A coffee syphon bubbles. Ching! goes a toaster. The doorbell jangles and in walks a man with a limp and sweat on his brow. He shoots a glance at the counter staff and says:
“Iced coffee. Make it cold.”
Behind a newspaper a customer sniggers.
“Big night, Fujimoto-san?” the staff asks, jiggling cubes into a glass.
“Is there any other kind?”
He jabs a cigarette between his lips and like a cowboy with a gammy leg hobbles into the cafe’s depths for a quiet smoke ahead of his coffee.
The syphons are really bubbling now, like a mad professor’s chemistry set, filling the shop with every aroma from Java to Jamaica. Customers enter in ones and twos and the counter talk is of the nation’s big run on earthquakes, typhoons, tornados and floods in the past week.
But I (and these customers) digress. This week’s commentary is on the ups-and-ups of good caffeine hit in the Good Hood, a traditional neighborhood in Himeji city, western Japan, and my home away from Australia for 14 years.
While the Way of Tea (cha-no-yu) embodies Japanese sophistication, it is coffee which drives the nation. This is no hat-tip to Starbucks, Seattle’s Best et al. No-no, I’m crediting a far more humble and deserving institution; one that sends the suited battalions off to work each morning with hot coffee and hearty breakfasts in their bellies.
I’m talking about the KISSATEN (“keesa” for short): the train station cafe, the sidestreet coffee shop, the neighborhood information hub, morale raiser, instiller of “wa” and neighborly camaraderie, a place where you can be alone but not lonely and have your coffee personally brewed.
So it is at Cafe Tiffany which sits beside the slow-moving Ono River on the west side of the Good Hood in Himeji city. It is home to the hobbling cowboy, several chain-smoking housewives, one drunk-by-lunchtime retiree, a lively senior citizens’ croquet team and a swag of other colourful, friendly characters who are so regular they don’t even need to order--a morning greeting suffices.
To my knowledge, nowhere in the Good Hood does a cup coffee come at the click of a button, nor in a disposable cup. It comes from a bean that is milled. That is percolated in a glass syphon with hot water that is heated over a white spirit burner. And that is served piping hot in a fine china cup ON A SAUCER.
And that’s not all; order before 10:30am and you get a fat wedge of almond-butter toast, a salad with shiso dressing and a hardboiled egg. For it all you pay the yen equivalent of a few bucks.
Last week I warned you off a place I call the “Ginz.” But elsewhere in the Good Hood there are no other such landmines. There’s the Laugh Laugh Cafe down the street, a not-for-profit business that gives special needs kids a chance to acquire business and social skills. There is Cafe Parland, run by a friendly young couple who have reversed the demise of my old neighborhood by building a large, airy wooden restaurant-cafe where people come even from outside the neighborhood to eat healthy Japanese fusion cuisine and shoot the breeze over a good brew.
I like this place a lot. I like the funky toons, the potted jungle, the natural wood bench seating with wide windows that look out onto olive trees and a herb garden and give you a front seat to the wild Autumn weather everyone’s been talking about.
And I LOVE the knockout espressos. Drop by, let’s knock ourselves out together!
Next week: I have no idea. But after this next espresso I might.
What is the essence of a traditional Japanese neighbourhood? Writing from my home in Himeji, a castle town in western Honshu, Seaweed Salad Days distills, ferments, presents!