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
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
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
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
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
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.