A Coffee Artisan in the "Last" Neighborhood Without a Starbucks
Some Nishiogi loyalists like to brag that Nishiogi Station is the last stop on this busy stretch of the Chuo Line that still has no Starbucks. Actually, this is not really true, since the same can be said of the nearby hipster neighborhood Koenji. But this peculiar bragging point does show just how much chain stores have invaded Japanese urban spaces. Even in this low-rise community that prides itself for its independent cafes, chain shops actually abound, and even convenience stores selling 100 yen lattes. An example of how to survive corporate coffee competition, one independent holdout, famous for its roasted beans, is Mamenoki, which translates as “bean tree.”
Mamenoki opened on Shinmei Street on the south side of Nishi-Ogikubo Station in 1986. Although it specializes in selling beans, it also has a small café space where customers can order coffee. The sweet pungent smell of roasting coffee greets you well before you enter, and the interior of the shop is stained a coffee-beige hue. Beans are arrayed in cylindrical glasses for purchase, and new supplies of green beans are stacked in burlap bags by the door. Many customers purchase beans for household use, but the shop also supplies many restaurants and cafes in Nishiogi. Even a café in Niigata Prefecture orders from Mamenoki. When you purchase beans in the shop, you are given a small cup of cold brewed coffee to taste while waiting for your order to be bagged.
The owner, Masao Yamamoto, worked in the coffee business in Kanda, and long hoped to own his own place. He decided to open a shop in Nishiogi where he grew up. His strategy of focusing on the sale of beans was inspired by the advent of the Japanese coffee chain Dotour, which preceded Starbucks in the Japanese market, including two shops in Nishiogi itself. “It was around the time when Dotour coffee shops started to appear,” he said. “Dotour mainly sells beverages. So, I thought I would concentrate on selling coffee beans, which led me to establish my own shop.”
While most chain coffee shops, including Dotour, roast their beans in a factory and brew their coffee with automatic preset machines, Yamamoto sticks to roasting and selling daily fresh batches of beans. Every morning, he also produces liters of cold drip coffee in a tall glass tower, which not only looks cool with its glass spirals, but produces a rich, sweet, aromatic brew.
According to Yamamoto, the widely-used gas coffee roasters produce a fine soot which adheres to beans; whereas, the electric machines he uses at Mamenoki make for a cleaner taste. He proudly showed us the device he uses now and also the vintage one he purchased at the time he started Mamenoki. This technology was quite unconventional back then. Both machines roast beans with hot air. The old one had to be controlled manually, but the new one is computerized. Yamamoto sets the time, temperature, and amount of air according to the type of beans. The size and amount of moisture in a bean depends on the region of production, so the time needed for roasting each type of bean is also different.
When asked what has changed in his business, Yamamoto lamented that the quality of beans is worsening. “Beans were better in the past. Producers used to stress the quality of beans. They care more about quantity today. Due to mass production, the quality of beans has worsened. They now use electric machines for drying beans. They used to be dried on the ground, in the sun. Producers now prioritize mass production, so the quality of coffee is not as good.... Furthermore, coffee consumption increased all over the world. The amount of coffee people drink at home has increased in Japan too. Because of those changes, producers aim to produce quantity. They aim to produce more and more in order to profit by trading with foreign countries.”
Overall, Japanese people now drink more coffee, and the preferences of customers in Nishiogi have also changed, he said. Customers tended to prefer mild and sweet tasting coffee in the past. Now, bitter, acidic, and aromatic coffees are popular. Mandheling and Guatemala are two of the best sellers now. Customers in their twenties and thirties have increased, and more young women come and buy coffee beans alone.
Yamamoto will turn 73 this year and it is becoming more challenging for him to run the shop alone. He used to work with his wife, but she is now bed-ridden. “Actually, nursing my wife is more tiring than work. Helpers and nurses come during the day time, but I take care of her in the morning and at night. It can be exhausting.”
Our interview took place on a morning when the shop was relatively less busy, but still many customers came and purchased beans, and calls for orders kept coming in. Despite his struggles, he told us that running his business is fun and that he wants to continue working.
As Yamamoto explained, the number of shops along Shinmei Street has decreased over the 32 years since Mamenoki opened. Some places closed because there was no successor to the aging owner. This trend shows how Japan’s aging society is affecting the area.
There are, however, some signs of revival on Shinmei Street. For instance, in the past few years there has been an increase in the number of sellers and buyers at the monthly morning market. Also, some new shops have been springing up further down the street. These changes have been coinciding with the rising number of younger families taking up residence in Nishiogi. Mamenoki represents the tenacity and high standards of an aging artisanal producer. A combination of newer young residents and the persistence of shops from the old days might be one reason for the liveliness of Nishiogi. It could be a way for neighborhood streets in aging Japan to survive. (James Farrer, Mayuko Kawai, Sept. 8, 2018)
(English text and interview by James Farrer and Mayuko Kawai; Japanese editing by Fumiko Kimura; translation by Mayuko Kawai; copyright James Farrer 2018, all rights reserved)