Japanese coffee shops are often written about in foreign travel guides due to the price of a cup of coffee at them which ranges from 350-450 JPY ($4.57 - $5.87 U.S.*) in Sakai City, and from about 350-700JPY ($4.57 -$9.14 U.S.*) in Tokyo. What the travel guides fail to mention is that Japanese people don't object because they are paying for the space to sit down for a while. The people in East Japan tend to sit and stay longer - for as long as three or four hours in some cases - so when you consider this, the prices seem a bit more reasonable.
Most of the coffee shops are sole proprietorship businesses. Quite often a husband and wife run the shop together, helped by part-time waitresses. Layouts in these small shops vary, but they usually include a counter and a few table seats. In certain coffee shops, small gifts are sold in addition to food and drinks. Some coffee shops double as small restaurants as well, serving meals at lunchtime. An interesting thing about many of these smaller shops is that they often have wax replicas of items on their menu in a glass showcase near the entrance .
There are larger coffee shops capable of seating more than 50 customers at a time. These tend to be more spacious affairs, often with glass fronts. Prices tend to be slightly higher in these shops - probably to help pay for the added labor costs.
Starbucks and other foreign franchises have set up shop in Japan as well, offering Japanese consumers international brands. Since 1995, Starbucks has expanded its operations and today,most major malls now have a Starbucks somewhere in them.
Another type of coffee shop is the snack bar/coffee shop which is beginning to become a bit harder to find these days. This type of coffee shop serves coffee during the day and switches over to a karaoke bar at night. You can usually tell if you've entered this kind of coffee shop by looking behind the counter for rows of whiskey bottles with names written on them or with tags hanging on them with names (or what appear to be some kind of writing if you don't read Japanese). The bottles are those purchased by the shop's patrons who have their names written on them, so that they can drink from the same bottle the next time they go there. You should be very careful when ordering at these places if it is late afternoon. You'll probably get the cup of coffee, but at a seriously inflated price because prices go up when the shop switches into its "bar mode".
Unlike restaurants, you just walk in and sit down at coffee shops. If you're a non-smoker, you might want to poke your head in and check out the ventilation first before sitting down,though, because many small coffee shops don't have no-smoking sections and a lot of Japanese are heavy smokers. A waitress will bring you an oshibori (a damp cloth) or a damp paper towel in a packet as well as a glass of water which you can drink (municipal drinking water is safe in Japan). You can use the oshibori to wipe your hands.
The menu will probably be in Japanese although many shops have a bit of English on the menus to give the menu a more "international flavor". Some will have photographs of foods offered as well. Coffee is the same pronunciation in Japanese as in English, however, most coffee shop serve iced and hot coffee and - to make matters a bit more difficult - often have different kinds of coffee on their menu. A common type of coffee available in most shops is called "American", and is pronounced "Ah-meh-rih-kahn". This is coffee which has been diluted with water. Japanese people think that Americans can't handle concentrated coffee, so they developed this version and named it after them. If you just want to drink regular coffee, then you could tell the waitress you'd like "hot coffee" (try pronouncing this one as "fort coffee", pausing between "fort" and "coffee" and most Japanese will get the message). Another way to ask for it would be to ask for "blend coffee" which should get you the house coffee. If you want cream for your coffee, and if the waitress forgot to bring it, ask for "fresh", which is what it's called in Japanese.
If you're hungry and the menu is in Japanese, you can motion for the waitress to follow you to the entrance to look at the wax models if the coffee shop has the wax replicas mentioned earlier. If there are prices next to the replicas you can jot down the price and show it to her to increase your chances of getting whatever it is you're pointing at. This technique has been successfully used by many foreigners who can't speak Japanese!
If you're visiting the coffee shop before 11:00 a.m., you might try saying "morning", pronouncing it as "moaning" to see what gets served. Most coffee shops have "breakfast sets" which are called... you guessed it... "morning". The "morning" set usually includes a choice of coffee or English tea as well as a hard-boiled egg with buttered toast. Coffee shops with 2 or 3 combinations often differentiate them as "A set", "B set", "C set"; or as "A Morning", "B Morning", "C Morning" and so on. The same often holds true for lunch combination specials, which are called: "A Lunch", "B Lunch", "C Lunch", etc.
Many shops have sandwiches on their menus. Tuna and egg are similar to what you'd expect, but you could be in for a surprise if you order a ham sandwich. Many shops use Japanese horseradish as a seasoning in ham sandwiches which could bring you to tears if you're not used to it.
At some point or another, the waitress will bring the bill and place it face down on the table. Tipping is neither required nor is it a custom in Japan. Payment is usually made at the cash register. Some coffee shops collect the 5% national sales tax but don't show it on the bill. If this is the case, the amount you'll be asked to pay will be 5% higher when you settle at the register.
*Converted to U.S. dollars at the rate of 176.6 JPY to the dollar.
Copyright, A.E.L.S., Inc. (Billy Hammond), 1998. Revised February, 2012.