Some of Japan’s best independent coffee shops and cafes can be found in Kyoto, which is one of the world’s hottest places for third wave coffee. While Kyoto is famous for its tea ceremonies and matcha, locals are actually more coffee-obsessed. This list features our favorite coffee shops in Kyoto, including a couple that are must-do for anyone interested in coffee.
As the name of this blog is TravelCaffeine, it seems like covering the coffee scene in our favorite city is appropriate–and overdue. Popular coffee choices in Kyoto run the gamut: vending machines sporting images of Tommy Lee Jones and stocked with Boss, Starbucks with beautiful flagship locations, and specialty coffee roasters with intimate shops.
Before digging into our favorite Kyoto coffee shops, a bit of history is in order, as it provides some essential background on Japan’s current coffee scene. Until a couple decades ago, “kissaten” or shops similar to cafes but serving drip coffee, varieties of toast, and other limited food menus dotted every local area, with a proliferation after WWII. Perhaps ironically, these were the original ‘coffee shop on every street corner.’
Coffee chains rose in popularity, and kissaten couldn’t compete on price or efficiency. They began closing, displaced by chains. Fortunately, that’s not the end of the story. As part of the global coffee ‘Third Wave’, Kyoto has been at the epicenter of Japan’s artisanal coffee movement. Between international specialty coffee roasters setting up flagship outposts in Kyoto and Japanese brewers doing the same, Kyoto now has an embarrassment of coffee riches.
This should come as no surprise. Kyoto is the cultural capital of Japan, and while its food scene is not as trendy and innovative as Tokyo, it has long been one of the best places for the fundamentals. Coffee fits that bill, and as such, it should be no surprise that Kyoto is one of the world’s leading players for coffee.
There are entire magazines and books dedicated to Kyoto’s coffee and cafe scene. In fact, the idea for this post was birthed while sitting in a coffee shop, paging through the latest edition of one such magazine. Unfortunately, the entire thing was in Japanese so the descriptions did us no good, but a map with English names, coupled with places we had stumbled upon on our own, provided a great jumping off point.
From there, we’ve narrowed your choices down to a mix of the coffees that we think are the best, plus a few quick reviews of places with the most name recognition…
Dongree Coffee – If you only go one place for coffee in Kyoto, Dongree should be it. This little hipster-esque shop is tucked away on a side street near Kiyomizu-Gojo Station has a perfectionist sensibility to it. As with most coffee specialty coffee shops in Kyoto, Dongree serves hand drip coffees, each prepared with care.
We first found ourselves at Dongree Coffee out of convenience; it was right across the street from our apartment on one visit to Kyoto, and we ended up starting most mornings here. The ambiance is lowkey and laid back; the owner is passionate and friendly. The unequivocal must-do (and the reason it makes this list as our top pick) is the coffee flight, which is a great way to sample the top five roasters of Kyoto without visiting each of their storefronts.
Even if you are relative coffee novice, the flight is a great choice because provided with it is tasting notes (in English) that are easy to understand and approachable. The differences in the roasts will be apparent even if all of the nuances in flavor profiles are not, and will give you a greater appreciation for coffee.
%ARABICA – Mark my words: 5 years from now, %ARABICA will be the next Starbucks. There are a lot of specialty coffee shops that have gone international and are trying to further scale, but this one has the biggest name cachet.
Lines for each of the three %ARABICA shops in Kyoto are ridiculous during peak hours, and their coffee is really good. Not quite as good as the crowds would suggest, but as far as mainstream food trends go, %ARABICA is better than expected and takes coffee seriously.
Nevertheless, %ARABICA is a Kyoto original and has become an iconic attraction in only a few years of operation. Pencil in a stop early on your Arashiyama or Higashiyama days to beat the crowds, because this is also a must-do.
Murmur Coffee – This is the romanticized version of a traditional kissaten. Everything about Murmur Coffee hits the mark–from the low babble of Takase River outside to the ridiculously delicious toasts to the expertly-brewed coffee.
Murmur Coffee is serious about coffee, but it’s worth noting that this is the most well-rounded shop on this list, with coffee being emphasized slightly less. It’s a great option for a relaxed breakfast; less so if you’re looking for a grab and go caffeine fix.
Weekenders Coffee Tominokoji – Arguably the best roaster in Kyoto, this is the second Weekenders Coffee location in Kyoto. I’ve never been to the first, but my understanding is that it’s more of a wholesaler. This location is a bit odd, a couple blocks north of Nishiki Market…more or less inside a car park.
Once you convince yourself that Google Maps is, in fact, not leading you astray, you’ll find an intimate and inviting little shop serving the best light roasts in Kyoto. Personally, this is my favorite–their coffee is smooth and has some sweet notes. I normally favor something a bit deeper and more bitter, but Weekenders is an unexpected favorite of mine. If you can’t make it to this parking lot, keep in mind that Weekenders Coffee is also served at Dongree.
Blue Bottle Coffee – If you live in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, or New York, this name might be familiar to you. If not, Blue Bottle Coffee is similar to %ARABICA. It’s a shop serving single origins, blends, and espresso that are freshly roasted and served at their peak flavor, along with a handful of specialty drinks.
If I had to choose between this and %ARABICA, I’d choose the latter. Both are very good and show a dedication to perfection and quality, even as they’ve become chic. The difference is less in the taste and more in the fact that %ARABICA is based in Kyoto and doesn’t have any U.S. locations (yet).
Wanderers Stand – I’m hesitant to included this one on the list, as it’s a bit too far north of Kyoto Station and a bit too far south of downtown for convenience. You’d pretty much have to be coming from one of the Honganji Temples or just be wandering around (maybe that’s how it got the name?) for Wanderers Stand to be a viable option.
Nevertheless, we really like the coffee here, and the banana and egg toast are both fantastic. This is also very close to Ginjo Ramen Kubota, which is our favorite ramen in all of Kyoto. If you do ramen for lunch, perhaps Wanderers would make for a good post meal caffeine spike to combat the ramen-coma?
Vermillion Cafe – Those who have read our Kyoto, Japan 1-Day to 1-Week Itineraries are probably familiar with Vermillion, as it’s a recommended stop after hiking through Fushimi Inari Shrine. It’s a great little shop for coffee, tea, latte, and desserts.
There are two locations in the vicinity of Fushimi Inari. One is nearer the train station, and the other is nestled away in a quiet neighborhood at the shrine’s exit. If you’re in the vicinity, the one at the exit offers sublime ambiance (especially the outdoor seating area). The other location is a bit chaotic with tourists, and not nearly as high on our list.
Starbucks – I am loath to include this on the list, but there’s good reason for its inclusion, as one Starbucks location in Kyoto is particularly noteworthy. Plus, as a practical reality I know Starbucks is the default coffee for many tourists, especially those seeking the safe and familiar…or free WiFi. I can respect that, and we’ve gone to Starbucks in Japan for those same reasons–or to buy the exclusive merchandise. You’ve already formed an opinion on Starbucks one way or the other by this point, so I won’t bother with that. (I will say that their WiFi is much more spotty in Kyoto.)
With all of that said, if you’re going to do Starbucks in Japan, go to Starbucks Kyoto Karasuma-Rokkaku (with window views of Rokkakudo Temple) or Starbucks Coffee Kyoto Ninenzaka Yasaka Chaya (inside a restored machiya townhouse). The latter location, in the famed Higashiyama District, is actually worth seeking out. Unless you’re staying in a traditional ryokan or pay big bucks for a historic Airbnb rental, this will be one of your few opportunities to enter a machiya. This is by far the coolest coffee shop in Kyoto, and it’s a bit surprising that it houses a Starbucks.
Inoda Coffee – I’m not a huge fan of Inoda, but it makes this list because it’s the most well-known shop in Kyoto. That’s probably in large part a reputation predicated upon a decade ago, when it was one of the last major kissaten standing.
In other words, Inoda makes our list not as one of the ‘best’ places to go, but because it’s one of the places you’ve perhaps read about elsewhere. (Guide books can be slow to update.) We don’t recommend Inoda.
While we’ve narrowed this list down to our favorites, it should only be viewed as a jumping point and not anything definitive. If coffee publications about Kyoto are to be believed, there are nearly 100 kissaten, cafes, and shops we haven’t even tried that are worthy of your consideration.
If you’re planning a trip to the Japan that includes Kyoto, we recommend starting 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 ever had coffee in Kyoto? Which shops are your favorites? Been to any of the unique Starbucks locations? If you haven’t visited Kyoto yet, do any of these coffee options appeal to you? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Questions? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!