What is it about Australian cafes that has Tokyo so excited? Is it the relaxed atmosphere, the service or the fresh flavors? Perhaps it’s the high-quality produce and the commitment to crafting exceptional cups of coffee? Or maybe it’s the attraction of Australia’s laidback lifestyle? Whatever it is, cafes and restaurants across Tokyo seem to be invoking Down Under.
Aussie chef and personality Bill Granger might have been the first to introduce the appeal when he opened a branch of his Sydney restaurant, bills, on the seafront at Shichigahama, Kanagawa Prefecture — bills’ first overseas post. His restaurant’s ethos, “sunny, easy-going and generous,” is a reflection of Australian culture and seems to have been a hit in Tokyo: the seventh bills in Japan opened in Ginza in October.
It’s not only Australians who are pushing their culinary culture on Tokyo. After spending some time in Melbourne, two young Tokyoites became fascinated by the city’s laidback restaurants and cafes. They wanted to replicate that same all-day dining experience in the heart of Ginza and in March, 2016, opened Me’s Cafe & Kitchen, a breezy space with a long communal table, open kitchen and a menu boasting healthy smoothies, sharing boards, salads and burgers. Owners Naoya Numata and Kantaro Okada believe that what is so appealing about cafes in Australia — particularly those in Melbourne — is a relaxed attitude, and the way they promote a lifestyle as well as healthy food.
“Many baristas in Melbourne don’t take themselves too seriously, even though they know how to serve the best coffee in town,” says Numata. “We wanted to bring that attitude back to Tokyo. The problem with many cafes and service staff in Tokyo is that they are too serious. We want Me’s to be a friendly, relaxed environment for everyone to enjoy any time of day.”
A cornerstone of Australian dining is the long, lazy brunch, but this is yet to catch on in Tokyo, perhaps due to the residents’ strict schedules and work ethic. It’s nearly impossible to find a decent breakfast in Tokyo of the eggs-bacon-avocado variety. But Latte Graphic, which started as a small cafe in the city of Machida in western Tokyo but has now expanded with a second branch in Ebina (and a third soon in Jiyugaoka) is the closest you will get to a truly Australian-style breakfast in Tokyo
“In a city as populated as Tokyo, it’s difficult to find an open and friendly space to relax,” says Tomohiro Hoshi, the company manager of Latte Graphic. “After spending time in Australia, I noticed the people seemed a lot happier and the cafes encouraged sociability and calmness.”
Hoshi ensures his staff adopt the friendly Aussie style of service and that his breakfast menu ticks all the boxes — eggs, bacon, avocado, spinach — washed down with a flat white and freshly squeezed juices.
The local love of Down Under is also reflected in the fact that Japan is Australia’s third-largest market for agriculture, forestry and fisheries, worth around $4.6 billion in 2014-15, according to the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Japan is Australia’s largest market for cheese and Australia is Japan’s largest supplier of beef. According to Tokyo-based Australian importer Andrew Davies of Changing Space, Australian produce has a reputation in Japan for quality and safety.
Davies imports both finished and raw products from Australia to Japan, including coffee, tea, olive oil, sugar and salt. The bulk of the products go to restaurants and food services, but retail has proven to be a slightly harder sell.
“Chefs are key to raising the profile of Australian products,” says Davies. He believes Japanese consumers are more likely to buy Australian produce if they have been introduced to them in restaurants.
One Japanese chef who is playing his part in educating local diners about Australian produce is Koji Fukuda. He has opened two Aussie-style restaurants this year: Terra Australis is a formal but cozy space in Sendagaya and Terra Azabu-juban is a casual tapas-style cafe facing Amishiro Park. Fukuda believes that the essence of Australian cuisine comes from its multicultural population. Chefs in Australia are not afraid to experiment and mix different cuisines and techniques whereas Japanese chefs are too focused on the precision of cooking. This focus can create diners who “don’t enjoy eating food” he says. Instead, “they are constantly looking for faults on the plate.”
“Dining out should be more about the social aspect,” he says. “The food is not the main dish.”
Dining out has become as much about the atmosphere and sense of place as the quality of food. Tokyoites are enjoying a slice of Aussie hospitality without having to make the journey down under — the flat white is catching on.