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Tokyo's Coffee Shop Time Machine

Ginza, Tokyo. 5pm. It’s raining. Not enough to get soaked. But enough to be bothersome. Plus, I forgot my umbrella. The unceasing parade of obscene wealth that Ginza is famous for is on full display. Rain or shine. One square meter of land around here is worth over 30 million yen. 

Porsches of all years and trims whip past, kicking up a fine mist on us mere mortals on the sidewalk. Not one, not two, but three yellow Lamborghini Urus SUVs, seconds apart from one another, rumble through the dusk glow of a 7-storey Louis Vuitton. G-Wagons abound like Honda Civics.

To get outta the rain, I cut through the Ginza Six shopping mall. Five floors of eye-watering luxury. Balenciaga, Fendi, Valentino, Saint Laurent. Givenchy here is relegated to a mid-floor kiosk. The side door at the far side of Ginza Six spits me out onto a quiet alleyway where I spot an orange signboard that reads 珈琲だけの店 (or A Shop Only For Coffee).

It’s here, at Café de l’Ambre, where everything I thought I knew about coffee, from the bean to the business, went totally, entirely, out the window.

I open the front door, awakening an old school entrance chime. And just like that, I’ve gone through the looking glass. I feel as though I’m in a parallel universe. Coaxed back in time. Tokyo, 1960, perhaps.

It’s quiet. Very quiet. The glitz and gluttony of Ginza has faded away, replaced with dark wood-panelled walls, linoleum floors like at nonnas’ house, bags of coffee beans scattered about, a few small tables with built-in ashtrays, and a curved wooden counter with the varnish worn away in places. Comfortable and dim. Serene even.

Maybe 20 seats. Tops.

Taking a seat at the counter, I immediately take notice of the coffee prep area behind the bar. There’s no fancy La Marzocco espresso machine. In fact, there’s no coffee machine here at all. I see an old brass weighing scale, a grinder that looks to be homemade, a couple saucepans, and a discoloured fridge that I’m almost certain has no electricity running to it.

Despite its modesty however, this place is no secret. Cafe de L’Ambre’s legacy has brought with it many famous clients, from Nobel prize winning author Kawabata Yasunari to the grande dame of the Japanese stage Mizutani Yaeko. John Lennon and Yoko Ono stopped by once but the cafe was full so they couldn’t get a seat (or so the story goes).

And soon, I find out why.

Since its inception in 1948, Cafe de L’Ambre has defied the passage of time. It exists to this day as a monument to exceptional coffee that is roasted, brewed and served in its own unique way according to the processes and standards established by its late founder, Ichiro Sekiguchi様, a centenarian who died in 2018 at 103 years old.

What makes L’Ambre special is the way they age their coffee beans. Baristas the worldover are militant about the shelf life of their beans. Any longer than X number of days and the beans are only good for garden beds. Even at Steeltown.

But here, Sekiguchi and his team age and mature the beans for a minimum of 14 years. Like wine. And of course, they are roasted right there on site, mere steps from where I sit at the counter, mesmerized by the teetering of the old brass scale.

The left side of the menu has some interesting items. Coffee sweetened with hot barley and fortified with an with egg yolk. Coffee liqueur sherbet. Black iced coffee with Cointreau. Coffee pudding. “Iceless iced coffee,” which turns out to be chilled coffee poured over ice cubes made of frozen coffee so that when they melt, the coffee is not diluted.

But serious coffee drinkers will focus on the other side of the menu which lists straight, unblended coffees that are grouped according to price. This is where Sekiguchi’s unique aged roasts are found. Colombian beans from 1954. Kivu beans from 1982. Guatemalan beans from 2003. And so on. These can be ordered in cups of 50 cubic centimetres (1.69 ounces, about $7-$11) or 100 cubic centimetres (3.38 ounces, about $9-$13). All served in modest, thin white porcelain.

Don’t expect free refills.

I opt for a Queen Amber.
A chilled coffee served in a champagne coup that would otherwise be too gaudy if it wasn’t for the fact that they’ve been serving this drink here, exactly the same, for over 60 years. If this was a hipster cafe, I’d be going for strong, black coffee.

But here, in this womb-like Tokyo time machine, it feels acceptable to order something theatrical. Preferred even.

The barista (can we even call him that?) weighs out the aged beans on the antique scale. The one with a swinging brass counter weight. Then drops the beans into a boxy orange grinder (same grinder since 1948). He grinds the beans coarsely before transferring them to a damp cotton sock filter fitted to a handle. Using an old banged up stainless-steel pot to catch the drip, he pours not-quite-boiling water slowly, meticulously, in a circular motion, over the grinds.

He pours this fresh hot drip into a steel cocktail shaker and then pivots to open the ice box which, as suspected, has been here since 1948 and has no electricity running to it. It does however hold a large block of ice (replaced every three days) that keeps the inside chilled.

He places the cocktail shaker into a round groove worn into the block of ice. He spins the shaker in the groove until the coffee is chilled, and then delicately pours it out into a chilled champagne coupe. He scrapes any bubbles off the glossy surface of the coffee with a small spoon. On top he floats a layer of evaporated milk.

Sekiguchi came to understand the value of good coffee beans through circumstances that arose during World War II. “Early in the war, Germans who were very keen on good, strong coffee demanded the best quality beans and imported large quantities from Indonesia,” he told a Los Angeles Times journalist back in 1993. “The Germans came in war ships to Indonesia and carried it back through the Suez Canal.” 

But this route proved too long and difficult, so they started shipping the beans from Indonesia to Japan, where they would store it and then transport it to Germany on the Siberian Railway. Once war between Germany and the Soviet Union broke out, this supply chain was cut off.

“So the stock of coffee piled up in Japan, kept in a warehouse in Maebashi that had once been used for raising silkworms. The conditions were perfect for ageing coffee--cool and dry,” Sekiguchi said. After Germany lost the war they were no longer in a position to claim the backlog of beans.

“The coffee itself was very fine coffee, and had been aged a long time before it was sold. That was really delicious. When I understood how good it was, I got the idea to stock and age fine coffees.” Three years after the war ended, Sekiguchi opened his first shop, “Alkaloid Beverage Institute”, here in Ginza which shortly after was renamed to Cafe de L’Ambre.

I pay my 1,000 yen bill and walk back out into the frey of modern Tokyo. Like a diver coming up too fast from the deep, there’s some agony in the transition. However, I’m comforted by the knowing that no matter what happens here in the madness of the outside world, the environment inside Cafe de L’Ambre will likely never change.

It's too old to change. Too entrenched.  Its fossilization too complete. 

Night has fallen. It’s really raining now. The Ginza-ites are prepared. It’s a clone army of umbrellas. I decide to not cut through the Ginza Six on my way back to the subway station. It’s too new. Too flashy. I’ll get wet instead.

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Tokyo's Coffee Shop Time Machine

Since its inception in 1948, Cafe de L’Ambre has defied the passage of time. It exists to this day as a monument to exceptional coffee that is roasted, brewed and served in its own unique way according to the processes and standards established by its late founder, Ichiro Sekiguchi, a centenarian who died in 2018 at 103.

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