Archive for the ‘coffee shops’ Category

Jimbocho (2)

October 26, 2010

After dropping in on the Bean Book Carnival the other day [see “Jimbocho (1)” post], I wandered through the back streets of Jimbocho in search of Kissako, a coffee shop I’d visited before.  In the busy noisy outer world, Liu Xiaobo had just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and Norway was taking a lot of flak from the Chinese government as a result.  But in the quiet slow-paced inner world of Kissako, I found Norway being appreciated, like a cup of very good java.

To find Kissako you have to get lost first.  You go down the street you think it might be on, or off, and then you don’t find it, so you follow your instincts and turn left or right at the next corner and the next until you find yourself in a narrow back alley with no idea where you are or by what route you got there.  You have left behind the rushing traffic and crowded sidewalks of Jimbocho, and are now alone.  At that moment, an old house with lots of potted plants out front and a sign that says 喫茶去 appears in front of you.  This is Kissako.

“Kissa” means coffee shop or tearoom.  Our translation staff found the “ko” part trickier.  By itself, it means “gone.”  So they googled around and came to a website featuring information on the Japanese tea ceremony [ Japanese)].  Here they learned that kissako is a word in its own right, a Zen term meaning “Nice to see you! How about some tea?”  (It does not mean, the website warns, “Drink your tea and be gone!”)

Green tea is on the menu at Kissako, but its specialty is coffee.  The aroma of fresh-ground beans greeted me as I entered.  Though the street outside had been empty, the shop was full, except for one table right inside the door, which the Master (proprietors of coffee shops are called “Master”), who was working alone, quickly cleared up for me.  I sat down facing the wall to the immediate left of the entrance.  When I’d come here before that wall had been covered with an enlarged print of Art Kane’s famous 1958 photograph, “A Great Day in Harlem.”  It was gone now, and in its place was a collection of CD covers.  Then I noticed the music.  It was not jazz.  It was fiddles, playing something that might have been the accompaniment to a barn dance somewhere in Appalachia.

Kissako is a jazz-kissa, a coffee house that plays jazz recordings, hence the wall-sized print of “A Great Day….”  But today, for whatever reason, it was fiddles.  The menu was inside an old 45 album cover: “Norman Granz’ Jazz at the Philharmonic, vol. 9” from CLEF Records.  Various coffees and teas were available from ¥600 to ¥700 [$7.00 to $8.50], and something out of the ordinary:  a piece of cake called mor monsen made from a Norwegian recipe.

I ordered my coffee and the cake.  Then I noticed the windowsill to my left.  It was piled high with CDs—I counted over 100—with a little note explaining that these belonged to the Norwegian Culture Cafe, and I could choose any CD I wanted to listen to and request it (kind of like a non-mechanical jukebox).  Now I was confused.  Had Kissako changed hands and become the Norwegian Culture Cafe?  A closer look at the CD covers on the opposite wall revealed that these too were from Norway.  In front of them was a stack of Norwegian picture books.  I concluded that the Master had made a recent trip to Norway, fell completely in love with the place, and returned with CDs, picture books and mor monsen recipe, determined to remake his jazz-kissa into a museum celebrating Norway.  (It turned out this conclusion was wrong.  Read on.)

The door kept sliding open and people poked in their heads—where were they all coming from?—only to be told that the downstairs was full but they were welcome to sit upstairs, reached by a narrow, steep and creaking stairway opposite the entrance.  It took a while for my order to come, so while the fiddles fiddled on and on, I browsed through the pile of CDs.  They were all Norwegian jazz.  I had heard of none of the groups or musicians.  There was Embraceable You:  The Warm Symphonic Moods of Bjarne Nerem, which included standards like “Stardust” and “What’s New”; The Zoo is Far, by the Christian Wallumrød Ensemble (piano, harmonium, toy piano, trumpet, violin, Hardanger Fiddle, viola, cello, baroque harp, drums, percussion and glockenspiel), which included intriguing titles like “Music For One Cat” and “Need Elp”; Bushman’s Revenge Cowboy Music, with titles like “Bad Feng Shui,” “Supersonic Macho Blues,” and “Makes It Worth a Beating.”

The coffee and mor monsen arrived:  six small cubes of butter cake laid out on a plate and sprinkled with powdered sugar, with a daub of plum jelly on top and 2 small triangles of pineapple to the side.  A feast for the eyes and the palate.

When I went to pay my check the Master asked me if I were from Norway.  I told him no, but that I had enjoyed being in Norway for the past hour.

When I got home, I googled Norwegian Culture Cafe and found out what’s going on.  The is an “imaginary cafe” which circulates in “volumes” around the Tokyo area, manifesting now and again at a local cafe and occupying it for a while.  It is the creation of the Society of Japan-Norway Musicians and aims to introduce Norwegian culture through its music CDs.  At its website [ (in Japanese)] I found a recipe for mor monsen, which uses the following ingredients:  unsalted butter, sugar, flour, eggs, grated lemon rind, currants, almonds and powdered sugar.

On Wednesday, October 27 there will be an exhibit at Kissako of aurora borealis photographs by the Japanese photographer Hiroyuki Kudoh.  Norwegian Culture Cafe, Vol.4 will be in residence at Kissako through Sunday, November 14.

[Kissako:  Kanda Jimbocho 2-24, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo. Ph.: 03-3229-6969.  Open every weekday, 7AM – 9PM; Saturday, noon – 9 PM; Sunday, noon – 6PM.]


Off the Beaten Path: Sawai to Mitake

September 24, 2010

Tokyo is more than a city; it is one of Japan’s 47 prefectures, consisting not only of a densely populated urban area clustered around Tokyo Bay in the east, but also of a mountainous, heavily forested and sparsely populated area to the west.  Anyone residing in the eastern part, as I do, and feeling the lack of fresh air and greenery can easily replenish their supply by boarding a train on the JR Chuo Line and heading west.

The other day a friend introduced me to a walking route along the Tama River.  The weather was fine but hot, as the long record-breaking heat of the summer still lingered on.  We caught a train bound for Ome at Kokubunji Station, and at Ome transferred to the Ome Line, a four-car train where you had to push a button to open the door if you wanted to get on or off.  Although it was Tuesday, the day after Respect for the Aged Day, there were plenty of fellow travellers heading in the same direction, including many recently-respected-aged folks, and at one end of our car a group of noisy college-age kids, who looked like they were skipping classes for a barbecue on the riverbank.

After fifteen minutes of passing through sleepy little stations where no one got on or off, we came to Sawai, our stop.  We were the only ones to get off.  At the back of the platform rose a steep, thickly wooded hill.  The sun-heated air smelt faintly of what turned out to be sake.  We crossed the tracks, exited the station, and kept going down the hill, following a steep winding slope past a sake brewery. We had come to a main drag of sorts, and a traffic light whose main purpose seemed to be to give us a chance to cross the street without being run over by passing vehicles.

A few yards to the left we came to a short flight of stairs that took us down toward the river, past the garden terrace of a restaurant closed on Tuesdays.  We could see people sitting at tables on the terrace anyway, so we walked in among the trees and found a table next to the river where we could eat our sandwiches before starting on our walk up the river to the next station, Mitake, from which we planned to catch a train back to town.  My companion, who had been there before, explained that when the restaurant was open, you could sign up inside for a tour of the sake brewery, reached through a tunnel under the road, followed by a sake-tasting opportunity back here in the garden terrace.  I was okay with skipping the sake tour, though, because the sun was still quite high over the yardarm, and we had an hour or so of hiking yet ahead of us.

The terrace was a delightful place.  The restrooms were open, and the vending machines well-stocked with water and soft drinks for the road.  No doubt because it was a weekday and the restaurant was closed, it was not at all crowded, and in our spot by the river and under the trees, the air turned cool and refreshing.  A cloud of dragonflies flitted above the swirling jade-green water of the river, their wings reflecting the sunlight.

Between the edge of the terrace and the river bed below it, we found two footpaths, each running in opposite directions.  The one to the left, according to a sign, followed the river bed back to Ikusabata, the station before Sawai, while the one to the right led to Mitake Station by a route somewhat above and overlooking the river.  We kept to our original plan and took the path to the right.

The path was paved in a haphazard kind of way; you had to keep your eye out for potholes and spots where the asphalt buckled up, as well as for the occasional footbridge over rivulets trickling down the hillside into the water below.  Not to mention wildlife:  At one point a small black snake slithered across our path, on its way down to the river for a swim perhaps.  On the left was always the river, which changed as we walked, sometimes flowing freely, sometimes forming rapids among large boulders in the river bed.  On its opposite bank rose the hillsides densely packed with cedar trees.

Although neither the path nor the river was crowded that day, we were not alone, and here and there as we walked along we caught sight of people fishing, kayaking or sitting among the rocks at the river’s edge chatting over tea.  When we passed an area of white water, a raft of helmeted young women came downstream in our direction, waved at us, and then made it through the rapids without capsizing.

Between the river and the edge of the paved path grasses, trees and flowers grew abundantly, drooping a little as if worn out from the effort of going to seed.  Large green banana plants loomed over the path, while the more lowly but more vivid higan-bana (literally “equinox flower” but called “cluster amaryllis” in English according to our translation staff) bloomed amid the overgrown grass.

Going around a bend in the river we came upon a rustic tea hut, a perfect setting as my companion pointed out for writing a Tree article while looking out over the river and enjoying the autumn foliage.

Perhaps I'll come back in a month or two when it is cooler and those maple leaves have turned red.

There was an odd sensation here of being in two places at once.  On the left was wilderness, the river and the grasses going to seed.  On the right side of the path, however, were the back yards of homes that lined the road running parallel to the river above us.  These homes were built on the sides of the hill and could be reached by long steep pathways or stone stairways.  As we passed by these narrow passageways, we could look up and catch a glimpse of the road above.

The view on the right side of the path was quite different from the view on the left.  Here were the back yards of the homes, overflowing with flowers and bushes and assorted garden decor and gardening tools.  At another bend in the path, about halfway between Sawai and Mitake, we came upon a conveniently located public restroom.

I bought some myoga (Japanese ginger) and dokudami tea leaves here at this wayside vegetable stand.  The leaves of the dokudami (translated in our office dictionary as “a foul-smelling perennial plant of the family Saururaceae”) make a mild-tasting herbal tea with detox properties.  Also on offer was some plum vinegar, but I passed on that.

A bit further on we found signs advertising a restaurant and a coffee shop.  We followed the signs up a steep stone staircase toward the street in search of coffee.  We passed through a patio-like area set out with chairs strung in brightly colored strings, as if a large spider had attempted to spin her web here.

This turned out to be part of the "Ome Art Jam."

Moving onward and upward, we came to a hut with its doors wide-open to the public.  A helpful young woman at the entrance explained that the restaurant at the top of the stairs served traditional Japanese fare, probably not coffee, so we abandoned our climb, and instead accepted her invitation to view the art on exhibit inside.  We removed our shoes at the entrance, ascended onto the tatami floor, and in our sock feet walked around admiring the several paintings in the room.  These too were part of “Ome Art Jam,” an exhibition sponsored by the Ome Art Museum at various locations in the Ome and Mitake area, featuring the work of local artists, and promoting the idea that the area with its abundant water and greenery is especially conducive to the production of art works.  [This exhibit lasts until October 11.  For more information, visit (only in Japanese).]

We descended again to the footpath where immediately next door we found Twinkle Refreshment Parlor.  In front of an old gate signs advertised everything from beer and soba to coffee and shaved ice.  We passed through the navy blue noren and entered a compound of elderly buildings of faded beauty set in a garden full of artefacts:  large blue and white porcelain hibachi, gaudy guardian lion-dogs, statuary both European and Buddhist.  All the buildings appeared to be open for inspection, but we chose the pavilion just past the gate with its open windows overlooking the river, and ordered our coffee.

another type of hibachi

[Twinkle is open from March through November, 11 AM to 4 PM; closed on Wednesdays and in inclement weather.]

Continuing our walk, we eventually came to another public restroom, near a bridge spanning the river. The wide stone staircase beside it led back up to the road.  When we reached the top, huffing and puffing, we walked down the road to the left and found Mitake Station on our right.

Mitake Station ticket gates

For anyone looking for something more ambitious than this riverside stroll, you can take a bus from the station part-way up Mt. Mitake and hike up to the summit.  But for those who prefer a more leisurely route offering both the wonders of nature and cultural amenities like art exhibits, coffee houses and restrooms, the walk from Sawai to Mitake is highly recommended.

The Color of “Brilliance”

July 7, 2010

The Color of “Brilliance.” The tables here at this chain coffee shop are lined up side by side.  I find a free one, sit down, and tuck into my egg and tuna salad sando. I’m immediately aware of the young man sitting at the table to my left.  Is it the constant clicking of the pen caps as he snaps them off and then seconds later snaps them on again that makes me glance in his direction?  Or is it the array of brightly colored hi-liter pens strewn next to his reading material that catches my eye?

Immediately in front of him is a xeroxed article written in Japanese but printed in horizontal rows as English and other European languages are.  Just above the article is propped an open book, also in Japanese but printed the traditional way in vertical rows which one reads from top to bottom, moving across the page from right to left.

The entire 20 minutes it takes me to finish my sando and drink my coffee he spends ceaselessly looking at the xeroxed article in front of him, looking up from it to consult the book above it, flipping ahead through its pages then flipping back again, then once again returning to the article.  He uses his left hand to flip the pages or pinpoint a passage with his forefinger, while in his right hand he holds one of his assorted hi-liter pens or his one red ballpoint pen.  Each time he changes pens, he snaps off the cap with the fingers of this hand, which then grasp it as he applies the hi-liter to one or two lines or a few words within a line in the article or the book.   The marking is accomplished in one or two rapid strokes, the cap replaced with the fingers of the right hand— “snap!”—another pen picked up, uncapped—“click!”—applied to the page, recapped—“snap!”—replaced in the pile and so on and on and on.

The article begins to look like a rainbow as more and more of the words and lines are marked in various shades of pink, blue, yellow, green, orange and purple.  He uses the red ballpoint pen to make notations in the margins or to draw circles around chunks of words within a line.  Back and forth he moves across the article lying flat in front of him, painting the page with color.  Back and forth he riffles through the pages of the thick book propped above it.  Off and on, off and on click the caps of the pens.

This coffee shop is located across the street from the Mita campus of Keio University, so the young man might be a Keio student, famous, as are students of all the top-tier elite schools here, for being “brilliant.”  Or is he a neurotic wannabe hanging out on the fringes of the campus pretending to study something avidly?  Who’s to say?

I pick up my tray and carry it to the service counter.  On my way out of the cafe I pass the young man still hard at work turning his texts into rainbows.