The total cafe lifestyle

by Setsuko Kamiya

Options for a place to sit down with a nice cup of coffee or tea have expanded in Japan in recent years, but the favored haunts of the young and trendy are neither cozy kissaten nor chain outlets such as Starbucks and Tully’s. They’re cafes.

Cafes are everything that kissaten are not. The latter are the dingy meeting places of middle-aged salarymen who want to smoke and drink coffee. Cafes, on the other hand, have style.

Some are furnished with period furniture or Eames chairs and play light, relaxing music, such as bossa nova or French pop, in the background. Funky knicknacks — ranging from cups, plates and kitchen utensils to plants and posters — are carefully selected to create an eclectic mood. Altogether, the feeling on entering a cafe is that you’ve stepped into a comfortable living room.

The rise of modern cafes in Japan began in the 1990s. In her essay “Tokyo Kafe no Suikei (The River System of Tokyo Cafes),” Yoko Kawaguchi, a cafe expert, describes the trend here as a river fed by several “tributaries.”

The source of the Japanese cafe can be traced to the boom in kissaten culture, which flourished during the 1960s, declining by the ’80s. In the early ’90s, however, the cafe “flow” regained its vigor when the stylish French “open cafe” with wide-open frontage and sidewalk seating came on the scene.

The current then picked up speed in the 1990s. The latter half of that decade saw the advent of Starbucks and other foreign coffee chains. Simultaneously, the general public’s increased interest in interior design — a number of posh furniture shops open during this decade — also spilled over into the design concept of cafes. It is these three tributaries that converged to create today’s “river” of cafes, Kawaguchi says.

So influential has the cafe concept become that the word is applied to a whole range of items, not only eateries themselves.

For example, the trend has spawned a whole category of food — cafe meshi or cafe gohan (meshi and gohan meaning “meals”). The phrase refers to simple stylish dishes, such as sandwich-and-soup combos or exotic ethnic fare. Whole cookbooks of cafe food have been published, featuring recipes from popular spots, with culinary tips from the owners themselves.

That relaxing background music that makes the ambience of many a cafe is — you guessed it — cafe ongaku (cafe music). Not that there’s anything new about such music — it’s simply “whatever the cafe wants to play according to the mood of the place or its brand image,” said Tokiko Kida, a spokeswoman for Tower Records. Nonetheless, patrons keen to re-create the atmosphere of their favorite hangout can buy one of the compilation CDs released by trendsetting cafe. Until recently, several major record stores had featured displays of cafe ongaku.

More important than the music and even the food, however, is the cafe “look.” The insides of jazzed-up coffee shops are now admired as examples of “cafe-style interiors.” Some popular cafe actually double-up as furniture stores, or are run by people who previously dealt in furnishings and interiors.

The secret of the cafe’s success is its individuality: Each one derives its ambience from the tastes of the owners. If you love a cafe, you’ll love the creative mind behind it, the theory goes, and indeed some cafe owners have become style gurus, authoring books, compiling CDs and opening stores selling all that you need to reproduce the cafe lifestyle in your very own home.