Morning coffee in Nagoya tastes different, and it’s the perfect start to discover the underrated city.
There’s a Japanese term called Showa—it refers to the period between 1926 and 1989 when Emperor Hirohito was monarch. Showa is also used as an adjective for things that used to exist or be popular during that time period. In English, it’s close to saying “retro” or “old-school.”
There is a city close to the center of Japan that represents Showa quite better than any other I’ve visited. Clustered around the iconic Nagoya Castle, many independent businesses are loved and preserved among the harsh competition of national brands—especially when it comes to coffee shops. There are mainly two criteria of coffee shops in Japan: cafés, which are high-class and European in style, and kissaten, a uniquely Japanese version of a café.
Nagoya and Kissaten have an intimate history. When you order a coffee at kissaten in Nagoya, you might be surprised to find that it comes with a side—it could be anything from toast to a few peanuts. This tradition is called moningu (literally, “morning”) because it’s most common during breakfast hours.
The moningu dates back to the 1950s, when an area close to Nagoya City, Ichimiya, was booming from its textile industry. Ichimiya’s factories were always loud with machinery, and businessmen looked elsewhere for quiet spaces to hold discussions. That’s where the kissaten came in handy—comfy seats, cheap coffee, and they never kicked you out for staying too long. The kissaten soon caught on to this unique business opportunity and, as a token of appreciation, started to provide small “extras” with their coffees. The first ever moningu service were some peanuts and a boiled egg.
Soon, the moningu culture spread out of Ichimiya and reached nearby Nagoya. Textiles finished in the factories of Ichimiya were carried to Nagoya, where there was one of the biggest textile markets in Japan at the time. As they were bringing in fresh textiles, the people of Ichimiya would come into the kissaten for a break and realize that nothing came with their coffee. Thus the kissaten of Nagoya would learn that many customers expected something extra. Now, many decades later, the moningu is known across Japan as a Nagoya specialty. The most loved and widespread moningu items are the ogura toast (sweet red bean paste on buttered toast) and tamago sando (egg sandwich.)
If you ask me, what’s really special about Nagoya’s kissaten isn’t necessarily the moningu service. Sure, it’s never made anybody feel bad to have a little something with their coffee, but what’s more important to your morning coffee is the way you have it. Do you have it on your office desk, alone, with a laptop glaring at you, or do you lounge on a soft leather couch, talking with your coworkers? Do you chug it, or do you sip it?
Journalist Naoyuki Takai says that Nagoya’s kissaten have traditionally provided coffee that leans on the bitter side in order to encourage customers to sip on it slowly and stay in their seats for longer. Kissaten’s main goal is to create the most comfortable space for their customers; the longer they stay in the shop, the fonder they will be of it, meaning that they will likely come back on another day. Perhaps counterintuitive to many of us who are used to cafes kicking us out after too much time has passed, or glaring at us when we open up our laptops, the kissaten is a place where your needs come first.
According to journalist Toshiyuki Otake, a cafe and a kissaten have a central dividing feature. In a cafe, the business’ desires come first—if the owner wants the shop to look or feel a certain way, it will be that way. The “feel” of the shop would determine its audience tier as well as how the customers will behave in it. On the contrary, a kissaten is first and foremost defined by its customers; it strives to be the extension of your own living room. While a cafe presents an exotic and foreign space, a kissaten recreates the space of one’s home.
Sitting in the middle between Tokyo and Osaka, Nagoya is a city in everybody’s plain sight, yet one that is too often overshadowed by Japan’s many destinations. Tourists traveling to Nagoya will find that its unique charm actually is something that exists because of its semi-hidden nature. A perfect fit between a town and a city, those who are overwhelmed by Tokyo’s crossings or Osaka’s amusements may just be able to find their Japanese paradise in Nagoya.
The word Showa describes anything that had to do with Japan’s lost golden decades of the twentieth century. I, personally, was born many years after the Showa era but still intuitively understand when something represents it. Anything can be Showa from a song, a shopping arcade, to a candy wrapper, but above all, Showa a feeling. It’s a mix of wonder at stepping into a long-lost time and the feeling of coming home—it’s letting yourself experience Japan without knowing everything about it. Considering the size of the city, I’ve found Nagoya to have held on to their Showa legacy quite well. Showa is not a tourist attraction in Nagoya, as it may be in other places, but it is lived in.