By Raechel Kundert
For The North American Post
I was grabbing lunch at a convenience store on my first trip to Japan in 2016, when I saw something on the drink shelf that made me do a double-take.
“Mt. Rainier Coffee? No way!”
I couldn’t believe my eyes, but there it was. The container even said “The Mountain of Seattle” on the front. How did Mount Rainier end up on the front of a cup of ready-to-go coffee?
This question had been in the back of my mind for years, but I finally decided to research it. The Morinaga Milk Company, which created Mt. Rainier Caffè Latte, stylized as Mt. RAINIER CAFFÈ LATTE, is one of the biggest purveyors of ready-to-drink beverages across the country. Early Japanese immigrants called Mount Rainier the “Tacoma Fuji” because of its beauty. Nowadays, the two mountains have a “sister” relationship like that of the sister cities of Seattle and Kobe. According to Morinaga, recent immigrants have been so enamored of Mount Rainier’s beauty and Seattle’s coffee culture that it decided to share both of these things with Japan.
The history leading up to the creation of this line of drinks dates back over 120 years, but the first product was not released until 1993, making this year Mt. Rainier Caffè Latte’s 30th anniversary. Seattle introduced the idea of “caffe latte” to the Morinaga Company, forever changing its approach to coffee. On the history page of its website, Morinaga juxtaposes Seattle’s and Japan’s coffee cultures. In its view, coffee can be found everywhere in Seattle, including in joint establishments like libraries and bookstores, where people grab a drink to go and enjoy it while they stroll around town. In Japan, coffee had been enjoyed at home or in a cafe, and people drank it while sitting down, at least until the creation of Mt. Rainier Caffè Latte.
Mt. Rainier Caffè Latte’s original logo resembled Starbucks’ logo quite a lot, which got Morinaga in a bit of hot water a few years ago when Starbucks tried to sue them for copyright infringement. The courts ruled in Morinaga’s favor. Still, as part of its 30th anniversary celebration this year, the logo has been redesigned to put more focus on the mountain and take away some earlier resemblance to Starbucks’ logo.
The company blends Seattle coffee culture with local, seasonal Japanese flavors such as “Caramel Coconut” for summer and “Roasted Almond Carnival” for autumn. I’ve only tried the soy latte myself, and while it’s delicious, it doesn’t beat true Seattle coffee in my opinion.
Seattle’s coffee culture has also influenced cafes throughout the country, particularly one in Kurayoshi City, Tottori Prefecture, where I currently live.
Soyo’s Cafe is run by Soyo, who was kind enough to let me interview him for this article. About four years ago, he stayed in Seattle for three months, visiting the city to learn more about coffee and improve his craft. He had visited previously, but was inspired to live there temporarily after hearing about a local barista competition called Thursday Night Throwdown. Soyo had planned on visiting Seattle again, but the pandemic prevented it and he found himself suddenly opening his own cafe.
With more than 12 years of coffee-making experience, Soyo’s is Kurayoshi’s most-loved café, according to other local foreign assistant English teachers like myself. Soyo uses beans from Caffé Vita, but not the one you might expect. There’s a cafe in Matsue City, Shimane Prefecture, by the same name, and his coffee beans come from there, although he does have memorabilia from Seattle’s Caffé Vita on display in his own cafe.
Besides Soyo’s Cafe, you can also find larger chain stores across Japan which originated in Seattle. Of course, there are Starbucks outlets everywhere, but there are also many Tully’s stores and even a few Seattle’s Best Coffee locations.
Seeing the impact Seattle has had on coffee culture in Japan has given me a renewed sense of appreciation for it as a city.
Raechel Kundert is an Assistant Language Teacher in Kurayoshi, Japan. She holds a UW Bachelor’s Degree in Linguistics, Japanese, and Asian Languages and Literature.