I was down in SoHo yesterday evening to check out a clearance sale happening at a Taschen retail store. You may think you haven’t heard of Taschen, but in truth you probably have – they’re a Germany-based publisher of art and design books, and have a fairly distinctive style of book design consistent across nearly all of their publications. In any case, though many of the books at the store were surprisingly cheap, none were what I had gone hoping for (Japan art/design books, of course), so I left Taschen and went off in search of dinner.
I am not so familiar with SoHo, so I didn’t know where to go or where to look, but just wandered, keeping my eyes out for anything that looked good. Broadway (near Prince), along with many of the surrounding streets, is loaded with clothing stores and boutiques – from H&M, Uniqlo, Louis Vuitton, and Banana Republic to smaller, smaller-name shops. Exploring out a tiny bit further, I found plenty of bars and slightly upscale restaurants. But none of these was a place I’d feel comfortable going and sitting by myself and reading a book. Table for one, please. It takes a special type of establishment for that to not be awkward or out-of-place. Also, since the whole reason I was down there looking for dinner instead of just rushing home was so that I could try to partake a tiny bit in the experience of being in New York, I wasn’t going to just settle for Subway or a pizzeria. There are hundreds (thousands?) of wonderful, different, special, unique, interesting eateries in New York, and if I couldn’t find one, I was not going to go somewhere so totally standard (or sub-standard).
Then, just as I was about to give up and head home, I came upon Hiroko’s Place. The menu features such items as omuraisu, Japanese curry rice (kare-raisu), melon soda ice cream floats (クリームソーダ), spaghetti with tarako sauce, and green tea parfaits. A bookshelf near the entrance is loaded up with Japanese-language manga for guests to peruse. The walls are covered with amateur sketches of geisha and little girls, many of them in a style reminiscent of the edginess of Yoshitomo Nara. The tables, floor, and overall decor are dark wood, the chairs an eclectic mix. Boxes of Pocky, Hi-Chew, and other Japanese sweets/snacks line the counter. And the Japanese-speaking waitresses call out sweetly “Irasshaimase!” as you walk in the door. Yes, this is the perfect place to sit, have a good meal, and to relaxedly take my time, over tea or a parfait, as I continue making my way through Luke Roberts’ new book.
There are plenty of excellent Japanese establishments in New York (and plenty of not so good ones), but Hiroko’s Place takes it a step further in terms of authenticity and inspiring a feeling of natsukashisa (nostalgia). Sitting there, I could almost forget that I’m in New York, and not in Kyoto, or in Shimo-Kitazawa. There is no one element that makes it so special, but rather the overall look and feel of Hiroko’s Place just seems pittari (spot-on), just like the café/restaurants one might discover in certain neighborhoods throughout Japan.
I wish Hiroko’s Place were located in a neighborhood I more regularly frequent. It is a true Third Place – somewhere you spend time outside of home or work/school – or has the potential to be such, and outside of cookie-cutter corporate places like Starbuck’s, I find these to be surprisingly rare; the atmosphere and style of the place invites one to relax, take your time, reading, doing work, chatting with friends, or just hanging out in an environment that’s something of an escape from the outside world, and from time and responsibilities. There’s something about the place that makes it feel like you’re truly a “guest”, and it feels like a more cultural, more artsy, more ideal place than the mundane world outside. Like it exists in a world where the ideals of beautiful, relaxing cafés can be more real than they apparently can outside.
The decor, the menu options, and various other aspects of Hiroko’s Place remind me of countless places I’ve been to in Japan. But in terms of this particular point of the oh-so-special feel of the atmosphere, it reminds me in particular of Sarasa, a café/restaurant I discovered in northern Kyoto, a few blocks from the house I stayed in two summers ago. In the end, I only went to Sarasa twice, but it felt very much like the kind of place I would want to make a regular part of my life, and to become a regular at.
Sarasa also has shelves of manga, and like Hiroko’s Place, this is not a corporate space, not sleek and shiny and mass produced. Rather than the sterile feeling of a chain restaurant, it feels more human, and more real, like real people actually went out to vintage furniture shops or something and picked what they liked – that personal taste, more so than corporate market research, determined the look and feel of the place. I don’t know the story behind Sarasa, if it used to be a bathhouse, or if it still is, or if it only looks like one. But, like a bathhouse, or a ski lodge, it has a feeling of a gathering place where people come and spend time in a common space. It feels like a place to spend time, rather than a place where you come to eat, pay, and leave. Even in the heat of the summer, in the middle of the city, the blue tile walls and unfinished wood furnishings somehow reminded me of a ski lodge – not that I’ve ever actually been to one – and of the feeling of escaping the cold snowy outdoors, retreating here after a long day outdoors, to pass the remaining hours of the evening relaxedly, reading or chatting, and just enjoying the physical proximity of strangers doing the same.
Of course, there are a great multitude of things I love about Kyoto – from its historical sites to its art galleries & museums, traditional crafts, traditional performing arts, natural beauty, bikeableness, and traditional architecture – but the fact that Kyoto is filled with cafés like Sarasa, like Café Bibliotic Hello, and eFish (the last of which I have not yet written about) is high on my list. It is places like these that help make Kyoto feel so much more human, more welcoming, more livable, that make it a place I would want to live and not just to visit. A city where I can bike to my favorite café, where I am a regular, and sit and do reading or homework of whatever sort, and just relax and savor the fact that I am living “the life” as it were. Rather than just running around as a tourist trying to see as much as I can as quickly as I can.
I eagerly look forward to the next time I get to live in Kyoto for a spell, so I can go more regularly to places like Sarasa, and maybe someday live or work in SoHo, so that I can go to Hiroko’s Place as well more regularly.
What are some of your favorite cafés that you’ve been to?