The Japanese are known for taking an idea and refining it: whether it’s miniaturizing a widget, glorifying a shopping mall or squeezing the maximum efficiency from a mass transport system, they always manage to give the consumer a heightened experience and create a 'Japanese' dimension that is simply part of the life experience here, but gives the visitor many an “Aha” moment, much like the celebrated zen koans of old.
Tea is a work of art and needs a master hand to bring out its noblest qualities.
- Kakuzō Okakura; The Book of Tea, 1906
Okakura, in his insightful 1906 essay, The Book of Tea, examined contemporary Japanese culture through the prism of 'Teaism': the aesthetics of the tea room, the artistry of the tea master and the rituals of the tea ceremony; and he celebrated their Tao and Zen inspired expressions of simplicity, purity and beauty.
More than 100 years on, Japanese hospitality and dining are in their own way as refined as the tea rooms of Okakura's time. Craig Mod - a self-professed Japanophile who seemingly always appears at various intersections of cultural interestingness - in his own reminiscences about coffee on Medium.com describes a certain ethos the Japanese have that elevates the perfunctory to a heightened form, infusing the offering or job at hand with a particular 'Japanese' dimension.
What’s coffee got to do with Japan and the aesthetics of Teaism?
Well, in the backstreets of Tokyo's hip Omotesando district, in a tiny, weathered wooden house, its signage barely visible, with a miniature pebbled courtyard that looks across to a neglected plot of land overgrown with windswept grass, is a unique coffee experience: Omotesando Koffee.
It's hard to imagine this cafe anywhere other than Japan. A single room opens to the modest courtyard, its panelled walls and timber floors well worn, a tokonoma alcove displaying an exquisite bonsai lit by a hand-made paper 'chandelier' that echoes Poul Henningsen's iconic Artichoke lamp design. Occupying the centre of the space is a cubic structure of thin metal rods, its architectural geometry framing the blonde wood bar and a striking red La Cimbali espresso machine - the single point of intense colour in the space, which I like to imagine as a nod to the visual style of Japanese film director Yasujiro Ozu. The only furniture in the place comprises an empty low lying set of shelves against one wall and two weathered wooden benches in the courtyard that look like they came with the house. Soft melodic jazz music fills the space and a minimalist display of small square kashi - this delicate cake, more a morsel really, is the only food item on offer here - are arranged on a shelf, their packaging in the comforting earthen tones and textures of the classic brown paper bag.
The master, owner/barista Eichii Kunitomo, is well skilled at the art of coffee and prepares his beans and microfoam to perfection, delivering a very fine espresso style coffee. But that's almost beside the point.
The ’cafe’ can barely sit four customers at a time, perhaps as many again standing. There are no tables. There are no waiters; Kunitomo is a one man band. This isn't how a cafe is meant to be. And yet…
The simplicity of the tea-room and its freedom from vulgarity make it truly a sanctuary from the vexations of the outer world.
- Kakuzō Okakura; ibid
Kunitomo, immaculate behind the counter in his white collar and lab coat, has in Omotesando Koffee created a contemplative space, the aesthetics straddling Western mid-century modernism and Japanese wabi-sabi, the cube's geometry marking out the heart of this space like some metaphoric altar, and the courtyard a timeless place that both envelopes and transports the customer far from the bustle of modern Tokyo. He's taken the most Western of concepts, the cafe, and made it uniquely Japanese by re-imagining and applying the aesthetics of the classical Japanese tea room. It could be pretentious but it seems most natural and it all works beautifully, and on a sunny Tokyo afternoon there's almost no nicer place to be.