canned coffee chronicles: a visit to the UCC coffee museum

from the secret files of the suboptimalist

you may know UCC coffee as the official canned coffee of NERV, but it also has another claim to fame: UCC milk coffee, still sold to this day in the same distinctive brown-white-red cannot gonna lie i’m horrifically colorblind and only just now found out while doing research that the cans are brown and red instead of just the same bright reddish brown. by this point i must have seen hundreds of those cans without realizing, was in fact the world’s first canned coffee (or so UCC Ueshima Coffee Co., Ltd. claims). i have a particularly deep connection with ucc coffee as well, because for many years it was essentially the only canned coffee available for sale where i live. nowadays we are living in a veritable golden age of imported canned coffee and i don’t really drink UCC coffee original blend anymore because it’s too sweet for my tastes now, however i will never forget the dark days which i was propelled through by buying those cans in boxes of two dozen at a timei still have one of those 24-pack boxes in my room, which i use to store random tchotchkes. so when i found out there was a ucc coffee museum in kobe, i immediately added it to my bucket list for some future trip to japan.

the ucc coffee museum is located beside the ucc head office, on this big artificial island called "port island" just south of kobe's city centerthose artificial islands always have the strangest vibe. i think it might be because with their wide but rigid, carefully-planned road grids they feel so different from the other parts of japanese cities. also, instead of a dense collection of small and medium buildings, they tend to contain only a spaced-out collection of big buildings and wide parks.. fortunately it is all easily accesible from kobe's central railway station at sannomiya via this funky automated transit system called the "portliner" that's a lot like those little people-mover trains they use at big airports to connect distant terminals. the museum is right across the street from a portliner station, and the backside of ikea. it's a short, stout, vaguely hexagonal domed building with lots of geometric windows that is apparently supposed to be an eighties postmodern japanese take on a mosque, to honor coffee's islamic origins. like many japanese buildings the exterior color scheme is different drab shades of gray, but it's a lot comfier on the inside.

august 28th, 2019

i arrived with a friend in front of the ucc coffee museum not too long before closing timethis is one of the vanishingly rare cases in which i actually have a contemporaneous journal entry, however i'm writing all of this up from scratch because i was an awful writer back then and the journal entry is embarrassingly bad. i wrote exceptionally dry and detailed entries describing my day as if i was a police detective cataloguing the activities of a suspect.. this is because earlier in the day, we had gone out with the whole group from our base in osaka to visit himeji castle, and on our way back i had made this detour by getting off prematurely in kobe and switching to the portliner. only my most loyal travel companion had stuck by my side, for the first of several duo trips we would take to my carefully-curated selection of off-the-beaten-track destinations while the others contended themselves with going to meme places like goddamn miyajima (but i digress). as such, things were quiet by the time we arrived, and i daresay we pretty much had the place to ourselves after paying the eminently-reasonable entry fee of 300 yenaroonies, which even included a small coffee tasting. these corporate museums are always very generous, probably because it’s a form of promotion.

on the ground floor around the center of the rotunda were several display cases exhibiting important ucc artifacts. most notably, there were two prints of frames from the second rebuild of evangelion movie featuring UCC canned coffee, signed by The Man himself, hideaki anno. there was a lot of product placement in those movies for some reason but i like to believe that anno has some special liking for ucc because there’s also some empty cans prominently visible in the first episode of gunbuster, the first show he directed.

some sections were a bit dubious, like this placard that seems to imply americans started drinking coffee over tea because of the boston tea partythe museum tour begins by having you make your way to the top of the building via an escalator that cuts through the rotunda’s central atrium. from there, the exhibits gently spiral their way down around the central atrium until you are arrive back at the bottom. the museum's contents were not entirely a hagiography of the ueshima coffee company co., ltd. as one might expect, rather it was dedicated to coffee in general. i suppose promoting coffee as a whole is also in the company's interests. purportedly it’s the only exclusively coffee-themed museum in japan. the exhibits started with the history of coffee, then went over the growing and manufacturing process, the shipping process, and then finally brewing methods. naturally everything was in Japanese, and even though i wasn’t as good back then as i am now, i might’ve been able to get the gist of most of what was written if i had taken the time. but since it was near closing time, i had no time to waste, and hurried through until i reached paydirt: the big display case containing a display of historical UCC coffee cans.

as we left, i picked up this ucc espresso cup in the gift shop. i don't ever drink espresso but it's a nice little souvenir. maybe i can use it for taking shots of coffee vodka.and like that, we were back down to the ground floor, just in time for closing. a sign at the bottom hinted at the potential for future adventures with the tantalizing question (in english even!) "Would you like to tour a UCC production plant?". as we waited for the portliner, my friend and i both agreed that it had been a very well put-together little museum and overall a pleasant detour. in the distance, the ucc headquarters building watched over us, the tall hexagonal shape reminiscent of a coffee can.