It’s been said that Starbucks killed the coffee shop by turning it into fast food. The spirit of the old European coffee shop, though, where old men watch the world pass by and artistic young men show off their ennui, didn’t die. It just moved.
The European coffee shop has been transplanted to Japan, where it has flourished in the fertile, foreign soil in the land where the sun rises. The Japanese coffee shop is privately owned, otherwise it starts having a commercialism about it that drives down both the price and the age of the drinker. Starbucks, if you actually compare prices, isn’t actually cheaper. But anyone who’s been to a privately-owned Japanese coffee shop would agree it certainly feels that way.
There are three species of Japanese coffee shops: refined, homey, and eclectic. The refined will have you sipping cappuccinos in what looks like the personal tea room of very poor royalty. The homey are designed by the lady on the bags of country-style cookies. The eclectic ones you can identify from the guitars on the walls and the indie music on the cheap stereo. There is also a subspecies involving as much modern art as can be safely crammed into one room, which with any luck Darwinism will soon ferret out.
In Kyoto I had the pleasure of spending an hour in the coffee shop of Mrs. Itou. It looked remarkably like her dining room kitchen converted into a coffee shop. I had her green tea and jelly concoction, which unfortunately didn’t live up to the advertisement outside. Fortunately, Mrs. Itou herself made up for any disappointment in her drinks.
The rest of my Kyoto trip was designed by Mrs. Itou herself, who had a fierce love and encyclopedia knowledge of her city. Had I seen Tenryuji? Why no, I hadn’t. Mrs. Itou assured me I would love it. Nijo castle? No? It became my next stop. I should take the so-and-so line there because it’s the fastest way. I informed her I would be doing so.
Since this kind of advice took time and I had already finished the green tea jelly milk, I had to order some toast, too. Japanese toast being thicker than my proctologist’s finger, it made me thirsty. Another drink was in order. Mrs. Itou’s coffee was a lot like Mrs. Itou, a bit eccentric yet altogether likable despite knowing you’re paying more than you intended.
As I finished my toast a flock of high school girls entered. Mrs. Itou insisted they talk English with me. Normally I don’t like to talk English, since it either turns into a free English lesson or whoever I’m talking to suddenly has to leave when I start using exclusively Japanese. The girls, too, were as up for it as I was. After a few strained “where do you come froms” to make Mrs. Itou happy, we were let off the hook when a regular came in that demanded her attention. I took the chance to leave before she could force another latte on me.
The best part of Japanese coffee shops? The owners. Just don’t let them keep you all day or you won’t have any souvenir money left.