Step back in time at a Showa-era ‘jun-kissa’ cafe

Nao Yako

TOKYO (THE JAPAN NEWS/ANN) – The unique menus and retro interior decor at some of the nation’s Showa-era kissaten coffee shops only add to their mystique. Dubbed jun-kissa — or authentic coffee shops — the nostalgic atmosphere in such establishments exudes a sense of refinement that draws customers in.

I met with Rina Nanba, a company employee who said that exploring jun-kissa is part of her “life’s work” and has written books about them, at one such coffee shop in Arakawa Ward, Tokyo.

As we opened the door of Coffee Only, 81-year-old owner Hiroaki Nakano greeted us with a warm smile.

Coffee and light meals are typically served at jun-kissa. Nanba uses the term jun-kissa to describe coffee shops that have operated since the Showa era (1926-89) and retain the atmosphere of the period. She said she has visited 2,000 such coffee shops across the country.

The original interior decor and furniture at Coffee Only haven’t changed since it opened in 1970, with its hand-operated cash register and rotary dial telephone still in use.

The interior of Coffee Only in Arakawa Ward, Tokyo. PHOTO: THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN

It felt as if time had slowed while sitting there, perched on the cafe’s leather chairs with music from the radio providing a gentle soundtrack.

After glancing over the handwritten menu on the wall, I opted for pancakes and coffee.

“The tools, kinds of beans and pancakes are the same as they’ve always been,” Nakano said while brewing the coffee in a siphon coffee pot over an open flame. “The prices may have changed, but the taste has remained the same for decades.”

The gentle sweetness of the thick, moist pancake perfectly complemented the bitterness of the coffee.

“Many items served at jun-kissa seem possible to make at home, but if you tried, you’d soon realise how difficult it is to replicate the taste. Then you realise that this is the work of a pro,” Nanba said.

Admiring the quirky interiors at jun-kissa is a joy in itself.

A retro jun-kissa near Shinbashi Station in Minato Ward, Tokyo, features a huge photo of Mt Fuji on its wall. Having a quiet coffee in the establishment, which is aptly named Fuji, while gazing at the iconic mountain makes your daily woes disappear.

The cafe has retained its atmosphere despite having undergone renovations, including the addition of power outlets so that customers can charge their mobile phones or laptops.

“I want people (who visit jun-kissa) to appreciate not only the decor but also the different menu offerings, including such classic items as floats,” Nanba said. “It’s great that younger people have been visiting jun-kissa, in addition to the regular clientele (who tend to be older).”

With permission from the owners, some customers have even started taking photos inside the cafes. While photos are a great memento, Nanba prefers collecting the branded matchboxes often found at such establishments.

The matchboxes come in a variety of styles, reflecting the characteristics of each store, and typically carry the name and address of the coffee shop, making them the perfect way to remember your visit.