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Posts Tagged ‘cafe’

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?

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Why I have not been doing this all along is a mystery, but I think it’s about time I start porting over some of my blog posts from my personal private blog to here. While I generally try to keep Chaari about art, history, and such, and to avoid talking about my own personal stuff (friends, classes, etc.), as long as I’m in Kyoto, there are plenty of exploration adventures which sort of straddle that line and belong here just as much (especially since I feed on comments and feedback and knowing I’m being read and loved).

So, to start off, a nice café I discovered a week or so ago (Sunday 6/27 to be exact).

Every now and then, one has a day in the city that feels like it could quite match one of those suggested days in the guidebooks. First, go here, then have lunch here, then take a relaxing walk here, and finish up with this and this. That sort of day. Beautiful, relaxing, fun, and just plain wonderful.

Suffice it to say we had a very nice day. Woke up in the morning and noted that it was sunny and not raining outside! Wooo. After getting some homework done and otherwise recovering from last night’s escapades, I ran into one of my housemates and we quickly decided to head out to catch maiko dances at the Museum of Traditional Crafts.

The museum was gorgeous – very sleek, clean, modern, brightly lit. Not at all cheesy and tacky like the Kyoto Handicrafts Center we went to with the program, nor dark and crowded like the major museum exhibits (e.g. the Nara Nat’l Museum) we had been to, where the crowd basically forces you to move gradually, in single file, along the cases. Plus, to my surprise, the maiko dancing were actual maiko, from an actual geisha house, not museum staff or something like that. The dance was quite short, shorter in fact than the brief explanation of the seasonal clothes and jewelery the maiko were wearing, but it was still quite nice, and interesting.

There was the opportunity for hands-on crafts activities – today was apparently yûzen dyeing. You could made a pair of coasters for 600 yen, or other things for just a bit more. It was quite tempting, as I find stencil dyeing surprisingly interesting as something I’d want to try. The atmosphere there, too, was far less tacky and touristy, and far less “for-profit tourist trap” than the Handicrafts Center. Why we went to that Handicrafts Center instead of to this Trad. Crafts Museum or to one of Alex Kerr’s Origins programs is really beyond me.

Had lunch at Restaurant Ukifune, just upstairs from the museum in Miyako Messe. Beautiful atmosphere, looking out over the garden and the street. Felt like the kind of up-to-date sleek, modern, well-lit, high-class museum café you’d find at MoMa or something, except that the prices were fully reasonable. I had a delicious bowl of udon with yuba and lots of other fixings for just 800 yen.

Finally, after exploring Heian Jingû and its gardens briefly, we made our way to Café Bibliotec HELLO!, which was in my friend’s guidebook, and which is located on Nijô-dôri, just east of Yanagi-banba-dôri.

After biking around a little bit trying to find it, we almost gave up, but I am so glad we didn’t. This place was wonderful, just precisely the kind of atmosphere and aesthetic that I expect and desire from the modern side of Kyoto. That is, it’s no 400-year-old teahouse; it’s very much a 21st century heavily-Western-inspired café. But it is beautiful in its hardwood design, quirkly different areas – each section of the shop having different types of chairs and hence a different feel. There’s a big table for about 10, with a small potted tree and flowers in the center; small tables for parties of two; a couch or two or three; and a table upstairs for the slightly removed, isolated, VIP experience.



The menu was also quite nice, with quite a few kinds of teas, chais, tea lattes and the like, in addition to various coffee drinks.

I had a mint steamed milk, which was lovely, and an order of French toast with fruit, which was very nicely arranged, and nothing at all like the sort of plain, as-is, “you want French toast? here’s French toast” one would expect from a US diner, no style, just straight up. If I were living here more permanently, I just might want to make myself a regular there. (Though there are so many other places to try.)

The photos don’t quite do the place justice. But click through on any of the photos to my Flickr pages for a bit more on my thoughts on the café.

The rainy season seems to be coming to a close; the intolerably hot and humid season seems to be beginning. Fortunately it started raining just as we got home from the café.

More ported posts on my travels to come.

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