A Ten Dollar Cup of Coffee In Tokyo

In the 1980’s, when the economy of Japan roared like a lion, Americans returning from Japan would shock their friends by telling them that a cup of coffee in Tokyo costs ten dollars. Ironically, it was probably the introduction of Starbucks into Tokyo in the late-1990’s that eventually drove the cost of a decent cup of coffee down below five dollars. Today, with a Starbucks in every neighborhood, Japanese cafes like Tully’s and Doutor at every train station, and gourmet coffee sold even at local combini, cheap coffee is literally a few paces from anywhere you might be. So imagine my surprise when I sat down at the rustic wooden counter at Bon in Shinjuku, opened the menu and found a ten dollar cup of coffee on the menu.

To be more accurate, 1,080 yen, not quite ten dollars at today’s exchange rate, but a couple years ago, closer to twelve dollars. And not just one cup of coffee, but a half dozen different cups of coffee ranging from 1,080 to 1,400 yen. There was even something called “Coffee Service” on the menu that was priced well over thirty dollars.

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On any other day, I would have given the barista an embarrassed smile and quickly excused myself to the nearest Mister Donut, where I could get coffee and a half a dozen donuts for that price. But I had purposely sought out Bon, intrigued by a short article I found in a coffee mook (a “mook” in Japan is a magazine-book). The current crop of Tokyo cafes are hipster-minimalist with unfinished wood tables and exposed pipe in the ceilings. Bon looked like a cafe right out of the 1960’s; from the photos it was almost like you could smell the smoky aroma of cigarettes seeping out of the aged oak counter and shelves. I had to experience it for myself.

In my younger days I played a Nintendo game called “Animal Crossing” where you play a human character living in a town where all your neighbors are animals. In the basement of the museum of your town was The Roost, a dark little cafe run by a pigeon named Brewster. The more you frequent The Roost, the more you realize what a terrific barisa Brewster is. This is sort of how I imagined Bon. After all, I was standing on the sidewalk outside the cafe for several minutes before I recognized the kanji on the sign and decended the steep dark stairs into the shop.

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I ordered the Brazilian coffee from the several different ten dollar types on the menu and watched as the barista ground the beans and made an expert pour-over with the little volcano of grounds forming in the middle of the filter. Minutes later, a small pot of coffee (which was closer to 1.5 cups) was set in front of me along with one of the hundreds of unique cups Bon has on its shelves (which I would later learn was more than 1500). A tray with a bowl of coarse sugar and chilled cream was also provided.

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I would like to be able to say that Bon’s ten dollar coffee was the best I’ve ever had. In truth, it was merely good, better than the overrated Blue Bottle in San Francisco but not as good as little Ekoda Coffee down the street from our church. However, I will say it was the best ten dollar cup of coffee I’ve ever had. And hopefully, the only one.

Our First Cat Cafe – Eko Neko

We first read about the Japanese cat cafes months before we came to Tokyo and our daughter, the animal lover in the family, was immediately on top of it. Our plan was to go to a cat cafe in Ikebukuro, but less than stellar reviews from our neighbor (most cats were sleeping and the ones that were awake weren’t playful) changed our plans. Fortunately, while standing on the train platform at the station we use to go to church, I noticed an advertisement for a cat cafe near the station. My 10+ years of casual Japanese language study suddenly paid off big time for my daughter! The name of the cafe was “Eko Neko” with “Eko” short for Ekoda, the train station, and “Neko” meaning cat in Japanese. Well played.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with cat cafes, which I assume would be 99% of you, let me explain the concept to you. It differs somewhat from what you might think of when you hear “cat cafe”, which personally gave me visions of sipping a latte with a cat on my lap and a beret on my head with French music playing in the background. The stress of the cat cafe is more on the CAT and less on the cafe. In fact, the particular cat cafe we went to dispensed with the baristas in favor of a coffee machine selling pretty generic coffee.

We arrived in the middle of the afternoon and were greeted at the door by one of the two ladies working there. With my rudimentary language skills, I was able to understand that many of the cats were sleeping at this time of the day and we could not wake them up to play with them. Would this be okay? I relayed the message to my daughter, and she agreed it would be fine. The woman then welcomed us inside and asked us to remove our shoes in the genkan (entry).

Once inside, she went over the rules of the house, also all written in Japanese. The cost was 1,100 per person for the first hour and 500 yen for every additional 30 minutes. The initial cost included one drink, coffee or a soft drink from a little fridge by the front door. We opted for the soft drink on this hot humid summer day. As previously mentioned, we could not bother or wake up sleeping cats. There were little cats (maybe kittens, or just small cats, I wasn’t clear on that) that could not be picked up, but bigger cats could be picked up carefully if they didn’t resist. We could take photos, but no flash. Once the rules were properly explained, we were given a squirt of the ubiquitous Japanese hand sanitizing liquid, we picked out our drinks and found a seat on inside.

About 30 cats live at Eko Neko but as we were warned, 25 of them were sleeping when we came in. I always suspected cats were lazy creatures, but this proved my suspicions. Fortunately, the 5 or so cats that were awake were very friendly and playful. I sat down on the bench and went to open my soft drink when a little calico walked right up to me and jumped into my lap and lay down, purring like a lawn mower. He was so adorable, I put my drink down and spent the next 5 minutes or so stroking him and scratching behind his ears. My daughter went to work on the large collection of cat toys and started a “chase the toy” game with another adorable little cat while the cat on my lap watched comfortably.

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The 30 cats who call Eko Neko their home.

Over the next 40 minutes or so, we had the whole place to ourselves. Granted, it was a room about the size of a large living room in a Japanese home, but it was all ours. Around us, in comfy little beds or platforms on rafters built near the ceiling, a couple dozen other cats dozed the afternoon away while we played with their friends. Over time, a few more cats stirred from their sleep and woke up. Some decided to join in the play, including an adorable little kitten named Lulu (or “Ruru”, based on the hiragana) who loved chasing the little “mouse” on a string. Some simply moved from one bed to another, watched the action nonchalantly for a few minutes, and went back to sleep. Another cat decided my lap looked comfortable and jumped up into it, demanding a back rub and head scratch.

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After 40 minutes, a couple joined us in the cafe. By now, about 8 or 9 cats were awake so there were plenty for the 4 of us to play with. Soon our hour was over and we went to the counter to pay for our fun. At the counter, the woman gave us rolling lint brushes to remove the cat hair from our clothing and another squirt of the anti-bacterial hand cleaner. I assumed the lint brush is mainly for those salarymen who secretly want to play with cats on their lunch break but don’t want cat hair on their suits giving away their secrets.

You may think $11 an hour is pretty steep for a soft drink and an hour of playing with cats, and in fact, you may be right. But I have to admit these were some of the most adorable, friendly cats I had ever played with. I’m not much of a cat person, but there’s something about cats at a cat cafe that changed my mind about cats.

In all seriousness, I can understand the attractiveness of such a place in a city like Tokyo. After dealing with millions of strangers every day on the trains, streets, and public spaces of the city, interaction with cute, loving animals is something people can look forward to. There is nothing you have to do to earn the attention of these animals; they literally throw themselves into your laps when you arrive. For some people, that is the kind of love they are craving. This is likely the reason for the sudden explosion of dog ownership in Tokyo over the past decade or so.

Our prayer is that rather than using animals as sources of love and affection, the citizens of Tokyo would find out that there is a God who loves them unconditionally. Unlike a pet’s love, His love for us redeems us, gives us a life that has true meaning and purpose. God’s love for them (and all of us) is as a father has for his children; He would give anything for them. If the love of a pet seems to be fulfilling, the love of God is infinitely more, transforming us into what we were born to be.

 

All Things Japanese – Rent-a-Pet

This $3,000 kitten is a good example of why pet rental is a great idea.

One of the things we’ve been fortunate to have this past year is a friend who brings her cuddly little Pomeranian over to play every once in a while. When I say “we”, I mean my daughter in particular. Since our dog passed away last summer and we had no desire to get another one, our “part-time puppy” was a godsend for our animal loving daughter. Now she can get her fix of puppy kisses and snuggling and we don’t have to worry about what to do with a dog when we go on long trips over the summer (or, as it has happened, move to Japan next year).

But moving to Japan does mean a sad goodbye to our furry little part-time houseguest, which I am sure is going to break the heart of our daughter, even if it’s temporary. Thankfully, Japan already has a solution for people like us who can’t or don’t want to own their own pets: pet rental.

Pet rental is extremely popular and makes a lot of sense in a big city like Tokyo. Many people rent apartments where dogs are not allowed by the landlords. Other people simply don’t have enough room for a pet, or they are working long Japanese hours and don’t have time to take care of a pet full-time. There’s a lot of good reasons people can’t own a pet, and the enterprising business people of Japan are ready to fill the need with various ways to provide you with a part time furry friend.

The most common form of pet rental are animal cafes, which are places you can hang out, have a snack or drink and interact with the dozen or so animals that live at the cafe. The most common animal cafe is the cat cafe, but there are also rabbit cafes and in Yokohama, a reptile cafe, should your tastes deviate that way.

Nekorobi is a cat cafe in the neighborhood of Ikebukuro, not too far from where we expect to live, so my daughter is already making plans for us to visit there on a regular basis. Nekorobi also has an English website and lots of photos and videos of their adorable tenants, so she can get to know something about each of them even before we get there.

Dogs are also rentable in Japan, though not so much in a cafe setting. However, there are shops that allow you to rent a dog for an hourly rate and take it for a walk or to play in the park. Our daughter is unaware of this option, and we intend to keep it that way for as long as possible.

Rentable pets is another aspect of Tokyo that will keep us from getting homesick about things left behind in America. Now if I can find a place that sells Mexican tortillas, we’re all set.

By the way, the kitten in the picture above is one my daughter fell in love with at a pet store in Odaiba. And yes, the price tag was 300,000 yen or $3,000. Though not a typical price for a kitten in Japan, it sure makes cat cafes seem like pure genius for the parents of cat-crazed little girls.