Let me tell you a tale of two cafes. It begins here in the Good Hood, a traditional Japanese neighborhood in Himeji city, western Japan, and my home away from Australia for 14 years.
Past the Funabiki Barber Shop, the Narusei tea seller, the bicycle mechanic, the yakitori grill, a little further on from the liquor store and the rice miller, there stands a small building with smoke-stained windows and a faded sign that reads “Ginza Tearooms.”
An ode to this place might go something like this: “You’re better off in a tea room in Ginza than in the Ginza Tearooms….”
It is hands down the filthiest cafe this side of Tokyo Tower--a place where brewed means stewed and dust rises in dunes under the tables. The air hasn’t been changed since the Showa Period.
Now I’ve had coffee in some pretty stuffy joints, but this place, the ‘Ginz’ I’ll call it, is more pinched than a Bangkok bus driver’s underpants. And I wondered, I wondered why, after 14 years, had I not noticed this tiny, forgettable place in the shadows at the end of our traditional shopping street.
Curiosity almost killed me. I took a seat by the window last Tuesday, ordered, and opened my book of Roald Dahl short stories and started a tale about a sinister hotel madam who lures a young man to a gruesome end. Behind me dice rolled over a greasy tabletop, a man chuckled; ahead of me, a local ancient tapped a hard-boiled egg. Endlessly.
My Japanese Java arrived. The matron slid a plate of toast in beside it and backed off slowly. I looked at my book, I looked back at her. Was it me or the toast?
The egg that came with it had been boiled when the last samurai walked these streets. The coffee was bitumen black….one sip, two sips. My tonsils were tarnished. My bowels clanging. I quickstepped across the linoleum to the small room, pressed the grimy light switch and assumed the position that a traditional Japanese toilet demands. With no lock on the door I risked being the main act for the breakfast crowd. Not that they would have known: all heads were lost to a cigarette haze.
After washing my hands, I washed them again. I found an unused corner of a grubby towel, wiped my hands, paid my bill and fled.
My time at the Ginz was served. I was free to breath the late summer air and marvel at the beautiful blue sky once again.
And that is the story of a cafe I know. (Yeah, yeah, I know I said a tale of TWO cafes but I’m over the word limit for this week.)
Next week: The Good Hood’s Caffeine High.
What is the essence of a small neighborhood in Japan? Writing from my home in Himeji, a castle town in western Honshu, Seaweed Salad Days distills, ferments, presents!