Just over five years years ago, a Starbucks opened in Namba, near Takashimaya Department Store. It might have been the first one in Osaka. News also made the rounds of a very large one in Hommachi, near the Hard Rock Café. Before you knew it, there was one on every corner, and the novelty very soon wore off. There are friends of mine who will never set foot in a Starbucks and some who will not set foot anywhere else. Half of the customers go there to feel at home, the other half to get the mild thrill of hanging out in an undeniably “foreign” hangout (a subgroup of the latter go for the mild thrill, but then get visibly weirded out by all the actual foreigners). Imagine going to a Starbucks to express your individuality! Where am I living?
If you’re Japanese, the most foreign point of all, of course, is that you can’t smoke inside a Starbucks. In Japan, a cup of coffee has always been one excuse (of many) for lighting up a cigarette or ten, and talking freely (and away from the boss) about work. As a concession to business realities in Japan (Marrrrrrlborough Country!), Starbucks permits smoking at its outside tables (to the horror of many foreigners – no, I’ve not always been immune – who sit out there and glare at everyone around them). It doesn’t happen quite so often now, but every now and then, a man (always a man, in a suit, invariably with a comb-over) will light up immediately upon sitting down (and then sit wondering why the “waitress” doesn’t bring him his drink). When he realizes what everyone around him is not doing, he sheepishly snuffs out the ciggy, gulps down the short Yukon Blend (which he now cannot possibly enjoy) and dashes into the night, lighter at the ready. Old habits die hard.
Starbucks has joined the long list of retroactive traditions in Japan (that’s a topic just waiting for a blog entry). Yet coffee shops (or kissaten 喫茶店), once found in every neighbourhood, were – and still are, to the purist – a different world entirely. Osaka is still full of them, but their numbers are diminishing, dismissed by a new generation as terminally uncool. A kissaten is usually quite small – only five or six tables, if that, and a counter. The manager is almost always a woman of a certain age (that is, still older than me). Vintage Japanese music plays in the background (enka or Japanese pop, circa 1976), newspapers and gossipy magazines sit on a shelf near the door. If you come at breakfast time, you can order the “morning service” (or just mou-nin-gu, モーニング): an inch-thick piece of buttered toast, a hard-boiled egg, “salad” (a little dish of shredded cabbage and Italian dressing), a cup of coffee, and an ashtray. Depending on the neighbourhood, the customers will be mostly housewives, retirees or office workers (the fabled salaryman). The manager (mama) will be known to most of them, because it’s their local. Many shops are more like an old aunt’s living room (or the odd old uncle…), with Hummelesque figurines on the shelves, Winnie-the-Pooh clocks, crocheted seat cushions and the like making your stay as unconsciously camp as possible. Eccentric, perhaps, but not a chain and as much a reflection of the owner as of the regulars. In short, they have character, and I like that.
So then why do I go to Starbucks to drink my coffee? Well the downtown kissaten, near where I work, positively reek of nicotine (and after three minutes in any such shop, so will you). Also, more to the point, the coffee, to my palate, sucks. It jolts you awake,which is good, but keeps you awake with a sour taste in your throat (well, mine anyway) for hours afterward. If you eat nothing with it, it burns your innards all the way down (I once dreamt of looking behind my necktie and seeing a hole burned through to my shirt). Japanese of a certain age like their coffee strong and bitter. I, apparently, don’t, and I guess a whole new generation in Japan doesn’t either (I also don’t smoke, so coffee doesn’t need that raw brute strength to reach my unburied-by-nicotine taste buds). Tastes change, in coffee as well as in décor, but sadly something else is changing too. You could argue that there’s as much a cookie-cutter sameness to kissaten as there are to all the Starbucks in Osaka (…Tokyo, Toronto, Istanbul, Nairobi…). And you’d be wrong. If Mrs Tanaka’s coffee shop looked pretty similar to Mrs Suzuki’s down the road, it was because she liked it that way, and her customers did too. It wasn’t imposed on her by head office in Tokyo or Seattle. Even if her coffee tastes like (bless her) crap, it’s probably because her customers like crap coffee, or are at least willing to pay for it in return for a little peace and quiet (and a cigarette or ten). So all hail and praise to Mrs Tanaka and Mrs Suzuki. If nothing else, it’s pretty hard to screw up toast and a hard-boiled egg, and I’ll miss them when they’re gone.