TOKYO, Aug 7 — Tokyoites love coffee. There are at least a couple of cafés, most of them local chains, along each street. Some folks are here for their caffeine fix, others for people watching.
The latter is easy thanks to the sea of human bodies, swarming the city and somehow managing to avoid colliding into each other. Perhaps the coffee is to still one’s nerves for there seems to be no peace in this bustling metropolis.
So imagine my surprise when I discover an oasis of calm in the heart of the city, in the back streets of Tokyo’s shopping district of Omotesandō. Behind the flagship stores hawking big-name luxury brands and hidden in the small alleys of this discreet neighbourhood is a café that almost isn’t there – unless you are looking for it.
Omotesandō Koffee is a pop-up café residing in a 60-year-old traditional Japanese house. Once the lease runs out (the house is destined for demolition), owner cum coffee consultant Eiichi Kunitomo dreams of disassembling the café and reconstructing it in different locations around the world.
Consider our curiosity piqued. First we have to find the café and it’s easy to miss as there are no signages. That’s part of the charm, really. Outside, the house is all wood, bamboo and thatch.
We enter through a small courtyard arranged like a Zen garden, the pebbles crunching softly beneath our soles. The foliage consists of small pots of bonsai and their full-size cousins growing from the earth. A wind chime rings softly in the breeze.
We haven’t been here five seconds and already we feel at peace. There’s a long, low bench, perfect for sitting on and meditating. But where’s the coffee?
Look inside. In what would usually be the front hall of the house, resting on hardwood floors and framed by a series of fusuma panels, is a spare cube-shaped structure: the café.
We soon discern that the cube is a recurring theme – there are square patterns everywhere if you look closely. For Kunitomo, the square represents a kiosk, a minimum of space needed to make good coffee and easily transportable elsewhere.
Miki the barista, neatly attired in a white short-sleeved shirt, greets us welcome in Japanese and then some English when we falter in his native tongue. While many of Tokyo’s cafés have typically focused on drip coffee, here at Omotesandō Koffee, espresso is king.
Little wonder this as Kunitomo has a wealth of coffee experience under his belt, including setting up the popular Bread, Espresso &. close by as well as overseeing Tokyo’s first Monocle Café. For the Omotesandō Koffee house blend, Kunitomo chose beans from Ethiopia, Brazil, Indonesia and El Salvador. Roasting is done in Kyoto by the famous Ogawa.
Using a La Cimbali machine, Miki takes his time pulling an espresso shot. He couldn’t have had more than 3 x 3 metres of space to work in but our barista is relaxed and unhurried.
There has been a lot of hoopla about latte art recently, especially intricate designs or gravity-defying 3D constructions. Yet when we observe how Miki carefully foams milk then lifts the cup of coffee up in one hand and slowly combines the yin-yang brew, we realise what true latte art is. Here, before us, the barista is meditating. He pours with awareness.
The resultant cappuccino is not a gaudy masterpiece – no image of cats chasing after fishes here. Instead a simple rosetta formed with a quiet heart and served with a smile on his gentle face. This is more than a caffeinated beverage; this is an offering to a guest.
We thank Miki and take our coffees out to the garden. Sipping slowly, we take in the greenery and the silence that surrounds us. My espresso has a chocolatey sweetness with a smooth body, a very clean cup. The cappuccino has a velvety feel: delightful.
Rather than a big slice of cheesecake, too rich for the heavy summer afternoon, we share a cube – what other shape would do? – of kashi, their signature baked custard treat. Taken with coffee, it’s a sublime tease of crème brûlée and espresso. One bite, two, all gone. And it’s enough.
This café is not a temple but sit here a while, take your time with your coffee, and you too will be suffused with a sense of serenity. Nothing lasts forever, and in time, this café will no longer exist.
Perhaps for its next incarnation, Omotesandō Koffee could be reborn in Kuala Lumpur. We could do with a sanctuary like this too amidst the transience of everyday life. Every cup will remind us to be present in each moment and live in the now.
4-15-3, Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, Japan
Open daily 10am – 7pm