vending machines and convenience stores; however I'd rather describe those as caffeinated soft drinks with coffee-ish flavor than as coffee.

Instant and filter coffee ("drip" coffee, ドリップ) is very easy to get almost anywhere; supermarkets and convenience stores sell one-cup coffee-in-filter sets you just need to add hot water to, some convenience stores sell fresh hot coffee either from a pot or a machine, "family restaurants" like Denny's or Gusto (ガスト) offer full western style breakfasts (somewhat japanized of course) where the coffee usually comes from a machine. Most restaurants will have a standard selection of coffee on their menu, except Japanese speciality places (like sushi or udon restaurants). If this is good enough for you, you'll be able to get by just fine.

Starbucks and a whole bunch of competing chains (Doutor, Tully's, Beck's, Veloce, Excelsior) are all over the place, typically at least one of them near every train station or at the local department store, except for very out-of-the-way places. You should be able to get a decent shot of coffee there in every major and mid-sized city. You can usually get your coffee hotto (hot) or aisu (cold).

Aside from those there are many independent cafés (カフェ kafe) every here and there. Some very old-fashioned places specialize in romanticized western coffee tradition (dim light, counter seats and booths) and usually carry some form of 珈琲館 kōhīkan in the name. Others are more places to socialize which incidentally sell coffee; take your pick. A lot of these places carry the same selection of coffee, Key Coffee and UCC are big brands and often part of the signage.

You may or may not get a coffee at your ryokan; unless they're extremely old fashioned they'll probably have something, but whether that suits your taste or not you won't know until you try. Modern hotels usually have something to offer. At the very least you'll be able to make a filter or instant coffee with hot water in your room.

Should you insist on a very specific sort of beans brewed just so, you may have a bit of a hard time. But as long as standard "international" coffee (black, latte/au lait, cappuccino, espresso) is fine for you, Japan has enough of it. Whatever coffee you will get will probably be pretty good for what it is; can coffee doesn't compare to a fresh shot under any circumstances, but can be very nice with the right expectations. Standard restaurant machine coffee will be decent for what it is. Starbucks & co. are fine for what they are. You'll be hard pressed to find a truly terrible coffee in any category.

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"Starbucks and a whole bunch of knock-off chains (Doutor, Tully's, Beck's, Veloce) are all over the place" Might be a little strong depending on where the OP is. There was only one western style coffee shop a Tully's) in Toyama during the ears I want there regularly. But this is a good answer because it hits on many of the way to get your coffee fix. Many train stations had stack stands where you could get coffee (which was usually sweetened espresso, but I didn't care) along with a lot of packaged food. – dmckee Feb 27 at 21:24
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In large cities you can't throw a stone without destroying the front window of a café, in more "rural" areas you may indeed only have one at the local mall or train station; but you can be pretty sure there's going to be one somewhere. – deceze Feb 27 at 21:28
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+1. One nit though: Many Japanese coffee chains like Doutor (1976) are much older than Starbucks! – jpatokal Feb 27 at 21:51
    
@jpatokal Hehe, fair enough. Have they always felt this Starbucksy though before Starbucks came along? – deceze Feb 27 at 21:56
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There are some chains like Excelsior that are transparent knockoffs down to the logo, but AFAIK Doutor looks more or less the same as it did 20 years ago. – jpatokal Feb 27 at 21:58

(Fellow coffee-lover here; have only travelled a little in Japan, but based on what I’ve heard from others, my experience was fairly typical.)

tl;dr: It depends on your tastes; but you’re probably ok without.

You can get canned coffee — iced or hot, usually sweet — from vending machines on (almost literally) every street corner. It’s not fantastic, but (to my tastes) it’s certainly no worse than what you’d get at a hotel or diner in much of the US.

In reasonable-sized cities, there will be good (sometimes very good) modern international-style coffee shops, though you’ll have to look for them; they’re not as common as Starbucks etc. are in the West. (Helpfully, unlike many other Japanese businesses, these seemed to have fairly good web presence.) There are also more traditional Japanese coffee shops — I didn’t explore these much, mainly because I had trouble finding them.

If you want to brew your own, then it will probably be possible in principle to buy decent beans in most towns/cities. However, from what I could find, they were sold only in smaller shops, not supermarkets, and because of the language/cultural differences, it took me a while to get oriented enough to find them. On the other hand if pre-ground espresso is acceptable — e.g. Lavazza — then you can probably find that in supermarkets.

So I’d say: if you really need high-quality coffee every day, then either locate coffee shops online in advance, or bring your own beans. But if the non-negotiable part is the caffeine, and you’re open to trying different styles of coffee, then don’t bother; try the local way!

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the last paragraph hits the spot! – Joe Blow Feb 27 at 13:16
    
"But if the non-negotiable part is the caffeine, and you’re open to trying different styles of coffee, then don’t bother; try the local way!" Green tea will quell the need for caffeine and is to be found everywhere. But for me coffee is part of the my morning ritual, so after a while the desire for coffee becomes something quite separate from a simple chemical dependence. A couple of fixes a week was enough to keep me in good spirits. – dmckee Feb 27 at 21:28
    
it's a good point that "coffee addiction" is not necessarily quelled by caffeine per se. Man does not quell coffee addiction by caffeine alone. A tough business. – Joe Blow Feb 28 at 16:01

You can find real coffee powder (both instant and not) at supermarkets and most convenience stores, but stay away from the pre-made stuff sold at vending machines and the like. Hot water will be available in your room (probably along with cups and instant tea).

I think if I were you I would just bring my own, if it's not too big a burden. The ones sold here may taste different from what you are used to.

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“The ones sold here may taste different from what you are used to.” And that’s a bad thing? I’d see that that as part of the fun of travelling :-) – PLL Feb 27 at 10:28
    
Just for clarity, the coffee-in-cans sold in vending machines is identical to any coffee-in-cans sold anywhere in the world. (Japanese people have a sweet tooth .. but ... Americans don't? What?) Just as say toothpaste or washing powder is the same worldwide in today's multi-national corporate world. If you're saying "As a coffee gourmand, you wouldn't drink starbucks canned coffee..." sure. – Joe Blow Feb 27 at 13:13
    
@Joe FYI neither OP nor I is an American. – fkraiem Feb 27 at 14:52
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@JoeBlow Not sure where you live, but I've never seen a country other than Japan and maybe Korea where canned coffee was mainstream. You'd certainly have to go out of your way to look for it in Australia! – jpatokal Feb 28 at 21:08

If you plan to rely on vending machine coffee, do some research before you go. When I was in Japan, I tried two of the vending machine cold canned coffees and both were absolutely disgusting. They were extremely sweet, which might have been OK but it was all artificial sweetener, and so much of it that I could still taste the sweeteners hours later, even after throwing it away after a couple of sips. Unfortunately, I can't remember the brands.

So, if you want to avoid industrial quantities of artificial sweetener, or if you don't like your coffee super super sweet, you need to find out in advance what brands of canned coffee will meet your requirements. As some of the other answers say, the vending machines are ubiquitous so if there is a brand you like, they're a great solution.

Thanks to jpatokal for pointing out the key information (and for being patient with me while I mangled it badly):

  • the characters 無糖 (mutou), mean "no sugar" or "unsweetened"; ブラック (burakku) [black], often written in English, also usually implies unsweetened.

  • ゼロカロリー (zero karorii [calories]) is the usual way of marking artificial sweeteners

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The selection is so huge and ever-changing that I'd suggest looking for the key word 無糖 mutou, "no sugar", instead. – jpatokal Feb 27 at 21:54
    
I'm not a fan of coffee with sugar at all so wouldn't want it super sweet. @David said avoid "no sugar" labelled cans, are these also bad/unusual tasting? – mike nelson Feb 28 at 1:56
    
@mikenelson Unless I've misunderstood, the point is that "no sugar" means it's full of artificial sweeteners instead. If you don't like sweet coffee, I think the cans are best avoided. – David Richerby Feb 28 at 2:05
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Err, no, that means black/unsweetened. The other keyword for this is ブラック burakku [black], often written in English. Artificial sweeteners would usually be tagged ゼロカロリー zero karorii [calories]. – jpatokal Feb 28 at 21:03
    
@jpatokal Thanks! Feel free to edit my answer if I've still got it wrong. (Or, if you post your own answer explaining the Japanese labelling, I'll just link to it from mine.) – David Richerby Feb 28 at 21:26

Some of the best coffee I've had was in Japan. I even bought some to bring back with me Stateside. They have whole bean and ground packages readily available at grocery stores, department stores and coffee shops (i.e. Tully's).

Ryokans generally have coffee in the room, but they vary on quality. Many places have a water boiler and basic instant coffee. Some others have one cup coffee makers (like a Verismo) with a handful of coffee pods. I don't recall requesting coffee during any of the meals at a Ryokan, but I believe such request would be accommodated.

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Nobody here seems to know some of the most drunk and most easily available coffee in Japan : convenience store coffee. Convenience stores are open 24/7 and you'll find them everywhere: 7&11 (or 7&i Holdings), Family Mart, Lawson, Circle K, Mini-stop....

These companies spend enormous amount of money to deliver the same coffee in all their stores, so once you find one that suits your taste you should be fine.

I guess they're not so well-known to foreigners because you won't find them on shelves, you have to ask at the counter for one (though in Circle K shops you have to pick a small card, sort of like iTunes credit iirc). Just speak clearly and most employees will understand you and give you a glass that you fill at the machine, then you can add sugar or milk or get a straw at the counter by yourself.

Small-sized coffee usually costs 100 to 110 yens, which is cheaper than a lot of coffee cans you'll find in vending machines.

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No. Coffee is all over the place. I don't know where you are from, but the quality of coffee is typically better in Japan than in the US. Even Starbucks in Japan has much better quality coffee than Starbucks in the US, where it is extremely watered down. Vending machine coffee is typically not very good in my opinion, as I don't like sugar in my coffee and it is really sweet, though the black coffee can be decent. "Aroma black" and Georgia Black (by CocaCola) are pretty good

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You are not getting good advice. You can even find cold coffee in cans. And look for the discount "breakfest set" (the Japanese pronunciation of breakfast is a little hard to catch) of an egg, toast, and coffee, much cheaper than a la carte.

As it happens I don't like coffee…

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As it happens I don't like coffee… Are you sure you're the right person to give advice to somebody who "can't give up coffee"? ;) – Earthliŋ Feb 27 at 9:36
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Also, the asker specifically says that he's looking to eat traditional breakfasts: I'm pretty sure the emphasis is on quality more than price. – David Richerby Feb 27 at 17:04

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