Masahiro Onishi
Masahiro Onishi


Masahiro Onishi


Coffee culture is not black or white.
It’s more like a blue note

Coffee that is unpretentious and does not take itself too seriously. This is the type of cup that Masahiro Onishi, owner of Switch Coffee Tokyo, is in pursuit of. Without adding any color to the cup, he says, 'it may only be coffee, but still, it’s coffee.’ It is as if he is looking out into the future of coffee, stepping into the perfect position, half a note before the crescendo, just like a ‘blue note’ found in jazz and blues music. As I listened to him talk about his coffee life, I got a hint of what the future of coffee in Tokyo looks like.

●Please tell us where you are from and what you were doing as a student.
Originally I’m from Nagoya but came to Tokyo to go to university. I had been playing guitar since I was in high school and had a vague idea that I wanted to make a living from music. At university, I joined a music club. To earn money for guitar lessons, I worked in the kitchen of an Italian restaurant in Jiyugaoka.

●What genre of guitar did you play?
I wanted to play jazz, so I took guitar lessons and learned guitar theory. But for some reason, I didn’t enjoy playing the guitar at all. I started to think that maybe I would be better suited for the restaurant industry.

●What made you think that you would be better suited for food and drink?
There are things that you like but are no good at, and then there are things that you are good at but don’t like. Guitar was the former for me. In the food and beverage business, you get to eat the food you make, see the feedback immediately, and even get paid for it. I liked the simplicity of it.

●What was your first encounter with coffee?
Through a connection at a restaurant, I ended up working at a café in Azabu Juban when I was 20 years old. The café had an espresso machine, which was rare at the time, and the baristas served beans roasted in-house. Whilst I was working there part-time, I realized that I liked coffee and that I was good at it.

●Did you try to find a job after university?
Of course, I did, but it was hard for me to get accepted because I was dreaming that I would start my own coffee shop. My parents were also rather conservative, so I had to think about how to convince them.

●How did you convince your parents?
There was a barista competition that I entered hoping to prove that I could do better than everyone else, and I easily made the grade. After graduating from university, I continued to work in cafes.

●What was the coffee scene like in Tokyo at that time?
It was around 2009, and as expected, there was Starbucks, but there was also a café called Paul Bassett (*1) in Shinjuku. They had proper espresso served by baristas. I don’t think the term “third-wave” was common yet.

※1 Paul Bassett
Espresso cafe by Paul Bassett, world champion barista. Carefully selected beans from around the world are roasted in-store and served by baristas.

●Were there any memorable moments during your job search?
I was talking to a person in charge of green bean importing at a big coffee company. We were talking about the trend of high quality, high-priced coffee and the future I envisioned, and in response, he said, ‘no, no, no, this is about as high quality as it gets.’ Other people would tell me, ‘you have to think of coffee as a commodity.’ They would make fun of my vision, but in the end, the coffee boom came five years later, and now I’m still holding a grudge!

●How did you spend the last part of your college life?
I ended up working at a café in Shibuya, Tokyo, while just barely attending university. At the cafe, the coffee was imported from Blue Bottle Coffee (*2).

※2 Blue Bottle Coffee
A coffee shop from San Francisco that was established in 2002. It is considered to be a representative of third-wave coffee.

●What did you do after that?
I met an acquaintance by chance and he was a barista in Melbourne. He told me, “If you are really motivated and can make coffee, there are plenty of jobs in Australia.” So three months later I was in Melbourne.

●It’s amazing how decisive you are. How quickly you take action!
I thought that even if I didn’t like coffee after going there, as long as I could speak English, I could get a job as a graduate. So I went to Melbourne for a working holiday when I was 24 years old, and instead of hating it, I fell in love with it more and more. After studying coffee for a year, I came back to Japan.

●What was the coffee scene like in Melbourne?
Three cafes were leading the city’s coffee scene, and I wanted to work at one of those places, but they were so popular that there were zero openings. I ended up working at a newer café that was started by a barista who was independent from other well-known shops. Australians are definitely coffee lovers, but unlike Tokyo coffee lovers, they actually don’t know that much about it. Of course, there are some enthusiasts, but I felt that was a big difference. It may only be coffee, but still, it’s coffee.

●Do you have a deeper appreciation for coffee?
It’s like ramen in Japan. Everyone loves it, but the actual number of enthusiasts is limited. There aren’t that many people who have eaten at Michelin-starred ramen places. The love for coffee is so natural and ubiquitous that it has taken root in the masses. The old man that drinks the same coffee every day at the same shop, even he can notice a change in the taste. If I make it for him, he’ll tell me, ‘Your coffee still is not good enough!’ Because there are so many different people that love coffee there are so many different levels of appreciation. It’s not only about who brewed the coffee and with what special beans. It’s more than that.

● So you found there was a big gap between Japan and the rest of the world?
Until I went to Australia, I thought coffee was cool, but in Australia, it was just a normal part of life. And I found that people were drinking coffee in a natural way. It felt very relaxed.

●What did you do when you came back to Japan?
It was 2011, so Mr. Sakao’s ONIBUS COFFEE (*3) had just been established. The scene was still so young, so there were still no coffee shops that were really willing to hire a single young person. I realized once again that there was still no environment for where the profession of a skilled barista really existed, so I began to think that I would have to open my own store.

A coffee shop that opened in Okusawa, Setagaya-ku in 2012. It offers specialty coffee with the theme of human connection.

●What did you envision when you opened your store?
To put it simply, my skills at the time were something like “I can serve 400 high-quality lattes a day, and I can do it fast!” But there were still no cafes in Japan where I could use my skills, so I began to think about coffee as a livelihood and wanted to deepen my understanding of coffee itself.

I simply wanted people to drink coffee every day, and as long as it was familiar to them without being too formal, that was all that mattered.

●So, you began training again?
Yes, I did. I went to Fukuoka to learn about the raw ingredients and roasting at Honey Coffee (*4). It was a store owned by the parents of a friend of mine. I told them that I hadn’t done anything since I came back from Australia, so I went to visit them. I liked it so much that I ended up working there for two years as an apprentice while living in Fukuoka.

※4 Honey Coffee
Specialty coffee store in Fukuoka. They visit farms from all over the world to purchase beans directly and handle the entire process from roasting to sales.

●What things did you learn during your time at Honey Coffee?
Honey Coffee sells coffee beans to households, and to me, this business model was different from what I experienced in Australia. In Melbourne, the cafes would serve over 400 cups per day, with enough money to pay the staff a good wage, but in Japan this is impossible, so I thought, ‘I have to find another way’. I wanted to highlight the coffee and create the revenue solely from that, and so I learned a lot from my time at Honey Coffee. It helped me to shape SWITCH COFFEE as a shop that should focus solely on coffee.

●So you set up your store in a residential area of Meguro with the idea of selling coffee beans?
That’s right. I had an image of selling them for about 2,000 yen per bag, so I walked around the area along the Toyoko Line, where I used to live as a student, thinking of places where people would buy them, and found a store in Meguro on the first day.

●How was it to actually set up the store?
It’s a place where no one goes to visit in summer, but for me, to roast alone, made it just perfect. People started sniffing around and discovered me and began buying beans, but for some reason, a lot of foreign tourists have been seeking me out. I think it was probably my foreign friends who recommended me to them.

●I think it’s important to find out about coffee and how to express it. For example, the restaurant, ‘Kabi’ showed me that there is a wide range of ways to communicate drinks, such as pairing them with food. In the context of something like music, would you say that your coffee is more like pop music, or something more progressive?
This may be true in the sense that it resonates with the masses, but pop music is also a fad of the moment and can change quickly. So in that sense, I think coffee is more like music that is rooted in our daily lives. It could be jazz or classical music. But it’s not that we listen to it pretentiously, it’s that it exists as a matter of course.

●Did you have a desire to establish ‘Third Wave’ coffee as something more permanent?
I felt that what I was already doing was later called ‘Third Wave’, so to be honest, I never wanted it to take root. I simply wanted people to drink coffee every day, and as long as it was familiar to them without being too formal, that was all that mattered.

Something that is not too dark! I'd want a place that is naturally bright, rather than brightly lit.

●I guess some customers may have high expectations of your coffee?
People come to SWITCH COFFEE with a certain level of expectation. Perhaps it’s because I’m serving coffee so nonchalantly that sometimes people say we’re stand-offish! But it’s the same service and atmosphere for people who come every day and for people coming from overseas. I think coffee should be like that. We have to deliver delicious quality products.

●In places like Portland, coffee has become a part of the city without any air of pretentiousness.
Yes. Even in cafes with a street atmosphere, people usually fit in. I think it’s because it’s not just fashionable young people who gather there, but people of all ages in the city. I think that’s where it differs from the trendy pop music that I mentioned earlier.

●By the way, is there an origin to the name SWITCH COFFEE?
I thought it would be good to have an unpretentious name that anyone could understand, so when I saw “SWITCH” magazine, I thought it would be just right because anyone, young or old, male or female, could read it, regardless of the language. Also, people could add their own interpretation to the name!

●What’s the ideal image that SWITCH COFFEE aims for?
Something that is not too dark! I’d want a place that is naturally bright, rather than brightly lit. Also, I don’t really want to be known as the guy that went to study in Melbourne or be solely connected to the name, SWITCH COFFEE, but unfortunately, that’s how most people tend to look at it, isn’t it? I want to go further than just the experience or the brand name. As for style, I don’t really have any specific style, I just want to be contemporary rather than modern. Even though we are all in Tokyo, we don’t live in Japanese-style rooms, nor do we eat Japanese food every day. I just want to express the sense of contemporaneity of today’s Tokyo through coffee.

I am thinking about what I can do for other people. Not only as SWITCH COFFEE, but for me personally.

●You now have three stores: Meguro, Yoyogi-Hachiman, and Nihonbashi-Kabutocho. What’s your take on the K5 store?
For K5, I would like to make it more enjoyable and meet the expectations of coffee lovers as well as guests from overseas and far away.

●Is there anything you would like to try in the future?
I am thinking about what I can do for other people. Not only as SWITCH COFFEE, but for me personally. I’ve been in the scene for quite a long time, and I’ve learned a lot of things, so I’m thinking about what I can do to help others. I know it will be difficult, but as for social significance, I would like to find a way to solve the various problems and emotions I felt when I was an employee, in the process of continuing to employ people in my business.

●What business models do you foresee in the future in relation to coffee and sustainability?
If we can’t improve the working conditions themselves, such as having a job when you want to work, it’s not sustainable in the first place. I think that the future will come from people working under good conditions, whether it is working hours or salary. No matter how much knowledge is shared, it is meaningless if the person leaves the industry. I have seen many people quit, so I would like to have a long-lasting relationship with my employees. And of course with customers and people involved in the coffee industry, so that we can overcome such situations.

Masahiro Onishi

Masahiro Onishi

Born in Aichi Prefecture in 1986, he opened SWITCH COFFEE TOKYO in Meguro in 2013. In December 2017, he opened a second store in Yoyogi Hachiman. In February 2020, he opened his third store in K5, Nihonbashi Kabutocho. In 2018, he was named “The best coffee roaster in the world” by Gear Patrol magazine. In the same year, he won the Japan Roaster Competition, and in 2019, he placed third in the SCAJ Japan Coffee Roasting Championship.

Text : Jun Kuramoto

Photo : Naoto Date

Interview : Jun Kuramoto

Masahiro Onishi


Toshi Akama


Interesting people in Kabutocho

Toshi from caveman
I knew him from Kabi, but now he has joined caveman.
I’m looking forward to seeing him in the future!