When we first heard that California’s Blue Bottle Coffee had opened its first café in Kyoto at the end of March 2018 — and what’s more, within a 100-year-old machiya (町屋) — it had been on our to-go list since. Besides the draw of a good cup of joe, which is always a good reason, another equally splendid reason to transverse to this part of Kyoto is enjoying coffee in a traditional townhouse that pays homage to its ancient beauty and heritage while melding with contemporary coffee culture.
Parked just 5 minutes’ walk to Nanzen-ji (南禅寺), the exterior of Blue Bottle Coffee Kyoto is deceivingly bare. No showy logos or LED signboards decimate the time-worn facade. Only a wooden plague with their iconic logo bears the mark of the machiya’s occupant.
Blue Bottle Kyoto consists of 2 separate buildings with the above front entrance leading into the coffee purveyor’s store where one can buy coffee beans and merchandise. Continuing along alleyway just beside this front building, we were greeted by the café building with its tall glass windows that seemed to encase this Kyoto traditional townhouse like a piece of art.
Stripped bare of its frontal walls, tall windows blur the boundaries between indoor and outdoor space, lower and upper floors, and allow for the continuation of natural light into what would have been typically a dark space. Anyone who has been to a traditional townhouse can attest to the murkiness of its deep interiors.
Schemata Architects, the team behind Blue Bottle Kyoto’s design, did more than just stripping away unnecessary walls. Machiyas characteristically have ground elevation in their entryway. Here, the ground had been levelled to boost that continuation of indoor-outdoor space and in a way, made more accessible and welcoming to customers.
Everywhere in the café, we could see vestiges of the former structures — exposed wall corners revealing the interior wall frames and its clay composition, large preserved structural timbers — and the age-old wisdom of wood building with little or no nails like the connections between beams and structural columns.
When we looked up at the vaulted ceiling, we could even see where old timbers met new ones. Somehow, that stirred up curious emotions within us which we couldn’t adequately explain.
Near the back, a simple garden allowed natural light to stream through to the inner part of the café, sustaining the flow of light from front to back.
Orders were taken at the terrazzo cashier counter right at the entrance. The menu, more varied than the one at % Arabica, included espresso drinks, drip coffee, New Orleans-styled ice coffee, cold brew, simple pound cakes, a couple of cookies, small waffles, a scone, and a blondie. Good as a pitstop for snack and coffee before heading to Nanzen-ji.
At the counter, we looked up and saw, laid bare before our eyes, how a part of the upper floor was taken away to lend a high ceiling to the lower floor entrance.
The C-shaped counter saw the continuity of the terrazzo floor as though risen to form the baristas’ work areas and the cashier. Facing the customers on the left was the espresso zone and on the right, the drip coffee zone. Behind, we saw the kitchen where the bakes were prepped or heated up before serving.
I ordered drip coffee, the washed and patio dried single origin Guatemala Atitlan La Voz, which was poured over using the Kalita Wave. The brew was bright and clean with the mingling of the sweet and tart notes of green apple, green grape, and milk chocolate.
For snacks, we ordered the gruyère cheese waffle and the Kyoto-exclusive Green Tea Mint Cookie. The former was savoury and the latter sweet, pairing well with the drip coffee. Well, nothing to shout about in the snacks department.
Facing this café building and making up the back of the front building are alfresco seats that give off the chill vibes of indie cafés — think garden green metal chairs and white triangular tables. It’s also a good spot to admire the café building while enjoying a warm cuppa in the cool autumn breeze.
Before we took leave of Blue Bottle Coffee Kyoto, of course, we had to visit the store at the front to buy a bag of coffee beans home for our pourovers. Other merchandise sold here included mugs, kettles, tote bags, grinders, and chocolates.
The principles of amalgamating new and old we saw at the café building were replicated at the shop building where we saw the same exposed state of walls fusing with modern touches of interior design. A window framed by the green foliage outside heightened the appreciation of the Japanese sense of beauty.
pling thinks…Blue Bottle Coffee’s Kyoto café seems to be the meeting point of numerous dichotomies. It is raw meets Japandi (polished and minimalist Japanese + Scandinavian styles); old meets new; heritage meets modern culture. Its interiors embrace the Japanese’s aesthetics of antiquity and tranquillity, intermingle them with urban elegance, and thus invent a sense of newness in today’s coffee culture.
Given the architecture and interior design, Blue Bottle Coffee Kyoto makes for a superb place to have that cup of joe and we know of serious coffee drinkers who love the brew. We recommend that you come early (before 10am) to avoid the lines, especially during peak travel seasons when it can wind out of the café building.
If you like the atmosphere of a machiya, check out IZAMA, a restaurant also housed in a traditional townhouse.
How to get to Blue Bottle Coffee Kyoto
Open Daily 8am – 6pm
- From Kyoto Bus Terminal, take Bus 5 for 15 stops and alight at Okazaki Hoshojicho Bus Stop.
- Follow the map above. Walk for 5 minutes along the outer periphery of the Kyoto City Zoo on your right and some houses and offices on your left.
- Turn into Shirakawa-dori and turn left at the junction.
- From Kyoto Station, take the Karasuma Line at Platform 2 towards Karasuma Oike Station (烏丸御池駅).
- Alight at Karasuma Oike Station, take the escalator down to B3 and take the Tozai Line toward Keage Station (蹴上駅).
- Alight at Keage Station and exit the station to walk along the main road. You’ll be walking towards Nanzen-ji Temple. Follow the map above. It’s a 10-minute walk along Niomon-dori (仁王門). Turn right at the traffic junction.
- A more expensive route would be to take the Tokaido-Sanyo Line Special Rapid Tsuruga at Platform 2 which will go direct to Keage Station.