When I decided to move to Japan I had many concerns. One of which was, “Will I be able to get a decent cup of coffee there?” I thought I would be immersed into a land of mysterious and ancient teas, but to my surprise coffee shops far out number teahouses here in the Tokyo area. Actually, teahouses are as rare here as they are back in the states. This is most noticeable as you look across the city’s horizon you can easily spot many coffee shop signs, including the Japanese idea of a popular and fashionable cafe called Sta-ba. Or Starbucks as we know it back home.
Whichever cafe you decide to visit, you may be surprised to find that Cafe culture is a little different as I explained in, Marking Your Spot. Now I would like to tell you about my attempt to mark, ‘My Own Spot’.
After carefully watching how Japanese people get seats in their very crowded cafes I felt somewhat confident that I could do it. I had to do it, for sitting down with a cup of coffee what my favorite past time. It was more than just a past time; it was a way of life.
I entered the cafe and quickly spotted the perfect table. I walked up to it and proudly placed my belongings on one of the chairs and made my way to the counter and ordered. My timing was impeccable, my technique cool, smooth and accurate. “This wasn’t so bad,” I thought to myself. As I waited for my fresh brewed coffee and dessert I noticed that other people in line were staring at me. It’s not uncommon for Japanese people to stare at strangers, especially foreigners, but this felt different. I thought I had done something wrong or someone had made of with my things? But, I was wrong. Instead to my disbelief there was a small group of people sitting at MY table and my things and the chair that they rested on had been pushed into the middle of the aisle.
I wasn’t prepared for this. I had no experience on how to handle this situation. So, I thought that there might have been some kind of misunderstanding. Perhaps they had not seen my belongings or perhaps someone else might have pushed my things into the aisle. Maybe they just didn’t realize. So, I approached the table and politely explained to them in Japanese and accompanying hand gestures that I had marked this table as my own, just as everyone else does in Japan. It was then that the three older ladies all looked up at me, as if I had done something wrong. There was a brief and tense moment until one of the ladies replied, “Ki-ni-shi-nai.” Meaning, ” I don’t care.”
Standing at Tokyo Cafe
At that moment many ideas ran through my mind and a small crowd was starting to form around me and I felt that I must do something, but what? Perhaps I should completely lose it and throw my coffee in their faces and watch them scream in agonizing pain, but then I remembered that I ordered an iced latte. Then I thought I should make my plastic fork into a weapon and create a scene much like those found in a prison movie. But before I could even begin to think of how to create such a weapon, the person at the next table got up from their seat and left. Leaving me the perfect opportunity to redeem my self-esteem. No one would dare try to take my new established territory seeing that my manhood was on the line. So, I finally sat down to my coffee.
When I told my friends of this story, they all laughed. Unknowingly, the rules of claiming your domain in a cafe do not apply to older women in Japan.
Please don’t get me wrong. I have always considered myself a gentleman of sorts. I willingly open doors for women and often give up my seat on the subway, and bus. But, older women or oh-ba sans as they are referred to here, are much more different than anything I have experienced back home. If you cross their path they will push, shove or hit you at the drop of a hat. Of the social hierarchy they are the most feared next to roving thugs and gangsters.
They usually travel in packs of three or more, but are just as potent by themselves. They are not concerned with the taste of coffee or the aroma. Nor are they interested in the ambience, caffeine buzz or even the people in the cafe. The reason they come to the cafe is to get out of the house and exert their powers on innocent victims. It is not uncommon for these groups of women to sit down at a table, whether it’s occupied or not, with one cup of coffee for four hours or more. In some areas they completely dominate the local cafes causing certain death to the cafe owners.
Sitting at Tokyo Cafe
As I sit down at my seat in one of the most crowded areas of central Tokyo. Where the most ruthless cafe-goers can be found I am proud to say that I crossed their paths and was able to live and tell about it. And as I finish my decent cup of coffee, I get up and watch people scuttle and dash for my seat I smile to myself, then pass through the crowd and make my way to the door. It’s then that I see a fellow foreigner remarking to his friend, “Sure is crowded, How do you get a seat around here?”