OSAKA – Everyone calls her the Toast Lady.
For 43 years, Chisato Kijima has been serving huge “American-style” meals at Cafe Y to pilots and cabin crew staying at nearby hotels in Umeda.
When she started out in a cramped basement space in Osaka’s business district, many of her customers — hungry and jet lagged after long flights — flew for Pan Am, then Northwest Airlines (since merged with Delta Air Lines).
“In those days the hotel restaurants were rather expensive,” Kijima says. “A group of pilots in search of a cheaper breakfast discovered my cafe almost by accident. Word got around, and more and more airline personnel started coming — over 50 a day.”
In 2006, Cafe Y (also known as Coffee Shop Y) moved into a more spacious location near the trendy retro area of Nakazakicho and now sits 22 people. These days, the beloved cafe attracts a diverse clientele that includes university students, office workers, foreign tourists and families with small children.
When I arrive with a friend at 9 a.m., there is already a line stretching out the door, and after about 20 minutes we are shown to a table in the back. Cafe Y’s walls are covered with posters from musicals and family photos. Bacon sizzles on the grill. The aroma of fresh coffee wafts through the air. Kijima does everything by herself, working frenetically to crack eggs, slice toast, take orders and serve customers.
“I only use fresh and natural ingredients,” says Kijima. “We don’t serve any instant food here.”
Cafe Y offers a Morning Set for ¥600, but we order the double-sized American-style Breakfast (¥1,000), which consists of scrambled eggs, bacon or ham, toast, a piece of fruit — usually a banana — and coffee.
For this meal, Kijima uses an entire 600-gram loaf of additive-free bread cut into four thick slices, heavily buttered on both sides and then toasted. The eggs — you can order up to 10 at no additional cost — are sourced from a farm in Shimane Prefecture that raises organically fed chickens. Good bacon (by American standards) can be hard to find in Japan, but this breakfast set includes a very generous portion of atsugiri (thick-sliced) bacon from Tochigi Prefecture.
Given these hefty portions, Kijima estimates she goes through 500 eggs and 30 kilos of bacon a day.
“I’ve been in the red for years,” Kijima says with a laugh. “I have to dip into my personal funds to cover my losses. The happiness of my customers is my profit.”
The second item we order, the Half Sandwich (¥1,000), also comes with unlimited coffee and is a misnomer if there ever was one: it’s actually three rather large sandwiches made with up to 10 eggs, bacon, ham, lettuce, mayonnaise and ketchup.
Our freshly ground hot coffee comes with real cream, while the iced coffee is served in mismatched beer mugs filled with shaved ice. Kijima uses Naniwa Coffee, a popular local brand established in 1948 that became famous for being served in the dining car of the Tokaido Shinkansen when it first began service in 1964. Unlimited refills of both hot and iced coffee are available until 11 a.m.
Cafe Y is also famous for its jumbo lunches. The Y Teishoku set menu (¥1,000) changes daily, and includes seven to eight dishes brought out at a quick clip, such as miso soup, curry and rice, ham and eggs, fried chicken, potato salad and hamburger steak.
“I want my customers to feel like they are eating at home in their own kitchens,” says Kijima. “If you want seconds of anything (during lunch), all you have to do is ask.”
Even more than the gargantuan portions, Kijima’s magnetic personality, warm smile and ability to make newcomers feel welcome is what brings people back time and time again.
Breakfast from ¥600, lunch from ¥1,000; English menu; some English spoken