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Food & Beverage

Japan -- land of exotic coffee beans

Farmer's decades-old experiment pays off as globe hankers for specialty roasts

Japan's coffee boom has spread to Okinawa Prefecture, where a soccer club headed by a former men's national team player is growing the tropical shrubs next to its practice field.

TOKYO -- One day, a young Seiichi Yoshitama learned of a Brazilian immigrant who had brought coffee seedlings to Amami-Oshima, an island in the East China Sea near Okinawa. Yoshitama became intoxicated with the possibilities. Could this tropical shrub worshipped the world over for the invigorating effects of its seeds flourish in the subtropical climate of Japan's southern isles?

Yoshitama was determined to find out. He visited the Brazilian immigrant who was more than happy to part with 100 seedlings of his agricultural swag in return for samples of Japanese agriculture -- two bottles of shochu.

Those seedlings would be planted in 1983 on Tokunoshima, another island near Okinawa but part of Kagoshima Prefecture, where Yoshitama had been harvesting sugar cane.

It was serendipitous that Yoshitama had heard of the Brazilian immigrant. The native of Miyazaki Prefecture used to dream of emigrating to Brazil. While living in Osaka he would prepare for that day by combing through libraries and used bookstores for titles on tropical agriculture, immersing himself in every piece of literature he could find on the topic.

Then tropical agriculture came to him.

Nearly four decades later and Yoshitama, now 75, is still farming coffee on the island. He dries his beans and nurses seedlings in a large hoop house in his backyard. There is also a work shed that houses a Columbian-made machine which removes the flesh of the fruit from the seeds. Most of Yoshitama's crop is consumed at a coffee shop on the island operated by his wife, Michiko.

But the amount of land on the island devoted to growing coffee is accelerating remarkably, Yoshitama said, a trend that dovetails with a global hankering for coffee beans from exotic locales.

Seiichi Yoshitama dries an assortment of coffee bean varietals in a greenhouse on his farm on Tokunoshima Island in the East China Sea. 

When the Nikkei visited his 1,400 sq. meter farm, about 400 coffee plants were extending powerful branches, and red and yellow cherries were shining in the sun, waiting to be picked.

Yoshitama has to make up for the drawbacks of Tokunoshima's terrain and climate. Coffee is best grown on mountainsides or at high altitudes where daytime and nighttime temperatures swing like a carnival ride. Most of it is produced along what is known as the "coffee belt," a band about 25 degrees north and south of the equator. Brazil, Vietnam and Ethiopia are within the belt. Okinawa and Tokunoshima are not; neither do they rise to high elevations.

"We are about 340 km away from the belt," Yoshitama said. "Common sense says you would have to be stupid to try to grow coffee here. But other conditions fit the bill. The soil of the lifted coral reef is mildly acidic, and the rainfall [suits coffee]. If you put in a lot of effort and use Japan's excellent farming techniques, you can clear the hurdle. The cold winters condense the beans, and that helps too."

Coffee farming on Tokunoshima declined in 2010, when a typhoon destroyed many seedlings and eight of the 11 growers on the island gave up. In 2017, though, Japanese food company Ajinomoto AGF stepped in with equipment and techniques to help Tokunoshima's coffee farmers protect their plants from violent winds, and the number of farmers began swinging up. It now stands at about 30.

More of Yoshitama's neighbors now farm coffee, and there are more attempts being made to raise the crop elsewhere in Japan.

On the main island of Okinawa, near the town of Nago, Okinawa SV, a soccer club headlined by Naohiro Takahara, who once played on Japan's national team, is conducting its own coffee-growing experiment.

The club's practice field sits on a hill and looks out on the East China Sea. So do its coffee plants.

Okinawa SV began farming its land in April 2019 with the hope of boosting the island's economy and earning some money for the players, Takahara said. The crop was chosen because coffee is familiar to Japanese but grown by few domestic farmers. And Japan's specialty coffee culture will allow the farm to shoot for producing high-end beans.

But those who have preceded the soccer club in trying to grow coffee in Japan have yet to hit on an optimum method for adapting the beans to the southern islands' unfriendly soil, terrain and climate.

Okinawa SV's coffee plantation is farmed by the club's staff and players. Takahara has also enlisted support from Nestle Japan, which was a sponsor of a club he once played for and part of a global conglomerate with a number of mass-market coffee brands.

The first 250 plants are arranged in neat lines. But even the tallest ones at best came up to an adult's chest, and height varies widely from plant to plant. In the tropics, healthy coffee plants usually grow to 3 meters to 3.5 meters.

The first harvest will not be for two or three years at the earliest, and the farm plans to plant 10,000 seedlings every year.

There are also coffee farmers in Tokyo, at least on the Ogasawara Islands, which occupy an isolated patch of the Pacific Ocean about 1,000 km south of the capital but are nevertheless administered by the metro government. One of the first to farm coffee there was Takeaki Enomoto, the founder of the Tokyo University of Agriculture. He planted his shrubs on the islets, sometimes referred to as the Galapagos of the Orient, in 1878.

At the time, Japanese were beginning to change their attitude toward coffee. The oldest known Japanese text about tasting the dark brown brew was written in 1804 by Ota Nanpo, an author and poet also known by the pseudonym Shokusanjin. He described coffee as not fit for drinking because it had a whiff of something burned.

Things really changed in the go-go years after World War II, when Japan developed some unique coffee habits, including dark-roasting beans and filtering the grounds with flannel, brewing iced coffee and canning sweetened coffee so it can be sold from vending machines and purchased by busy workers rushing to the train station in the morning.

Also symbolic of Japan's postwar coffee culture were individual- or family-operated shops whose proprietors boasted of a unique technique or brewing method that brought out the true flavor characteristics of their beans.

Among the few well-known traditional shops in Tokyo is Cafe Bach, which now trains coffee aficionados aspiring to open their own places.

Back in the 1970s, when Japan could only get its hands on low-quality coffee, Mamoru Taguchi made a science of how to draw out the most pleasing flavors from those beans. He calls it "kohi-gaku."

Owner Mamoru Taguchi is a pioneer of Japan's cafe culture. He began roasting his own beans in the 1970s, around the same time the first Starbucks opened on the other side of the Pacific. Taguchi devised a classification system that takes into account a number of characteristics, such as the shape of the bean and how to best roast each varietal. His kohi-gaku, or coffee-ology, science has been a major influence on cafes across the country.

"Your judgment of a great cup also depends on your physical conditions at the time," Taguchi said. "What I'm pursuing is bringing out the characteristics each raw bean has."

In his system, baristas should be able to identify good beans by sight and pick them out by hand. They should brew coffee with water heated to 83 C. The meticulous standards were developed in the belief that Japanese discern and enjoy complex and subtle flavors.

At his shop, staff hand-drip coffee in front of customers. The aroma of one cup is rich, and the flavor crisp, blanketing the tongue with the right notes of tart and bitter.

Taguchi symbolizes Japanese coffee culture's pursuit of perfection. It is a culture familiar to the Japanese public but by no means common in other countries, according to Yukihiro Tambe, an assistant professor at the Shiga University of Medical Science and a coffee historian.

"Japan was the first country that developed the style where professionals worked diligently to develop skills for roasting and brewing great cups of coffee," Tambe said. In other countries, cafes grew as places for people to gather and socialize. As such, coffee was regarded as something extra, as it were, typically brewed in large quantities using machines.

Japan's cafes, called kissaten, have taken an isolated evolutionary path, like the flora and fauna on the Galapagos Islands, according to Tambe. It all started with the opening of Cafe Paulista in Tokyo's once-glitzy Ginza district, in 1911, and developed during a period of popularity known as junkissa, or pure cafe. In these shops, only nonalcoholic beverages are served. Japan's cafe culture peaked in the 1970s and 1980s, when there were at least 150,000 kissaten.

The competitive landscape led cafe owners to compete against one another to produce coffees with superior flavor profiles. They developed their roasting skills and came up with new brewing methods.

They had another motivating factor: The beans that were coming to Japan were of low quality, forcing the proprietors to innovate. Many cafes began brewing one cup at a time, after an order was placed, rather than percolate whole potfuls ahead of time.

Cafe Paulista, Ginza, Tokyo, 1916. At first, Japanese did not care for the dark brown liquid, which was said to give off a whiff of something burned. (photo courtesy of Cafe Paulista)

In this regard, the kissaten were decades ahead of the "third wave" movement that began in the U.S. around the turn of the century and has now spread around the world. They were ahead in other ways, too. "Japan's kissaten that have in-house roasting equipment were doing some of the same things" that the leaders of the third wave latched on to, Tambe said.

The first wave of coffee hit in the 19th century, when companies like Hills Bros. of San Francisco, California, began vacuum canning ground beans and making them available to the masses who did not consider where the coffee came from, how it might best be roasted or even much how it tasted. It was a commodity, and refills were free.

The second wave began in the 1960s in Berkeley, California, where a shop many consider to be the inspiration for Starbucks began educating its customers about where its beans were grown and how certain roasts could bring out pleasing flavors. Rich, dark roasts came into vogue, especially for milky espresso drinks, as consumers learned to enjoy coffee and the experience of going out for a frothy cup.

The third wave brought a kissaten-level meticulousness to the art of making coffee. Coffee proprietors and their customers began to seek out beans not only from certain countries within the coffee belt but from particular elevations and farms. Light roasts gained favor as they allow the terroir of where the beans were grown to stand out with unique flavor notes. Beans must be ground with the proper equipment, right before brewing, which has to be done one cup at a time with water of a certain temperature.

No wonder, then, that Japan's coffee culture is attracting fresh attention overseas and its brewing equipment, such as Hario's drippers, is becoming hot on the export market.

Other trends are reshaping the culture. Traditional kissaten are falling by the wayside. Fewer than half of the 150,000 that existed when Yoshitama first got his hands on those seedlings remain. At the same time, the volume of raw beans Japan imported in 2019 was up 50% from 1989. Convenience stores that not many years ago tried luring coffee drinkers with inexpensive options are now selling more expensive "quality" brews.

And more specialty coffee roasters are popping up, extolling the farms and elevations their beans come from.

So, where to go if one wants to combine the one cup of perfection experience with beans that a Japanese farmer has spent decades refining? Where can an enthusiast go for a rare cup of Tokunoshima coffee? The Glaubell Coffee shop in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward is the only place these beans are handled off the island they were grown.

"The raw beans are a little small but have a fascinating color of jade green," said Tomoyo Kano, 55, who operates the shop. "There's no doubt their quality has improved since I tried them for the first time back in 2003."

The aroma? Rather understated, but the first sip delivers a refreshing, gentle flavor, followed by the satisfying notes of a beverage that has been nurtured in Japanese soil and by a Japanese climate.

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