This time my fear of missing out prevails, and I open the door, which minutes ago existed merely as a symbol, the or in an intense, repetitive narrative, to enter or not to enter. A faint smell of tobacco hits me, and I try to place it, hopping through my memory map of cigarette smells.
There are the fresh trails from my dad which used to wake me up on long car vacations; the heavy air that meets me when I enter a cab of a driver who smokes between rides; the stink of my hair after a night out, and the stink of my washed hair after that same night out; the reek evaporating from an ashtray filled with rain-soaked buds.
But it isn’t either of those, though. No, this smell is more ingrained, yet faded. And I picture a line of regulars sitting at the bar the evening before, and the one before that one, and the one before that one, chatting over sips of whiskey, too engaged to notice their cigarettes burning up in the trays in front of them.
The waitress gives me a suspicious look. And I hesitate. Every other day, the stench alone would’ve been enough for me to leave. But then she sets a glass of water down on the counter and hands me a wet towel. I ease and accept the offer, scrambling to remember the polite version of arigatō, arigatō gozaimasu–thank you.
The menu is handwritten on yellow sheets of paper with only the headers offering clues of the otherwise all-Japanese lines: Coffee, Arranged Coffee, and Coffee & Liqueur. It’s the same menu that I failed to decipher outside, which was pinned onto a corkboard next to the sign that had made me stop in the first place, OPEN. It was Arranged Coffee, though, whatever that meant, that had pulled me out of my inner monologue and into this space.
I make a final attempt and try to scan the ink with Google Translate, but the app doesn’t seem to know either what to make of that blot. Thus, I turn my attention to the glass jars in front of me, filled with coffee beans, and closed with rusty lids. And on those black-speckled silver covers, I discover stickers–some with tiny flags–that read Mocha, Brazil, Colombia, Kilimanjaro, Guatemala, American blend. And I think of those times that I was glued to my Google Maps, struggling to find out which direction to take, only to lift my head and stare right into a city sign labeled with my destination. Kilimanjaro, I point.
While the waitress goes on to prepare my order, I study the place. I find three frying pans hanging above a corner stove, three ice scoops, a whisk, a sieve, a keychain in the form of fish, and a cupboard with porcelain cups and saucers and crystal glasses. Being here feels familiar, like hovering at my grandma’s kitchen table, which makes it odd, since after all, I’m in Tokyo, and both my grandmas are dead. Yet, this sense of ease in the presence of strangers, usually women, isn’t new to me. And I know it’s her. I feel protected. Cradled. Enveloped in surrogate gestures of grandmotherly care, which I never experienced, or was too young to remember.
With my attention drawn to her, I pick up on her appearance. She’s wearing a white buttoned shirt and a black apron. Her hair is long and black and fixed into a ponytail with a black crunchy, fringe and all. I then notice that she’s preparing my coffee, not unlike they do in those hipster spots I like to visit. And I wonder if she knows that she’s serving specialty brews, albeit in a deserted cafe where no influencer would care to walk in, let alone pull out his phone. Then, right after she pours me a cup, I see that she kept a thin bottom of coffee for herself. She sips it with focus, like a sommelier sampling wine, and I know she knows something. It’s the best coffee I had in Tokyo.
Reluctant to let this scene go, and hoping to write about it someday, I pull out the notepad and pen I took from my hotel room. Yet, as I start documenting the subtleties, I realize I can never recommend this cafe to anyone. Not because you wouldn’t find what I found, but because you would find just that, nothing.
☕️ The Roastery By Nozy Coffee
Come for the coffee, in-house roasted beans, and grungy ambiance. Follow up with a walk or some shopping in Cat Street (my usual stops include the Burton store, AllSaints, and Japan Blue Jeans). Then return to Nozy for a second caffeine fix, and when you’re ready, take the flight of stairs up for an American lunch of slow-cooked BBQ meats, burgers, beers, and bourbon at the Smokehouse.
Cheeky fact: Nozy is the place where I discovered coffee. Yes, coffee.
🍵 Ippodo Tokyo Marunouchi Store
I propose you order the koicha, a thicker version of the regular matcha tea. When you give up slurping the dark, green mud, the staff will whisk the remainder into regular matcha. A seat at the window lets you watch the office crowds pass by. And this is also the place to buy high-grade matcha for back home. You can combine your visit with a stroll in the same tree-lined boulevard where the store is located, Naka-Dōri, and a stop at the Tokyo International Forum (the 7th floor makes for excellent views and photos). Or, you may want to head to The East Gardens of The Imperial Palace nearby.
🍺 Baird Beer Tap Room Harajuku
Settle at Baird for a pre-lunch pint. To get there, take Omotesando Street (ignore the shoppers, embrace the architecture) to the back alleys of Ura-Harajuku (use this spot as your orientation point). Hover in the pleasant hipsterdom that’s Ura-Hara before you breathe your way through the craze that’s Takeshita Street, comforted in the knowledge that your escape is near.
Kazami serves ramen with a broth made of clams and sake lees (and the usual pork and chicken). The flavors are elegant and beautiful. I can’t recommend much more in Ginza (although Kazami is worth the trip alone), but if you feel like an old-school martini, Y&M Bar Kisling is nearby and is bound to pull you straight into that Matrix space.
Sidenote: Other places to consider for ramen are Ichiran in Shinjuku; this is G’s favorite. And, Afuri in Ebisu. If you go to the latter, you can start with frozen sakes at Buri and finish with ice cream at Ice Ouca.
🥢 Gonpachi Nishiazabu
Because why wouldn’t you have dinner in the restaurant that inspired a set in Tarantino’s Kill Bill? If that’s not enough, though, the food is good too, and the menu has plenty of traditional dishes on offer. Pair with a late afternoon walk around 21 21 Design Sight, and a peek into The National Art Center.
You know chances are you’ll love a place when they ask you to take off your shoes at the entrance. Choose from a range of charcoal-grilled meats, cheeses, and veggies, and delight in the ambiance. For a cultural sidekick, you have the Mori Art Museum nearby, which opens until late in the evening on most days. And there’s also the craft beer bar, BrewDog Roppongi, serving an extensive list of European and Japanese beers on tap.
🗼 Daikanyamacho (start at Tsutaya Books Daikanyama), Nakameguro (start at Meguro River Promenade), and Yanaka Ginza
All three neighborhoods make for an enjoyable morning or afternoon of getting lost. Nakameguro and Daikanyamacho take a bit to wake up, so no need to get there very early. Yanaka Ginza, however, gets busy with tourists. If you arrive by 09:00, you’ll have some time to explore the hood minus the crowd. Make sure to check the back streets of Yanaka Ginza too, which are lined with temples and cemeteries (for example, Nansenji), and do also snap a photo from the top of the Yuyake Dandan stairs.