Connecting with Japan through Coffee

In America, one of my favorite pastimes is drinking coffee with my dad. As my primary caretaker, my dad did his best to make sure we spent quality time together when he was free on the weekends. Starting in middle school we would go to Dunkin’ Donuts together after church on Sundays to drink coffee. It became a way for me to spend time with my mother, too; although we didn’t have much in common when I was younger, in high school I began to drink coffee with her and with other members of my family after meals. Coffee became central to my latinidad. Regardless of whose house I was staying at, regardless of the time, there was always a can of Cafe Bustelo within reach. Sharing a cup of coffee with my family meant spending time together to talk. The comforts of coffee reached me even within the confines of Kalamazoo College, as I work as a barista at an on-campus cafe. Through that job I was able to connect with students and their parents as well as teachers and other faculty members that I never would have been able to meet otherwise. Every cup of coffee I served reminded me of my time with my family, and I tried to serve everyone I met with the same care I would have received at home.

As soon as I came to Japan, I found myself faced with the problem of how to connect with my latinidad when no one else here identified with the same culture that I did. Central to this problem was where I would get my daily dose of caffeine. Of course the vending machines were available and I found myself using them more often than not because of the convenience of being able to exchange a single coin for a can of my vice of choice. However convenient, they could not compare to the handmade beverages I had become used to making and drinking myself at home. Before long I was venturing into Hikone and Japan at large to find better coffee. I began to frequent Micro Lady, the cafe that I found to be most similar to American-style cafes. It seems more often than not that ‘cafes’ in Japan are not places to get coffee, but to sit and enjoy cute and tasty meals. At many of these cafes, the coffee is mediocre, an afterthought alongside the presentation of the food. These cafes were referred to as きっさてん (kissaten) in my experience, while the truer coffee shops were called コーヒー屋 (koohiiya).

Visiting these various cafes and coffee roasteries made me think about what it was like to work in a cafe in Japan. Although the handbook advises people not to choose internships or activities they would have access to in America, I found that I wanted to work in a cafe more than I wanted to do anything else. Regardless of what the handbook says, I did not want to engage with Japanese culture in a way I viewed as intrusive. I thought that working in a cafe would be good because I could compare my experience working at a cafe in America to my experience working at cafes in Japan. I wanted to see if people connected over coffee in Japan like they did in America and how popular coffee really is in Japan.

In addition to being curious about the workings of a cafe abroad, a part of me has always hoped to run my own cafe one day. In America, I do not have the opportunity to talk and work with owners of independent cafes. My job on campus is run by a larger corporation, and cafe owners in the Kalamazoo and Chicago areas are just a little too intimidating for me to talk to. This is not to say that cafe owners in Japan are any less intimidating, but through the Kalamazoo College Integrative Cultural Project (ICRP) I saw a chance to work with independent cafe owners that I would not have in America.

I anticipated a few challenges going into my internships: most notably the language barrier. Although I have been studying Japanese since the start of high school, I often stop myself from speaking unless I know what I’m going to say sounds perfect. I often found myself refraining from conversation even in the classroom. I was also worried about my gender. I understand that not everyone will recognize my identity as a nonbinary person. Though there isn’t often a need for pronouns in Japanese, I was still worried that every time I was referred to I would be thought of as a girl/woman. It is a tiring experience to constantly be on edge about my identity and wondering what these people would think of me if they knew who I really am. All of these worries color the experiences that I will now describe in this ICRP.

In the beginning of January I began working at a roastery in Hikone named Shiga Coffee Corporation (SCC) and a cafe in Nagahama named ‘Takachiho’. SCC focuses primarily on selling coffee beans and offers a much larger variety of blends and beans to pick from than Takachiho. SCC provides around 33 different blends to choose from, while Takachiho has about 12. Both SCC and Takachiho purchased raw beans from an intermediate business in Japan, but I did not learn the name of the business.

I was only able to visit SCC three times and all three times were on Saturdays (their busiest day according to the owner). SCC is a small establishment located on Bell Road in Hikone. All of their equipment and product is located in the same narrow room, with their roasted beans kept separate from raw beans. Their roaster was located at the back of the room behind the cash register and checkout counter. Their grinder, scale, and vacuum sealer were all on the same small counter space. The first time I visited, they boasted proudly that everyone who worked there is a woman. They hoped that this would make me more comfortable working there – and it did, because in such a narrow space we often had to squeeze past each other to get what we needed.

SCC did not have a steady stream of customers but people came in frequently. Customers ranged from people in their twenties, to families, to elderly people. I served complimentary cups of coffee to customers as they looked over the blends available to choose from. If the customers came in with children, we would ask if it was ok to give them candy and act accordingly. I also helped the staff mix blends, bag blends, grind beans, and seal coffee for customers. I watched the roasting process but I did not have the opportunity to roast beans myself.

Most customers were confused by my presence in the cafe. They would ask my supervisors why I was there instead of them, often because they were unsure of whether or not I could speak Japanese. My reasons for wanting to observe how a cafe worked firsthand in Japan seemed to perplex a lot of people; many said they were unsure of why I was interested in opening my own cafe, or at least why I chose to observe one in Japan. Unfortunately my limited understanding of Japanese prevented me from having a full conversation with them where we could come to an understanding of each other’s perspectives. Regardless, they were all very encouraging.

Customers always seemed willing to have a little bit of conversation with the person behind the register before they ordered. They would sip their coffee and have small talk before saying which blend they wanted, how much they wanted in grams, and whether they wanted it as a whole bean or already ground. Then it was up to the other staff to bag and seal the blend. I was surprised at how infrequently the staff at SCC washed their hands. My first day there, they asked me to mix up a blend, and I was instructed to do it just with my bare hand and forearm. I washed and dried my hand and forearm prior to sticking it into the bin, but I was still a little uneasy at the idea of using my bare skin to mix it together. This was one of the hygienic standards that would have been taken much more seriously in America.

In addition to this, SCC was connected directly to the owner’s home by an open doorway. The cafe lead into a small office space, which then lead to the rest of the home. On occasion the owner’s dog would peak her head through the office’s doorway. Although the dog never appeared when customers were around, I was still surprised she was even allowed to come near where the beans were roasted and mixed. In America the presence of a house dog in an establishment that handles food would have been off putting to most customers.

In between customers, we would all drink coffee together. We kept our cups of coffee behind a small refrigerator in the corner of the room. I’m not sure if it was because I was a temporary person in their lives, but the staff at both SCC and Takachiho were very kind when it came to how I drank my coffee. Drinking coffee with my family in America, I feel like I can do anything to it and not be judged. But at work and among coffee connoisseurs in America, I often felt as though I was being judged for putting cream or sugar in my coffee. In my opinion, part of the pleasure of drinking coffee is being able to have it as sweet or creamy as I want on any particular day. They also asked me how I make coffee in America. I explained that at work, I mostly made lattes using an espresso machine and that I didn’t get to see the coffee roasting process firsthand. We all agreed that my job is a lot different from working at an independent coffee shop and is more like working at a chain like Starbucks. They asked if I knew how to make latte art and if I could send them pictures later.

Takachiho is a larger cafe than SCC with a separate room for their roaster. They have a serving space that is filled with tables for groups of two or more and a counter for individual customers. However, since Takachiho is so sparsely visited, they often let people sit wherever they want. Most of the shop’s regular customers are elderly individuals.

Takachiho focuses jointly on serving a few coffee-based beverages, some deserts, and roasting beans for their blends. The most popular dessert on Takachiho’s menu is their cheesecake. Yukako-san makes it from scratch in their home’s kitchen. Once again I was surprised at the relaxed nature of hygienic standards in Japan. When we made the cheesecake we made sure to wash our hands and used clean equipment, but it still surprises me that businesses can basically be run out of the home. I guess it is not so weird when you consider the amount of baked goods that are produced out of homes in any given country, but I still found it a little unsettling. Regardless, their cheesecake was delicious every time I had the chance to eat it.

Takachiho attracts mostly tourists or elderly people from the area who come for a cup of coffee, a slice of cheesecake, and some conversation. While I was taking Japanese language classes before having chosen my ICRP project, my teacher lead me to believe that I would need to use keigo (formal Japanese) the whole time I was at work. However, at Takachiho, I was teased more often than not for only understanding formal Japanese. It seemed the elderly people who came for conversation simply wanted to talk at a casual level, and didn’t enjoy being spoken to in keigo aside from the phrases いらしゃいませ (irasshaimase, “welcome”)、少々お待ちください (shoushou omachi kudasai, “please wait a moment”), and お待た制しました (omatase shimashita, “thank you for waiting”).

I learned a lot more of the normal everyday functions of owning a cafe at Takachiho. My first day, Akira-san and Yukako-san showed me all the beans they purchased to roast and all the blends they made from those beans. I had never thought about the things they asked me to observe: comparing the size and smell of the beans pre and post roast, and then after a few days listening to the sound of the beans in the roaster to know when they were ready. Before working in Japan I had never taken the time to consider the way the beans features changed pre- and post-roast. My love for coffee was connected to my family and less to the practice of how it was made.

Before working at Takachiho I was aware of the basic idea that freshly ground coffee beans make better coffee. At Takachiho the beans for every cup of coffee served were ground when the customer ordered. Every time I worked there, I shared a cup of coffee with Yukako-san; since I was so anxious all the time, it was her way of helping me relax. Where it felt pretentious to drink this kind of coffee in America, in Japan it felt more like sharing an intimate moment with someone; it felt like being with family again.

Whenever Yukako-san and I drank coffee, she asked me to make it. I thought I was familiar with how to make coffee by hand, but it seems that Takachiho had a very specific way of hand pouring coffee. The process is a bit a long, but the most notable difference is the way we pour the water into the grounds. Where I poured in large circles, making sure to wet all the grounds every time, Yukako-san and Akira-san asked that I pour in small circular motions in the center of the filter. Although I felt this would create a watered down flavor, I chose to trust them since I had been using pre-ground and pre-packaged coffees before working at Takachiho. I think using freshly roasted and ground beans made the flavor stronger, and pouring in a smaller area probably did little to dilute the flavor of the coffee.

I think because of our different pouring styles, they didn’t have me make coffee for customers as frequently as they wanted to. I think my air of confusion and anxiety about Japanese language also lead them to believe that I did not want to make coffee for customers, when that was what I wanted to do most. Most of the time when customers came in I served them water and took their order, rather than making their coffee. Although this was more nerve-racking, it allowed me better use of the language than just pouring coffee would have.

Like SCC, Takachiho was directly adjacent to Yukako-san and Akira-san’s home. Yukako-san’s mother also operated and lived behind a clothing store that was the building next door to Takachiho. I did not have the language skills to ask, but I wondered if they owned the buildings. I also wondered how they kept their business open with so few customers. Even if I did know how to ask, I do not think I would have. It seems like too invasive a question. Most of the time I talked to them about their customers to avoid getting into stuff that was too personal.

The customers at Takachiho also seemed very curious about me being there. Towards the end of my time at Takachiho, a disabled woman and her living assistant came in a couple times. Both times, the living assistant asked me to serve the woman her drinks. Both times, the living assistant took a picture of me helping them out. It felt a little awkward, but I was glad that they both seemed happy with the experience.

In between awkward customer interactions and roasting coffee beans there was a lot of free time. To make the days less monotonous, Yukako-san often took me outside of the cafe to help with Takachiho’s errands. We took trips to the bank and the post office where Yukako-san would ask me to handle the transaction (and where I would refuse, because I was not going to be responsible for a small business losing something important). There were occasions we went out just to have fun. I’m unsure what the event was for, but on one day we went to a local shrine where people threw mochi into an eager crowd from a raised platform. The group was made of lots of elderly people and I was afraid that I might be too rough if I really tried to catch the mochi. However I soon found myself pushed to the back of the crowd by their eagerness to catch the mochi for themselves. I did not catch any with myself, but while we were returning New Year’s decorations to the shrine another local business owner approached Yukako-san. After explaining that I was unable to catch any mochi, he kindly gave us two pieces that he had been able to grab. A few weeks later, the same man came in for a cup of coffee. I was happy to serve him; I felt like I had become part of the community in a noninvasive way.

This marked the beginning of a series of gifts from customers that I was surprised to receive. Another old man gave me several booklets of his art; they were not the originals, but even so, I felt that I did not deserve the free copies of his art. He asked me to take them to my school in Michigan to share them. He did drawings in pen of landmarks in Shiga, including a picture of Lake Biwa and JCMU beside it. Another old man gave me a bag of food and Pocari Sweat powder because we had a conversation wherein I told him that I had only strawberries and juice for dinner.

I found working at both coffee shops to be fulfilling and fun. My time at SCC and Takachiho allowed me to learn the perspective of a small business owner in Japan. Similar to American small businesses, the success of a small business in Japan relies on having a good reputation and a supportive community. Without a reliable community frequenting the establishments, SCC and Takachiho wouldn’t be successful. Realistically it’s hard to find such a supportive community in the U.S. – or at least in Chicago, where I see myself living in the future. Takachiho’s and SCC’s reliable customer base seemed too small to be able to support either of the businesses, which leads me to believe that it’s easier to keep small business going in Japan.

I hoped that the coffee shops I worked at would be central pillars of the communities they were situated in. Although they may not be missed by the whole community if they were gone, SCC and Takachiho provided spaces for the people in their communities to come and chat about their lives in a relaxed environment. At Takachiho, locals have the chance to stop by and check in with the couple at work there. At SCC, families grow while enjoying the quality product that SCC has to offer.

Takachiho and SCC helped me create the connections I was missing. I became a part of their communities in a way that I thought was both unobtrusive and helpful to the community. I intend to keep in contact with both shops and I hope that I can return one day better able to communicate with them. I have a better understanding of what it would take to open and run a cafe on my own, and it doesn’t seem like so vast a task anymore. Even if it’s hard, I know that the staff at SCC and Takachiho will be supporting me from afar.

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