Good Atmosphere (But No Smoke) in this Classic Kissa
One of the painful ironies of contemporary Tokyo is that all the classic coffee shops with a “good atmosphere” tend to have air choked with smoke. Dante, a traditional kissaten founded in 1965 by its current owner Morihiro Suita, is a welcome non-smoking exception. The structure of the shop is built completely out of wood, which inspired Suita to decorate the interior in dark timber. It’s like a cottage, Suita said, though the low narrow space reminds many customers of the hull of old timbered schooner. It is both roomy and cozy, and somewhat famous as an old postwar kissaten along the Chuo Line. “In the past, this was built as a shoten nagaya (shop row house). The builder insisted that they used tinder with good quality, so it is very sturdy.” said Suita. “This is a nagaya (row house) so we have done some remodeling but have never rebuilt this place. The building code states that we must widen the street in order to rebuild. No one is willing to do so, so the skeleton has not changed.”
A large bar counter takes up one wall of the shop. Behind the counter, yellowed, aging classical LPs fill out the left side of one shelf. A collection of cups and saucers lines a much larger set of shelves directly behind the bar. Jars of roasted coffee beans take up one section. Suita also has an entrance ticket to the “House of Dante” in Italy, though he didn’t go himself, nor does he have a deep interest in the author for whom he named the shop. It was his father, an English teacher who was the real literature buff, he said. His father being an English teacher, Suita was always exposed to many books and woodblock prints from abroad as a young boy. One of those, a woodblock print of Dante gazing at Beatrice stands out most in his memory, and that may have influenced him to name this shop “Dante.” Suita enjoys being vague about the history of the shop, even its age, but the influence of his father is clear from Suita’s frequent mentions of him.
Suita opened this shop when he was in his third year of college. He had been working at a coffee shop part-time while going to school in Ginza to learn bartending. “I had a three-year loan, so I used to make cocktails. They make more money. I don’t drink though.” he said. So, he decided to run his place as a café instead of a bar.
Coffee shops were booming in the 1960s, but they have not remained as profitable as they were back then. “Different from alcohol, coffee is not lucrative,” Suita said. “That’s what I believe after doing this business for this long. There was more profit in the past. The imported raw materials used to be less expensive.”
When we asked Suita about why he went into this business, he explained that he was originally planning to become a professional musician playing the flute. “Back then, if there were three-hundred-sixty-five days a year, I used to play for three-hundred-sixty-six days,” Suita said. He had the honor to take lessons from a man who was perhaps Japan’s best teacher at the time, but Suita said he decided to quit one day after he unexpectedly came into the same class with a person two years younger, but with more talent. This made him rethink about his future, he said. “I did not want to take the packed trains to go to work. My father was an English teacher, so my house always had books on foreign countries and coffee. I thought that as long as I had some music records and coffee, I want to open my own shop.”
Suita’s customers have changed a great deal over more than fifty years. “There were very few coffee shops back in the day, so it got very crowded. A lot of my customers were young and rich," he said. "They all had neckties on. It is very different compared to today.” When we asked about his customers now, he claimed “Most are seniors. The ratio between men and women is six to four. Six being the male and four being the women. However, depending on the time, most of the customers could be women or most of the customers could be men.”
Although Suita always plays classical music on his CD player, he noted that he used to play jazz music at his shop in the past. During his years in high school, he would go to a jazz kissa after school and enjoy the loud music playing there. However, he does not listen to jazz anymore. “I personally don’t want to listen to it. It is not as moving anymore. I have lost the passion.” said Suita, with his infectious laugh. He also now avoids playing his collection of records because it does not suit the work environment since he must lift the needle every twenty minutes. Suita’s business philosophy centers on doing things his own way.
Jazz cafes were very popular at the time when Suita opened Dante. The reason, according to Suita, was that no one had personal audio systems at the time. “To listen to good quality music with large speakers was the only thing I had been looking forward to. My dream was to work hard and buy my own stereo. I felt so much excitement when I first played it.”
He brews all his coffee with one of the siphons lined up on his counter. He has acquired his own techniques through his many years of experience, and it varies from blend to blend. The only thing which makes his coffee particular is that he brews his coffee according to his personal taste. “I have realized that after starting this coffee shop that it is most fun for me to brew the coffee that I like. I don’t want to be making a coffee thinking that I do not like it.” said Suita. “I drink just about anything, but I would say that I do not like coffee with a strong sour taste. However, I like sour coffee with some milk and sugar.”
The most popular item at Dante is “today’s service blend," a straight black coffee. He gets his coffee beans from fair trade providers. The prices are higher, he claims, but the quality of the beans is very good. He used to line up his coffee beans on his counter according to which region they were from. Then, Suita said, he began to notice that he didn’t like some of the beans.
“For example, I did not like the mocca. It had a rough taste to it. I was brewing it thinking and knowing that it did not taste the way I liked. Then one day they found some agricultural chemicals in the beans, and imports were prohibited. The soil in the farm had gone bad too." According to Suita, mocca is again available for import but he does not bring them in anymore because he does not like the taste anymore. His beans are imported mainly from Central America, including Panama and Guatemala, and from South America, including Brazil and Colombia.
One of the great treats of Dante is that it is non-smoking. A heritage coffee shop that is non-smoking is rare. “I made it non-smoking six years ago. But until then, everybody was naturally smoking here. I did not like it, so I only allowed smoking on the counter.” Then, he decided to completely ban smoking. “I lost about a third of my customers,“ he said. “But I am starting to gain them back.” The numbers are recovering since people who do not like to smoke are increasing. Suita’s experiment shows that even traditional cafes can transition to non-smoking and retain their “atmosphere” but without the pollution.
Suita-san is very friendly and willing to converse with the regulars at the bar, but most customers seem to enjoy their quiet time at the tables, or chatting quietly with a friend. Dante is truly one of those classic music cafés that take one back to the Showa era, though without the neckties and without the smoke. It is an island of calm and good tastes in the sprawl of Tokyo (James Farrer and Julia Kawashima, Jan. 31, 2018)
(English text by James Farrer and Julia Kawashima; interview by James Farrer and Julia Kawashima, Sept. 18, 2018; Japanese transcription and editing by Julia Kawashima; translation by Julia Kawashima; Japanese editing by Fumiko Kimura copyright James Farrer 2018, all rights reserved)