Travel | PHOTO ESSAY

Coffee from another age: The last ‘kissaten’ of Yanesen

by Lance Henderstein

Special To The Japan Times

Shigeo Ota spends six days a week behind the counter of his cafe, Aroma, watching TV and waiting for customers who rarely come. The cafe is in Komagome, a town in Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward, close the quiet neighborhoods of Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi (collectively known “Ya-ne-sen”). There isn’t much foot traffic here by Tokyo standards.

“In the ’80s, I had customers all day long,” he says. “There was a streetcar that ran right in front of my place, lots of shops, people walking with their families. Then they built that big road and people just zip by in cars. I can count on my hand the number of people who come in a day.” He rolls his fingers in mock arithmetic.

I ask why he keeps the shop open if there are so few customers.

“Well, I like to talk to people and I don’t know how to do anything else.”

He laughs to himself at the thought of working another job.

“This is all I can do.”

We drink coffee together and talk politics and culture. Before I leave he gives me a poster showing the costumes of a local summer festival.

Reflecting on the past: Dandy is a traditional coffee shop in Tokyo’s Nezu neighborhood.
Reflecting on the past: Dandy is a traditional coffee shop in Tokyo’s Nezu neighborhood. | LANCE HENDERSTEIN

Down the road, in Nezu, Yoshio Tanabe has a single customer in his kissaten (traditional coffee shop), Dandy. The man drinks his coffee, reads the paper and smokes cigarettes — the kissaten trifecta. Old show tunes play on loop in the background, from “The Sound of Music” to “Singin’ in The Rain.” Tourists and locals pass by the window, but no one enters. Dandy has become a part of the scenery.

Tanabe opened Dandy in 1975 and watched the area change dramatically over the next 40 years. Yanesen went from bedroom town to tourist attraction. The convenience of Seven-Eleven and Circle K replaced the mom-and-pop stores and the sense of community that accompanied them. He’s witnessing the end of an era and he knows it.

“It can’t be helped. We’re a disposable culture now. We throw everything away, even buildings. We tear them down and build high-rise apartments. After I’m gone they’ll probably tear all this down, too. It’s a shame, but … ” — a shrug finishes his thought.

His tone is not bitter. He seems resigned to the slow decline.

Timeless proprietress: Mrs. Iwamoto runs Kissabonna, a coffee shop near Tokyo University, with her husband.
Timeless proprietress: Mrs. Iwamoto runs Kissabonna, a coffee shop near Tokyo University, with her husband. | LANCE HENDERSTEIN

Near the Red Gates of Tokyo University, a handful of other kissaten have also managed to outlast the Showa Era (1926-89). They have catchy names like Leo, Kokoro (Heart), and Kissabonna.

The extraterrestrial lighting in Kissabonna is surreal and draws stares from those passing by.

Inside, Mr. and Mrs. Iwamoto shadow the mid-century decor, serving coffee and tea to the occasional patron. I try to get some details from Mrs. Iwamoto about the cafe and she points me toward a stack of magazines that have featured Kissabonna over the years. They’ll have whatever information I need, she says.

I ask her age and immediately regret it. “How old do you think I am?,” she says, but before I can answer, she scolds me. “One should never ask a woman her age, you know. Remember that.”

A lesson in decorum from classier time.

With that, our brief interview ends and she goes back to work. I’m reminded that we weren’t always so eager to share our personal details with strangers. I finish my tea with lemon, think better of asking her first name and head back into the street.

There are hundreds of kissaten scattered across the neighborhoods of Tokyo. There used to be thousands of these neighborhood dives without Wi-Fi or point cards, serving charcoal-roasted coffee, red sauce spaghetti and egg-salad sandwiches. Rustling newsprint and smoldering cigarettes from the few remaining customers still conjures another era.

Time flows around these saloons, but it does not move them. For now, at least, they remain as they were.

Shigeo Ota
Shigeo Ota | LANCE HENDERSTEIN
Okada Hisako is the owner of Leo.
Okada Hisako is the owner of Leo. | LANCE HENDERSTEIN

The following coffee shops are all located in Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward: Aroma (4-37-7-102 Honkomagome, Bunkyo), Dandy (2-29-3 Nezu, Bunkyo), Kissabonna (6-17-8 Hongo, Bunkyo), Coffee Leo (5-23-14 Hongo, Bunkyo).