In the 1980’s, when the economy of Japan roared like a lion, Americans returning from Japan would shock their friends by telling them that a cup of coffee in Tokyo costs ten dollars. Ironically, it was probably the introduction of Starbucks into Tokyo in the late-1990’s that eventually drove the cost of a decent cup of coffee down below five dollars. Today, with a Starbucks in every neighborhood, Japanese cafes like Tully’s and Doutor at every train station, and gourmet coffee sold even at local combini, cheap coffee is literally a few paces from anywhere you might be. So imagine my surprise when I sat down at the rustic wooden counter at Bon in Shinjuku, opened the menu and found a ten dollar cup of coffee on the menu.
To be more accurate, 1,080 yen, not quite ten dollars at today’s exchange rate, but a couple years ago, closer to twelve dollars. And not just one cup of coffee, but a half dozen different cups of coffee ranging from 1,080 to 1,400 yen. There was even something called “Coffee Service” on the menu that was priced well over thirty dollars.
On any other day, I would have given the barista an embarrassed smile and quickly excused myself to the nearest Mister Donut, where I could get coffee and a half a dozen donuts for that price. But I had purposely sought out Bon, intrigued by a short article I found in a coffee mook (a “mook” in Japan is a magazine-book). The current crop of Tokyo cafes are hipster-minimalist with unfinished wood tables and exposed pipe in the ceilings. Bon looked like a cafe right out of the 1960’s; from the photos it was almost like you could smell the smoky aroma of cigarettes seeping out of the aged oak counter and shelves. I had to experience it for myself.
In my younger days I played a Nintendo game called “Animal Crossing” where you play a human character living in a town where all your neighbors are animals. In the basement of the museum of your town was The Roost, a dark little cafe run by a pigeon named Brewster. The more you frequent The Roost, the more you realize what a terrific barisa Brewster is. This is sort of how I imagined Bon. After all, I was standing on the sidewalk outside the cafe for several minutes before I recognized the kanji on the sign and decended the steep dark stairs into the shop.
I ordered the Brazilian coffee from the several different ten dollar types on the menu and watched as the barista ground the beans and made an expert pour-over with the little volcano of grounds forming in the middle of the filter. Minutes later, a small pot of coffee (which was closer to 1.5 cups) was set in front of me along with one of the hundreds of unique cups Bon has on its shelves (which I would later learn was more than 1500). A tray with a bowl of coarse sugar and chilled cream was also provided.
I would like to be able to say that Bon’s ten dollar coffee was the best I’ve ever had. In truth, it was merely good, better than the overrated Blue Bottle in San Francisco but not as good as little Ekoda Coffee down the street from our church. However, I will say it was the best ten dollar cup of coffee I’ve ever had. And hopefully, the only one.