Remaking Urban Space Through a Coworking Cafe
A pachinko operator is remaking urban space in Nish-Ogikubo. In our quiet residential neighborhood, known for bars and cafes on a micro-scale, the company has created a café space that blends work and leisure on a grand scale. A response to the rise of telework during the Covid pandemic, this vast coworking space reimagines the geography of office and home for young white-collar workers living along the busy Chuo Line, making Nishiogi feel a bit more like an urban business center while shrinking commutes for many locals. Occupying 600 square meters, the LifeWork Café advertised itself as the largest such coworking cafe in Tokyo when it opened on December 1, 2021. Offering a variety of cozy spaces for working, drinking, and snacking, its most distinctive feature is a partially open-air Finnish sauna (named ROOFTOP in all caps). Many customers use this ROOFTOP sauna as a way of resetting their mood and mindset before or after working all day in a café that is itself ambiguously a space for both work time and downtime.
LifeWork Café is located directly across from Nishi-Ogikubo Station in a four-floor building that housed the Seiyu Supermarket when it first opened in Nishi-Ogikubo in 1976. After Seiyu moved to another building on the other side of the station two decades ago, the space has been sublet to a series of other tenants (as long as they were not competing supermarkets). When the pachinko parlor Messe opened on the bottom two floors in December 2020, the management began thinking of how to use the third and fourth floors. They started to develop new business plans around March of 2021, during the midst of the Covid pandemic, explained Shimamura Katsuo, the director chief of LifeWork Cafe and ROOFTOP.
“The whole coronavirus pandemic was still ongoing,” Shimamura said. “So, we thought we'd try to create a place where people could work on their business individually. Additionally, the idea of saunas came from the fact that our owner likes saunas and the effect of saunas very much. We first found out that Finland is ranked number one as the happiest country in the world then thought about the relation to saunas in Finland, and so on. From the point of pursuing what happiness is, we created a facility where a sauna and cafe are combined. Work or study in the coworking space can make you tired, so we created a facility where you can refresh and rest your brain.”
This approach to creating and managing a stimulating urban consumer space is based upon Messe’s experience managing pachinko parlors. Messe has many stores along the Chuo Line and has become one of the top three pachinko companies in Tokyo. “As a result of our continuous effort to create a warm space for customers to kill time and anyone and everyone can visit comfortably, the number of our pachinko stores expanded steadily,” Shimamura said. Thirty years have passed since the parents of Shigeru Miyamoto, the representative director, established the company and now they are focusing their business only on Tokyo. The current plan is to find new business and service opportunities beyond the realm of pachinko. The very first new business of Messe was this coworking café-sauna complex.
One in five customers uses the sauna along with the cafe. "The average time spent is about six hours,” Shimamura said. “There aren't many people who use this place for just an hour or two. Some people come and work hard from the morning until the evening and go to the sauna at night before going home.”
We asked how the impact of the coronavirus, which triggered the increase in demand for telework, affected the idea for the new business. "When the pandemic started, what happened was suicide,” he said. “When I thought about why this was happening, it made me notice that people were alone in cold spaces, which made them suffer mentally and lead to suicide. That’s why we wanted to create a warm and safe place for those people. We did get a big hint from the outbreak."
Due to the nature of the working space, this space allows the customers to be on zoom while eating and drinking. As the spread of the coronavirus is still unpredictable, the cafe is urging all customers to wear masks so that customers can use the space safely and comfortably. "It's a space where you can concentrate,” he said, “but the concept is a home. It's an extension of a cozy home. Well, I'm thinking of this space as a home in the town, and a town in the home."
There are various touches to create a homey and casual atmosphere, such as self-service snacks, a drink bar, cartoon sections, and bean bag chairs. In addition, they hold events such as yoga classes and public viewing of sports games that create the possibility of connections to other customers. Such projects aim to differentiate the space from manga or internet cafes and other coworking spaces in Tokyo. "Internet cafes are completely individual, aren't they?” he said. “We provide open space, so I guess that that point is completely different. After all, as our concept is ‘a town in the city, and a town in the home,’ there is a desire to connect (people to people). Customers do not make connections at internet cafes.”
However, for those who want to have a more private space for concentration or conversation, there are private rooms and meeting rooms.
Shimamura also hopes to strengthen connections with other businesses in the neighborhood through the space of the café. "Well, from the beginning, we were told by other stores ‘we have strong connections here, so don’t mess up,’” he said.
Although they get along well now, he said that at first, the neighboring shops did not have a positive impression of a pachinko chain store in an area of many old-fashioned and private shops. For that reason, in order to cooperate with the town, they are also focusing on incorporating locally-produced foods into their changing menu. For instance, when visited, they were offering curry from a small but highly regarded privately owned restaurant nearby. "People tend to crave curry after the sauna, that’s why we incorporated it into our menu,” Shimamura said.
Shimamura says that eventually, he wants to create a food stand where customers can eat all of the most delicious foods in Nishiogi. "We want to build a strong bond with the town- connecting companies to companies, connecting people to people, and diagonally, connecting companies to people…. Customers say that Nishiogi is a very comfortable place to live in, and that's why all the people are amiable. This motivates my desire of working for those people and providing a space for them to be happier and stronger…. Many of our customers are from Nishiogi. Regular customers are mainly from Nishiogi.”
Looking around the store, the customers were mainly men. "There are a lot of men,” he said. “Only about fifteen percent are women .... So, I think we have to prepare more services that attract women. In terms of age range, men in their thirties make up about fifty percent of the total, and men in their forties about thirty percent."
Now that the style of working outside of the office is becoming mainstream, large companies are using LifeWork Café’s meeting rooms for gatherings. "People from various companies are often having heated conferences, and the best part is that we serve alcohol. Some customers drink alcohol after their business talk is over."
Also, Shimamura says that it is not rare for students to use it. "Students, especially those preparing for entrance examinations use personal booths. Also, they visit for meetings, meetings for clubs and circles. It seems that sauna clubs are a thing at university recently .... they enjoy the sauna upstairs and then use the cafe afterward.”
Because customers register for their time at the café using the Line App, the company is able to develop a very precise understanding of customer behavior. Currently, the customers’ repeat rate has risen to thirty-five percent and Shimamura realizes that needs are increasing. "Even if the pandemic calms down, I think that telework will last forever."
From now on, he wants to provide opportunities to connect customers to one other while responding to their needs. "I want to expand the ways to study, connecting customers with teachers, connecting with tutors, and so on ... I want to do something like that ... For example, if there is a student who wants to learn something in a specific field and if a customer was a professional in that subject area, I would like to connect them. If there are people who want to do some kind of work in a particular domain, I will connect people who have such ideas, maybe also like, having our own community manager. I would like to arrange things like that. "
Finally, we asked Shimamura what he can be most proud of about the place. "What I can be most proud of? There are a lot of things ... but on the fourth floor ... you can see the sky. Actually, it is very hard to look at a clear sky in Tokyo, as there are usually mesh guards and stuff like that. For here, we already released all of them, so sometimes we hear the sound of the train, see birds passing by, and are able to see the sky clearly. It nearly makes you doubt if this is really Tokyo, that's why it's called ROOFTOP.”
“Although it takes time to deal with the cleaning and weather, such as snow, by opening up the outdoor space to the sky, we want our customers to feel an ‘uncommon feeling’ that is not usually felt in Tokyo. We were determined to do this from the very first stage of planning this sauna.
The design of the café also reflects an imagined relationship to the commuter train line. "For the third floor, there is a hidden concept,” Shimamura said. “You know how the booths are located orderly in a straight line from the other side of the store? This is based on the idea of the Chuo Line... The stations refer to the private booths. Also, the interior is actually orange, the color of the Chuo line .... the chandelier, too. Our orange key color comes from that reason.”
The Chuo line runs through the center of Tokyo, connecting residences to business districts and entertainment districts. LifeWork Cafe and ROOFTOP may be a place where you can experience this mix of urban spaces in one location. As it gets warmer, new services such as barbecue plans on the cafe terrace will start. A new type of commercial social space is being created in Nishi-Ogikubo. (James Farrer and Marisa Motomura, May 15, 2022)
(Interview by James Farrer and Marisa Motomura February 4, 2022; transcription and translation by Marisa Motomura; Japanese editing by Fumiko Kimura)