Somewhere, in Tokyo — Omotesandō, actually — a wisp of smoke floated out of a dark-stained wooden doorway, faint light spilled out, as if from a portal to another world.
Had you been there, you would probably have caught a peculiar fragrance in the air: toasted bread and tobacco mixed with something thick and almost sweet, like sugar turning to caramel over an open flame. If you had followed that smell inside, you would have found in the dappled light an unpretentious bar, dark wood rolling from wall to wall in a single unbroken wave; knotted pine polished by wear and stained by years of cigar smoke. On the bar a few flowers might have been arranged delicately in a small vase — camellias, or perhaps an assortment of meadow flowers from a village in the Kitakami mountains. As your eyes slowly adjusted to the light, you might make out the source of the fragrant air in a beam of sunlight projected from a single narrow window above the door: a small metal crank-operated drum-roaster.
Tokyo, it has been said, is a city of boundless energy — but it is also a city in endless flux. Modern Tokyo is a place where one can wander interminably, but never be lost. In the years since Showa, it has become a clean, globalized, tech-tropolis; a brightly lit beacon for the modern, disciplined, cultured society that Japan has become.
But Tokyo of the 1980s was not so. In an essay on modernism, The famed architect Fumihiko Maki wrote that before Disneyland, Tokyo was a city of alien areas; of secret places and of endlessly overlapping scenes. Before Skytree, the towering billboards of Shibuya, and the bullet train, it was to this city of light and shadows that Katsuji Daibō, the revered owner of Daibō Coffee, belonged.
If you had found yourself standing in Daibō Coffee in 1988, in this narrow, dappled room with the small metal drum roaster, you would have seen burlap bags holding green coffee from farms in Brazil, Africa, or Columbia. Past the roaster, a long bar stretching to the end of the room, the only seating a few wooden stools. Subdued piano from a soft jazz record would be playing quietly in the background — Thelonius Monk, or perhaps Keith Jarret.
The scene in front of you would be virtually identical to the scene you might find on any other day in the small shop’s thirty-three year tenure. The only exception would the patrons, sitting on small wooden bar-stools, sipping from porcelain cups of thick, black coffee.
Daibō himself would be silhouetted in the light from the narrow window above the door: a slender man in his sixties, downy white hair combed back neatly. He wouldn’t look at you immediately. All of his attention would be focused on a wide, delicately woven wicker basket next to the roaster, where he would be hand-sorting tiny green coffee beans the size of rosary beads with prayer-like devotion. These beans, already sorted thrice, were now being meticulously picked over one last time for flaws, irregularities, and defects before being turned into dark, deeply aromatic coffee.
If you had been there, you would have felt awe as you gazed upon this man in pursuit of total excellence. A true Shokunin, just as Jiro to sushi, in the process of picking through beans that would later be roasted patiently by hand for hours, ground and sifted to exacting particulate, brewed by hand one drop at a time in a hand-made Nel dripper, and served in a delicate porcelain cup at a whopping 25 grams of coffee to 50cc’s of water. You would have witnessed a man creating what was perhaps the most labor-intensive cup of coffee in the world.
But, sadly, you could not have been there, unless of course, you were lucky enough to wander in for respite from the cacophony and bustle of the city streets between 1975 and 2013. In that last fateful year, Daibō closed his cafe — a victim of neighbourhood gentrification — when an ambitious property developer purchased the multi-use tenant building that his shop was housed in.
It was during this time, in the street-corners and alleyways of cities across Japan, that kissaten — traditional Japanese coffee houses of every imaginable variety — bloomed with the rise of Western culture in Japan, and then shrunk again with the rise of canned coffee and franchise cafes. It was also during this time that “third wave” coffee exploded and such careful selection, roasting, and preparation methods as Katsuji Daibō had been practicing for years became fashionable.
Daibō was perhaps the first true coffee master of Japan, at least in the traditional sense. His coffee, his meticulous origin selection, his careful consideration of every tiny detail of craft and experience, from the wood grain of the bar to the flowers that graced it, likened more to the ethos of the Japanese tea ceremony than to the fast-paced, machine-driven commodity coffee of contemporary life. Tea ceremonies in Japan — ritualized practices stretching back through millennia, involved interwoven cultural, religious, and historical practices so intricate that a single cup might take hours to prepare. Such ceremonies were intended to bring participants together, representing respect, purity, and tranquility, and were choreographed meticulously to maximize the wellbeing, relaxation, and enjoyment of guests. While Daibō — at least to any historical accounts — did not follow this credo to exacting replication, he certainly adopted its ethos. His approach to serving coffee was truly unique, and a reverence for guests was evident in everything he did. Daibō believed that, through coffee, he could improve the conditions of peoples lives. In one account, he wrote:
“I think when we stop and take a moment out from life to relax with a cup of coffee, we’re really getting a taste of where we are in our lives. As well as tasting the enjoying the flavour of the coffee, we are savouring the condition of our lives and our inner selves at that particular moment. When I’m concentrating on making coffee, I’m totally in the moment, and somehow that act naturally creates an openness between me and the customer. A strange kind of relationship comes into being.”
Like all great masters, Daibō was incredibly particular, and his finical methods became the stuff of legend. He had a certain way of pouring coffee, statuesque and frozen, except for the wrist that held his hand-fashioned Nel dripper. The wrist would tilt, ever-so-slowly, as a perfectly staccato drip-drip-drip of water saturated his coffee grounds. He would hold his slim goose-neck kettle in stasis, just so, above the dripper, so that the water created a precise amount of agitation in the coffee bed. In the years after he closed his shop, Daibō would occasionally make public appearances, and patrons would travel from across Japan to watch him silently brew coffee — a single serving might take as long as ten minutes to prepare, with no detail, from cup selection to pouring angle, spared. Watching Daibō make a cup of coffee was said to be like watching a dancer perform a perfectly choreographed routine.
Sadly, with Daibō’s coffee shop died his craft, and although other kissaten carry on, none have done so with such excellence.
Daibō’s legacy, however, is long from forgotten. James Freeman, founder of San Fransico’s Blue Bottle Coffee and one of the pioneers of third wave coffee in the early aughts, visited Daibō Coffee in its heyday. Freeman was taken with Daibō’s, and he would later help popularize the single-cup pour-over preparation that has become so common in the West, playing a major part in ushering in an age of single-origin beans, specialized production methods, and farm-to-cup fetishism that would take the modern world by storm.
What is so fascinating about Daibō is not his obsession with craft. In the tradition of Japanese shokunin, this sort of life-long sophisticated fanaticism appears frequently. Nor is it his coffee, although even by today’s standards, his approach to roasting, brewing, and serving was exceptionally meticulous.
What is fascinating about Daibō is the ripple effect that spread out, across many continents and years, from his little shop. It is perhaps true that had Daibō’s never existed, other forces might have conspired to bring speciality coffee to the world as we know it today, but then again, perhaps not. Many of the cornerstones of modern coffee — the performative hand-brewing rituals, minimalist aesthetics, and dearth of infusion devices — represent a heritage that can be traced directly back to Japan. Had James Freeman not been so taken with his experience at Daibō’s, perhaps he would have been less motivated to look further.
Daibō’s, of course, did not exist alone. Freeman visited, and was inspired by, many other kissaten. But Daibō’s was, undoubtably, a paragon amongst its peers — a quiet smoke-infused alter upon which the sacrament of coffee was practiced with such utter respect and devotion that it left a permanent stamp on the culture; a lineage that stretched across decades, and will likely continue for centuries more.