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  • Writer's pictureThe World Digested

Kissaten du temps perdu

In 2018, we wake up into a world, inundated with cafés. There are so very many cafés: not only are there Starbucks on every block (or two), jostling against Costa and Café Nero and all the rest of those chains; but there also are the newer single-origin coffee roasters. Adding the diners, the tea rooms and the coffee stands, it appears then that the species occupying the planet Earth lives on caffeine as much as on food and air.

Proustian moment at Kissa Hiro

It is true, as tested by the universal rule of survival of the fittest, they would have become extinct otherwise. However, how do you explain their sudden appearance? The importation of coffee and tea certainly contributed to the birth of cafés; and the later increase in spending powder and leisure surely have promulgated its further growth. However, the appeal of café is not merely its novelty or fashion, is it? Nor is it necessary for our general well-being or performance because had we needed the coffee merely for the physical effect, we could have easily brewed a decent cup at home or just stir in some Nescafe at the office.

Our days, full of the routine and chores, are an unbreakable chain of the ordinary and the mundane; not the unbearable lightness of being*, but the unbearable heaviness of being, very heavily present, indeed. We step away from them all and walk into a café, seeking a cup brimming with caffeine, which should propel us through the latter half of the day that seems to stretch and stretch. However, as much the chemical rush, what we are purchasing is a few minutes of respite from the relentless rolling of time – a “freeze” button that stops the wheel from turning. (*Milan Kundera, 1984.)

Humans are social animals, who cannot live in isolation. A society is necessary for our sanity, and it is indispensable for our survival. Fragile creature that we are, we cannot live lonely without going looney. Neither are we self-sufficient nor independent so that we can feed ourselves, clothe ourselves and house ourselves; cut off from the world, we are entirely left to the mercy of nature, of which, we have sadly become quite estranged. However, as luck would have it, guided by the invisible hand, absolute and comparative advantages reign: we trade our skills and live better lives. What a wonderful world in which we live in. What’s a little trade-off like living next door to a bickering couple and their barking dogs – if we can count on them to watch our own boisterous brood occasionally?

Little they come. Those small-font disclaimers buried at the bottom. Yes, there is a catch, as there is always is. While it may not necessarily be a zero-sum game, but we cannot get more without giving some in return; and, the price we pay for this cushy and comfy life in a society is that we must bear the constant company of other human beings – who are as nice, decent and hardworking, but thoroughly objectionable and thoughtlessly obnoxious: just as our very own selves. That ceaselessly sneezing man on the subway, that continuously coughing madam in the bus and that careless biker who almost run us down – they are all us, reincarnate; we have been them and done them, and that is why we absolutely hate them.

Oh, we hate them – those despicable beings; and yet we love them – although highly undeserving. We detest them, and yet we cannot live without them. Therefore, we need a break from anyone and everyone and, most of all, from ourselves. Yet, ironically, that we cannot do at home because home is too filled with us – the books read and to be read, the laundry done and undone. Thus, we discard our second-skin, shelling off the over-familiar, and head over to a café – the closest retreat where we can relax and, well, retreat. In the guise of a cappuccino or a muffin, what we pay for, in truth, is the escape – a fresh breath of air.

Air and space to be and to let be – a right and a requirement for any animal. However, in the question of café, it is not the three-dimensional space-time, but a particular strain of solitude is what we are seeking – an aloofness that is alienable; a detachment yet semi-attached; a solo-ness surrounded by society. Neither is it the type of disorientation we suffer, standing at an intersection and gazing at the humanity sweeping through or siting by a food court and listening to the mob bragging and belching. For that is taking the bitter lonesomeness with the bitter self-loathing, culminating in clogged lungs and throbbing ear drums with an utter sense of desolation and despair…and that would not do at all. We must take the bitter with the sweet – like coffee with milk or, better still, coffee with a sweet.

On the contrary, a café provides that sweet touch of human sympathy, a conviviality in the hubbub of activities, a sense of companionship and a feeling of belonging. We nod to the familiar faces behind the counters, take our usual seats by the window (unless it is egregiously taken by the hapless tourists), and order the customary (or customized) coffee, without having to bother with the worn menu. The pleasantries are pleasantly mundane, the hubbubs are comfortably numbing, and the food tastes satisfactory but, by no means, surprising. The first sip of the coffee (not those fancy and finicky single-origins, which requires unwelcome concentration) confirms that the flavor has not changed overnight; and the second sip allows us to cast our gaze over the rim and surreptitiously survey the scene beyond. We sit there in our little tables of individual station, observing coolly and objectively, “the others.” What a curious phenomenon, a café is, in that we simultaneously see and are being seen, socializing and yet remaining separate, hearing but not listening. We are privy to the secrets of others (many adulterers remain loyal to their usual haunts in pursuit of their disloyalty) and yet we keep a veil over our own privacy (all looking the other way as prescribed) behind the rising vapor and the worn partitions. As we absorb the caffeine for stimulation, we snack on the scene, the stage and the sense of others. Interested but not involved, the others’ troubles are a welcoming white noise, which obscure – although not cleanse – the troubles in our heads. This sense of suspended freedom – a weightlessness – liberates us and gives us that much needed air and space to finally breathe. Proper rituals observed, we can progress to regress into ourselves for the next fifteen minutes.

Hence, a cup of coffee in a café is much more than a warm beverage on a cold day, more than the necessary refueling of caffeine in the afternoon. It may be a flight of ten minutes, but it is a time-out that heals our psyche so that we may embrace the harsh reality once again.

But not all cafés are the same; not in Japan. Just as there are “coffee shop,” “café,” “diner” (in the United States) and “tea room” (in the United Kingdom) and “bar” (in Spain and Italy) there are different venues in Japan where one can get a cup of coffee, and they all belong to different cultural and culinary categories, even generations. In Japan, the coffee shops are divided into two: “café” and “kissaten.” The former is a foreign import – anything from specialty coffee shops where they roast their own coffee beans to where they specialize more in the food. Whereas the latter is an old institution, perpetually smoky and dingy – Japan is a smoker-friendly nation – often covered in velvet and dark wood, where the furniture polish, cigarette smoke and human handprints have all left their sheen on the veneer. That is kissaten.

Kissaten was introduced in the Taisho period, modeling on the European cafés – meaning a place to take tea. Then later, to differentiate from the other “cafes” where alcohols were also served by young and (hopefully) pretty things, they began to be called jun-kissa (pure kissaten) for their decency and dignity. Shooting up fast and furious in the Showa period, kissaten was the pioneer of coffee – siphons and Dutch water-drip – and naturally became the protector of arts – where many writers and journalists would smoke and talk away into the night. It would not be surprising then that the eager owners often poured all their fanciful dreams into their beloved kissaten – decorating them in wood-paneled splendor with curves and arches as seen in the photographs of the Viennese or French cafés; and even if financially constrained to go all the way, then at least they gave kissaten touchingly romantic names of the Belle Epoch – François, Soirée and Moonlight – and or conveyed their wish for l’envie d’ailleur – New Astoria, American and Tyrol. Foreign travel was beyond the reach of then common folks back then; but the owners and the clients could, momentarily, in the nether land of smoke and aroma of kissaten to dream of that faraway Neverland.

In the lost gloom at Hiro; siphon coffee

Kissaten was often the first place where the Japanese smelled a whiff of the European sophistication and tasted the rich refinement: the butter-creamed cake, mayonnaised sandwiches on “English bread” (sandwich bread are so called in Japan) and parfaits (or sundaes) in a fancy shell-lipped glasses. They popularized caramel custard (purin) and “hot cakes” (Japanese version of pancakes), which are as much household staples now as miso-soup. Not just coffee, either, they began the tradition of ice cream floats – most notably, the visually striking vividly green melon soda with a scoop of ice cream, topped with a scarlet maraschino cherry – and mixed juice (banana and other fruits mixed with milk into a runnier version of smoothie). From the cherry-picking boy to the coffee-sipping man, from the cream-licking girl to the tea-cup holding lady, it was a rite of passage, and many would take their children to continue the sacred custom.

Caramel custard at Motomachi Kissa

However, their popularity waned after the Showa period: with the arrival of the Bubble boom, arrived the foreign imports and foreign travel. The baby boomers with the Bubble money were packed into packaged tours with the mandatory stops at the Louvre and the duty-free shops on Champs Elysees. Gradually and inevitably, the availability of first-hand information began to expose the fantasy and fakery of kissaten: the fancy French treats were made of margarine instead of butter; fruits came out of a can rather than fresh, and the iridescent red and green were nothing but food coloring. The previously fashionable Napolitan (spaghetti in ketchup) and the hayashi rice (hashed beef in a thick and brown gravy) bowed down to the haute cuisines where real Italian pasta and French roux were served.

Then the Bubble had burst and music had stopped. People woke up to the morbid reality that they would actually and eventually die. Hard-working, hard-drinking and hard-smoking were no longer the signs of success, but rather the signposts for a sudden death. Therefore, the newly health-conscious began to avoid the smoky kissaten, which became even more of a smoking den for the samurai salarymen, who – having fallen from the ascension to heaven and consequently the grace of Ginza club madams (company accounts forever closed) – congregated and commiserated their dwindling self-esteem and personal stipend and smoked and sulked and sunk into the ever sagging seats. One way or the other, kissaten, with its patina of dusty gloom and smoky grime, became a relic, a curio, which one may glance at with a sense of nostalgia, but without stepping in and without a second thought.

Thus, kissaten seemed destined for a long decline then an inevitable demise, along with the last generation of smokers, and ready to “go gentle into that good night” (Dylan Thomas). Indeed, kissaten of the yesteryear fell into a slumber like the fabled Sleeping Beauty, hidden and forgotten.

Yet, the story did not end there. After a peaceful coma of more than a decade, the Heisei-born youngsters, instead of the Prince Charming, began the quest for the lost ark and re-discovered kissaten. Like the Italian Renaissance, the life and fashion come in circles. Paradoxically, it is these latter-born youths, who had never seen the Showa period, appear most avid in pursuing Showa nostalgia, yearning for the bygone, although without having toiled through the grind and grime of Showa. Nevertheless, their curiosity is no more superficial than their forbearers’ who visited Louvre only to glance at the face of Mona Lisa for the sake of being able to say that they had seen it (that is, if not the other heads and scalps in front of the Italian lady). Shallow it may be, but their interest is not wholly without a grain of the deeper truth: young or not so young, they seek that sense of easy sympathy – which is exactly what everyone is looking for in a kissaten. For regardless of the length of existence on earth, those who end up in a kissaten are universally weary – weary of the past or wary of the future. While they may line up for the newest cafes with the ever changing new creations (the latest craze is the American pancakes), at the bottom of their hearts, they understand that they are isolated in this island nation, by the barriers of language and boredom. Underneath the thin layer of wonder for the far and the exotic and the envy for freedom, they rest comfortably in knowing that their seclusion is their protection, their domestic limitation their safe harbor: there is no more need to be a road warrior in order to conquer the world. And what can be more domestic than the good, old kissaten?

Back in the dingy glass cases are the old-fashioned desserts and back in the crinkly menus are the classical hot cakes with the “maple” syrup and “butter” (both of unknown authenticity) and sandwiches. The internet review sites broadcast the merits of “morning” menu at famous kissaten, and the people brave the early morning to participate in this age-old ritual of “morning” – where for a minimal extra (or even included in the price of the coffee), customers can have their toasts buttered and jam-spread and even their boiled eggs peeled (although some aficionados would want to peel their own). The magazines feature articles, comparing the merits of egg sandwiches of Kanto (Eastern Japan) – egg salad – vs. Kansai – omelet, while the connoisseurs battle over whether the bread should be toasted or not for each version of the egg sandwich.

However, with the dawn of Instagram, it is the innocuous caramel custard – purin – which has become the instant Instagram sensation. Purin, without doubt, is the ultimate comfort dessert. It is a baked custard, soft and silky and sweet on the tongue; and it is utterly unobtrusive to the stomach and invariably inoffensive to the senses. As children, we have rejoiced in its sweet tenderness, then as adults, we learn to savor the bitter caramel. It is the madeleine of Proust, which evokes not only the buried childhood memories, but seems even capable of conjuring up sweet falsehood (how many of these Instagrammers have claimed that the purin was exactly like that in the Showa period or exactly like what their mothers used to make?). Various photo-shopped purin photo shoots feature these wobbling custards sitting high on a silvery pedestal, topped with a swirl of cream and a cherry, then dozed in dark caramel. Or, for the royal flush, have the purin decorated with a rabbit-eared apple, a shapely-cut banana and a scoop of vanilla ice cream – the purin à la mode – in a long glass vessel.

Purin a la mode at Yokohama New Grand Hotel - courtesy of Tabelog

Even the new cafés start to adopt these kissaten as their “concept” – Japanese love to have one for their restaurants or cafés –and they copy the purin based on the fail-proof recipes. However, survivors do survive for reasons better than mere chance, and the old classics are not about to be outdone so easily. Take the classical textbook example of Hiro – a kissaten buried in the basement of a whole-sale shopping mall – their purin is a timeless beauty, which has survived half a century with a grace that is not easily matched by the new upstarts. Silken and velvety, its smoothness is brought out by that dash of cream; but not so soft so that it is spiritless, their purin has enough spring to resist the unsuspecting ice cream spoon. Its elegance is ageless, enhanced by a subtle perfume of Cointreau and Brandy: neither overpowering but undeniably present, with a delicate caramel, neither sugary or sticky. Hiro’s purin is simplicity itself – made of only milk, egg and sugar otherwise and all available in regular stores – nothing fancy or expensive. And yet, who can deny its charm? Each mouthful is a confirmation of its raison d’être; each scoop reveals the power of its perseverance. Its charm, in short, lies in its utter ordinariness.

Purin (creme caramel) at Hiro

Not only is the purin lovely at Hiro, but their siphon coffee is also one of the best as far as siphon goes. Although highly decorative with the blown-glass balls, the merit of siphon coffee is the ease and speed – rather than any superiority in extracting the subtle flavors of coffee beans. The initial investment is more costly, but otherwise it does not need much skill in creating multiple cups of coffee at the same time, which was useful in the era before the automated coffee machines. The problem of siphon is the ultra-high temperature, which unfortunately wipes out of the flavors and aroma of coffee beans. Nevertheless, before this current third (or is it be fourth) wave of single-origin coffee, siphon served adequately in producing an acceptable cup of coffee from average beans, which is exactly what Hiro does, day in and day out; no need for any specialty coffee beans from secluded regions on the other side of the Earth. Hiro’s siphoned coffee is flavorful enough – light and elegant, just the perfect accompaniment for their simple caramel custard.

If Hiro’s purin can be said to be the personification of the gentleness of Mother Theresa, then Takagi Coffee’s famous triangular purin would be the epitome of dandy nonchalance of George Carlin. Much sturdier than the regular soft purin, Takagi’s is more like a flan, it stands on its on – an island of manly confidence – silently mocking the softies of the current generation in a pool of seriously rummy caramel sauce. Just in case there is not enough hard liquor already, a dash of Cointreau is added to the whipped cream. Just in case. To properly dig into this triangular purin, even the equipment must be exchanged from the ice cream spoon to a cake spoon with a sharper side to cut into the hard and elastic flan. Chewy and hardy, and yet unexpectedly smooth in the mouth, its defiance hides a noble heart.

Purin at Takagi Coffee

Perhaps, it is also their settings. On the one hand, at Hiro, one sits at polished antique counter, gleaming warmly under the lamps – which are in fact made of inverted siphon glass balls. Although located underground of an old shopping mall, the lace curtains and the curls of purple cigarette smoke conveniently hide the outside world. The wooden tables and chairs are dark and dainty, which seem to sigh and lament the changes of time and the increasing weight of the average Japanese. On the other hand, at Takagi, the décor is more Art Deco, compared to the Art Nouveau of Hiro, and yet the clean lines of the room and the rattan-backed chairs feel airy and comfortable like a hotel lobby from the 70’s Miami. Perhaps it is the illusion of the sunny spaciousness, even the smoke seems to dissipate into the bright ceiling.

Following the unwritten law of kissaten, neither Hiro nor Takagi is a non-smoking facility, prizing the loyalty of their clientele over the health hazard of the staff and other non-smoking clients. Yet, no one complains: the reason is simple, for those who must have clean air, there are the cafés. With today’s fast and free flow of information, before ever setting foot inside, we know all about the establishments – from the menu, the price and even the location of the toilet (Takagi’s located outside). Therefore, there is no need to endure someone else’ guilty pleasure, unless – unless, of course, one can derive some sort of compensation, a derivative sympathy in watching the smoke and the stain, as if the reality has been inverted and the self has been inserted into a scene of a silent cinema. Cigarette is hazardous. Yet, what is life without a bit of danger? One cannot help but question our constant worries in outliving ourselves and outwitting everyone else, when a gentleman in a camel-hair coat casually saunters in, and between striking a match and lighting a cigarette, his usual order – a coffee and a cheese cake – materializes automatically; exactly as if watching a black-and-white movie. You cannot really be angry with movies, now, can you? What is a bit of second-hand smoking then: all in all, it seems of secondary importance in a kissaten, which exists in the time regained (Marcel Proust).

Kissaten, even aside from its smoking problem, is far from being perfect. Since the price has also stayed stale over its dormancy, they can only source and serve what they can get. They had to keep the price low and stable in order not to scare away their customers in the aftermath of the Bubble burst, especially as their survival on low profit margin hinges on the repetition rather than a single splurge; hence, their ingredients cannot be compared to the fancier cousins at upscale cafés. Mass-produced mayonnaise, store-brand ketchup, factory-farmed eggs, etc. Not even just the tobacco, the health-conscious will balk at such lack of quality. However, is it really so?

A kissaten is not aiming to be perfect or to score stars on any restaurant guides. Its goal is to maintain a constant 70% average for a very long time. In praising the merits or decrying the demerits of a food establishment, excellence is treasured above all else; perfection trumps all other qualities. However, kissaten is not about excellence or perfection; not at all. Instead, the keys to a successful kissaten are consistency and endurance, and a very long time horizon. What good is a hideout if tomorrow it is already gone? For kissaten must become a part of our lives, a routine – like a preferred brand of breakfast cereal, that is not likely to wow us with wonder each morning, but its absence will be most acridly felt. Kissaten – its raison d’être is its invisible ordinariness, its plain commonness and its regular dependability; what matters is the assurance that our niche will be there day after day, our seat, our coffee and our corner in that society will remain, come rain or shine. It must know us, and we must know it – the taste of the coffee, the feel of the table, the smell of the toilette, the sound of the cutlery and the familiar faces.

In this way, kissaten does not merely serve coffee and snacks, but it serves a constant, recurring confirmation of ourselves and an approval of our own raison d’être. We are not perfect, far from it; we all have faults and we all make mistakes and that is why we escape from home and office into our kissaten and exhale out our worries and fears in a sigh or a puff of smoke. Kissaten, therefore, is nothing but an extension of ourselves, surviving and struggling sometimes but basically satisfactory, just like ourselves in our daily performance. How can we then expect them to be anything but 70%? Moreover, how can we feel comfortable if all of a sudden the smoke is cleared and all is revealed in high-definition: what will we see but the stains on the napkins and scratches on the counter, along with our own gnarled knuckles and wrinkled foreheads. No, that will not do at all, would it? We need the smoke screen, and to hell with the health hazard. We, after all, are not going to live forever.

Sipping coffee and slicing through our favorite purin, we forgive and in turn are forgiven. And, we tread on and trudge onward.

Junkissa Hiro

Address: Basement, Building No. 10, 4 Chome−1-10, Senbachuo, Chuo-ku, Osaka.

Phone: 06-6281-4500

Takagi Coffee

Address: 175 Honeyacho, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto.

Phone: 075-371-8478

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