%ARABICA is the most popular coffee shop in Kyoto, which is the heart of Japan’s third wave coffee scene. Founded in Kyoto and the source of the iconic % symbol coffee cups that are now ubiquitous in Arashiyama and Higashiyama, % ARABICA is incredibly busy and beloved. This post reviews whether %ARABICA is worth your time and energy, how to beat the lines, and shares photos from the cafes.
We’d be remiss not to begin with %ARABICA’s origin story. Founder Kenneth Shoji spent his college years hanging out and studying in a Venice Beach, California Starbucks and was inspired by the location. Upon graduating and reflecting upon what he wanted in life, the big things were a simple and down-to-earth life and an amazing cup of coffee every day. And so %ARABICA was born.
When it first opened in Kyoto a few years ago, %ARABICA was not a tourist destination unto itself as is the case today. With each of our visits the last few years, it seems the Arashiyama and Higashiyama storefronts have gotten busier and busier. Now, you’ll be hard-pressed to walk through either district and not see countless tourists taking selfies with those iconic % cups.
None of this success was accidental, or the result of an eye-catching design for the cups. Shoji was dedicated to creating the best coffee possible, so he borrowed money and bought a coffee farm in Hawaii. He also started trading green beans from around the world and became the sole-exporter of a Japanese roasting machine along with the distributor of one of the best espresso machines.
He then spent a year persuading Junichi Yamaguchi, a world champion of latte art, to become head barista at %ARABICA. There are several user reviews on Google and TripAdvisor of people meeting Yamaguchi. To my knowledge, he still is head barista at %ARABICA’s flagship Kyoto, Japan cafe in Higashiyama.
As for the %ARABICA coffee shops themselves, the first thing you’re almost certain to encounter is a line. While the shops are operating (in addition to the two mentioned here, there’s also a third location in the Fujii Daimaru shopping mall near Nishiki Market in Downtown Kyoto–this one is less busy and less touristy), there’s almost certainly going to be a crowd.
In fact, I’ve never not seen a line during operating hours at the Higashiyama location. The line begins to form shortly before opening, and stays until closing. In fact, given that the nearby Kiyomizudera Temple closes before the coffee shop, there’s often an influx of visitors leaving the temple who arrive just before the coffee shop’s 6 p.m. closing. So don’t plan to go later to avoid the crowds–that doesn’t work.
The flagship store is located on Yasaka Street, the road that travels between Yasaka Pagoda, the symbol of Higashiyama, and Kiyomizudera Temple, one of the city’s most popular points of interest. It’s easy to find via Google Maps, but there’s about a 95% chance you’ll naturally walk past this coffee shop when you head to Kiyomizudera.
If this %ARABICA location is a must-do for you, arriving before 9:30 a.m. is essential. Even then, you can expect to encounter a line ranging from around 5 to 15 minutes. Later in the day, it will be considerably worse (depending upon the season). Early in the day, most people are in ‘grab and go’ mode, which also provides a better opportunity to peruse the interior.
The Arashiyama %ARABICA coffee shop is slightly more laid back. Slightly. It similarly has long lines throughout the day, but it’s not uncommon to see it without a line (or much of a line) before 10 a.m. Later in the day it gets busy and stays that way, but it’s rarely as long of a wait as the Higashiyama store.
The location in Arashiyama is a bit removed from the normal tourist corridor. With that said, I’d argue that this is an even better location, situated near the historical Togetsukyo Bridge, overlooking Oi River and the Arashiyama mountains–home to the beloved Kyoto Iwatayama Monkey Park, which we highly recommend. %ARABICA benefits greatly from being just around the corner from the “main drag” of Arashiyama, though.
In addition to the three Kyoto locations, we’ve also been to %ARABICA in Paris, France.
Due to the success of the original locations in Japan, %ARABICA has aggressive expansion plans (I’m hesitant to put a number on how many shops are currently operating, because more seem to be added by the month), which include the United States and no less than a dozen other countries.
The menu at %ARABICA is simple enough to facilitate easy ordering, but substantial enough to let you know they are “for real” in terms of third wave coffee shops. There are a variety of espresso beverages, each with the choice of hot or iced and single origin or a blend.
The most noteworthy thing about the interior of the stores is the respect for the process and how this is on full display. Examples of different roasts are on display, beans are stored in a temperature-controlled cases with the roasting being done in-house, and the barista is visible from the counter when they make your drink. %ARABICA is fully transparent from start to finish.
In terms of design, the cafe embraces a sense of modernity mixed with Japanese simplicity. You’ll find crisp white walls and clean lines accented by exposed wood and the aforementioned displays. Unfortunately, you’ll also find a dearth of seating and cramped interiors.
In our Best Coffee Shops in Kyoto, Japan post, I made a bold prediction: “5 years from now, %ARABICA will be the next Starbucks.” That was probably the caffeine buzz doing the talking, as the coffee at %ARABICA is really good, and the cafe is simultaneously very serious and very trendy, serving ‘two worlds’ of coffee drinkers in a better manner than Starbucks.
However, one thing I overlooked that is crucial to the success of Starbucks is the inviting nature of its shops and the sense of community it fostered early on, which persists today.
Perhaps their newer shops are different, but I’ve yet to visit a %ARABICA that I’d describe as “pleasant” or “inviting.” The design is great, sure, but you cannot possibly hang out there (unless you pay for a booth).
Rather, it’s the atmosphere of Arashiyama and Higashiyama that you’re enjoying while drinking %ARABICA…and I already know I love those places, irrespective of the coffee. (In fact, I’d rather go to the Higashiyama Starbucks–with its inferior coffee–than the flagship %ARABICA, all things considered.)
As for whether %ARABICA is worth your time, it depends. The lines do get obnoxiously long thanks to the trendiness and popularity of of %ARABICA, and the only way to beat those is going early at a time when you might be better off aggressively touring Kyoto’s top temples to beat the crowds there. Additionally, as we note in our above-referenced ‘Best Coffee’ post, %ARABICA is not the top third wave shop in Kyoto. However, if you’re serious about coffee and want to see a future worldwide power player before it becomes ubiquitous, %ARABICA is definitely worthwhile. If we’re just talking cost and taste (without factoring crowds), %ARABICA is unquestionably worth it.
If you’re planning a trip to Japan that includes Kyoto, we recommend that you start by consulting our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto, Japan to plan all aspects of our vacation. You should also check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other places to visit!
Have you gotten coffee at %ARABICA? What did you think of the experience? How was your coffee–delicious or all hype? Would you recommend % ARABICA to a first-timer visiting Japan? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Any questions about what we’ve covered here? Does visiting this spot in Kyoto interest you? Hearing about your experiences—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!