My day begins a blank slate, exploring my childhood home in anticipation of discovering creative hubs, cafés and odd gems throughout a crowded and active city. This is Tokyo; a place that is often misunderstood for its comic book stories and game show personality. It is home to an evolved yet consistent culture that stems from deep roots of tradition, simplicity and artful intentionality; a truly minimalist lifestyle that constantly seeks to refine and better itself and its crafts.
As I walk through the city and travel from train to train, I remember this incongruous sense of quiet beauty and fluidity amidst a thriving and fast-paced society. A feeling and perception that, despite the many places to which I’ve traveled, has remained unmatched.
My husband and I approach what looks to be half of a building, with only a vague understanding that it is a coffee shop based on a last-minute referral from a friend and the handful of coffee mugs displayed in the window. We enter to find a two-person seating arrangement, a cramped kitchen area, quirky vintage decorations and the wonderfully thick aroma of coffee wafting about the tiny hole-in-the-wall.
We order their house blend from a small menu booklet, and the tedious four-to-six minute coffee process commences. Eventually, we find the resulting dark cup of coffee to be just as robust, flavorful and delightful as the overall experience. Generally speaking, the Japanese extraction process of coffee beans tends to produce a bolder and stronger cup than what is typically served in American coffee houses.
Later, we make our way south of Tokyo to Kamakura, an old city known for its beaches, temples, traditional businesses and merchandise. We come across a door beneath a bridge with a sign that reads “SJO Coffee: Open”.
We’re enticed inside by intrigue. A young Japanese gentleman greets us from behind a counter in a small gothic-style room followed by a hallway that contains four victorian-style seats.
We order their unique coffee blend, and after observing an even more meticulous drip process than the previous location, we find ourselves drawn to the care and attention put into each handcrafted cup of blended coffee.
This way of life and approach to business can only be described in one word: kaizen. Kaizen is the Japanese practice for continuous improvement, a philosophy which I have encountered during my travels that encompasses Japanese culture and success. It is the understanding that each aspect of daily life deserves the care and intentionality to improve. A key to kaizen is the discipline and deep dedication to one’s craft, something that transcends success measured by numbers, something that I believe has been lost in our tenacious pursuit of prosperity.
An inclination toward the unique is characteristic of Japan. We notice this trait heavily at play as we come across additional cafés throughout our three-week journey. At one in particular, an enormous bamboo piece of art surrounds its two-story business building. This specific o-mise (shop) boasts a tobacco and pipe bar that serves naturally-made drinks with a cigar room and library upstairs. We enter the building, taking in different pipe tobacco scents and hints of fresh ginger (which is used in the creation of a house ginger ale), and then find ourselves relaxing in the library’s seating area.
Yet another illustration is a café called Copen, which serves all-natural, high-quality Mexican cuisine and displays authentic Copen cars in the tall, glass-paneled walls of their building. There isn’t a corner in which natural light doesn’t shine. With minimalistic elements of wooden tables, cacti and luxurious cars, it is a sight to admire.
I learn much from this three week tour of Japan; a shift in focus, if you will. That I grew up in a beautiful country, populated by a graceful people with diverse individuality. That artistry is easy to overlook when it is so readily available. And that it is this refinement of mind that allows the purity of a craft or idea to be the true treasure.