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Tucked away in the backstreets of Osaka’s Nishinari Ward is a guest house and cafe called Cocoroom. The building itself is a multicolored beacon to anyone looking for a friendly place to have a meal.

Inside, the shelves, walls and ceiling are lined with books, photos, art and lines of poetry — an almost overwhelming barrage of creativity. The staff and guests are gathered in the back kitchen and dining areas, chatting and preparing for the evening’s “makanai gohan,” a communal meal that will start at 6 p.m. sharp.

On the night I am visiting, dinner is being prepared by a legally blind actress who cooks here once a week simply because she loves feeding people. On other nights, members of the staff and volunteers take turns cooking.

Cocoroom is a cafe … and an art space … and an NPO. How would the staff describe it?

“We don’t know (how to describe it), either,” says 49-year-old Tengyo Kura, a member of staff who plays interpreter for this Japanese-challenged writer. Something tells me it’s a role he’s played before.

Kura’s job description, like those of his coworkers, isn’t too clearly defined since everyone on staff helps out in many ways — for the benefit of both guests and the residents of Nishinari. Perhaps the best description for Cocoroom is that it’s a community.

Relationships are flat

Makanai serving bowls line the long dining table and tonight’s guests are digging in.

“This is kinchaku mochi. We made it here last year and froze it,” says Kura, pointing at one of the dishes. At the table are friends, family and strangers, people from all walks of life that are happy to be somewhere that doesn’t adhere to Japan’s societal hierarchies. Everyone addresses each other by their first names, and formal introductions are scrapped. Here, you learn about someone by engaging in a conversation.

Poet Kanayo Ueda is Cocoroom’s founder and director. She is known for wearing kimonos, helping the community and creating a safe space for people to express themselves. | TENGYO KURA
Poet Kanayo Ueda is Cocoroom’s founder and director. She is known for wearing kimonos, helping the community and creating a safe space for people to express themselves. | MAI NARITA

“The relationship is very flat,” says Kanayo, the 52-year-old poet who founded Cocoroom with the aim of “relaxing people with food.” It’s her way of pointing out that everyone here is equal.

“I love you,” jokes Hiroki, 49, a Japanese nurse who lives in Thailand with his wife but has been unable to return home due to the current pandemic. The guests all laugh. Hiroki learned about Cocoroom after meeting Kura — or should I say Tengyo (we’re using first names now) — at a cafe that supports those with HIV.

Most of the guests have some connection to support services, and a sense of community is strong with people in Nishinari Ward. “Kamagasaki,” I’m corrected. The locals know this area as Kamagasaki, a place infamous in other parts of Japan for being populated by day laborers and the homeless. The government discourages the use of the name in the media, but the people at the table don’t seem to mind.

Cocoroom opened in 2003 as an art space and cafe, providing a neutral space for residents to discuss community issues. At that time, the venue wasn’t pulling in enough sales to pay the original staff, who were all artists, so Kanayo made it up to them with these makanai meals. Over time she came to realize that the act of eating together is also a form of expression, one of her main interests along with “human beings.”

“No matter who you are, you can’t live without eating,” she says. “If we practice ‘survival’ and ‘expression’ at the same time in our daily lives, it will one day become a culture.”

From one end of the table, frequent guest Hiroshi, 65, says he has been coming to Cocoroom for dinner since first hearing about the place three years ago. He lives alone and needs support after having suffered a stroke (he walks with a cane), so it makes him happy to come over for a daily visit. “It’s like having dinner with friends,” he says.

For Minoru, 70, dinner is a combination of friends and family. He is Kanayo’s husband after all.

“He’s a big figure in the community, but here he just does dishes,” Tengyo says with a friendly smile, reminding me of Cocoroom’s “flat relationship” and how everyone pitches in with the cooking and cleaning. Minoru is also something of a rebel: He was kicked out of college because of his activism and, since 1973, has been living in Kamagasaki and fighting for the rights of day laborers and the needy.

Community spread

Someone attempts to sing. It is 35-year-old Eri, a return volunteer from Nagoya, who is trying to remember lyrics in response to a question about what everyone’s first album was. She’s back because volunteering here gave her skills and a sense of independence that did wonders for her mental health. Her singing is contagious, the other guests have started singing along to an old children’s song that Hiroki remembered from his first record.

Kanayo and Tengyo agree that people talk about everything at meals, from the serious to the downright silly. Clearly, freedom of expression reigns at this table. “Can I eat, too?” asks Tengyo, who has been translating for me all night. “Hiroki can help me, but his English is from Mars. I’m just kidding!” Even quiet Yuya, 24, laughs at that one. He was invited here by Tengyo after quitting his job as a systems engineer to pursue his passion for coffee. Tengyo is a friend of a friend, as well as a coffee connoisseur.

Tengyo is also a former teacher who has been moving around for the past 20 years working as a storyteller and artist, living the life of a “vagabond” (which is how he puts it). He was familiar with Cocoroom, both through artist and volunteer circles, as a “must-see place.” He wound up renting accommodation here last year after returning from Africa. Kanayo recruited him to do YouTube videos, among other things, a welcome assignment for a creative.

Having eaten his fill, Tengyo is ready for the next topic of conversation. I bring up what I think might be a sensitive subject — the reputation of Kamagasaki — but it doesn’t seem to bother anyone. The area got this reputation in part from the sporadic “riots” that take place there (“riots” is a term used by the Japanese media). The first such disturbance occurred in 1961 after an elderly day laborer was killed in a traffic accident and died after not receiving medical assistance. The most recent one coincided with the G8 summit held in Hokkaido in 2008.

Kanayo says safety in Kamagasaki is no different than in any other urban area in Japan, admitting she was once attacked and robbed here. She accepts what she calls “the rough and tough” that is part of the unique line of work as a trade off for satisfying her desire to create something that helps people. “People sometimes cry because they haven’t eaten with others in a long time,” she says.

Minoru, Gen and Tengyo pose for the camera during dinner. First names are used at Cocoroom, a place that tries to do away with the formalities of Japanese social interaction. | COURTESY OF COCOROOM
Minoru, Gen and Tengyo pose for the camera during dinner. First names are used at Cocoroom, a place that tries to do away with the formalities of Japanese social interaction. | COURTESY OF COCOROOM

An open door

It’s an interesting sentiment to consider amid the pandemic, too. Over the past two years, many members of the international community have been unable to return home to see their families. During the end-of-year holidays, this can be particularly lonesome. Kanayo points out that everyone is welcome, no matter their nationality. “Good will is enough” to be able to express yourself, she says.

Kanayo began writing poems at a young age. Later in life, one of her poet friends took their own life and, subsequently, Kanayo made it her life’s mission to create a place where anyone would be able to safely express themselves.

Cocoroom initially gave artists of all kinds a place to exist, and today it does much more: there are poetry workshops; the staff distributes onigiri to the homeless; and there is a composting space in the garden that just received a colony of 1,000 earthworms. The list of activities is actually much longer, but the last guests are almost done clearing the table and it’s almost time for me to go.

“We want to connect strangers through meals,” Kanayo says. Eating together isn’t “just for satisfying ourselves, it is an invaluable experience that makes us feel alive.”

Given the two years we’ve had, that’s a welcome sentiment indeed.

For more information about Cocoroom, visit cocoroom.org.

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