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The Little Japanese Coffee Shop That Beat the Third Wave

In Sapporo, where boutique coffee shops haven’t infested every metropolitan corner, Cafe Morihiko stands as an example of independent coffee evolution.

Morhiko Coffee Gear Patrol Lead Full
Henry Phillips

The term “Third Wave” as it relates to coffee was first put to print in an article that ran in 2002, in a specialty publication written for and by coffee roasters. Its definition is now known universally, even by tea drinkers, as a passion for coffee that borders on obscene. The emphasis is on bean sourcing, roasting that enhances subtle nuances of flavor and perfecting brew methods, usually by someone with a tattoo.

Or, to use a simplified explanation: first there was Folgers, second there was Starbucks and third there was/is fill-in-your-Brooklyn-coffee-bar. It’s why time-consuming brewing methods such as siphon brewing suddenly became more popular, ditto pour-over, Aeropress, nel drip and the layman’s ability to distinguish between them.

By 2002, on the other side of the world from the birthplace of Starbucks, Mr. Sousuke Ichikawa of Cafe Morihiko in Sapporo was already six years into Third Wave coffee, and, as is often the case when looking back on those simple decisions that made a widespread impact on culture, he didn’t even know it. A few months ago, in his original location (he now has three, in addition to his own roaster and a cake shop), surrounded by dark wood, white paint, workers wearing denim tops and white cloth aprons, old-fashioned irons, books crammed between antique bird statues and an old sewing machine, Ichikawa explained his love affair with coffee.

As a teen, while on holidays, he would frequently hop from coffee shop to coffee shop, drinking as much as he could and passively absorbing the idea, simple as it was, of drinking coffee for the love of the taste, rather than the utility of the caffeine. A few years later, while working as a designer and living in a house full of other aspiring designers, he found himself making coffee for his roommates, rather than designing.

“I began serving them from the basement of the house, and I realized my inner self,” said Ichikawa, who wears the air of someone who is continually surprised by how much he’s taken to a single cup of coffee, despite having drunk thousands.

As an outgoing individual, and remembering his teen years, Ichikawa decided to shift career paths and purchased the original location for Cafe Morihiko — a small house along an old residential road a short walk west of Sapporo. The building was covered in ivy and chipped paint, beautiful on the outside but destroyed on the inside by time and the elements. He spent three years renovating the building and it remains his favorite location, where its “at home” vibe means no one is rushing, including the servers. It’s the location where patrons feel the most of his imprint. Every cup of coffee is brewed using a nel drip, in which water is slowly poured through a small flannel cloth filled with grinds; when starting out, he ground the beans and brewed the coffee himself, also using a nel drip. The coffee shop is unmarked, out of the way and without pretense, but word of mouth allowed him to expand.

“Coffee has magic. The more you drink, the more you learn.”

After drinking a coffee at his first location, we followed Ichikawa’s Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT as he took us from the original location to the second, with its fast-paced commuter vibe, and then the third location, where he roasts limited runs of beans in a small furnace. At each stop, we had a coffee, which makes for a long day; with Ichikawa you won’t get your coffee for a while, and you’re expected to drink it slowly. This isn’t commodity coffee. It’s the main event.

“Coffee has magic,” Ichikawa said. “The more you drink, the more you learn.” This concept is ubiquitous and almost cliché in America, where magazines, ours included, cover brewing, drinking and even cupping coffee. But in Sapporo, where boutique coffee shops haven’t infested every metropolitan corner, Cafe Morihiko stands as an example of independent evolution. The intricacies of coffee, and the primitive social aspect of sitting around chatting and sipping, are not unique to any culture. And Ichikawa makes sure Sapporo has coffee at its best.

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