A kissaten in Yoshiwara.

The word kissaten is made up of three Chinese characters: drink, tea and shop. Here they are: 喫茶店ん. A kissaten is a café that usually serves food. In the past, there were more rigid lines between what was thought of as a kissaten or a coffee shop or a cafés — coffee shops were more self-consciously simulacra of European coffee houses and cafés were associated with carousing. The kissaten is now associated with a disappearing way of life in Tokyo but they were once on the cutting edge. The bohemian youth of Osaka and Tokyo would take the streetcar to a kissaten to listen to jazz records and discuss Ibsen. The utagoe kissaten which often had a musician playing live attracted leftists; the meikyoku kissa where classical music was played attracted the intellectuals of the Taisho (1912–1926) and Showa periods (1926–1989). The Second World War and the tough years that followed essentially killed off the more extravagant café and left us with the kissaten. Kissaten culture has itself been displaced by chain coffee shops like Doutour and Tully’s. When I have to meet somebody across town, we usually agree to meet at one of those places because they are easier to find. To find a good kissaten in an unfamiliar neighborhood, often requires exploration.

Each kissaten is unique. One could apply “coffee shop” or “café” to a chain operation but it is harder to conceive of a “chain kissaten.” The kissaten is always locally owned. There are no shortage of kissaten in my neighborhood and I frequent a handful, for different reasons.

I could tell you about Orenji. Orenji is a short walk away from my apartment, right over the ward border in Arakawa, stuck between the Toden Arakawa Line’s Arakawa-itchumae Station and the overpass that the Joban Line rides overhead. The alley has a genuine ancient dagashiya, which sells Showa Era sweets, an Italian restaurant that looks as if it hasn’t changed since 1950, and another Italian restaurant that would look at home in a East Tokyo neighborhood like Koenji. There are a few other kissaten and coffee shops, too, on this block, including one with a perfect view of the platform at Minowabashi Station. Orenji, though, is the most welcoming. The big windows illuminate blue streams of cigarette smoke and the grey cloud that hangs below the ceiling. The melon soda at Orenji is syrupy and it comes with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top. If the TV is not blaring local news, the owners play enka and Jim Reeves.

I will tell you about another place, called Karabina. If I am up for a trip on the Toden Arakawa Line to Machiya, I stop there. Karabina is a short walk into the neighborhood, down an alley, beside a shrine. My son was born at a clinic further up the alley. There is a coffee roaster running outside the front door of the shop. Karabina is the closest I come to a junkissa, a pure kissaten. It is a warm room with lots of wood. There is the smell of roasting coffee and cigarette smoke. Toast comes with homemade apple jam. If the afternoon is warm, I often take the walk back to Minowa from Machiya, floating on a buzzing caffeine high.

There is a kissaten right across the street from my apartment, in fact. Their speciality is Viennese-style desserts. I can lean out my window and see it, empty at midafternoon, like most other kissaten in this neighborhood. The new arrivals in the area go elsewhere. I’m often the only customer, alone in a dining room that could hold fifty or sixty customers, sipping black coffee and eating Sachertorte.

I am often the only customer dining at Mont Blanc in Asakusa, which sits between Angelus — another neighborhood kissaten, opened in 1946 — and Starbucks. The staff take their time bringing me my pizza toast and egg shake. The few times I share the dining room with other customers, they are old enough that they may remember the shop’s 1950 grand opening.

And there’s Cafe Bach near Nihonzutsumi, closer to a European coffee shop, where they roast the beans in the shop and specialize in desserts like Kugelhupf and rum cake. I should mention Kissa Takahashi, which sits across from the Higuchi Ichiyo Memorial Museum. The list could go on. There are hundreds of kissaten within a ten minute walk.

You can most often find me in a nondescript kissaten called Miyoshi.

Miyoshi sits at the center of the red light district of Yoshiwara.

The red light district’s history is grim but fascinating. Even if you’ve never heard the name, you have probably seen the images of Orientalist sexiness that the quarter produced: women behind wooden bars, famous courtesans, rich men, Kabuki actors with their pants around their ankles, erotic woodcuts… Yoshiwara could be called New Yoshiwara (and is often referred to as such on older maps) because it was relocated from its prior, more central location around the same time as the burakumin arrived and the execution grounds were relocated. The quarter looms large in writing about Tokyo. There is nostalgia for old New Yoshiwara and the romance of the red light district and the courtesans with painted faces hidden behind wooden bars. In truth, it was a shit hole on the shittiest end of the city and it housed girls and women that mostly ended up dumped in Sanya Canal or at nearby Jokanji, a temple that once overlooked the canal when it served as route from the river to the pleasure quarter. Yoshiwara fell into disrepute a century before I ever sipped coffee at its doorstep.

Yoshiwara now is still a red light district, although any hint of romance is gone. Yoshiwara is a collection of soaplands that occupy buildings that are squat and square; the pastel pinks and golden yellow paint that decorated them has faded to grey. Despite laws against prostitution, Yoshiwara still exists today because the soaplands exploit a loophole in the Anti-Prostitution Law of 1958. One day soon, the developers will come for this last

Miyoshi sits among the soaplands. The big windows let in lots of light; you can watch the intersection outside and the men and women that make their way through Yoshiwara. Miyoshi is a minimalist kissaten that wouldn’t appeal to those nostalgic for a sumptuous Showa-style café. Unlike some of the other kissaten in the city, there is no jazz playing faintly in the background on a vintage sound system — there is only the sound of the TV over the counter, tuned to channel 5. Instead of stained wood and smoked glass, there is linoleum and formica.

The coffee is strong and the food is just good enough. They’ve got the usual kissaten fare, nothing outstanding: the morning set of toast and a boiled egg, curry rice, Napolitan pasta… For a short visit, I order iced coffee and toast. The toast is thick white bread spread with butter. A shaker of salt comes on the side. The iced coffee is poured from a jug onto four big ice cubes. If I am going to spend a few hours, I order curry rice and an iced coffee. After I have eaten, I smoke cigarettes and I might write in my notebook but only to look occupied. If I have a book to read, I might open it and skim a few pages. The couple that runs the shop will not interrupt — might not even clear the plates, only change the ashtray — but they are at the counter, talking to the regulars, a few steps away. That’s the true appeal of the kissaten: you can stay as long as you like, for the price of a cup of coffee. You will be left alone.

Some of the customers are people that live nearby. For them, the kissaten is a place to catch up with friends and the owners, and flip through the newspaper, smoke a cigarette, and drink a cup of coffee. It’s an extension of their private space. The few chain coffee shops on the edges of Sanya are always packed but they don’t appeal to the oldtimers in the neighborhood. This kissaten’s demographic is a bit younger, though, as many of the customers are women killing time before work or between shifts at the soaplands of Yoshiwara. They order without looking at the menu and then tap on their phones with long nails, pulling on slim cigarettes.

The kissaten, like the shotengai, functions as an extension of the home. Unlike a chain coffee shop, like the Doutour near the station, the kissaten feels as if it affords the diner a certain slackness.

For those that have visited a suburb of Tokyo, or even a more developed central neighborhood, there’s a contrast between street life there and street life in older neighborhoods. Yoshiwara and the old neighborhoods around it maintain, in some ways, that older style of street life — there are more people out on the street, at least. In earlier times, the neighborhood’s inexpensive dining rooms nearby were a break from the tiny dining room of a traditional home; and traditional homes also sent people to sento, the communal bath house, to bathe and socialize; and the kissaten and the streets themselves become another place to get out of the house, meet with neighbors and catch up on gossip. The new residents of gentrifying Taito Ward have no particular need for the kissaten — the chain coffee shop, though, flourishes because it’s quick and there is one beside their subway station and the coffee is the same whether you are in Setagaya or Ota Wards — or for the other disappearing parts of the neighborhood, like the shotengai and the sento. Even the soaplands are disappearing, for better or worse, as the city government pushes harder on clamping down on vice and paves the way for developers to knock them down to put up apartment blocks.

The fact that I am a regular at the kissaten seems meaningful to me, too. The same holds true for my patronage at a nearby mom-and-pop corner store instead of at the 7–11 on Kokusai-dori. I want to know that if I leave the neighborhood, somebody might notice. And even if, as I readily admit, I am gentrifying scum in Sanya, I want to do something to preserve the rhythms of life in the neighborhood. The rhythm of the kissaten means that you are forced to invest some time and to see your neighbors. I could stop by the Doutour near Minowa Station and be in and out in five minutes, carry a plastic cup of iced coffee to the train or back home, but there’s something to be said for the unfamiliar, downtempo rhythms of the kissaten.

It puts me in mind of other places that I became a regular, and especially the Take 5 in Edmonton’s Beverly neighborhood where the sandwiches look like something for a downmarket kissaten and you can sit for hours without anybody saying a word to you. Take 5 is on a once-notorious stretch of 118th Avenue that has only recently seen a crackdown on street prostitution and drug sales and is still mostly home to longterm working class residents and recent immigrants from East Africa. Like Miyoshi, Take 5 is too far from more genteel quarters of the city to attract slumming gentrifiers; and it is too rough to be kitschy and too austere for nostalgia seekers. It’s another place where you go because it’s the place you go and symbolic of a way of life that is disappearing.

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