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Like 1,000 mirrors: Cafe Culture in Tokyo

In their transformation of Edo into a metropolis, incorporating cafe culture was the Tokyo masters coup de grâce. It gave creatives and bohemians somewhere to hang out, and led to the budding of new social norms. Right from the start, they had the impulse that it would not be enough to mimic what they were doing in Europe: no, better to take the idea and make it Tokyo. Whilst a thousand cafes filled with iron and white tablecloths is charming in a city of cathedrals, this city is made of visions of the future.

Tokyo inspiration

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Proprietors exploit space, natural light, furnishings and music merely to reflect the character of their strip; to the delight of Tokyo disciples who are given the best means possible to relish the city’s various moods.

When Ginza’s glitter makes you breathless, fall head first into dreaming at the Gucci cafe. When in Kanda, enjoy rubs of Billie Holiday, draughty wooden floorboards and Kanda blend coffee at the Kanda Brazil. Then you find yourself smitten with the creative beat of Shimokitazawa. The number one spot goes to cult hit Bear Pond Espresso. By positioning his cafe right on the edge of the curb and prohibiting photos, owner Katsu Tanaka allows his espressos and the town to speak for themselves: resulting in a symphony that gives customers a suspended moment of Tokyo sensuality. As Tanaka told Drift, “the mouthfeel is still the most important: it has to be airy, soft, and thick. It’s very sexy, like cuddling”. You trip back onto the streets a little high.

Out of this world cafes

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Other cafes want to take you out of the city you’re in. Five minutes from Bear Pond is North Side Cafe, which gives suggestions of New York using diner seating, cute menus and a fun crowd: a cool McDonalds for mornings after in Shimokita.

But know that the scene’s flair for eclectic fantasy goes a lot deeper than a Choco Banana smoothie. Maid cafes promise escape from this reality. Back in Ginza, Cafe Paulista uses a chandelier, leather and mirrors to awaken Brazil; creating an atmosphere dug by the likes of John and Yoko. Cafe L’ambre takes visitors from central Shinjuku into a Bavarian dream: complete with red velvet, a wooden staircase and classical romance. Further options are Conceal in Shibuya which evokes Wes Anderson atmospheres with dainty symmetry and an actual polar bear; and the Yoshitomo Nara-designed A to Z Cafe: check here for details.

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As vending machine coffee ads try to control social norms using men that say “I make society”, cafe culture is busy reflecting the streets, and giving us visions of an alternative future. Whichever one you stumble upon, it’ll be a space to hang out and get lost in Tokyo.

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