Trendsetting restauranteurs succeed in bringing bit of Bohemia to Osaka

Russian-Japanese couple had no experience before building two popular eateries

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

You’re in a breezy, open space, bathed in light. Frothy indoor plants and burnished wood surrounds vibrant splashes of azure. While sipping a “green fairy,” that traditional spirit of artists around the world, someone passes you a shisha, or water pipe, and you inhale sweet, fruit-soaked tobacco. You could be anywhere along the Mediterranean Sea, from Greece to Israel to Morocco, but you’re not. You’re in Cafe Absinthe in Osaka and your host is Russian Dmitri Farberov.

Farberov and his wife, Miho Irie, have created an international oasis for musicians and artists, a true slice of Bohemia in Japan. For Farberov, however, it’s not about where you are. “Basically what is important is who surrounds you. It is not really about the country or the city you live in, but the world that you create around yourself.”

With two successful Mediterranean-style restaurants in the Osaka area after 10 years in the business, Farberov says, “I’m still amazed that we did it. It’s not easy to survive in the restaurant business in Japan, as there is so much competition and a lot of people out there who know what they’re doing. And we didn’t, really. Maybe that was part of our success because always we looked at things from a customer’s point of view and never from a business point of view.”

Farberov credits his wife’s vision and determination in starting Cafe Absinthe and later Absinthe Solaar. “Miho has a great sense of what will be popular next, of the newest trends in fashion or foods or things in general. I was really against the idea, actually, because I didn’t think we could pull it off. No experience, and we had no friends in Osaka. Usually when people open up a bar, they already have a large friends base or customer base of people who support them at the beginning, but we had no one.”

Part of their success came from gritty hard work. “In the early days, it was tough,” Farberov remembers. “Many times, many evenings we were sitting together in the completely empty cafe, thinking, well, at least we have each other because we don’t have any customers. We would open in the morning for lunch and sometimes close at 7 the following morning and then open again at 9 in the morning. Sleeping on the kitchen floor many nights, we wouldn’t be able to go home at all, just shower ourselves in the sink and start again. When I remember now, it was pretty crazy.”

Another reason for their success comes from Farberov’s welcoming friendliness, his ability to make both the foreign community and Japanese feel at home in an exotic locale.

Farberov’s early life prepared him to speak in a number of languages. At 18 years old, he left St. Petersburg to immigrate to Israel. Although Farberov’s parents are both Russian Jews, he was not motivated by religious beliefs.

“It was 1992, and a time of a big immigration to Israel. Everything was prepared for new immigrants. They picked you up at the airport and offered you different opportunities. I stayed in a farm community near Jerusalem for one year to study Hebrew. I was not a Zionist nor even feeling a particular Jewish identity; it was something I never really thought of, basically. I just had a desire to go to a different country and learn a different culture and language.”

Housed in an international block away from other Russians because he thought it would help his language acquisition, Farberov was immersed in an English-speaking community while studying Hebrew intensively. “For six months, I just sat there not really knowing what was going on, even though everyone was friendly and kind.”

After a year, Farberov was ready to enter the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where all the lectures were in Hebrew but the texts were in English. The Israeli Army also provided an interesting way for Farberov to practice his social and language skills when he served his compulsory duty. “Because I studied psychology, I was given the position as a psychologist in the recruitment office. I was in charge of interviewing all the new immigrants and deciding whether they would fit into military service or whether they should be sent to a psychiatrist for further evaluation to determine if they would be released from service.”

After his two-year stint in the army, Farberov returned to work in local restaurants to earn money to finish school. He enjoyed the community bustle of restaurant life in the international nightlife scene of Jerusalem and later Tel Aviv, but he was never a professional chef himself. He also enjoyed the thriving music scene in Israel, and these experiences would thus lay the groundwork for his opening Cafe Absinthe in the future.

Israel was also where he met his life partner. “I see myself not as one person. My wife and I, we do everything together, and everything we make, we make together, so basically I can not take credit for anything that exists right now. It is our mutual achievement.”

Irie, born and raised in Osaka, began traveling straight out of high school. The two met when they worked at the same Japanese restaurant in Tel Aviv. The political situation in Israel in the early 2000s became unstable, and the young couple decided to come to Osaka in January 2003 for six months to consider their options.

It was during this time that Irie suggested they open a cafe like the ones they loved along the Mediterranean coast. They invited a chef from Israel to help them start, and scouted out possible locations. “Originally we were in a small, quiet neighborhood, a secret spot since it was not exactly in the center of town, and customers always felt special when they finally found us. We never advertised. It was always word of mouth.”

With a gallery space as part of the original cafe, their hard work gradually built a core base of customers within the hip, underground art and music scene. “Photography, mixed-media, video art . . . we have been experimenting with many things. We try to be very open and try not to say no to anyone who comes to us.” The cafe also brought in DJs and musicians from around the world, securing a niche within the Osaka music world.

Cafe Absinthe’s popularity grew so strong that in 2010 they were invited by the Takashimaya department store to open a branch on their rooftop terrace. As Farberov explains, “the department store restaurant has a very particular image in Japan. It is very proper, it must be checked by the store commission every two weeks; it is very strict. For us, a kind of hip place with loud music, it was a very big switch with a completely different client base, so we were challenged again with how to bring customers to us. At the same time, we did not want to create something completely proper, but stay true to Absinthe.

“Absinthe is definitely a community now, in a way — artists and musicians — but we still define our customers as 90 percent regulars. If there is something regarding the cultural aspect of Osaka, especially if it concerns the international community, it will always involve Cafe Absinthe.” Wherever you are in the world, you must agree with Farberov’s outlook: “It is nice to be surrounded by great things, great people, fashionable art, and cool music. It just makes you feel better every day.”