Food & Drink

Cibi: A 'little' store bridging the Japan-Australia gap in a big way

by Alex Martin

Staff Writer

It’s a lazy Monday afternoon in Tokyo’s Sendagi district, and locals and overseas tourists drop in to Cibi — housed in a former Yamato Transport warehouse — for coffee, homemade muffins or a light meal while checking out the colorfully patterned tenugui hand towels and other Japanese craft goods on display.

Meg and Zenta Tanaka, the owners of the venue, are in town for a few weeks before flying back to Melbourne, where they opened a new flagship food and concept store last October. The nearly 800-square-meter space in Collingwood, Victoria is located next to where the first Cibi shop opened back in 2008. It’s the culmination of the couple’s efforts over the past decade to create a community hub offering nourishing food and beverages, Japanese craft design products and locally sourced organic groceries, all in a spacious setting.

More than muffins: Cibi sells a variety of lifestyle goods. | ALEX MARTIN
More than muffins: Cibi sells a variety of lifestyle goods. | ALEX MARTIN

Now they’re looking to explore further opportunities in their home country, where they opened another Cibi — which means “little one” in Japanese — in 2017.

“We’re in no rush, but would like to expand, according to our philosophy. We feel there’s still much potential in Japan,” says Zenta, a 43-year-old architect from Yokohama.

The Cibi store in the Sendagi district of the capital’s Bunkyo Ward is on a laid-back shopping street that’s also home to a sushi shop, mom and pop izakaya pubs, a bakery and a fish store. It’s a traditional area in central Tokyo that’s seen an influx of tourists in recent years attracted to its old-town feel, temples and other historical sites.

“This isn’t your average Tokyo neighborhood in how you can still find a thriving local community,” Zenta says. “But that doesn’t restrict us when looking for our next location, anywhere is game if we feel Cibi can make a difference,” he continues, adding that their primary criteria is space, something not easy to come by in a crowded city where square meters come at a premium. “At the earliest, we’d like to open another shop in Tokyo by the end of next year.”

To Down Under and back: Cibi founders Zenta (left) and Meg Tanaka. | COURTESY OF CIBI
To Down Under and back: Cibi founders Zenta (left) and Meg Tanaka. | COURTESY OF CIBI

Zenta relocated to Adelaide with his family when he was 16 and returned to Japan in 2002 after graduating university. He met his wife, Meg, who hails from Japan’s southwestern Okayama Prefecture, during college.

Back in Japan, Zenta joined a Tokyo-based general contractor while Meg worked for a firm selling Australian and New Zealand wine to restaurants. Their time in Tokyo lasted only a few years, however. The packed commute and long working hours were far from what Zenta envisioned for his life.

“I became overwhelmed by the city,” he says. “I had also been entertaining an idea for some time. I had an interest in hospitality, cafes, bars and spatial design, and was looking for an opportunity to merge these things into one, and decided Australia was the place to give it a shot.”

The couple moved to Melbourne in 2005, and for the next few years worked to save money while hunting for property. They opened their first, 240-square-meter Cibi shop in 2008 after six months of preparation and, in 2012, launched a sister shop, a cafe called Minanoie (“everyone’s home,” in Japanese).

“When we first opened Cibi, it was just the two of us,” Meg, also 43, recalls. “Seeing us working, customers would occasionally ask whether we serve sushi, and I’d have to explain that not every Japanese can make sushi,” she says with a laugh.

Japanese design ambassador: The shelves of Cibi's new flagship store in Australia are filled with Japanese-designed products such as Hakusan Porcelain and Shotoku Glass. | COURTESY OF CIBI
Japanese design ambassador: The shelves of Cibi’s new flagship store in Australia are filled with Japanese-designed products such as Hakusan Porcelain and Shotoku Glass. | COURTESY OF CIBI

Last year, the pair closed Minanoie and the original Cibi to move into a new flagship space, which they share with picture framers United Measures and plant experts The Plant Society. Meg and Zenta, who are parents to three boys — a 9-year-old and 4-year-old twins — recently published an English cookbook (also titled “Cibi”), which compiles simple, Japanese-inspired meals such as sandwiches and ramen bowls, shōgayaki (pan-fried ginger pork) and other household classics.

Cibi also produces original products including T-shirts, canvas tote bags and various condiments, while serving as distributors for Japanese craft producers in Australia, including Hakusan Porcelain, Sori Yanagi-designed goods, Shotoku Glass and Noda Horo.

“Our aim from the outset was to offer lifestyle tips and provide a space where people can gather and socialize and buy everyday goods like milk, bread and mirin rice wine,” Meg says. “Customers visiting our Melbourne shop can stop by our cafe, buy gifts or attend educational workshops we host — it’s all very free-flowing.”

Being an Australia-based, Japanese-run enterprise has placed Cibi in an interesting position, Meg says. “Despite offering similar products and services in our shops, we are occasionally categorized as a Japanese shop in Australia and a Melbourne shop in Tokyo.”

That unique cultural blend may be one of Cibi’s appeals, however. While its Tokyo outpost is smaller compared to the flagship venue in Melbourne, it’s already found a dedicated international fan base.

“We’ve seen our customers in Melbourne visit our Tokyo shop during vacation,” Meg says. “Then there was a customer from Japan who frequents our Tokyo shop who came to our Cibi store in Collingwood, telling us it was the first place she wanted to visit in Melbourne.”

Sendagi 3-37-11, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo 113-0022; 03-5834-8045; www.cibi.jp; open 8 a.m.-6 p.m. everyday; nearest station Sendagi; smoking not permitted; major cards accepted; English menu; English spoken

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