Print Story "Old Style Y500 Coffee Shop"
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By lylehsaxon (Sun Apr 20, 2008 at 05:38:41 AM EST) (all tags)
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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"Old Style Y500 Coffee Shop" | 7 comments (7 topical, 0 hidden) | Trackback
It's not a library, by blixco (4.00 / 1) #1 Sun Apr 20, 2008 at 07:16:04 AM EST
but yeah.  That sentence worked great.

I had this whole portable tea kit in Chinatown, and was amazed at the amount of ceremony that Chinese and Japanese people put into their hot drinks.

It is good to see that such things, even if just echoes of them, carry forward. You see that here in the States with certain meals, or certain alcoholic drinks.

Strange how those little rituals are the "soul" missing from the modern simulations.  Those rituals wouldn't impact profit, so why do they disappear?
"You bring the weasel, I'll bring the whiskey." - kellnerin

Dish prices maybe? by lylehsaxon (4.00 / 1) #2 Sun Apr 20, 2008 at 08:05:35 AM EST
One cost-related thing might just be the cost of the dishes and the cost of washing them.  The Doutor Coffee shop chain uses very thick (and strong & ugly) coffee cups, and the other chains don't even bother - they give people coffee in paper cups.  The serving part wouldn't take long, but there being no dishes to clear, wash, and handle probably does save money.

About the sentence - thanks!  I really wasn't sure how that would sound.  I've gotten so used to that pattern of expression in Japanese, that it came out in English, and then I couldn't think of a better way of saying it... so I'm glad to hear it works!


The shortest way home is the longest way 'round....

[ Parent ]
Looking through your website by ni (2.00 / 0) #3 Sun Apr 20, 2008 at 09:00:43 AM EST
I came across this:
["I did the usual routine of finding the address by walking in circles (Tokyo addresses are a series of ever small circles - right down to the last one, with no street names being used for the most part). ]

Any chance you could elaborate on this? I'm fascinated by city addressing schemes.

"These days it seems like sometimes dreams of Italian hyper-gonadism are all a man's got to keep him going." -- CRwM

Go Auto Format! by ni (2.00 / 0) #4 Sun Apr 20, 2008 at 09:08:11 AM EST
To answer my own question, teh intarwebs have been surprisingly helpful in elucidating:  gives an overview, for anyone else who was curious.

"These days it seems like sometimes dreams of Italian hyper-gonadism are all a man's got to keep him going." -- CRwM
[ Parent ]
I enjoyed addressing when I was in Tokyo by R343L (2.00 / 0) #5 Sun Apr 20, 2008 at 09:40:04 AM EST
Once I figured out how it worked. That said, I rarely had to find an address without a local area map for the location -- the map usually would have one or more subway stations with surrounding roads (mostly unlabelled) and the destination marked. I had my address memorized though so I could tell taxi drivers (who would often open up incredibly massive grid maps because they had no clue where they were going either.)

I lived in 2-23-X Yushima, Bunkyo-ku (I don't remember the building number and I'm a bit unsure about whether it was 2-chome or 3-chome, but I think it was 2-chome).

"There will be time, there will be time / To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet." -- Eliot

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What was it like living there? by lylehsaxon (2.00 / 0) #6 Tue Apr 22, 2008 at 05:40:15 AM EST
How was it living in Yushima?  I've always liked the name and that would be a great location to live - especially if you liked prowling the back streets of Akihabara for computer parts.  I've never lived within the Yamanote Line, although I lived fairly near it when I lived a couple of stops from Ikebukuro on the Tobu-Tojo Line.


The shortest way home is the longest way 'round....

[ Parent ]
well .. by R343L (2.00 / 0) #7 Tue Apr 22, 2008 at 07:10:51 AM EST
Honestly it was my first experience living in any big city -- the closest I had come before was living in Arlington, Virginia near the Pentagon, but even that isn't all that dense.

Certainly, it was easy to get anything, though Yushima (in the area I was in), was very residential with a few offices, so I did have to walk maybe four blocks or so (small ones obviously) to get to the nearest grocery or down to the nearest large road (heading north on it, you hit ameyoko in no time, south a few blocks .. akiba). The nearest food places (a little bakery and a small restaurant) were actually surprisingly mediocre compared to what I could get if I walked a couple more blocks. Actually there were two restaurants equally close, but the other was a fancy tempura place where you couldn't really escape paying less than 2500-en or more -- which is a bit much when most nights I just wanted 420-en noodles. :)

I really liked living so close to Ameyoko though -- there are a lot of restaurants and pubs and such buried in there. Plus Ueno park being so close.

Of course, being so close in, getting to anything at night was easy and missing the last train (if I was over in Ginza or something) really wasn't that big a deal as taxis aren't that expensive if you're not going far. It was really bizarre a few weeks before I left when I realized the office I had been going into work to was actually quite close to home -- the subway maps, not being to scale or represent relationships, had made it seem I needed to take the subway. Certainly, I was unsure about directions and so. I was playing around with the Yahoo JP map system trying to figure out how to get somewhere and happened to load a screen that I recognized the building names ... it was the office. I then realized the office (in Jimbocho) wasn't really that far -- maybe a little over a kilometer? Certainly worth walking when at night after work, I had been taking the train, walking home, dropping stuff off, then walking to Ueno for dinner or the pub. I had gotten so train-station oriented, it hadn't occurred to me things might be closer than they appear!

It was a good time, mostly.

"There will be time, there will be time / To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet." -- Eliot

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"Old Style Y500 Coffee Shop" | 7 comments (7 topical, 0 hidden) | Trackback