Sunday, April 20, 2008

"Old Style Y500 Coffee Shop"

On the way home over the past couple of years, I've periodically looked out the train window (when I'm standing at a door that is - the seats face the inside of the train) and noticed an old style (previously ubiquitous) coffee shop, and idly thought I'd like to go in for an over-priced cup of coffee for old-time's sake.

And here I am sitting in said shop writing this by hand (enjoying the experience of writing by hand, but also realizing that each word will have to be reproduced on the keyboard before I can get this through the wires to the screen).

Okay, this is getting in the way - I'll just make short notes from here out and fill in the text later directly on the machine:

These old style coffee shops are fast disappearing, to the point where the only remaining ones will exist on nostalgia alone, rather than their original reason for existing. For quite a while, Japan's coffee shops were famous for their overpriced (compared to prices for coffee in other countries anyway) coffee, but I'm not sure people understand what was being bought with Y500 for a cup of coffee.

The deal is, not only are free places to sit down in Tokyo few and far between, but most of the year, the weather tends not to be ideal for sitting outside. The winter is cold, the spring is wet, the summer is hot & humid, and although autumn tends to be nice, it's also often visited with typhoons. Then you're back to cold winter. So, if you want to meet someone and sit and talk, where do you go? Coffee shops used to be the best option, since you could sit in one talking with a friend for a few hours, after which the Y500 didn't seem so expensive, since it amounted to seat & table rental time out of the weather and in a cozy atmosphere (assuming smoke didn't cause you grief).

Then cheap coffee shop chains caught on, and the expensive places lost customers to them and began to disappear. The cheap places are convenient and cheap, but - like fast-food restaurants - generally soulless.

Observations of the Y500 place in which I now sit - which fit for most of the similar-style coffee shops I've been in over the past 24 years:

You sit down, and either exchange a few words with the person you've come with, or else look around the coffee shop or out the window. (Before cell phones, they were also good places to wait for someone when you had to prearrange a place to meet.) Often the menu is already at the table, but sometimes it's brought, and water and hot wet towels are brought. You ponder the menu for awhile, and order, and then talk (or look out the window, or read, etc.) while waiting for the coffee to arrive.

Coffee is brought in style. Like in a classy restaurant, the delivery of the coffee is considered an important element. The person who brings you the coffee sets it carefully in front of you in a nice cup (never a paper cup), with the handle facing to your left at 90-degrees. I never bothered to find out the exact proper procedure for turning it 180 degrees before beginning to drink, but (sort-of) enjoyed the ritual of turning it anyway (shades of the tea ceremony here), and then pouring in a little cream & sugar and stirring it with the small spoon.

One time, I went with an acquaintance who was really into the correct rituals, etc., and was told that you're not supposed to stir it right away, but rather watch in fascination (said mostly in seriousness, with a little bit of sarcasm in the background) the patterns formed with the cream in the coffee. Immediately stirring it into a uniform mud color is considered very uncultured. (I've forgotten, but I think the ideal thing is to stir the black coffee, and carefully drop the cream into the still swirling coffee after the spoon is out of the way - in any case it looks pretty interesting & artistic when you do it that way.)

There are always two kinds of sugar on the table - in glass containers with wooden lids, and metal spoons with small wooden knobs on the end (the spoons rest in the sugar, with the handle passing through a cutout in the lid). One is regular white sugar, and the other is a brown sugar in large crystals. I don't remember what the deal is with the large brown-crystal sugar. Either it's a taste thing, or one or the other is more suited to ice-coffee? (They would bring a liquid syrup for the ice-coffee, come to think of it.) I have no idea. Personally, I always used the large brown crystal sugar in hot coffee.

There was (is) an ashtray on each table, as leaf-fire burning and inhalation for nicotine drug addicts is/was allowed. StarBucks was the first place that didn't allow smoking anywhere in the entire store, and it was instantly popular with non-smokers who weren't happy about being forced to smoke with the smokers in smoke/coffee shops. (Probably not a great time or place to visit this issue, but for those who bring up alcohol and people who drink as an argument against banning leaf-fire smoke - the comparison only holds if you physically grab someone and force alcohol down their throats - otherwise the comparison is just sophistic inanity. The air is common to all in the same space - what people drink is not.)

Back to the specific coffee shop I'm in:

- Between myself and the window are cake... ads? (they're not menus exactly, but perform that function) sitting on a wooden rail. One for "Milk Crepe", one for "Chocolate Cake Cake Set" and one for "Cheesecake".

- Old style wooden chairs.

- Wood-pattern linoleum floor.

- Two small square wooden tables pushed together to form the rectangle of each four-seat table. (Easily adjusted for an extra person here or there.)

- Small tables mostly, one larger table (with eight chairs) in the middle of the room. A sort of bar-style counter, although at the same height as the tables, where people can sit in regular-height chairs.

- Daily (coffee) special on A4 card tacked to wall.

- Unobtrusive background music.

- Incandescent lights (no florescent tubes anywhere that I can see - unusual in most spaces in Japan, although classy restaurants have been trending towards warmer, more subdued lighting).

- Exhaust fan in the wall (for leaf-fire smoke).

- Magazines and comic books in smallish bookcase.

- People talking in Y500 coffee shop style. Is that sound due to the acoustics; the background music; or do people actually speak in a different way in these places? From past experience, I would say it's a way of speaking. It's not a library, but the concept is similar. (Note: That last sentence began as Japanese and is basically a translated sentence - does it fly smoothly in English, or does it feel like an oddly translated string of words that doesn't quite come together in a cohesive meaning? It's common in Japanese to say that something "isn't something, but...".

I look out the window and ponder the people coming and going from the station. There is the muffled sound of trains coming into and leaving the station, and the "kong-kong-kong" of crossing bell sounds generated by speakers.

Time to leave - I pick up the bill on the table and note that its height is A6, with a narrower width.

As I leave, I think I would like to return before long, but the first thing I think of when contemplating doing so, is the time it costs. Perhaps this is what has really killed off most of these types of shops - the fact that people can communicate with anyone via e-mail now (with cell phones), and don't need to arrange a physical meeting to talk.

So saying, a scene comes to mind. Later in the say, as I walked past a StarBucks in Shinjuku, I looked in the window and saw a woman sitting alone at a table for two (not four, as would be the case in the old-style shops), talking on her cell phone while she was doing something with her laptop at the same time. Multitasking - why waste time meeting someone in a settled atmosphere and having a leisurely talk when you can do three or four things at once? Quantity is more important than quality? For everything gained, something is lost?

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

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