Behind flagship stores hawking big-name luxury brands and hidden in the back streets of Tokyo’s shopping district of Omotesando is a café that almost isn’t there — unless you are looking for it.
Omotesando Koffee is a pop-up café residing in a 60-year old traditional Japanese house. The café is easy to miss as there are no signages. That’s part of the charm, really. Outside, the house is all wood, bamboo and thatch.
We enter through a small courtyard arranged like a Zen garden, the pebbles crunching softly beneath our soles. The foliage consists of small pots of bonsai and their full-size cousins growing from the earth. A wind chime rings softly in the breeze.
We haven’t been here five seconds and already we feel at peace. There’s a long, low bench, perfect for sitting on and meditating. But where’s the coffee?
Look inside. In what would usually be the front hall of the house, resting on hardwood floors and framed by a series of fusuma panels, is a spare cube-shaped structure: the café.
We soon discern that the cube is a recurring theme – there are square patterns everywhere if you look closely. For owner cum coffee consultant Eiichi Kunitomo, the square represents a kiosk, a minimum of space needed to make good coffee and easily transportable elsewhere.
Once the lease runs out (the house is destined for demolition), Kunitomo dreams of disassembling the café and reconstructing it in different locations around the world. How transient this space is, and so it is with life!
Miki the barista, neatly attired in a white short-sleeved shirt, greets us welcome in Japanese and then some English when we falter in his native tongue. While many of Tokyo’s cafés have typically focused on drip coffee, here at Omotesando Koffee, espresso is king.
Little wonder this as Kunitomo has a wealth of coffee experience under his belt, including setting up the popular Bread, Espresso &. close by as well as overseeing Tokyo’s first Monocle Café. For the Omotesando Koffee house blend, Kunitomo chose beans from Ethiopia, Brazil, Indonesia and El Salvador. Roasting is done in Kyoto by the famous Ogawa.
Using a La Cimbali machine, Miki takes his time pulling an espresso shot. He couldn’t have more than 3 x 3 metres of space to work in but our barista is relaxed and unhurried.
There has been a lot of hoopla about latte art recently, especially intricate designs or gravity-defying 3D constructions. Yet when we observe how Miki carefully foams milk then lifts the cup of coffee up in one hand and slowly combines the yin-yang brew, we realise what true latte art is. Here, before us, the barista is meditating. He pours with awareness.
The resultant cappuccino is not a gaudy masterpiece — no image of cats chasing after fishes here. Instead a simple rosetta formed with a quiet heart and served with a smile on his gentle face. This is more than a caffeinated beverage; this is an offering to a guest.
We thank Miki and take our coffees out to the garden. Sipping slowly, we take in the greenery and the silence that surrounds us. My espresso has a chocolaty sweetness with a smooth body, a very clean cup. The cappuccino has a velvety mouthfeel: delightful.
Rather than a big slice of cheesecake, too rich for the heavy summer afternoon, we share a cube — what other shape would do? — of kashi, their signature baked custard treat. Taken with coffee, it’s a sublime tease of crème brûlée and espresso. One bite, two, all gone. And it’s enough.
This café is not a temple but sit here a while, take your time with your coffee, and you too will be suffused with a sense of serenity. Nothing lasts forever, and in time, this café will no longer exist.
Every cup will remind us to be present in each moment and live in the now.
4-15-3, Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, Japan