So the winter vacation rolled around and having made a few tentative café-meguri trips to those cafés nearest my home, I was ready to embark on ones that would take me farther afield. Japan has a wonderfully cheap and convenient pass called the Seishun Juu-hachi Kippu (‘Youth 18 Ticket’) that, despite the name, is available to anyone at any time of life and allows you unlimited travel on local Japan Railways (JR) trains on five consecutive or non-consecutive days. It costs about $100, so as long as your return trip would regularly cost you in excess of $20, it is a good value. (For comparison, a roundtrip to Tokyo from where I live, a 45-minute journey each way, costs me about $14). It is available only during the spring, summer and winter holidays, to coincide with the periods when university students are off school and to encourage them to travel the country, as many of them do. It’s not fast, but it’s a great way to see the country and with my café-meguri book in hand, that is what I set out to do – at least, my little corner of it.
To plan a one-day café-meguri, then, I initially set out several criteria. Firstly, the regular return fare had to exceed $20, to make it worth using the Seishun Juu-hachi Kippu (of course, during the non-holiday periods I regularly make café-meguri trips to destinations under $20 roundtrip). Secondly, by definition, the cafés had to be accessible by JR lines (as there are several other competing private lines) and not more than a 30-minute walk from the nearest station. Thirdly, there had to be at least two cafés in one town, or in nearly adjacent towns along the same train line; better if there were three (the maximum I have managed to visit in one day) or even four (I made the attempt, but failed!). If there is a nice public bath and/or art museum in the same town, all the better.
In essence, then, the ideal café-meguri involves hitting a café-restaurant for lunch, then visiting an onsen and/or art museum, hitting another café for a late afternoon drink and dessert/snack and then heading home around 6:00. I realized, after a few harried attempts that a good deal of time could be saved by arriving in town early and going to the onsen first, preferably by about 10:00 or 10:30. This gets the bath out of the way and you arrive at the first café just in time for lunch. This itinerary has the advantage that public baths are busiest at night, not in the morning, and it is also the safest way to go, since taking a hot bath after ingesting a calorie-rich meal is not advised. It also frees more of your afternoon for multiple café stops, museums, parks, or whatever else the town you are visiting may have to offer.
But there is usually a not insignificant time constraint, since most cafés in the hinterland close between 5:00 and 6:00, and few open before 11:30. Furthermore, even if they are open into the evening, following maps in unfamiliar places and in a foreign language is challenging enough by daylight; it becomes nearly impossible once the sun goes down. On one occasion, only the kindness of a convenience store customer, who had done an exchange in England, saved me. She overheard me asking the staff for directions in broken Japanese and the staff rather ineffectively giving me instructions (neither of them actually seemed to know where the place was). This kind woman in perhaps her early 30s took pity on me, driving me to one of the most difficult-to-find rural café-restaurants in the book. It was without a doubt one of the nicest evenings of café-meguri I have experienced, in part because I actually slowed down long enough to enjoy it.
So getting lost is one frustration, but the complementary pleasure is when the desired café suddenly appears, just around a corner and in the most unlikely place, as it usually does. You know you are in the right area, but until that moment you see nothing – among the auto-body shops and warehouses, or the alternately neat rows of new houses and some of their tumbledown weed-choked predecessors – that looks like it could possibly prove to be a café. More than once I have gone an hour or more into the hinterland by train and walked half an hour to a café, only to find it inexplicably closed. Other times I have misread the guidebook or the map and arrive 5, 10, 15 minutes after the final café on that day’s itinerary closes, sometimes necessitating multiple trips to the same town, at some expense.
11:30 to 5:00 or 6:00 may sound like a lot of time, but it isn’t. It can be a real hustle, thus leading to the paradox that while the whole point of café-meguri is to have a taste of the slow life on weekends and days off, it is often more like a series of short pauses in relaxing environments punctuated by a mad rush to the next one and back to the train (since the temptation is always to make some plan with a friend that requires you to be back in the Tokyo area by evening, to get the most value out of your unlimited one-day travel ticket).
This being the case, I find, café-meguri is best done alone. For some inexplicable reason, other people don’t much like scarfing down cheesecake and lattes in a hurry and then jogging 20 minutes along country roads and small highways to the next oasis! It’s also rather unfair to the staff, many of whom I suspect have chosen to open cafés in the hinterland precisely to get away from city people who expect gourmet quality food served at McDonald’s-like speed. This has gotten me into trouble a few times and I realize I am violating the whole spirit of café-meguri by making it into a relay race to see how many cafés I can hit in one afternoon, especially since there are only so many desserts you can safely consume at short intervals. For better or worse, however, that’s how I define maximum value.
Which brings me to another irony of café-meguri: I took it up largely as an alternative to going to Tokyo on weekends, which was tiring and expensive. But the alternative is, in the end, equally if not more expensive (the average café-meguri day trip costs somewhere between $40 and $60). While it can be tiring with all that jogging between cafés, however, it produces a different sort of exhaustion than a trip to Tokyo. Whereas I usually return from Tokyo both physically and mentally worn out, when I return home after a day of café-meguri, I am physically tired, but mentally quite refreshed and pleased with my accomplishment. I’ve survived another adventure on unfamiliar trains to unfamiliar towns in a foreign country I am still struggling to understand and, like notches on one’s belt, I can tick off another two or three cafés in my guidebook. It’s a small pleasure, but small pleasures among the bigger and smaller frustrations are what make living in a foreign country worthwhile much of the time.