The inspiration people seek: Put simply, it’s a place to relax and feel good. Some like to sit quietly alone with a book or get lost in their thoughts, while others come to enjoy whatever aimless conversation they might strike up with the other regular patrons or the shop’s owner/manager (called the “master” or “mama” in Japanese). It’s a place where people spend time in whatever style suits them best in a warm and amiable atmosphere. The flow of time slows to a comfortable, unhurried pace and you can just be yourself.
The pleasing fragrance of coffee, the tempting aroma of bread being toasted, the sound of napolitan or perhaps pilaf being stir-fried, the master’s personal choice of background music, just the right amount of light from the window and the room’s subdued lighting... The culmination of these things is what makes the kissaten an oasis in the concrete urban jungle where the weary salaryman can rest his feet (and his soul). On a sweltering hot summer afternoon, if there isn’t a flag adorned with the Japanese character for “ice” fluttering in the breeze near the door and iced coffee on the menu, it really can’t be called a kissaten.
This is that irreplaceable spot located somewhere between your home and your office where you can “return to being yourself.” The distinct flavor of the master’s tastes permeate every inch of the interior and the atmosphere it exudes naturally draws like-minded people to the door; people who you may end up getting along with very well.
This image of the kissaten isn’t limited to people who have actually found and experienced a place like this. You’ll find it also in movies, novels, manga and anime, depicted with loving care in a utopian ideal. A kissaten is much more than just a place that serves up beverages and food.
In short: A kissaten is a shop that serves beverages like coffee and tea and most often offers a small selection of light meals such as sandwiches or curry rice. Within this general category of shops, many offer the same basic services, but are considered “cafes” instead of kissaten. Both are places where people seek something more than just something to eat or drink, and patrons are willing to pay a little extra for the time they spend or the relaxation they find there. Still, there is a subtle but tangible difference separating a café and a kissaten.
It’s not a difference laid down in laws or regulations, and you won’t be able to draw a line based on their relative sizes, locations, or the era conveyed by their designs. Even if most customers feel that the shop and its services fall into the café category, if the owner says it’s a kissaten, then that’s what it’ll be treated as, and you’ll also find cases of the reverse situation.
The divide that separates cafes and kissaten is mainly a matter of atmosphere, and the defining element might come down to a matter of how Japanized it feels. Naturally, this means that individual perceptions play a big part and there’s no common single definition of what separates the two. Even dictionary descriptions don’t make it easier to explain this aspect of Japanese culture (let alone translate).
Some background: It's not known exactly when tea (cha, sa) was first brought to Japan, but the commonly accepted belief is that, as with other countries of the region, tea and its culture (as a favored drink, for its medicinal qualities and psychological/spiritual benefits) were first imported from China. In the Nara Period (8th century), culture and goods from the Roman and Persian Empires also traveled the Silk Road to reach the old capitals of Japan and revered priests from India also came to Japan. Records from this period say that the Emperor gave gifts of tea to priests during imperial court ceremonies.
In the Kamakura Period (12th to mid-14th centuries) when the shoguns ruled Japan, kissa (drinking of tea) was encouraged for Zen monks as a means to “ward off drowsiness“ during spiritual training and the medicinal qualities of tea also became commonly known. In the Muromachi Period (mid-14th to late-16th centuries), a culture of chakai (or sakai) gatherings for enjoying tea with karamono (art pieces and tea utensils from China) blossomed among the privileged class, and affordable tea drinking also became popular among the common people as indicated by the phrase ippuku issen (one cup, one coin). Then in the Warring States Period (late-16th century), a truly unique Japanese culture grew up around tea drinking with the emergence of wabi-cha, a new way of enjoying tea based on the wabi aesthetic that valued tranquility and rustic simplicity, which began to spread among people who didn't bow to the dictates of those in authority and instead cultivated individuality and a sense of the self.
The spirit of wabi-cha attracted the newly wealthy merchant class, many of whom had profited immensely from dealing in the new commodities of gunpowder and firearms, and drew them into the world of tea. It was a time when many traders from Europe came to know about the country of “Zipangu,” that the diaries of Marco Polo had described as a country where “houses are made of gold.” Amid this era of free thought, exemplified by the city of Sakai (in present-day Osaka Prefecture) that prospered as an autonomous city thanks to the big trading houses built by its merchants, sado—“The Way of Tea” symbolizing Japanese spirituality and aesthetics—or the Japanese tea ceremony as it's commonly known today, began to take shape.
After the Warring States Period, Japan entered a long era of domestic peace known as the Edo Period (1603–1868) when the capital was moved to Edo (present-day Tokyo) and a new culture of the common people (ukiyoe woodblock prints being a noted example) flourished. Tea became an integral part of people's daily lives. In this new era, the cha-mise (tea shop) that catered to this newly popularized tea culture prospered as the places where people would gather for conversation on city street corners and travelers would stop along the highroads to rest their legs. After Japan's more than 200 years of isolation ended, a flood of Western culture and technology began to pour into the country after the Meiji Restoration, and two of the new arrivals were coffee and black tea (called koucha, or red tea in Japanese, because of its difference in color and taste from Japan's green tea of Chinese origin).
As Japan entered the Showa Era (1926–1989) and prospered with rapid economic growth in its postwar years, kissaten began to spring up on streets in nearly every corner of the country. To this day, they remain a place where people gather in their daily lives, and although the shop and the menu of today's kissaten has many aspects of Western origin, they are also a part of this long tradition of Japan's kissa (tea drinking) culture.