Coffee Life in Japan: The Exotic and the Apparently Familiar

by Fabio Parasecoli

from Huffington Post

Japan occupies an interesting place in Western popular culture: as one of the most developed countries in the world, its presence is warranted among the major players in the global economy and in international politics. Its industrial and technological products are among the most common household names in consumer culture across the globe. Its popular culture, especially when it comes to fashion, design, anime, and manga, has a considerable following outside its borders. The disasters following the recent tsunami have also contributed to a prominent spot for Japan in the global imagination.

Yet, when it comes to food, Japan has lost some of its mystery. Restaurant patrons are conversant with sushi, sashimi, and tempura, and shoppers are less and less surprised to see wasabi, seaweed, green tea, and even mocha in the “international aisles” of their supermarkets. The recent documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi reflects the interest of Western gourmets in a culinary tradition that, until a few decades ago, was shrouded in exoticness. Now we have access to delivery sushi; we can pick sashimi off little conveyor belts; and cookbooks, TV shows, and other media are contributing to make Japanese cuisine accessible and comprehensible. Still, there are still layers and layers that some Western foodies have yet to consider, including the many local traditions that stubbornly survive in parts of the country, the kaiseki dining and cooking style, and the ongoing evolution that has created relatively novel approaches like the Japanese-inflected wafu pasta.

Merry White’s new book, Coffee Life in Japan guides us along as we discover a visible yet quite unexplored dimension of Japanese consumer culture. An anthropologist by training and by trade (she teaches at Boston University), the author takes us from coffee house to coffee house, uncovering a whole world that would be hidden from those wrongfully believing Japan is only about tea. As a matter of fact, it is the third largest coffee-importing country in the world, with an internal market shaped by high prices, high quality, and high costs of production. Although the country’s love affair with the drink is more recent than Europe’s, cafes were thriving long before the arrival of Starbucks.

White proves that the drink has played a significant role in the process of modernization in Japan through its ability to adapt to political earthquakes, changing urban structures, and evolving behaviors. Cafes turn out to be places where people can take a break from social pressure and express one’s individuality outside the harmonious consensus that many perceive as a defining trait of Japanese culture. Throughout the book we get to explore wildly different establishments, meeting a curious cast of characters that have dedicated their lives to preparing the best café possible, each embracing quite different standards. Preparations, design, techniques, atmosphere and soundscapes may vary, but all the café owners portrayed in the book seem to take coffee and customer care with the greatest seriousness.

Kodawari, the disciplined dedication and attention to detail that these individuals display, is far from being the stereotyped perfectionism (bordering on the pathological) that many attribute to Japanese culture. As White points out:

“A café in Japan is not a ‘global space’ -unless one counts the Seattle-based chain stores – nor is it usually a deeply local place, forbidding to newcomers… There is no single model for the café… The very openness of definition, along with the cultural parameters of services and quality that make these places ‘Japanese’ is the draw and the preservative of the café in Japanese cities… Its cultural logic is strongly Japanese, but the experience of the café can break almost all the usual rules of being Japanese.”

White wanders from café to café, from brewing master to coffee merchant, with nonchalant pleasure. At times the book structure seems far from linear, returning to topics and concepts already touched on before, but White’s affection for the world she describes is infectious. The narrative often reads like a memoir, and the author is able to transport us to places and situations that are not only described with the eye of the anthropologist, but shared with the passion of a true coffee lover.

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3 Responses to “Coffee Life in Japan: The Exotic and the Apparently Familiar”

  1. October 18, 2012 at 11:16 am #

    Before writing about coffee, let me mention on the foods & tea of Japan which might be unknown to you.

    The are still undiscovered foods waiting for non-Japanese such as
    “Inago-no-Tsukudani” – grasshoppers boiled down in sweetened soy sauce,
    “Basashi” – sashimi of the horse meat, and
    hodgepodge of the bear or wild boar meat with vegetables in miso flavor broth.

    The first one is only available in a few prefectures.
    The middle is the local specialty of south Japan,
    but also available in the big cities’ brabecue restaurants and Izakaya – taverns.
    The last one, you can enjoy them at the countryside hot-spring lodges
    ( its price range a night with two meals between around 6,000 and 9,000 yen ).

    As for tea, the country has some kinds, not only green tea and powdered green tea
    but also “HoujiCha” – roasted tea and “MugiCha” – barley tea.
    Both color is brown although its flavor differs.
    HoujiCha, for example, has a apart of the role together with green tea during the dinner in Tempura restaurant.
    MugiCha is rich in minerals, people drink cooled-MugiCha as a supplement of water and minerals during the hot summer.

    There are some other kinds of tea, however, your principal theme is “coffee in Japan”, I will skip about the tea unknown.

    It was probably immediate or soon after the year 1868 – Meiji Restoration,
    as the tempo of rapid modernization – westernization of the country, coffee culture was introduced to the upperclass people, perhaps.
    As the time went by, such as traders, rich businessmen and intellectuals might followed the trand.
    In 1960s, Japan had great leaps on the economic growth, and as a result, number of the café house recorded its pinnacle at around 1970.
    At that time, barista of the house was serving coffee by Flannel dripping or siphon – not by paper filtering or espresso machine – with so so-called “Coffee Sugar”.
    During the ’70s, I had watched TV commercial messages by Nestle so many times.
    Its instant coffee and crème with the scenes of Americans in wild west or California together the music of romantic ballade, many Japanese admired the land and its people.

    In ’80s, there were some great turbulences in Japan’s economy but its last period was emerged as the vanity “bubble” society.
    At around ’90, Japanese were applied “charcoal roast” method to the coffee beans and created a new flavor but probably it is still unknown to the outside world,
    it gives the distinctive aroma and savory, and also the coffee goes very well with milk.

    And around that ’90, I believe, the delicacy of domestic manufacturer’s “freeze drying coffee” showed the zenith such as in the coffee brand MAXIM.
    “The Lost more than 20 years in economy”, I have been missing the lost delicacy of that brand – still the company provides nice quality though.
    After all, the British are again drinking coffee like in the days of industrial revolution, and another tea lover Chinese are having the custom of drinking coffee,
    while harvest maybe the same in the last some decades, no wonder securing good beans is difficult and branding skills will be the crucial factor for the maker.

    Since I don’t read Ms Merry White’s book, I have no idea about the part that you mentioned in the article
    as “White proves that the drink has played a significant role in the process of modernization in Japan”

    As a coffee lover and used to be a backpaker, I want to mention the difference between Austria and Japan – two gigantic coffee loving countries.

    It is true the Japanese have long been enjoying blended coffee in home and coffee house.
    But the authentic house provides many kinds of single-beans coffee,
    and the guests are able to drink their own regular favorite or can tour around the world of beans to find undiscovered savors.

    Contrariwise, in Vienna I had visited several genuine coffee houses at where I found no option of single-beans coffee,
    but variety of arranged coffee such as with whipped cream and/or liqueurs were on the menu, they were superb indeed with or without delicious cakes.

    The Japanese culture as you can see in the cuisine, the chef intends to draw the character of the ingredient very simply,
    while western culture, one of its representative is French dishes, many ingredients are arranged to reorganize their original characters to creat a sauce.

    The life style changes the culture, as we could see the emergence of “freezed drying coffee” and “paper dripping method” in busy modern living.
    And more coffee culture flourishes in the world, then we will be blessed unknown approach to it – like in Turkish style coffee, Vietnamese and Ethiopian.

    I must stop now.

    This exceptionally huge information, I hope, will complement your article and delight you & your readers.

    • October 18, 2012 at 12:01 pm #

      Very interesting comments. Thank you!

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