Japan’s relationship with sandwiches is a complicated affair. While the late, great Anthony Bourdain was a huge fan of Lawson’s egg mayo, others find Japanese sandwiches to be, more often than not, a bit shoddy. One of the better offerings in the capital, however, is Kissa American, in the shadows of Ginza’s Kabukiza, which has thicker-than-you-can-believe white bread overflowing with an array of delicious fillings. These may well be the quirkiest sandwiches in Tokyo.
The creations may be fun fodder for social media, but these sandwiches pre-date the Instabae (looking good on Instagram) crowd, as the shop opened in 1982. It’s been on my radar for nearly as long as it’s been open. In fact, I walk by often as I work in the area, but there is a constant line in front … so when I recently passed by to find there was no line, I took my chance to check it off of my “Go To List.”
While it’s called a kissaten, coffee shop, it feels more like a dormitory room. The hodgepodge of tables squeezed together with pillows leads one to think they’ve been around since the shop’s opening. The walls are crowded with a mishmash of old travel and movie posters and colorful artwork in frames. The door is covered with square signature boards from famous people and photos of kabuki actors and rakugo (comedy) performers. Even the ceilings are covered. Perhaps that is the theme here: everything over-the-top. The man behind the shop, Mr. Haraguchi, is stationed in the back kitchen. Look out for his nice smile and short, silver hair.
Like many establishments in Japan, customers must order from the ¥1,200 lunch set menu in the afternoon. This menu includes a salad, soup and a drink with the sandwich. The sandwich options include egg salad, tuna salad, potato salad, pastrami, chicken and ham. The white bread is cut four centimeters thick and looks ridiculous with fillings so generously stuffed that they are bursting out. Egg salad is the most popular, and most of the diners were having just that. I considered the pastrami, but with a proper Jewish deli like Wise Sons in the city, I went with the tuna salad, which was good.
It’s a lot of food, so definitely come hungry. It’s such a massive sandwich, even a sumo wrestler would have a tough time getting his mouth around the two pieces of bread and filling. Don’t make plans for dinner afterwards either, as you’ll most likely be taking half your sandwich home. Even later in the evening I couldn’t finish the second half, it was just too much.
Unfortunately the service was surprisingly lacking in omotenashi. It was more like a fast-food shop: diners were instructed to move indoors and squeeze into tight spots while waiting for the next table to open up. The staff were neither warm nor friendly, and I didn’t feel comfortable asking questions about the menu. At one point a member of staff came out to distribute bags, containers and staplers to all the customers so that unfinished sandwiches could be packed up for take-away. It was a little off-putting to have these items put on my table before I asked for them.
Kissa American is widely covered in Japanese media, both in print and on television. Haraguchi’s philosophy on the sandwich is curious and makes for a good story. It’s one of those shops that attracts foodies from all over Japan, curious enough to make the pilgrimage. It really is so unlike any other sandwich in Japan, it definitely needs to be seen to be believed.
Look for a green awning with “American” spelled out in English in a retro font. The window to the right of the entry is the take-away counter with sandwiches for ¥500, which is probably the best way to experience the sandwich. Pick one up to go, then head to the gorgeous rooftop garden at the Ginza Six mall down the street. Otherwise come in the morning, when sandwiches can be eaten in the shop for only ¥500.