Cafés in Japan fall into one of two categories: The Scandinavian Show-Home and Your Dead Grandma’s Kitchen.
(I’m leaving out the weird, themed cafes in places like Tokyo. That’s a whole other thing.)
Since there’s no in between, you gotta do your research. But that doesn’t mean taking Google maps’ descriptions as gospel. ‘Café’ does not necessarily mean an establishment that remotely resembles Starbucks in any way. But conversely, if something says ‘Coffee Shop’ you shouldn’t blithely assume they’ll also serve you tea and cake. Google’s ‘Coffee Shop’ could well be a wooden hut in the hinterland whose owner – a middle-aged man wearing a pocket watch – is perched upon some broken porch steps and is ready to inform you that he will literally ONLY serve you coffee before you’re even within 10 feet of the door.
So it’s a minefield.
The Scandinavian Show-Home is pretty much what it sounds like: cool, modern and minimalistic with white washed walls, contemporary furniture and cages of light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. Wait, what? Yeah, see below. One café I frequent is a serene, modern barn conversion overlooking the mountains, and in one corner stands a shiny, white, plastic male bust. Maybe that’s weird or maybe I just don’t understand art. It’s disconcertingly just slightly larger than life size, and the features are simplified like something out of Hollow Man or a paper mache sculpture from my GCSE art exhibition.
Scandi cafs also differ from Granny gafs by the giggling and gossiping groups of girls in their early-20s. I assume they’re gossiping – I can’t understand them – but their reaction sounds suggest they’re definitely slagging someone off. At least one girl per group will be wearing a beret. That’s cool here. The cool Scandi café scene attracts fashionable generation Zers like moths to a beautifully upcycled gas lamp’s flame. Scandi café food consists of wildly overpriced but dainty (and therefore kawaii) squares of last night’s lasagne. And cheesecake. And if that’s not enough kawaii for you don’t worry because you can usually also order a cake in the shape of a bear’s face. Cuuuute!
Your Dead Grandma’s Kitchen is something a little different. Google calls it a café, but really it’s an amalgamation of a working men’s club and that place the losing team on the UK Apprentice always goes. It’s for local smoking men of 40+ and has usually been decorated by someone with a strong aversion to natural light. An overhead strobe and dark brown wood effect panelling is the go to interior design of choice. The strobe will always be on, and its glare can make reading the laminated menus challenging, but on the plus side, it stops you from seeing the swirling clouds of cigarette smoke girdling your head.
No cheesecake here, but you can fill yourself up on omelettes, stew or the curry + coffee + jelly Set Meal Plan A. If you visit one of these cafes alone, you may partake in one of two activities: sitting at the bar (there’s a bar) and engaging in local gossip with the proprietor, or sitting away from the bar and watching the proprietor’s fave variety show on the TV in the corner. And should it not be immediately obvious as to whether or not you can smoke – just look out for the sign that says, in capital letters, ‘SMOKING’.
(A café I wrote about a while back – here – was a good example of a DGK café. No strobe light, but it was difficult to tell whether or not I was just in someone’s front room. Also they served chai and whiskey.)