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Sunday, March 9, 2003

Kissaten culture still on the boil


Staff writer

At 3 p.m. precisely, a staffer in meikyoku kissa Lion in Shibuya quietly announces the start of today's "concert." Silence descends as she places a record on the player. A gray-haired customer puffs on a cigarette at his corner table.

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Meikyoku kissa Lion is still a shrine to the twin passions of music and coffee.

A Beethoven piano sonata soon permeates the dim interior (thick curtains shut out the outside world) where a few solitary figures are seated at tables, illuminated by orange lamplight. Nobody is talking -- the only voices heard are whispered orders for coffee.

The hush is almost reverential, and indeed the meikyoku kissa (a "tearoom for musical masterpieces") is a shrine to the twin passions of music and coffee. In addition to the twice daily so-called concerts, you can request your favorite pieces of classical music. The tables and paired seats are arranged in rows facing the speakers, the effect is oddly like a theater.

Opened in 1926, Lion burned down during the war, but in 1950 it was reconstructed to the same design as the original, in the same location near Dogenzaka.

The piles of LPs -- 5,000 or more -- beside the stereo tell the coffee shop's history (though recent CDs are also played).

"The mid-1950s and early '60s were our golden age. This place was packed with young people and students," says Muneo Ishihara, the owner of Lion.

"They came here to listen to music and to study. Some brought dates here. Perhaps a cup of coffee is not enough for a date these days," 73-year-old Ishihara says quietly.

Customers' musical favorites have changed, too. In the 1950s and '60s, Beethoven was the top pick. (Indeed, a bust of the composer is an essential ornament in any meikyoku kissa). Then baroque music became the most popular, followed by the works of Mahler and Bruckner, Ishihara recalls.

What remains unchanged at Lion is the menu: a simple line-up of coffee, tea, milk, cocoa, soda and juice. The atmosphere, too, seems redolent of former days -- quiet yet welcoming, inviting customers to stay as long as they want.

Today, Lion is one of the last meikyoku kissa in Tokyo, though small, quirky kissaten like it can be still found in back alleys.

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Teruo Aizawa waits for customers in his kissaten Erika in Jinbocho.

At one time, though, kissaten were an integral part of people's lives. Coffee shops were first introduced in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), modeled after European cafes. (In Japan, however, the name kafe was first applied to establishments also selling alcoholic beverages; tea- and coffee shops were known as kissaten.)

The heyday of the kissaten was in the '60s when their popularity was perhaps attributable to the range of specialized facilities they provided. Kissaten for music, for example, offered many genres -- classic, jazz, chanson, rockabilly and rock 'n' roll. Some held live shows, too.

Then there were kissaten for business meetings, kissaten for making phone calls -- with a telephone at each table -- and utagoe kissa for singing songs, (often, for some reason, Russian folk songs). And of course, there were kissaten that remembered their true heritage as coffee shops, specializing in the preparation of one -- and only one -- blend of coffee.

In an era when an LP record cost close to one month's salary for the average worker and when few people possessed the means of making coffee at home, the kissaten became an indispensable place to enjoy these amenities and relax. Young people -- the generation now in its 50s and still frequenting kissaten -- used the coffee shops as a convenient place to meet up with friends or to escape crowded homes, or as a place to study.

Poet Yoko Isaka was one of that generation, and to this day she still writes about her affection for kissaten. She vividly recalls her first experience of visiting a chanson kissa, Ginpari (Paris in Ginza), when she was a teenager.

"In the kissaten, the music raged like a blizzard. While listening to the chanson, I longed for exotic lands. I felt transported to a place unknown -- and I could luxuriate in the ambience as long as I wanted." Isaka's peers had their own favorite kissaten. One university friend would frequent a meikyoku kissa in Shinjuku, where she would sit and sketch. Whenever Isaka wanted to see her friend, she would be sure to find her at the coffee shop.

Now one of Japan's leading modern poets, Isaka still goes to kissaten to sit and write. She also meets with her editors there. And whenever she's tired with walking round town, she dives into one -- preferably one that looks old and dark, where she can feel at ease.

Smaller kissaten, most of which were privately run, emerged in transport hubs, such as Shinjuku, entertainment districts like Ginza, and areas frequented by students, such as Kanda. During their peak in the mid-1970s, there were about 200 such kissaten in Shinjuku alone, according to Satoshi Okuhara, an expert in the history of kissaten in Tokyo.

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Seiichi Tanihara brews up a cup in his "history kissa," Hijiri.

With the explosion of cafe chains, such as Doutor Coffee in the '80s, however, competition intensified, driving prices down. (Coffee in a kissaten costs between 350 yen and 600 yen; prices in a chain cafe are around half that). Coupled with the sharp increase in land prices during the bubble era, the number of kissaten in Tokyo has plummeted.

In fact, despite the seemingly daily opening of new chain outlet coffee shops, the total number of cafes countrywide has been steadily declining. In 1981, there were about 155,000 cafes across the country, but by 2001 that number had fallen to just 89,000, according to a survey conducted by the public management ministry.

In Shinjuku, an estimated half of those 200 '70s-era kissaten have shut down. One of the most lamented passings was that of La Scala in Kabukicho. Opened in 1954, this celebrated meikyoku kissa closed its doors last December.

But still some stubbornly keep faith with the traditional kissaten.

In Jinbocho, every morning at 7, Teruo Aizawa opens his coffee shop, Erika, as he has been doing for the past 51 years.

Aizawa turned 82 in February, but wearing an immaculate white shirt and bow tie with a black sweater, he stands with dignity behind the counter displaying absolute confidence in the coffee he brews up.

The tables, chairs, lamps, doors and walls, all designed 50 years ago by an architect, are still in beautiful condition. It was the architect's wife who named the shop Erika, (the genus name of the flowers commonly known as heath).

"Soon after I opened this shop, small coffee shops began proliferating in Tokyo, just like ramen shops have done these days," Aizawa says. "That is why I decided to compete with the other kissaten on the basis of the quality of the coffee alone. Here, there is no music, no television and no waitresses."

Young people no longer come that often. Business people don't drop by for talks so frequently, and nowadays few writers use the space as their study.

"But this coffee is as good as it was 50 years ago," Aizawa says, smiling.

The once-popular jazz kissa Dig, opened by well-known jazz photographer Hozumi Nakadaira in Shinjuku in 1961, the middle of Japan's jazz boom, has now closed. Still operating in the area, though, are Nakadaira's other jazz cafes Dug and New Dug, which remain magnets for both jazz newbies and veteran aficionados.

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The entrance of Mignon in Ogikubo hints at its fabulous collection of LPs

The suburbs stretching along the JR Chuo Line acquired a reputation for their funky kissaten, and naturally some remain. One is Classic, located in a back alley near Nakano Station. In the cafe -- housed in an old, two-story building -- the misty sound of LPs drifts through the dark interior where old speakers, drawings and LPs are nonchalantly displayed.

Further down the line in Ogikubo, the 42-year-old meikyoku kissa Mignon plays LPs through British-made speakers that have been used since the cafe first opened. The former owner of Mignon retired two years ago at 91, but dedicated customers still flock to the kissaten, sometimes holding classical live performances there.

"If this kind of coffee shop disappears in our lifetime, it will mean that people have lost as well the time and leisure to enjoy such places. That would be a great shame," says Mariko Kobayashi, the new owner of the cafe.

Sharing Kobayashi's feelings are some who, having experienced the golden age of kissaten, are trying to turn the clock back. In Tokyo's Machida, banker-turned-coffee-shop-owner Seiichi Tanihira serves coffee in his modest, book-lined space.

Tanihira, 53, opened his "history kissa" a few years ago after taking early retirement from his job in a bank. Now, the cafe -- named Hijiri, meaning saint -- is filled with his collection, some 2,000 volumes strong, of Japanese history books, magazines and manga. The atmosphere is peaceful, and Tanihira admits that running a kissaten has not turned out to be a very profitable business. Nonetheless, he says, it was a venture worth trying.

"Customers say they need places like this to spend time in," Tanihira explains. "Actually, it was I myself who needed Hijiri."



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