A Hidden Gem and a Master at His Craft: Elephant Factory Coffee in Kyoto, Japan

Editor’s Note: this post is part of a travel series on the Atlanta Coffee Shops blog. The series is tagged #ACStravels so you can find it here on the blog or on social media.


“We’ve got to look for the elephant sign!” I shouted with a bit of exasperation to an Australian couple who had joined me on this day in exploration of Kyoto.

We had just made a turn on Kawaramachi-dori Street, and I could not find the place. We went into one alley, only to find an art gallery and a subsequent dead-end. No coffee signs or elephants in sight.

We circled back again, and my determination grew stronger. “There’s no way I am missing out on this coffee shop” I spoke in my mind.

Finally, I saw it from a distance and hopped forward with excitement. “I see it! It’s here, follow me!” I shouted to the Australian couple who was likely getting weary from all this walking…

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The (in)famous alley. Do you see the elephant sign?

The (in)famous alley. Do you see the elephant sign?

Elephant Factory in Kyoto is very hard to find. It’s like the coffee shop doesn’t want to exist. Once you are on the right path within the alley, you notice that there is no entrance nearby. The reason? You’ve got to take the stairs up. There is an arrow that beckons you upstairs, gently guiding you on the correct path…

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Follow the elephant sign…

Follow the elephant sign…

But the challenge was not over yet. Now you’ve got to find the actual storefront entrance.

The feeling I had when I opened the door (there was no sign on the door indicating the name of the coffee shop, and no elephant logo) felt one of strong intrusion—I was hesitant and was prepared to profusely apologize if I stumbled into someone’s apartment. But lo, with the twist of the door handle, I pushed inward and could not believe my eyes. Unfolding before me was a dimly lit, moody coffee shop sanctuary.

I instantly knew I was going to have one of the best coffee experiences of my life here at Elephant Factory.

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The stairs leading up to the unsigned, nondescript front door of Elephant Factory.

The stairs leading up to the unsigned, nondescript front door of Elephant Factory.

I motioned to my Australian friends to follow me (they were taken aback and thought they had to keep climbing to another floor), which they did. On this particular visit, the coffee shop had a couple of spots open at the bar, and the proprietor (owner) of the coffee shop beckoned us to take a seat. You don’t come to Elephant Factory to get “to-go” coffee.

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A wooden elephant guards the front door of Elephant Factory.

A wooden elephant guards the front door of Elephant Factory.

I wanted to “check in” my phone to this location, but compounding the notion of “Elephant Factory does not want to be found” is the very simple fact that this coffee shop has no web site, no Instagram page, and no Facebook presence. I suppose people find the coffee shop through word of mouth or some local guide books. But as Atlanta Coffee Shops traveled throughout Japan, Elephant Factory was elusive even to the most fervent coffee aficionados and coffee professionals with whom ACS interacted (in Kyoto, Osaka, and a few other cities).

The owner invited us to peruse the menu and came back to get our orders several minutes later. In the meantime, I walked about the quaint interior and marveled at the moody lighting, the tables, the books at the back of the shop, and some of the other curious decor on the walls of the coffee shop.

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Interior at Elephant Factory. Very moody.

Interior at Elephant Factory. Very moody.

There is a simple aesthetic at Elephant Factory: wooden tables and chairs, a one page menu (yes, English menu is available), and bare-bones walls.

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A simple aesthetic at Elephant Factory: wooden tables and chairs, a one page menu, and bare-bones walls.

A simple aesthetic at Elephant Factory: wooden tables and chairs, a one page menu, and bare-bones walls.

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The menu at Elephant Factory.

The menu at Elephant Factory.

The go-to order was the medium roasted straight from Tanzania (700 Yen). Everything on the menu is pricey, but consider the sourcing of the beans. They are shipped twice a week to Elephant Factory Coffee after being freshly roasted at one of the most remote and distant regions of Japan: the northern tip of Hokkaido (near the town of Bihoro; see it on a Google Map). My Australian friends went with a dark roasted Mandheling (Indonesian Sumatran coffee) straight and the coffee of the month, in addition to a slice of cheesecake.

As the owner of Factory Coffee began his preparations, I politely asked him if it was alright for me to capture photos. He nodded.

I captured the photos below of the master at his craft. Every step of the process was planned and acted with purpose and deliberate action. This was a coffee ritual unfolding, with the master having perfected the process over a decade or more. Beginning with boiling the hot water, to grinding the beans, to pouring the water—it was a fascinating seven to ten minutes of display. The concentration of the master was fierce.

As I write this essay, reflecting back, I realize now that the nod of acquiescence for me to capture photos was one of politeness, likely met with (deserved) skepticism—would I intrude on his efforts? Would I spoil his concentration?

I was courteous in the process, using a wide-angle lens to capture the scenes and staying at least six to eight feet away. Nevertheless, the experience at Elephant Factory was perhaps the only one in all of Japan (having visited over twenty-five coffee shops) where I felt like I was overstepping my bounds with the photography, and for that, I apologize.

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Getting the boiling water ready.

Getting the boiling water ready.

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The coffee pour-over begins. The concentration on the owner’s face is fierce.

The coffee pour-over begins. The concentration on the owner’s face is fierce.

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Detail of the pour-over at work at Elephant Factory in Kyoto, Japan.

Detail of the pour-over at work at Elephant Factory in Kyoto, Japan.

As I watched the coffee being prepared, I darted slowly back and forth to capture photos of the space. One of my favorites turned out to be the image below, a customer perusing social media, attention diverted away—while the master at his craft, focused on a singular task at hand. What a stark contrast between these two worlds.

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Interior view of Elephant Factory. The space is small but sufficient to make some incredible pour-over coffee.

Interior view of Elephant Factory. The space is small but sufficient to make some incredible pour-over coffee.

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A cornucopia of objects on the shelves at Elephant Factory. It’s a bit mysterious, a bit creepy.

A cornucopia of objects on the shelves at Elephant Factory. It’s a bit mysterious, a bit creepy.

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Elephant Factory. The only downside to the overall experience is that the coffee shop is not smoke-free.

Elephant Factory. The only downside to the overall experience is that the coffee shop is not smoke-free.

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Explorations inside Elephant Factory in Kyoto, Japan.

Explorations inside Elephant Factory in Kyoto, Japan.

One of my favorite elements was at the back of the coffee shop where there was this stack of books, pleading with a guest to be read. Perhaps this is a fine illustration of tsundoku (積ん読) —the Japanese word that has no English equivalent but roughtly translates to “an accumulation of books piling up without reading them.” I captured this photo and moved on, not wanting to disturb a family with two young children who were reading books together (to the right of frame).

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The moment our coffees arrived, we were already primed with anticipation. And the experiment / taste didn’t disappoint: we had some of the best coffee in Kyoto (and in all of Japan) here at Elephant Factory.

I didn’t taste the cheesecake, but my Australian friends commented on how delicious it was.

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Coffee at Elephant Factory.

Coffee at Elephant Factory.

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Final Thoughts

Elephant Factory Coffee in Kyoto represents everything that I was looking for in a coffee shop in Japan: moody interior vibes, high-quality coffee beans, and an exquisite, methodical preparation of the coffee by a true artisan of the craft. The overall experience was unforgettable.

If you are ever in Kyoto and want to have an incredible coffee shop experience, just look for the elephant sign in a tiny alley near Kawaramachi-dori Street.

Tell the master Atlanta Coffee Shops sent you.

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“Just look for the elephant sign” became a rallying cry in the days subsequent to my visit to this incredible coffee shop in Kyoto, Japan.

“Just look for the elephant sign” became a rallying cry in the days subsequent to my visit to this incredible coffee shop in Kyoto, Japan.


Elephant Factory Coffee

(no web or social media presence)

Location:

Nakagyo Ward ☕Kyoto, Japan

Address:

309 Bizenjimacho, Nakagyo Ward

Kyoto, 604-8023, Japan

Google Maps link

ph: +81 75-212-1808

Hours of operation:

Monday-Wednesday: 1PM to 1AM

Thursday: closed

Friday-Sunday: 1PM to 1AM

Coffee Offerings:

Varies; seasonal; medium to dark single-origins and blends from Indonesia (Sumatra and Sulawesi), Rwanda, Tanzania, Guatemala, and Ethiopia

Prices:

Range from ¥700 to ¥750 for a single cup; teas are priced at ¥950; mini homemade cheesecake is ¥500.


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