"Bittersweet" Tastes of a Nishiogi Cafe

Coffee shop cultures sometimes represent alternative forms of capitalism in urban Japan, in which craftsmanship, style, and community seem to trump the profit motive. This entry describes one of the low-key vintage venues in Nishi-Ogikubo.

Nishiogi has many coffee shops of the sort that Boston University anthropologist Merry White writes about in her book Coffee Life in Japan, a paean to the small artisanal shop run by a master, who roasts his own beans, and carefully makes each cup for his community of regular customers. Donguri-ya is one such place. 

Donguri-ya (literally The Acorn) is a small coffee shop situated since 1974 at the end of the pedestrian street leading north from Nishiogi station. It is housed in a quaint structure designed and built as a coffee shop by the owner Kawano’s father’s construction company, with small wood-framed windows, a hexagonal corner alcove, rough-hewn wooden benches and tables, and even a wagon wheel as a railing. Scroll paintings and other decorations hang strategically between the tables to block the view between customers and provide an air of privacy for conversations in the tight space. The walls are covered with knick-knacks, many purchased in Nishiogi’s famous recycle shops.

 

A hand-painted wooden board menu on the wall advertises the specials, topped by the “Bittersweet” blend, the most popular item since the shop began roasting it’s own coffee thirty-five years ago. A thick cheesy “pizza toast” has been the most popular food item since it was put on the menu forty years earlier by the current master’s sister. Business is most brisk in the late afternoon, but continues late into the evenings. Classic jazz, often Coltrane, runs in the background, as it did when the shop first was conceived by Kawano’s brother as a jazz café. Very little has changed in Donguriya in four decades.

“I don’t want Nishiogi to become popular,” the bespectacled coffee master Kawano, said with a wry, but still friendly, smile. “I want to serve the people here in the neighborhood. Outsiders are okay, but they have coffee shops in their own neighborhoods.” As Nishiogi becomes a bit of an attraction on the Chuo Line, some business owner prefers to preserve a social space for face-to-face community rather than pursuing the high-turnover day tourist trade. 

Indeed eighty percent of the customers are regulars, Kawano said, and he hopes to keep it that way. Regulars range from people in their teens to the elderly. Some are even the children of the original customers. Many are musicians, actors and writers who use the space for writing (often on a PC). Cigarette smoke often clouds the air. Some don’t like smoking these days, Kawano admitted, but others expect it. “It is part of the atmosphere of the coffee shop,” Kawano said, though he does know at least one elderly regular who couldn’t take the smoke and now must go elsewhere. He quit smoking himself nearly twenty years ago. Some changes have been welcome, he said. Far more women come now. When the shop first opened it was mostly men sitting silently listening to jazz. Now more than half the customers are women, and there is also much more conversation among customers. Indeed, the once earnestly jazzy café has become a lively community hangout. (Farrer,  July 21, 2015, edited March 15, 2017)

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