A Café is a Creative Production
Nishiogi’s Café Sing represents a Tokyo-wide trend towards alternative, health-oriented cafes, including organic, vegan, and macrobiotic food concepts. Non-smoking and artsy spaces, they seem to appeal to the young working women and mothers living in this largely residential neighborhood. Nishiogi has long been a town of privately run cafes, and with all the competition, every café has to create a singular atmosphere. Café Sing opened last year on Shinmei street about an 8-minute walk from the South Exit of Nishi-Ogikubo station and it is still searching to create its own special niche.
“I personally love going to cafés, eat good food and sweets, and spending time relaxing,” said the owner, Mayu Anraku. She took over this café space from her previous boss in May. There are counter seats and small tables, making it an inviting place to come alone to study or for a quiet conversation with a friend (or write articles for Nishiogiology). Local artists display their works on the walls or along shelves in the café, and music concerts are occasionally held on weekends.
Anraku grew up in Kagoshima. Early on she knew she wanted to be a pastry chef. “I had opportunities of making sweets with my mother since childhood. That made me feel like working in the field of confectionery, and I enrolled in a school for confectionery in Osaka. Then my sister moved to Tokyo, and I started working at Tokyo’s cake shop while living with her.”
In Tokyo, she began working at café “Trim,” the predecessor of Sing in this same space. The job at Trim was her reason for coming to Nishiogi. The owner at Trim was particular about using organic ingredients. He also runs “Khanam,” a small bakery South of Nishiogi Station that uses neither egg nor dairy products. Trim’s philosophy of macrobiotic food was a new challenge for Anraku. “I learned that ‘macrobiotic cooking,’ a way of cooking that does not use dairy products, is also delicious. I was used to baking cakes with a lot of butter, and I encountered Trim while I was studying these new ideas. Since Trim was looking for new staff, I joined it and worked for 3 years.”
When the owner of Khanam suddenly decided to close Trim for personal reasons, Anraku decided to take over the café under the new name Sing, while keeping all the interior fixtures and its commitment to organic and vegan foods. “I wondered what to do when Trim went out of business. Although I was looking for a new job, I decided to keep the café, since the rental contract was still valid.“ She added, “I was very lucky to open the café while borrowing everything from the previous owner.”
Even while working at Trim she started working on her menu, creating her own concept for the café while keeping many of Trim’s features. “I could have maintained the café as Trim when it went out of business, but I wanted to have more freedom.“ Like the bakery Khanam, whose products it also sold, Trim used only plant-based ingredients and foods that the former owner regarded as healthy. However, since Anraku used to bake wedding cakes, she thought of offering some decorative sweets that also use dairy and egg products.
In contrast to the more purist ethos of Trim, Anraku says she wants to create a place where everyone can visit freely. “There was limitation before since café Trim did not use egg and dairy products at all. So, I had this feeling that only a certain type of people could come here,” She explained. “One time, a customer with a soy milk allergy ate cake without noticing it and had an allergic reaction. Others asked for milk and said ‘You do not have milk for drinks?’ Then I had to cancel the order.”
So, Anraku said, she loosened up the concept a bit. “Now Sing still has the products we previously served, but I also like making cakes using dairy products. So I thought it is good if I can offer both.“ Adjusting the menu allows her to broaden her customer appeal and also to control the cost of some items on the menu.
The current menu uses the same flour, soy milk, oil, and sugar as Trim, while some new items use new ingredients. Half of the menu uses totally macrobiotic foods as did Trim, and the other half uses dairy products. The café had begun serving a brown rice salad plate lunch the day before we visited for an interview. “(Discussing the salad set menu) Guests are able to choose a muffin or quiche. Yesterday, I made a cake salé of salmon and cream cheese. Cake salé is a pound cake served as a meal, but it sold out already today,” she said.
She explained the unfamiliar concept of cake salé. “It looks like a pound cake. It is made with a batter of flour and cheese and rapeseed oil. I add cream cheese, salmon, and vegetables together.” Anraku uses her expertise from confectionery school and her experience of working in various cafés to create her own menu.
Sing attracts customers from both nearby and also outside the neighborhood. A fair number come to meet with family members who are visiting the medical clinic across the street. There are also foreign customers who come to Nishiogi just for vegan food. So she is trying to prepare an English menu.
According to Anraku, one of the merits of working in a café is that compared to a patisserie, you are able to more directly interact with customers. “Trim had an especially close distance with customers. I found it very ‘enjoyable’ while working. That made me want to keep working in such a café. Even if it were not my own shop, I thought this is the job that I would like to continue for a living.”
Anraku came up with the name of café Sing from the essay called “A song from the old days” (Itsuka Kita Uta) written by Makoto Wada. In this essay, Wada talks about the memories triggered by the hit song “Sing” which was popularized in Japan by the American brother-sister duo The Carpenters in the 1970s. “I found this book at a coffee shop and loved it. Then I looked for the book and purchased it in a used bookstore. …Originally, I liked this song ‘Sing.’” she explained.
Music concerts and small art exhibits were frequent at Trim. All these visits triggered conversations and connections among customers and with the staff, Anraku said. “It was a pleasure to meet many artists. In every visit, customers are able to see something different. Customers can interact when artists visit the café. I thought it would be a shame to lose such a place.“
Based on these experiences, Anraku hopes to create a where café each customer is able to spend a special time. “I am glad if customers can spend a relaxing time,” she said. “It creates a welcoming atmosphere when someone is inside. Because Sing is located a bit far from the station, the café is not full very often, people can just come in and hang out and feel at ease.”
More than most restaurants, a café is a product of its owner’s personality and imagination. The owners express their personal tastes through the design of the space, the music, and the menu. Customers are attracted to these personal tastes, become fans, and visit again. On the other hand, there can be great difficulties in establishing a form for these ideals. In Café Sing Anraku still is putting her place together piece by piece, and customers are finding their way to her door. (James Farrer and Mayuko Kawai, Feb. 5, 2020)
(Interview by James Farrer and Mayuko Kawai, June 5, 2019, transcription and translation by Mayuko Kawai, text by Mayuko Kawai and James Farrer, Japanese editing by Fumiko Kimura, copyright by James Farrer, all rights reserved).