Whatever measure people use to look at the success of coffee shops in Japan, you’ll find evidence of Japan’s love of these caffeinated treats. The numbers of coffee shops opened and sales of canned coffee continues to increase every year. Let’s face it, coffee is here to stay in Japan.
While this may make the coffee shops seem like a perfect place to practice your Japanese, talking with the baristas offers less opportunity than might be expected. Because of the influence of American-style coffee shops, most of the words that Japanese shops use are close to English. Therefore expect to be asked what サイズ you want, for example, instead of a Japanese equivalent such as 大きさ.
That’s not to say that there are no difficult words used at coffee shops. While beginners likely wouldn’t struggle with the imported word カフェ (Café), the Japanese word 喫茶店きっさてん is a bit more of a mouthful. On top of this, you may also occasionally hear variations like 茶房さぼう and 漫画喫茶まんが きっさ (A specialist coffee shop where you read manga while drinking) being used too.
Similarly, while コーヒー (Coffee) and ティー (Tea) are self-explanatory, you would have to really know your Japanese to immediately know what, say, a 鴛鴦茶えんおう ちゃ is! For any readers interested, the 鴛鴦茶 is a drink with a tea base mixed with coffee that is guaranteed to give you enough coffee-fueled energy to party all night!
To further complicate matters, many of the varieties of coffee are named after the countries and cultures that made them popular. A common example is アメリカンコーヒー which is named after a story that Americans in Italy would water down their espressos to make it similar to the coffee drunk in America.
Similar examples include ウインナコーヒー (A coffee topped with cream) which is named after the coffee houses in Vienna that popularized the drink and ベトナムコーヒー (Coffee poured onto condensed milk) which is a popular treat in Vietnam.
On top of these are words loaned from other languages. Some of the more tricky ones include スジャータ (Ice cream mixed with coffee), andユンヨンチャー (Similar to 鴛鴦茶). Of course, there are also regional variations too. One of my favorites is 冷コー which is a casual word for ice coffee mostly found in the Kansai area.
While ホット is becoming more common in Japan, you will still often be asked if you want your coffee 温かい (Hot) or not. アイス often means ‘ice cream’ to Japanese people, so in coffee shops that sell both, it is sometimes necessary to clarify using つめたい or 氷入り instead. That said, the one time I was mistakenly given coffee ice cream instead of my usual bitter coffee was totally worth it!
Of course, one of the problems with saying ‘iced coffee’ in Japan is that we usually get a LOT of ice and not so much coffee. Thankfully, companies like Starbucks let their customers request a 氷少なめ、ミルク多め latte, so that you can get more dairy for your yen.
With the rise of English loanwords being used more frequently in coffee shops, learners are probably right in feeling that the local café is not a particularly challenging place to practice their Japanese. These frustrated learners are probably better off practicing their Japanese using their can of coffee in the morning. Learning the kanji for words such as 微糖びとう (Low-in-sugar) and 深焙ふかあぶり (Dark Roast) can be quite a good way to improve your Japanese and get your morning caffeine boost.