Japan had its own café culture of sorts, centered on tea rather than coffee (which, after all, is what 'café' means), long before Westerners showed up with coffee and the café as a social institution. The traditional chaya (茶屋), or Japanese teahouse, was a place to consume tea and sweets, and maybe take in some entertainment. But the opening of Japan by the U.S. in the late 19th century required Japan to adapt to new circumstances. The kissaten (喫茶店), or Japanese café (the Chinese characters mean ‘consume’ ‘tea’ ‘shop’), was one response, offering coffee in addition to tea, but no entertainment. I am told there is no essential difference between a kissaten and a café, but I seldom hear the word kissaten used; ‘café’ on the other hand is ubiquitous. These first cafés, debuting in various neighbourhoods of Tokyo in the 1880s, were thus part of Japan’s embrace of Western influence, often housed in new, Western-style buildings.
While my guidebook does not classify them in any way, there seem to be four basic types of cafés represented in its pages. There are the Japanese-style teahouses, modern in the sense that there is no entertainment (as their would have been in the past), but traditional in that they are Japanese in décor and primarily serve tea and Japanese sweets, serving coffee only incidentally and out of necessity. Another type is Japanese-style restaurants (kappouten 割烹店) serving regular home-style Japanese food: rice, vegetables, fish, pickles, perhaps noodles, but not sashimi, sushi, or most of what is familiar as Japanese food abroad. Then there are the Western-style cafés serving coffee, tea and Western desserts (not usually Japanese sweets), as well as café restaurants that serve all the same things in addition to full meals. Some places, of course, are hybrid, with a traditional Japanese interior but serving Western-style café food, or the opposite, a Western-style interior but serving Japanese food.
Among the Western-style cafés, there are of course several different genres. There is the rustic French and/or Italian style, as well as the occasional café with Mexican or even aboriginal Australian inspired decor. Some places are furnished with antiques or industrial cast offs—office chairs and desks of the 1950s, for example—and some inhabit old industrial spaces, Japanese warehouses (of pitted cement brick, or wood and plaster) and the like. Frequently, none of the furniture matches; it is a patchwork, a polyglot mix of noble objects rescued from the on-going erasure of the past. Many double as small art galleries, organic/macrobiotic grocery stores or sundry shops. Jazz music is nearly ubiquitous – I’ve even heard the same generic jazz record at two different cafés in under a week! – and knickknacks frequently abound in a joyful if not quite riotous clutter reminiscent of hippyish Arizona or New Mexico. All of this is meant to telegraph the idea that you can relax, because everything fits here—you can be whatever you want to be.
The essential café meguri café has, I think, to be Western in flavour, not least because I think that is part of the appeal for Japanese people: temporarily slipping out of Japan into a slightly exotic, quasi-Western space. The decor can be Japanese, but if the fare is Western, it is a Western-style café as far as I am concerned, because Western food and drink are not saddled with the same complex Japanese rules of etiquette and that is what creates the relaxed atmosphere of a proper café.
For that reason, I have to say, I generally avoid Japanese tea cafés. Tea is not just a drink in Japan, it is a way of life; indeed, it has been forcefully argued that to understand traditional Japanese culture you have to come to a full appreciation of its rituals around tea, such as the famous Japanese tea ceremony, which aficionados study around the world. Indeed, a Japanese friend has suggested to me that if I want to understand Japanese culture deeply, tea ceremony is the most comprehensive practice, because it involves food and drink, aesthetics, manners, dress—all the indisputably refined aspects of traditional Japanese material and social culture. For Japanese who understand the ceremony, it is highly relaxing, a meditative escape from the pressures of mundane life. For foreigners who haven’t mastered them, however, the rules of tea ceremony can only seem fussy and overly complex, far too rigidly structured to be relaxing, a kind of etiquette endurance test (kneeling uncomfortably throughout) that I, for one, such haven’t the strength for.
Tea cafés provide a setting far more relaxed than the one in which you would enjoy the classical tea ceremony, but still, for a foreigner only half (or less) functional in Japanese, the atmosphere of these places remains a little too stiff for my liking. Every aspect of traditional Japanese life is permeated by the idea that there is a right way (道) and a wrong way to do just about everything, and Japanese have their ways of letting you know when you have done it—whatever ‘it’ is—wrong. There is a very strong sense that you don’t mix certain foods and similarly, you only drink a certain kind of tea with a certain type of sweet and vice versa. So if the customer, ignorantly, orders the wrong combination—as I inevitably do—they don’t hesitate to correct you, and you will be persuaded, if out of sheer helplessness, to accept their rather strong recommendation. The idea that ‘The Customer Is Always Right’ certainly does not hold sway in traditional Japanese tea cafés. That’s neither here nor there, perhaps, but for this reason I don’t find them particularly relaxing.
Luncing at one of the Japanese eateries in the café meguri book one day I found myself sitting at a communal table, eating traditional Japanese fare with chopsticks, and as the only foreigner in the place I couldn’t help feeling a bit observed. It’s a kind of social performance on your part; you want to show, that you respect Japanese food culture and customs around eating. So you follow the rules, you don’t mix anything, you eat a little of this and a little of that, grazing as it were, not taking all of any one thing at a time, holding your rice bowl in your hand, drinking your soup as if from a cup, not licking your chopsticks. I find this sort of entertaining; I don’t mind being the only foreigner in the room, but it’s not the main experience I am seeking when I go on these one-day café meguri excursions.
Café Meguri 3: The Yearning for ‘Slow Life’
It is a cliché to say that Japan is a mass of contradictions and that Japanese culture is both “unique” (as if all cultures are not unique) and “inscrutable” (as if Japan is uniquely, essentially unknowable to outsiders, an idea which – mind you – is quite popular and well-accepted among the Japanese themselves). The danger of falling into this double trap when writing about Japan is something I am well aware of, and strive to avoid. But inevitably there are differences that must be accounted for.
Japan is not just a rich country, on a par with Europe and the English-speaking world, but has the highest level of income equality among the world’s 50 richest nations. It is higher even than social-democratic Sweden (though achieved in a very different way), and as a result has a high level of personal safety, with impressively low levels of violent crime, property crime and poverty. It’s an incredibly convenient country to live in, thanks to a mass transit infrastructure that is the envy of the world (and doubtless has a good deal to do with why the per capita CO2 emissions here are about half what they are in the U.S., despite an equally high standard of living). The level of politeness and trust, even between complete strangers, is extraordinarily high—can you imagine five- and six-year-olds safely riding public transit unaccompanied by adults anywhere else in the developed world?—despite the fact that most Japanese don’t seem to know how to comfortably have spontaneous interactions with strangers, even other Japanese. And they have one of the longest lifespans in the world. There’s a good deal in all that to admire and emulate.
Yet, at the same time, people work outrageously long hours and take ludicrously short vacations (it is not uncommon to fly halfway around the world and back again in four or five days), there is believed to be an epidemic of undiagnosed depression, the status of women and their influence in public affairs is remarkably low for a country that has had technical legal equality between the sexes for more than half a century, and Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. In short, Japanese enjoy all the same material advantages of citizens of other rich countries, but they don’t get to enjoy them in quite the same way. They’ve worked very hard for what they have but they don’t seem to know how to stop working, or just to take a break from it, perhaps for fear of losing it all again.
As a result, there is a deep cultural yearning for a slower, easier, more, well, human way of life – ‘Slow Life’ as they have dubbed it in borrowed English. This yearning finds expression particularly in popular film, usually with rural or island settings (Okinawa and Hawaii are particularly beloved), often with a nostalgic backward glance to idealized past eras, such as the 1950s. Café meguri affords one a glimpse into the imaginative space of ‘Slow Life’ that people are trying to create in tiny pockets of the hinterland outside the metropolis.
One of my first and most urban, attempts at café meguri took me to a medium-sized city (Urawa) about halfway between where I am and Tokyo. I invited a Tokyo friend to join me and had to drag him up to my area (a train ride of no more than half an hour from his home near Ueno). He groaned and grumbled about being extracted from Tokyo and snobbishly dismissed my little café meguri book for failing to list any cafés in Tokyo. Tokyo of course is full of attractive and busy cafés full of people seeking an oasis within the city. But that’s not the point of café meguri, as I have come to experience and understand it. To see what café meguri can show you about Japanese life you have to venture outside the metropolis to find it. After all, Tokyo is not Japan, anymore than Paris is France, or New York is America. You have to get out of Tokyo to experience anything approaching ‘Slow Life’.