Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Quiet Place in the Sun

So, it has been an eternity since I last posted on my blog. Frankly, it is not because of a lack of things to post, but rather an overabundance which makes it difficult to summarize, let alone choose. I had also been focusing my thoughts on writing diatribes about the double-edged swords of Japanese social culture, but I decided to get back into the swing on a light, positive note. After all, I am still enjoying myself and have a lot to be happy about.

Following that note, I also enjoy sharing the things that I love. Usually it is a one-on-one thing where I will share different things with different people, depending on their likes and dislikes. However, once in a while, I come across something that is worthy of a town crier-like announcement.

The end of June marked Leaver's Weekend for Toyama JETs. It's a big farewell party to those leaving this and next month, and my friend from Fukui came to take part in the festivities. We didn't have to leave for the event until the mid-afternoon, so decided to hit up a coffee joint to read and study Japanese to pass the time. I suggested a small, new place along the river that I had strolled past several times. The staff always seemed to notice my presence walking past, and it felt as if very little effort would need to be made to launch into conversation (a feeling that foreigners often have in Japan, and one rarely bores of). We grabbed our books and notebooks and started the three minute walk to this place from my apartment. Yes, it is very close, just up the stream that runs from Toyama Castle, down past my apartment and beyond.

When we arrived at KOFFE (a hybrid of Koji, the owner, and their principal menu item), we were immediately greeted by the co-owners. Koji is a quiet but extremely pleasant man who carries an expression when he speaks to you like he is about to reveal the best news you've ever heard. His partner is named Sai, which is short for Saiko, but she shortened it after they moved to Manhattan and people began doing double-takes when she introduced herself. They lived in the Big Apple for two years before moving back to Japan only recently. Sai is a Toyama local, whereas Koji is from Nagoya. I realized after only a few minutes from when I sat down that this place was more than a coffeehouse. It would be my refuge from the somewhat tedious mechanics of Japanese work-life. It would be my quiet place in the sun.

Their menu is simple and very limited. You can choose from a handful of various blends that they roast on-site in the morning. They also have iced coffee (a staple in Japanese food culture) and cafe-au-lait. Sai is also a formidale baker, and prepares fresh pound cakes, cookies, meringues, and the best cheesecake I have ever tasted. Japan is certainly familiar with cheesecake, but not all that familiar with *good* cheesecake. Sai's recipe is decadent and addictive, to the point that I have made them promise to not let me order it more than once a week. They alternate between regular and coffee-infused cheesecake, and both have their ups (but no downs). Oh, and the coffee is rich, full-bodied, delicious. Nothing like you'd get at the convenience store (and combinis have loads of selection) or even the local Starbucks. KOFFE is the real deal.

As amazing as the coffee is however, it is not what draws me to the place on a now regular basis. After all, I have a coffee-maker at home. It is the atmosphere and the people at Koffe that make it such a special experience over and over. The decor is minimalist. White walls and light pine furniture, accented tastefully by brightly coloured books, placed loosely along the ledges. Light bulbs hang naked from white wiring. The front entrance slides open completely, tables flow to the edge, virtually outside. The 2nd floor is cozy, hardwood floors and more simple but tasteful decor. Something you would see in one of those coffee table books, "Places you Wish you Could be Right Now".

The focal point on the main floor is the large, glossy red and black bean roaster in the back corner. It compliments the simple white shades, while reminding the customer of how fresh that cup-a-joe they're sipping really is. Koji got it in California and had it shipped (for a fortune, I'm sure) to Toyama. He told me he'd teach me how to roast some beans if I ever showed up before they opened.

Koji and Sai are also great because they automatically turn off the conventional Japanese customer-service mentality when foreigners show up. They're still wonderful, but it feels casual, genuine and warm. Not to say that they are not greatful for the business they get from the Japanese community, they are, but there is a strong status quo when it comes to customer service in Japan, often leading us foreigners to miss the more casual approach back home. KOFFE also attracts some interesting returning customers. Kei, for example, is an older fellow with long whispy grey hair held under a blue toque (or beany or whatever you Americans call it). He often wears overalls and a necklace around his neck stringing together a large assortment of keys - something he employs as a mnemonic device when getting others to remember his name. You almost imagine there to be a train whistle strung along there with the keys, it would certainly be fitting. I've also met Sai's mother, several Japanese who have lived abroad, and a pleasant couple from America around my age, who Koji and Sai had been raving about when I first showed up. When we eventually showed up there at the same time, they brought along bread they made in their rice cooker to share with Koji and Sai. Kei showed up with bushels of lavender for the couple. I came along with a CD of Diana Krall tunes I copied for Koji (he likes female vocalists, as I found out when he popped in a Stacey Kent CD and I started singing along). It seemed everyone was exchanging things. I felt so comforted that evening, like I was at home with my friends. It struck me then that Koji and Sai were not your average business-owners.

I can't fully capture in words how amazing this place is, and how awesome it was to have found it. I have introduced several of my friends to KOFFE and they have always returned, often bringing others along. As I sit and read my book, I often overhear customers explaining in Japanese that they heard from someone else about the coffee and just had to try it out. For a new, little place off the beaten path and not near any other commercial buildings, it keeps a steady flow of customers; a testament to what quality product, simply beautiful atmosphere and delightful staff can bring.

Koffe is located just off the tram road running South from Toyama Station toward the castle. Walk South on the tram road until you hit the stream, then turn right and walk less than two minutes. Koffe is on your right.