An American Barista in Tokyo

barista in Tokyo

In April 2015, three of the biggest names in the US competitive latte art scene traveled to Japan to encounter one of the most dynamic and exciting coffee cultures in the world. We commissioned one of them, John Letoto, to chronicle his journey. 

Visiting Tokyo as an American barista was not merely an unforgettable experience, it was an experience the particulars of which I am still trying to grasp. The city itself is an endless series of wonders. The culture is shocking to the American palate. The sights and sounds are overwhelming at times, yet in the midst of this, there is an intrinsic sense of order and systemization that runs through every single aspect of their society. More than anything else, this Japanese sense of rightness was what made me feel at once more comfortable and, yet, entirely out of place.

barista in Tokyo

There is a right way to do everything in Japan, it seems, and I found myself constantly delighted at finding out how the Japanese people did little, everyday things. From the particular idiosyncrasies of staying in our capsule hotel to the efficient ways and means that our Japanese barista counterparts open up their respective shops in the mornings, very little was not wonderful and new to me, if only because the Japanese mind seemed to view things so very differently from my American one. Perhaps the best example of this came in watching the service interactions in every store or restaurant or coffee shop we went into. The societal tendencies and expectations are such that every action comes across as very uniform and, in many cases, incredibly ceremonial. Again, to my American mind, this was very different! Beautiful, but different!

barista in Tokyo

My time in Tokyo came about because I was accepted to compete in the Coffee Fest Latte Art World Championship Open. Many of us in the States are familiar with this trade show and the latte art competition attached to it, but this time around, the competition was being held in conjunction with FABEX, a very sizable food and beverage expo. It was an honor to even be included in the Coffee Fest Tokyo bracket, but to be one of just three American baristas accepted, along with Nicely Alameda and Cabell Tice, made the endeavor one we all felt was really special. Although the competition ended for myself and Nicely a bit earlier than we may have hoped for, having both been eliminated on the first day, I came away with wonderful memories and designs on making more trips to Tokyo in the years to come.

Cabell Tice in Tokyo

The baristas I’ve come to know over the years from competing in Coffee Fest’s various latte art competitions are all wonderful, but I have to admit that I have a particular affection for the Japanese baristas I’ve competed with and against, many of whom I now consider friends. I love telling them what my middle name is, and letting them know that I was named after an ancestor of mine, a sumotori. Their looks of surprise is always well worth the telling! But more than that, they have a dedication to their craft that is something many of us in the States could and, I feel, ought to take inspiration from.

Bowling Baristas

Davide Coffee Stop

About John Letoto

According to his boss at Houston’s Greenway Coffee, John Letoto’s job title is simple: coffee. A native of Hawaii, when John isn’t developing roast profiles or taking pictures of latte art he’s probably considering the latest addition to his ever expanding tie collection. 

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