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A Hidden Ibasho For Music Lovers

Updated: Feb 20

 Many people dream of opening a small shop or a café as a way of supplementing their income, connecting to a community, or sharing elements of their lifestyle. Most of us give up these ideas as impractical, but many small business owners in Nishiogi have made them real, giving us insight into what it might be like to do this ourselves. One such person is Kitamura Naoko who, together with her son Kitamura Masashi, operates a small music and arts café called Topos. Topos is a quiet hideaway located 350 meters south of Nishiogi Station along the “South Ginza Shopping Street.” Topos is an example of how a café serves as a micro-community space – an ibasho or backstage space for people who share a particular passion – in this case, music, including sing-alongs among customers. As the Topos’ owner Naoko said, “I opened Topos because I wanted to make a place where can gather people, enjoy music, and display art in a gallery since I play the piano and my son paints pictures.”


I am originally from Nakano,” Naoko said, “but I barely stayed in Tokyo since my marriage. Due to my husband's work, I moved eight times, to Maebashi, to the Philippines, and to Taiwan. I returned to Tokyo 28 years after I got married."

Following her husband around the world, Naoko had not had a chance to develop her own career. She wanted to start something on her own. Also, the September 11 attacks made she want to start something anew. “I was almost half a century old when I heard the news,” she said. “The news was shocking, and it seemed as if no one knew what would happen next. I had to do what I wanted to do, but I did not have a house in Tokyo, and renting was going to be financially difficult, so I did not prepare for the opening of Topos.”


Later, she became preoccupied with taking care of her aging mother and had to postpone her plans. Around 2005, however, improvements in her mother’s condition opened a window of time for her to execute her plan. “In the process of deciding the location, I wanted to open the café along the Chuo line because I like the culture. Eventually, I found this property by chance, and the price was not bad.”


She visited the building with the real estate agent. “After feeling the calm atmosphere, I thought, “This is it. This is the place to do what I wanted!” The building was constructed about 50 years ago, and it has been used in different ways, such as a cram school, antique store, and a practice place for a theatre company. But the owner of this building told me that this is the first time to be used as a café.” The landlord, who passed away three years ago, lived on the fifth floor and he was 70 years old when I moved in. “I mentioned to him that I want to put in a piano. It is quite difficult, isn’t it? There is the sound problem and so on. But he was fine with that and said yes. Also, I had a dog, a black Labrador, and when I asked if I could bring my dog, he said that even an elephant or tiger would be fine if it was trained. I loved my landlord and I felt like this was the best place. I believe that the owner was not the sort of person who was into music very much, but his wife was.”

Topos has a counter facing the kitchen area where regulars gather to chat with the owners, a main floor with three tables for groups, and a large corner space for the grand piano. There is a full kitchen behind the bar. “We always have curry rice and hamburger steak,” she said. “At lunchtime, we serve a dish of the day with this. Sometimes, we have Japanese-style dishes as well.”


We asked Naoko how she communicates with regular customers. “When we become familiar with each other, we talk, but they do not always sit in front of us [at the counter]. It depends on the circumstances. I'm sure they have their favorite seats, but I do not think they decide on one place to sit. I guess 70 percent of customers are female. Also, we are getting young customers little by little these days.” 


She cooks with Masashi. “He has helped with cooking since he was a kid, and I thought this job might be a good fit for him. When we came back to Tokyo, he enrolled in a design college, but he left it soon because the college was not the place for him. He had drawn pictures while doing various part-time jobs. He refused to work at Topos at first, but he eventually helped Topos because I was worried about doing it alone. I was glad to have him since he is good at talking to customers.”


They source their coffee from an old shop in Koenji. “There is a family-run coffee shop called Sawaya Coffee. I visited there a lot when I lived in Koenji, and I like it.”

Becoming a Music-lovers Ibasho

From its very beginning, Topos became a place where people could gather and appreciate music. “I want to make a place where even strangers could talk to each other with the slightest of opportunities, such as music, art, and so on,” Kitamura said. She still remembers the first day Topos opened. “There were two couples, an elderly couple and a young couple, neither of whom knew each other. Of course, I didn’t know them. And then, they started talking about Bosa Nova music that was playing at the time. I was surprised and thought ‘Oh, this is exactly the place I want to create!’ The elderly couple still visits here because we are neighbors, but the other couple doesn’t. They ran a restaurant at Asagaya serving fish. They used to come to Nishiogi, but then they closed their restaurant, and they don’t come anymore.”

She wants to make a comfortable place, or ibasho, for regular customers. “That’s why I named this café Topos, which means a place in Greek,” she explained. “I saw this word when I read a book written by the philosopher, Yujiro Nakamura. It is like this idea that all problems can be solved by science, and the importance of feelings..... That’s where he wrote about ‘topos.’ His book is difficult for me to understand since there are some mathematical concepts in it. However, what he wrote about ‘topos’ as place (basho) stayed in my mind.”


The main attraction of Topos is the singing events, especially among female customers. “We have a song day every Monday. We sing old songs like the old utagoe coffeehouses [which were popular in the 1970s]. 90 percent of customers in this event are female. We have a song list and customers can request from the list and sing a song. Singing alone can be a little intimidating, but if there are a lot of people, it's okay.... We often have people singing chansons, and I accompany them on the piano. We also have a piano day every Saturday from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. This is a day that anyone can play the piano. Classical music, nostalgic melodies, chansons, regardless of genre... On the song days, we have people who come every week. We have about ten people, and their ages are almost the same as mine or above mine, so our song list is for our generation, not for younger people. They all live along the Chuo line, and they look forward to this event every week. I heard that they sometimes go out for drinks after the event. At Kagayakitei, Thursday is song day. Kagayakitei is bigger, so there are about 20 people there. They have an upright piano, so I go there once a month to play.”

She continued the sing-along day during COVID. “We did not have the event when the state of emergency was declared. We had lyric cards, but we stopped handing them out. I set up the songs and told them, ‘This is what we are going to sing today.’ I told them I would not touch anything that everyone else had touched. I continued to do what I had to do. Yes, everyone was there. But there were people with various opinions, and there were people who said it was not safe to meet up. It was a trial-and-error process. So, we cut the number of people in half, and we had five people every other week instead of ten, but in the end, it just wasn't interesting enough. We still have five minutes of ventilation time."

During the pandemic, the café became a special space for many customers to venture outside their homes. “Well, since the beginning, there have been many aging customers, but they have not come lately, especially since this summer was extremely hot. We used to have neighbor customers and single customers at lunchtime, and during the pandemic, they told me, ‘I can't go to other restaurants, but I can come here, so I just want you to stay open.’ I decided to keep open Topos for them. I closed our café from 3 to 4 p.m. and some people were against opening it, but I prioritized our regular customer's opinions. After the pandemic, we are open until 7 p.m. There was a time before the pandemic when we stayed open until around 8 p.m., but we started closing earlier since there were few customers. During COVID, at least we would stay open during the day to welcome our regular customers. We were happy that they came every day, and there were more of them than there are now.”


We asked Naoko whether she considered Topos as her business or hobby. “I want to be independent financially with this café,” she said, “but it seems difficult. My husband supports us. If I had opened Topos in my own house, we would not have to pay rent. But we rent. Nishiogi is full of such small properties, but I think that it is a very good place to have various people see what I am doing by renting privately.”


She wants to keep the café despite financial difficulties. “It may be tough from now on. Utility bills have gone up, too. Also, I am getting older. When I started, I was 53 years old. I thought I would be able to work until I was around 70, but I have already passed that age. I am sure that the time will come when I will no longer be able to do it, but I would like to continue until then. I feel it would be a waste to quit Topos, because of the community we have. I want to do a little more.”

Encounters with Piano and Art

One of the main unique features of her café is the C. Bechstein grand piano. Naoko has spent time with the grand piano for about 25 years. She found the piano by chance, a Mitsukoshi flyer a year before she came to Tokyo. Bechstein is the piano brand that she felt was not a good match for her compared to other piano brands when she was using it for piano lessons. “However, when I played this piano, I was surprised because it was the first experience for me to find an instrument that sounded exactly the way I wanted it to. This ivory keyboard, this brown grain of this walnut wood, the tone, just everything was amazing, and it was the biggest impulse purchase of my life! I couldn't have played piano without this.”


Sometimes, she held piano lessons at Topos. “Some customers asked me to teach piano, but I did not because I could not manage both positions as a piano teacher and a café owner at that time,” Naoko said. “Then after the pandemic, I made flyers of piano lessons since there were fewer customers and I had more free time. I had got students, not many, but I enjoyed teaching piano.”


She holds piano lessons on weekend mornings. “All students are adults, and they can play piano to some extent, so we do have lessons once or twice a month, not every week. On piano days, many people come who used to play the piano when they were little but did not go to a technical school and now want to continue playing the piano while working. Many of my friends from music school, however, do not play anymore. So, I feel that the piano day gives them the power to say, "I want to play the piano.”


She plays many genres. “I do classic, but I am open to any genre. If it is an accompaniment to a song, it can be a nostalgic melody or an Enka (traditional Japanese folk song). I think each type of music has its pros. I like music with a long history of hundreds of years, it is a wonderful thing, isn’t it?”

Topos is also a space where customers can experience (and even purchase) Masashi’s art.  The artwork on the plates served with the food is also by Masashi. “We have used these plates for several decades,” Naoko said. “He draws by his hand without a blueprint, so none of them are the same. He said it is more difficult to make the same thing. He paints with French drawing materials. It's for outlining and it is rare to paint with this one. It can be baked in a home oven at 800 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes. Sometimes, he sells dishes when customers ask.”  


He also paints with drawing materials from the U.S. when he paints on fabric. “It's okay as long as it dries, so it can be painted on clothes, handbags, shoes, hats, and so on.”


In addition to displaying his artwork at Topos, Masashi also participates in artistic activities outside. “He draws pictures at night after we close the café. He has an exhibition once in two years at Gekko-so, a painting material store in Ginza. The next exhibition will be in October 2024.”


18 Years with the Community in Nishiogi


In the past, the Southside of the Nishiogi station was a busy shopping district for the area residents. During the 18 years they have been on the street, they have observed its gradual decline. “I have heard the southside was the busiest street in the past, but there are many stores that do not have children who take over it and go out of business. There are still some greengrocers in Northside, but not in here. Nishiogi is changing rapidly, like the new Seiyu. I sometimes feel it is lonely here. We used to have a festival, but we could not make it due to COVID. I am not sure whether this year has, but maybe September. We have several festivals in different areas, such as around the  Shoan Inari Shrine. Around here is Omiya-mae Kasuga Shrine.” She said. “As you can see, we have many shopping districts, we have 3 shopping streets from the station to Itsukaichi-kaido Avenue.” There is interaction with stores in the same shopping district. “We used to gather for New Year's parties and festivals before the pandemic. We used to have bus trips as well.... I didn't participate in the bus trip very much, but everyone was looking forward to it. When I went once, we went to Mt. Fuji.”


Like many cafes, Topos is less a commercial enterprise than a personal lifestyle project shared with the broader community. The main theme of this one is music, with the sing-alongs being a regular attraction. Many such semi-familial commercial spaces, a type of ibasho, can be found in Nishi-Ogikubo. It is impossible to understand them with purely economic logic. Perhaps they are best understood as a blending of personal dreams and a shared community space.  (James Farrer and Sakura Yajima Jan. 20, 2023)

(interview conducted by James Farrer and Sakura Yajima Aug. 8, 2023; transcription and translation by Sakura Yajima; text by James Farrer and Sakura Yajima; Japanese editing by Fumiko Kimura; copyright James Farrer, all rights reserved.)



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