This column marks the one-year anniversary of Kissa Kultur. What started as a way to help freelancers find interesting spots to enjoy a coffee between jobs has now become a fascinating historical dig through postwar Tokyo.
Many of the kissaten owners I have met were salarymen fed up with their jobs, intent on starting their own businesses. Against the advice of families and employers, these brave datsusara (men who quit the company life to strike out on their own) became the original “masters of their domain.”
To distinguish themselves from the many others who followed suit, each kissaten owner brought something unique to his or her little piece of heaven, such as the “selected regal cups” at Aka Renga (Kissa Kultur, July 1999) or the hyaku shurui no koohii (100 kinds of coffee) at Coffee House Poem (January 2000).
Only the tenacious have survived and in a world of Starbucks and Starbucks wannabes (check out Excelsior, Doutour’s “high-end” coffee shop), it seems appropriate today to introduce a place that has lived through enough trends, fads and syrupy concoctions to be truly called a “classic.”
The grande dame of Classic is Yoshiko Mimasaka. With an elegant bouffant floating above her wise but unlined face, a gold clover leaf dangling over her black silk blouse, Mimasaka holds court at this most unusual kissaten, established by her late father, artist Shichiro Misaku.
Speaking in lilting keigo, Mimasaka relates how Misaku, originally from Kumamoto, wanted to follow in the footsteps of Chagall or Picasso. His parents, though, insisted he get a “real job” and packed him off to Tokyo, where he ended up working for the metropolitan government.
But not for long. Soon he met other frustrated artistic types and together they would spend hours discussing the great European masters at Datto, a long-forgotten Ginza kissaten. Datto’s staff got irritated when they stayed too long, so Misaku convinced his friends to help him build his own place, where they could wax rhapsodic into the wee hours.
With their manpower and the extra living allowance his parents had been sending him, Misaku opened his first shop in Koenji. He wanted to call it Renaissance, but at that time (1930) the government frowned on businesses using foreign words, so Misaku chose Koten (a “classic” work of literature, art, etc.). Sadly, it was destroyed during World War II, but shortly after the war, Misaku opened his second version of Koten in Nakano, this time free to use the English name Classic.
Although he was indeed an artist (his Chagall-like paintings adorn Classic’s walls) Misaku was not an architect, and certainly not a housekeeper. Herein lies part of Classic’s charm. As the late Quentin Crisp once said, “After four years, the dust doesn’t get any worse.”
At Classic, the dust, knickknacks and ghosts of yesteryear have all taken up residence in what looks like the prototype for Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion. Lovely but spooky, Classic beckons you over warped wood floors, past antique clocks and gramophones, inviting you to spend a few hours in its eerily lit nooks and crannies.
It’s quite easy to do, especially if you love classical music. Misaku, a huge Mozart fan, collected hundreds of albums (which he carefully concealed throughout the war) in the hope of one day sharing them with friends and customers alike. Miraculously, these ancient LPs are still quite playable, and their crackle and hiss gives one the illusion of another era.
Although there are faithful customers who still come to listen to the music, nowadays Classic is often filled with a young crowd, who carefully tip-toe up the tiny twisted stairway to the second floor, sink into the marshmallow-soft banquettes and laugh as they realize there isn’t anything at a straight angle in the entire shop.
That doesn’t bother Mimasaka, who is proud to keep her father’s memory alive and glad that Classic is being “rediscovered” by a new generation. For budget-conscious college kids (who are invited to bring their own snacks), the price is perfect: 350 yen for coffee, tea or orange juice (served cold or hot).
For those worried about earthquakes, be warned that Classic would most likely not pass any safety standards. For those who want to defy the odds, this kissaten indeed offers a classic experience.
Special thanks to reader Blake Pinter, who brought Classic to my attention.