A note to the reader: This piece was written in 2010, when I was living in Japan, about 45 minutes outside Tokyo. After two years there, I had grown weary of going into the city on weekends and instead started taking mostly solo day-trips into the surrounding countryside. My Japanese was good enough at that point to follow an all-Japanese guidebook and navigate the smaller, local trains. And half or more of the fun, of course, was interacting with local people on these weekend jaunts.
Because of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident of March 3, 2011, however, this piece has inevitably become a work of nostalgia, because several of the towns I visited on the east coast of Japan were affected to a greater or lesser extent by that triple disaster, which has created a large no-go zone in eastern Japan. The carefree days I spent visiting the region’s cafés can only seem like a quaint memory now, shunted aside by the far more serious and still fragile efforts to secure the safety of local residents and restore to them the peace and tranquility I once sought there.
Saitama, where I am living, is a prefecture immediately north of Tokyo and might be described as consisting largely of outer suburbs of Tokyo, with some important qualifications. Japan is an old country, so while the urban sprawl of Tokyo is unbelievably vast, there are still centers of local life to all the smaller cities and towns it has annexed. You can still live life on a very small and human scale, without a car, commuting to work by train and doing your shopping by bicycle in a way that you generally can’t in suburban North America.
The Japanese term for the countryside is ‘inaka’ - one that, today, has the same rather negative connotation of ‘the sticks’ in our slang. But then the distinction between city and country is less clear here. The mix of residential, industrial and agricultural uses of land is much more diverse than in North America and more like that of Europe, with farmers, factories and homeowners all huddled together in quite close and peaceful proximity.
One of the pitfalls, of course, of living in this part of eastern Japan is the temptation is to spend all your free time going into Tokyo and very little of it exploring your own area. But within a few months, I was already tiring of constant weekend excursions to the heart of the sprawling metropolis. The trains are fast and convenient, but they are not cheap, and no matter how good they are, something close to an hour on a train can be an exhausting experience. When I arrive in Tokyo, often, as soon as I get off the train, all energy just seems to drain out of me.
So where does one go to escape? To a café, those little oases of culture and calm amidst the well-organized chaos, the unending hustle and bustle of contemporary Japanese life.
During my first winter break here, I was taken by a Japanese friend to the A to Z Café in Tokyo’s upscale Omote-Sando area. I fell in love instantly with its urban/rustic whitewashed interior and its laid-back atmosphere, like that of cafés popular among students back home. It was designed by the internationally renowned contemporary painter Nara Yoshitomo and houses many of his works, as well as a mock studio, like a small cottage, in the middle of the café. I took every friend and visitor I had over the next several months there for lunch (a steal at $10) and befriended one of the young managers, Yutaka.
Through him, I became aware that the A to Z was part of not a chain but a group of associated restaurants and cafés under the umbrella name ‘Jellyfish’. So for a time, I took pleasure in hunting down each of the Jellyfish eateries in different areas of Tokyo and sampling their culinary offerings. Several of them had essentially the same menu, the A to Z menu, and differed only in design and atmosphere. Others were quite a bit more upscale and, while glamorous to visit on special occasions, could hardly become regular haunts. In any case, this group of restaurants and cafés renewed my patience for Tokyo and gave me reason to continue going there for another six months or so. One even opened in Omiya (La Maison de la Galette), a large city immediately west of my little bedroom town, so I went there for lunch from time to time, often having a chance to chat with Yutaka, who was posted there until it was well-established and on its way to being a success.
But eventually I was back in the position of wondering how best to spend my free time and coming up rather empty-handed. So it wasn’t until about 18 months into my stay here, in the dead of winter, and out of sheer boredom on a Sunday afternoon, that I discovered that not 200 meters from my tiny one-room apartment there was a bakery/café built into an old Meiji-era warehouse, with stone floors and gorgeously gnarled wooden beams in the ceiling, as charming and as peaceful as you could imagine. Naturally, I became a regular, planting myself there each Sunday for a few hours to study my Japanese and lunch on their pricey but delicious organic vegetable plate and unlimited bread from their impressive French-inspired bakery. I got to know the owners, Mr. and Mrs. Shimada, was always warmly greeted by them and frequently had idle chit chat with them about the café and their family in Japanese. This one little discovery suddenly made my town seem really liveable in a way it hadn’t up to that point. Amazing what a decent café can do.
In time, however, I tired of paying $13 for a modest lunch (now, having tried lots of other cafes, I realize that was pretty good value), the charms of this establishment began to wear off and my little world started to seem oppressively small again. Thankfully, this café was featured in an attractive little guidebook, pointed out to me by the Shimadas, called ‘Kyujitsu no café-meguri’. It lists 69 other cafés in my prefecture and the surrounding three (Ibaraki, Gunma and Tochigi). Thanks to the Shimada family, a new pastime presented itself – café meguri.
An otherwise all-Japanese guidebook, ‘Kyujitsu no café meguri’ translates its own title as ‘Holiday Café’, but that hardly captures the appealing nuances of ‘meguri’. It is written with a Chinese character that is used in expressions that mean both ‘pilgrimage’ and ‘circulation’, as in ‘circulation of the blood’. But ‘pilgrimage’ has too strong a religious connotation in English. Loosely translated, the title of the book would be something like: ‘Circulating around to different cafés on your day off’. Nine words in place of four; Japanese is so wonderfully concise in contrast to English. A friend with better Japanese than I has suggested the comparably concise ‘Holiday café-hopping’, but ‘hopping’ (a somewhat violent, certainly energetic sort of verb) doesn’t capture the nuances of ‘circulation’ – of flow and of slowness, like a wandering river – that I like so much about ‘meguri’.
So there really is no good way to translate it. Café meguri is café meguri. And it has become my new way of spending weekend afternoons, poking around in the hinterland, enjoying the challenge of navigating the trains and following an all-Japanese guidebook (which is a pleasure not to be underestimated when living in a foreign country and trying to learn the language) and sampling all manner of Japanese approximations of Western café fare. A rather self-indulgent hobby, perhaps, but the more I indulge it, the more I realize café meguri provides a window onto several significant aspects of contemporary Japan, including of course food culture, the widespread yearning for a slower way of life, and Japan’s emulation of and engagement with the West.
To put it simply, and to state my conclusion at the outset, this type of hinterland café culture, as it has been adapted by and for Japan, is a five-fold oasis: (1) a retreat from suburban blight, the blasted post-industrial landscape of the extra-metropolitan hinterland; (2) an escape from the punishing intensity and rigidity of Japanese work life and work culture; (3) an oasis of Western-ness in a still highly mono-ethnic and monocultural nation; (4) a temporary retreat, whether rustic or derelict industrial, into a nostalgic material past; (5) and a ‘cool’ escape from the banality and sterility of everyday life (while at the same time being an escape from the austere and exclusive urban iterations of ‘cool’), unpretentious and fully compatible with the Japanese affection for all things kawaii (‘cute’).