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“Oh, dear, it’s that Kamakura boy! Welcome, now, honey.” Kazuko Ando, the owner of Jurin Kissa near Kii-Nagashima, Mie Prefecture, has run her kissaten (or kissa, an old Japanese-style cafe) since 1978. She exudes grace, wears a head scarf and intones with the accent of the Kii Peninsula, which features a kind of sing-songy rise at the end of sentences — arigaTŌ!

I order some toast and an iced coffee and tell her I can’t stay long. She scrunches her brow and says, “Honey, I know, you never stay long.” Which is true. I’ve been to Jurin four times over the past two years, always in the middle of a big walk, and I’m shocked and delighted each time Ando remembers me. This time, it’s May 2021, and I’m walking some 435 kilometers around the peninsula, along the Ise-ji and Ohechi Kumano Kodo UNESCO World Heritage routes of Mie and Wakayama prefectures.

I ask Ando if COVID-19 has affected business much and she says, “Not at all, busy as ever,” pointing to the mostly filled booths of regulars, smoking and sipping coffee and chattering away. Jurin is one of the rare still-vibrant kissas along the coast. In part because of Ando’s ebullience, and in part because she’s near Kii-Nagashima, one of the more spirited towns.

Craig Mod’s walking path along the Ise-ji and Ohechi Kumano Kodo UNESCO World Heritage routes of Mie and Wakayama prefectures. | CRAIG MOD
Craig Mod’s walking path along the Ise-ji and Ohechi Kumano Kodo UNESCO World Heritage routes of Mie and Wakayama prefectures. | CRAIG MOD

But over my 26 days of walking, the more I talk to the owners, the more I realize the scope — and fragility — of their tight-knit network.

Classic kissa are fundamentally a Showa Era (1926-89) invention, with numbers peaking in 1981 at 150,000 and dwindling ever since. In 2017, the number was 70,000 and has dipped precipitously in recent years as owners pass away or retire. Which is kind of the point of this walk: To take inventory of who’s left alongside these old roads.

Painfully, I’ve missed visiting a few by just a couple of weeks: La Mer, a quaint free-standing home-turned-kissa a few kilometers north from Jurin, closed on March 31. I circle the building like a burglar, sticking my nose up to the windows. The interior is ocean-themed, with walls festooned with wooden ship wheels and model boats on the counters. It looks like a kissa that had a lot of heart. The sign on the front door says, “Due to the old age of the owner, we’ve decided to shut down.” He had simply aged out of the business.

Trinkets and tobacco

Emiko Fukunishi, however, is nowhere near retirement. The proprietress of the tiny Tohenboku, just around the corner from the famed Okajima-ya inn, dating back to 1836, is quick to laugh and hand me colorful stickers, holding forth at length early in the morning on her love of the resort town of Karuizawa. “My husband and I got married there,” she explains. “We adore it, go back every year.” Her shop is festooned with omiyage trinkets from those trips — wooden squirrels and ceramic bowls from Yokokawa, the oldest ekiben (station bento) in Japan, that happens to be next to Karuizawa.

Unlike many of the other kissa I visit, Fukunishi explains that they had (and continue to) suffered because of COVID-19: The number of folks commuting to Nagoya has plummeted because of emergency restrictions, and as such they’ve lost a lot of drop-ins. She says her husband was off doing other work because the revenue from the kissaten alone didn’t cut it, though they have run the cafe since 1985.

A few days later, when I tell the owner of Kissa Eight in Misedani, that I had just visited Kissa Tohenboku, she says, “Oh, I know her, the wife of the older sister of one of my classmates.”

Kissa Eight, a well-worn, tobacco-stained kissa, has been in operation for 26 years. I ask if COVID-19 has affected them much, and its Mama cackles and says, “Nah, we don’t get any tourists. And anyway, might as well shut this place down tomorrow!” It wouldn’t surprise me. One of their tables is stacked with laundry baskets, and there’s a distinct air of conclusion in how the place is kept. I ask about their siphon coffee brewers, and it turns out they haven’t been used in years. The only other customer has been chain smoking and picking at a bowl of rice since I arrived, and he starts laughing, too, saying, “Now, Mama, where’m I gunna go if you shut this place down?”

Dropping in

This year, the rainy season hit the Kii Peninsula nearly three weeks early. So instead of the normally cool, dry, temperate walking weather of May, I spend nearly half the walk soaked.

On one torrential morning, feeling maximally dispirited, I come across Cafe House Veil, Part Two.

A sign on its door reads, “We Respectfully Decline Out-of-Prefecture Customers.” I am dripping and desperate for coffee. Technically, I am an “out-of-prefecture customer,” but I have also been in-prefecture for over a week. Wary of offense, I stick my nose in; the place is packed. I lift a single finger in the saddest gesture I can muster, and they welcome me without question.

Elderly farmers, fishermen and retired loggers in groups of two and four read their newspapers and sip coffee in silence. For ¥450 I am treated to two slices of toast, salad and a hot coffee.

On the way out, I ask the owners what was up with the sign — I had seen a few shops with similar ones along the way. The owners, a husband and wife in their 80s, shrug and a customer at the counter sucking on a vape pen says, “Ain’t like we can tell who’s from Mie or not.”

There’s an air of finality pervading Kissa Ron, with its lights out at 10 a.m. and a telephone booth packed with cleaning supplies. | CRAIG MOD
There’s an air of finality pervading Kissa Ron, with its lights out at 10 a.m. and a telephone booth packed with cleaning supplies. | CRAIG MOD

The kissa game

Fueled by coffee and toast and FamilyMart egg sandwiches, I trudge up towards Magose Pass. The rain is relentless. The path up the mountain looks like river, and by the time I hit the pass at 325 meters, I am soaked and my boots squish, but I am filled with that perverse chemical joy earned by completing an arduous physical act under mildly idiotic circumstances. I haven’t seen a single other walker all day.

The city of Owase sits on the southern side of the mountain. It’s a great walking base, plopped between the demanding Magose and Yakiyama passes. After drying my gear and partaking in the dreamless sleep of the physically spent, I spend a slow morning at Kissa Scale, the site of an old ironworks garage.

Masahiro Hamano, the 73-year-old owner, tells me he switched from welding to coffee 20 years ago. The post-bubble recession had halted construction, and work had dried up. I ask Hamano for his secret to life. “Use your body when you’re young, your mouth when you’re old!” he barks. And does he ever use his mouth. I sit in the corner nursing a delicately roasted Colombia blend, eating a weirdly ethereal cinnamon toast that seems to evaporate when it hits the tongue, while regulars pile in, perch at the counter and gab with Hamano, gossiping and ribbing each other. His son, Takayuki, works in the back, cooking and serving. The whole scene leaves me feeling buoyant and observant of some secret morning happiness society.

The 25-meter-tall coastal Shishi-iwa (“Lion Rock”), visible through the picture window at Sanchago, a kissaten in Kumano, Mie Prefecture. | CRAIG MOD
The 25-meter-tall coastal Shishi-iwa (“Lion Rock”), visible through the picture window at Sanchago, a kissaten in Kumano, Mie Prefecture. | CRAIG MOD

A few days’ walk farther south, in the city of Kumano, I am moved by the gentle demeanor of Hiroko Tanigawa, the proprietress of Sanchago, which has the most impressive view out of any of the Kumano Kodo kissa: an unobstructed vista of the famed 25-meter-tall costal Shishi-iwa, or “Lion Rock.” I order a rice pilaf with shrimp and gaze upon the rock. Tanigawa explains that the kissa opened 50 years ago, but that she didn’t take it over until 20 years later, moiling away before the rock not out of some irrepressible love for coffee, but rather financial hardship. She had been a housewife, they needed more cash, and so she decided to try the kissa game.

Generational overlap

The biggest surprise of my journey was the abundance of cafes in Kushimoto, a fishing town on the southernmost tip of the peninsula, at just about the halfway point of the Ohechi route.

At Kissa Ron I am served the most elaborate morning set of the walk: coffee, Chinese-style seaweed salad, potato salad, toast with jam and butter, a dollop of Napolitan spaghetti, a fried egg and, of all things, a slice of pineapple — all for ¥630.

Though it’s 10 a.m., the interior is dark since the owner seems to have decided to keep the lights off and shades mostly drawn. The effect is more noir than saturnine, and I feel like I’m in a Raymond Chandler novel. Speakers in the ceiling play the classic “Tonight, I Celebrate My Love,” with Peabo Bryson and Roberta Flack serenading each other. The romance is overwhelming. A full-sized wooden phone booth stands next to the entrance. It contains a vacuum and cleaning supplies. The owner tells me the phone company cut service some 20 years ago, since you needed to put ¥5,000 a month through it to keep it connected. The early Japanese cell phone boom had rendered it obsolete.

An iced Americano and french toast from Tsubaki, a cafe in Kushimoto, Wakayama Prefecture. | CRAIG MOD
An iced Americano and french toast from Tsubaki, a cafe in Kushimoto, Wakayama Prefecture. | CRAIG MOD

Not every kissa on the trail is run by someone on the cusp of retirement. Tsubaki, a third-wave cafe just a short walk from Ron, is run by the eponymous Tsubakis — Mio and Keigo — a wife and husband duo who had trained in Osaka at Brooklyn Roastery before returning to Mio’s hometown of Kushimoto three years ago to start a family and run their cafe. They’ve succeeded at both and serve what is perhaps the most nuanced, well-balanced and textured cortado and iced Americano I’ve ever had in Japan. It’s paired with fluffy french toast and a tuna melt with fries that feels like it could have come from a New York City diner. I want to eat and drink their entire menu. Locals come and go. I watch in astonishment as an elderly man with a coiffed and distinguished mullet enters and reads his newspaper while sipping a fancy latte. It seems the Tsubakis have found a solid place in the local kissa firmament.

Faded heyday

I’ve now walked every major path of the Kumano Kodo, most multiple times: the Nakahechi, Kohechi, Omine Okugake Michi, Ise-ji and Ohechi. Personally, I find the most delight in the coastal Ise-ji and Ohechi routes. They mix sweeping views atop challenging mountain passes with the chance to witness village life. Sections of the Ise-ji wend right through folks’ yards, forcing you to duck under flapping white sheets drying in the sun.

That said, many of these towns are well into their twilight. Much like the shuttering of the last of the old mountain-pass teahouses in the mid-20th century, these remaining World Heritage-adjacent kissa don’t have many years left. I suspect in a decade most will be gone. A few new cafes, like Tsubaki, have picked up the torch, but it’s a distinctly different one from these Showa Era community hubs. The constellation of classmates, friends and family that define this fading generation will soon be gone.

The exterior of Tsubaki. Its husband and wife owners trained in Osaka at Brooklyn Roastery and returned to Kushimoto, Wakayama Prefecture, three years ago. | CRAIG MOD
The exterior of Tsubaki. Its husband and wife owners trained in Osaka at Brooklyn Roastery and returned to Kushimoto, Wakayama Prefecture, three years ago. | CRAIG MOD

So when Japan once again opens its borders, I say come and walk down the coast of the Kii Peninsula. Pop into a kissa. Bear witness to the end of an era, a rural aesthetic and culinary vibe aging out before our very eyes. Go say hi to Ando, and tell her that boy from Kamakura sent you.

Craig Mod is a writer and photographer. The latest edition of his book, “Kissa by Kissa,” is coming later in August 2021. For more information, visit shop.specialprojects.jp/products/kissa-by-kissa-3rd-ed.

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