A Cafe that Nourishes Mind and Body
Located just off Nishi-Ogikubo’s busy South Business Street, Hana is a café tucked away in a spacious Showa-period residence. It looks so much like an ordinary suburban home that upon entering many customers can barely repress an urge to announce themselves with a “tadaima,” as Japanese usually will do when entering someone’s private home. Actually, Hana has not been a private home for some time and was purchased and remodeled by the landlord for use as a commercial space, refitted with warm wood, bamboo, and tatami in a cozy style that would have been in vogue in the 1950s. Beyond Showa nostalgia, Nishiogio’s Hana is closely connected to the owners’ ideals of healing, therapy, and self-care as well as their roots in Korean culture.
“I was looking for a place where my customers can relax after the therapy session, and that’s how I came up with the idea of a café and salon combined together,” said Eishuku Lee who co-owns the shop with her husband Bongyu Park. A professional therapist, Lee used to manage a salon for bodywork and counseling in Itabashi, but then, when Park quit his job, they decided to create a place where they could provide not only therapy but other experiences. In conceptualizing Hana in the form of a therapeutic café, Lee relied upon her routine of serving delicious food and tea after the therapy sessions in her previous salon. Lee and Park manage the café as a team.
We asked Lee what kind of commitment they had to create the retro Showa era atmosphere. “Our idea was to locate the store in a quiet place away from the main streets,” Lee said. “We were looking for a place away from the busy urban areas, a house in which we could use of the first and second floor. I originally liked antique stuff, and thus also looked for old houses to renovate and use as a café.”
Lee explained that the process of finding a property was difficult, as many landlords prohibit food and beverage businesses. Then while searching the internet, she happened to find a listing for an old private house in Nishiogi, stipulating that eateries were acceptable. Since she used to hang around the neighborhood when she was a student, she was familiar with its quiet environs and privately owned businesses. She thought it perfectly matched her ideal. “All the conditions were met; the location was close to the station and accessible for the customers,” she said. “I thought that I might be able to continue the business for a long-term if the café were here, so I asked the landlord to lease it to me. That was 2015.”
The opening of Hana was the first time the property has been used for business. Until then, it was used as a private house, and Lee said that people who used to live in the house once visited Hana as customers. “Two customers, a high school-age daughter, and her mother visited and said that they used to live in this house when the daughter was small. I was surprised and delighted at the same time,” she said with a laugh. “They said that the house was not as beautiful then as it is right now and more run-down.”
It has been eighty years since Hana’s old Japanese-style house was built, but the floor and ceiling are well maintained. The creation of the unique space involved not only Park and Lee but also the landlord. “The landlord of this house is very fond of antique and vintage furniture, and she kept the old ones as much as possible and kept them clean. We hope that the customers can taste the atmosphere of an old Japanese house in the Showa era.”
Retaining the Showa elements that the landlord presented them with, Park and Lee looked for and purchased matching desks and chairs in the numerous antique shops in Nishiogi.
Making full use of the spacious old house, Hana offers café services on the first floor and therapy sessions on the floor above. Rooms on the second floor are also used as rental space. “There are three rooms on the second floor,” she said. “There are people who do bodywork, I also do therapy sessions, and some others use the rooms for counseling and workshops such as craft making. Sessions decreased due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the large room of about thirteen square meters is used for lectures. The space was used for a face exercise class this morning as well, but there are people who do various events such as book reading clubs on a regular basis. I want customers to enjoy various activities on the second floor and then come down and relax with a cup of tea.”
The booking form on Hana’s official internet website is filled with reservations for the second-floor spaces. It is used as a community space in the area, including children's English classes and organizational meetings. Lee herself is mainly engaged in a plant therapy called “flower remedy” that restores the balance of emotions and spirit with the energy of flowers.
One of the key reasons why this café is so popular is the menu. Hana introduces customers to traditional Korean tea that is rare in other cafes. “There are various types of cafes in Japan,” she said, “but we really want to show our unique individuality. Both my husband and I have Korean roots, so we want to reflect that essence in the menu.”
Hana’s menu combines inspirations from Korea with therapeutic soothing aromas. Lee described how their menu items reflect a "Korean essence." “During Autumn and Winter, we serve veggie bibimbap which contains Korean essence,” she said. “Also, there is a type of rice ball that has a Korean-style sesame oil scent. A lot of customers favor this because the scent is quite different from typical rice balls in Japan. Also, this medicinal zenzai is completely different from Japanese zenzai. It contains Korean ginseng powder and extracts and has a cinnamon topping. In Korea, it is popular street food. ... The tea menu has Korean essence in it, too. We serve Korean traditional tea and Misugaru. Misugaru is a Korean healthy drink that we drink for breakfast.”
The couple developed the menu themselves. We asked Lee about the signature menu items. “In Korea, azuki beans are eaten in the winter solstice, when it gets colder. The red color of the azuki beans has the meaning of warming our body and getting rid of our evil spirits, and that’s why azuki beans were used to be eaten in the winter. We call the café an “azuki bean parlor.” Besides the purpose of eating healthy, we hope that the customers can feel at ease and relax by eating them.”
At the same time, Lee explained that it is important for the menu to be “not too fastidious.” “Since we serve a menu featuring brown rice, we do welcome customers who are vegan or have particular rules to their dietary patterns,” she said. “But I honestly think that the key is to be not too strict to those rules. I mean, I feel like controlling our eating habits strictly creates a tense feeling and a kind of nervousness that results in a vicious cycle. There was a time when I used to control my eating habits like that, but in the end, I think balance is important.”
Hana is attractive for its nostalgic spaces and creative menu, but the core of its service is based on Korean food culture. “The Korean style of hospitality is different from Japan,” she explained. “We prepare a lot of food for guests. When I was small, my mother always used to invite my father’s customers or friends to our house and prepare something to eat. I grew up like that from a young age, so that culture was very natural to me. ... Like, for example, in Korea, we greet people by asking, ‘Have you already eaten?’ It’s our everyday custom to ask people if they are hungry, and that is a little different from Japan.”
Lee explained that they had a hard time attracting customers for a year or two after Hana opened, but now the café is visited by many groups of women, families with small children, and couples. There are many regulars.
Although Hana was familiar to many customers in the area, they had to go through a trial-and-error period to survive the coronavirus pandemic. “To be honest, last year was tough,” she said. “When the very first state of emergency was declared, we closed for more than a month, and we didn’t know what to do since it was our first time to experience something like this. We didn’t know if customers would come even if we opened. ... So well, we opened, keeping an eye on the situation.”
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the couple developed products for takeout and online shopping. They received orders from many customers who wanted to support Hana. They told us how they once again realized their gratitude to the customers and the entire neighborhood. “We received warm messages such as ‘Thank you for opening Hana’ and ‘Thank you for staying the same,” Lee said (James Farrer and Marisa Motomaru, Dec. 22, 2021).
(Interview by James Farrer, Fumiko Kimura, and Marisa Motomura October 12, 2021; transcription and translation by Marisa Motomura; Japanese editing by Fumiko Kimura)