Updated: Jun 21, 2022
Whether you are lost in Japan or losing yourself to this beautiful country, there is simply nothing better than finding a nice quiet café to sit and enjoy yourself in. What's more is that there are a wide variety of types and styles of cafés too. So much so that it is almost certain you will find something that suits your tastes. Each one is often filled with delicious food, drinks and sweets. If you want a taste of Japanese culture, then these are definitely places I would recommend.
Styles of Café
Traditional cafés - Kissaten 喫茶店
Cafés have long been a part of Japanese culture. The older styles of café are known as Kissaten (きっさてん). While not as common today, these are still some of the best places to sample local and traditional culture. They will often specialize in green tea and traditional Japanese sweets. Many will have a rich history that can be interesting to hear if you speak enough Japanese, but are still worth the visit even if you don't speak Japanese. There is one of these styles of café right next to where I work. Many of the elderly ladies from my conversation class have taken me there on several occasions. The building itself was a doctors house from the Edo period (between 1603 and 1868). The entrance way still maintains a dirt floor where the kitchen used to be. You remove your shoes and step up to the wooden interior of the house as well. The building has been well preserved and slightly modified to act as a café today. You can even have lunch there for less that 500 yen, or around $4 or $5 at today's exchange rates.
In recent years, more modern styles of café have appeared. Everything from classy, to unique, to that big Starbucks like chain can be found everywhere you go. These cafés will often play to more modern tastes in the food and drinks they serve. Even Starbucks has adapted itself across Japan, offering unique menu items to the country or embracing local atmosphere and styles. My first experience with this was trying their seasonal cherry blossom Frappuccino, the recipe changes year by year but its always pretty good. Some modern cafés may focus a lot on the design and atmosphere of the shop. These places can really show of Japanese craftsmanship too. But some shops will feel very small and local. Like a mom and pop shop where mom and pop turned the kitchen and main room of their home into a café.
Animal themed cafés
More unique styles, and more famous, would be the animal cafés across the country. The biggest and most well known of these being the cat cafés where you can sit and play with cats till your hearts content, or time runs out. These have been good places for some to let go of the days stress and thus are a very therapeutic place. Of course these are not limited to only cat cafés. There are cafés for many different types of animals too. Dog, cat, owl, bird, snake, reptile and so many more. At the very least, if you like animals, they are sure to help you lose yourself to this beautiful country even more.
When you just want a good place to sit for a long time and maybe use the free WiFi, then manga cafés are a fantastic place to visit. My friends and I often did this when we wanted to kill time while I was studying at Hiroshima University. The price of admission is often nothing more than a drink from the menu. There are plenty of places to sit for long periods of time, and there are shelves lined with thousands of manga from hundreds of various titles that are free for you to read. Although, you probably need to be able to read Japanese for the most part.
Themed / Service cafés
Finally, while there are many more varieties of café in Japan, the last type we will talk about are the service styles. These can be a very strange concept and are often a part of Japan's well known sub-culture. I am speaking of course of the maid café genre. These are a truly unique experience and are much more common to the Akihabara area in Tokyo. However they can still be found in many major cities across Japan. The concept springs from the Anime and manga culture. Each café will have its own gimmick. Some live up to the name, where you are waited on hand and foot by women dressed as maids and calling you master. Others will have more unique characteristics, like being waited on by people dressed as your favorite anime characters or personality type. Yes, some of these places will have waitresses who talk down to you or even act disgusted at your order. Again, these are a part of Japan's subculture and thus are not a common thing. It should also be noted that they are also very different from the Host/Hostess club concepts that exist in Japan, but that's a whole other genre.
Japanese culture really comes through in its cuisine. This is very true for the things you find on the menu of a café in Japan. Japanese people don't really tend to have a sweet tooth. At least not like most Americans. Because of this, even their sweets aren't overpowering in sugar content. That doesn't mean they aren't amazing though. The presentation alone of traditional Japanese sweets are a work of art. The flavors too will blend with the texture and create a truly enjoyable experience.
Other menu items will often embrace a Japanese twist to its food and drinks. One of my favorites was getting to enjoy a Japanese style curry and rice at a rural cafe. The spicy kick of the curry seemed to be balanced out by the ingredients and side dish, as well as by the peaceful atmosphere. The foods will range from traditional to modern, light to heavy, or from a snack to a meal. There is always something good to choose from and enjoy as you take in the atmosphere or just use it for the wifi and a short rest.
Seasonal drinks are a large part of many cafés too. Even Starbucks offers seasonal drinks that are unique to Japan, so don't be afraid of going just because you have a million back home. It is a guarantee that you will find many subtle differences that have been adapted for Japan. Even in local cafés, you will find seasonal drinks that are suited to the time of year. A great example is using Mugicha in the ingredients of some of the summer drinks.
Some people might use cafés as a place to rest or a convenient place to stop and reset their bearings as they explore new places, but for me they are often a destination on my trips. They are always great places to observe, taste and experience local culture. If the atmosphere is right, I could sit there all day ordering different drinks and snacks while observing and interacting with the world around me. So if you want a good place to lose yourself for a while, try a café in Japan.