Forget Starbucks, we’re doing the ocha thing


Do you have a little time? If so, then “ocha shimasho (Let’s do tea, or take a break over something to drink).” This is one of Japan’s most favored phrases and oldest customs. A breaking of the ice and shortening of the distance between people, the little ritual of ocha is to the Japanese what mealtimes are to the Chinese.

Above all, it offers a small space in the day for relaxation and regrouping. Whether this comes in the form of a chat on a train station platform with a can from a vending machine, or a sit-down-on-plush-chairs affair with crockery from Richard Ginori, ocha no jikan (time for tea — or any other nonalcoholic beverage) is a daily routine every person in Japan can relate to.

We are, after all, heirs of a history in which warlords and princes held their most important political conferences over cups of tea (when, unlike today, ocha meant green tea and nothing else). Don’t ask why, but we’ve always been prompted to seek meaning in the calm surface of a hot beverage and draw from it all kinds of notions that range from battle strategies to sexual seduction.

Two hundred years ago, ochaya (tea houses) served tea and sweets in the front of the shop and the back rooms were reserved for trysts with the chaya onna (tea house waitresses). Up until the end of World War II, urban “cafes” were staffed by jyokyu (women servers) who wore white ruffled aprons over their kimonos and were expected to peddle sexual favors along with serving such exotic Western concoctions such as uena kohi (Viennese-style coffee) and igirusu kocha (British red tea). Indeed, sex still has lingering connections to tea/coffee-taking (and exotic treats) — “ocha shimasenka (would you like to drink something)” is still the most familiar of pick-up lines.

From the post-war years up until the late ’80s, Japanese coffee shops were divided into two categories: the jyunkissa (coffee shops) that didn’t serve alcohol, and the ordinary kissaten (shops for smoking and drinking) that did. In 10th grade, we were given seito-techo (student rule books) that stipulated a ban on entering all kissaten, but that said it was OK to visit the jyunkissa ones, provided one had parental permission or adult supervision, and not more frequently than once a month. Thus, kids understood that coffee shops were the domain of otona (adults).

We also learned that some of the shops had specific functions, like the kurashikku kissa (classical music coffee shops) that played the owners’ favorite symphonies and whose wall shelves were crammed with album collections. There were the jyazzu kissa (jazz coffee shops) that played endless Charlie Parker and Miles Davis on professional stereo systems and banned conversation among the customers.

Manga kissa stocked thousands of dog-eared manga for perusal and charged by the hour, not the cup.

And then, of course, there were the dohan kissa (come-with-a-companion coffee shops) where all the seats were small two-seater sofas in a tiny curtained booth. Coffee ran to 1,000 yen a cup, but for couples who didn’t have the funds for a love hotel, a dohan kissa was the preferred venue in which to spend an intimate two hours (especially in winter).

In the ’90s, the ocha scene got a booster shot of oshare (chic). Shabby dohan and smoky jyazzu joints disappeared to make way for the “cafe bars,” a product of the micromarketing schemes of corporate Japan. The result was a bevy of chic, little, dark-wood places equipped with inconveniently high tables and stools (very tough to negotiate for short folks, take it from me) on which perched Armani-wrapped guys and their expensive dates, chatting quietly over bad kakuteru (cocktails) and crackers.

Now the cafes have undergone another metamorphosis. Run by ambitious and creative youths all sporting individual visions of the perfect cafe, these are showcases of lovingly crafted decor and Japanese cafe cuisine, popularly known as cafe-meshi (cafe grub). The aim is to create the illusion that you’re walking into a cozy, smartly furnished apartment where you can casually order fare ranging from expertly baked English muffins topped with homemade jam, to an organic omelet des herbes worthy of a Parisian bistro or a down-home bowl of udon (Japanese noodles). Some may have the early work of celebrity girl photographer Hiromix on the walls (artfully unframed).

As the global beverage scene becomes ever-more defined by giant American franchises, it’s nice to know some people can still get this passionate over doing the ocha.