Japan’s Cafe Boom
(Originally posted: 8/12/08 ~ 8/25/08)
Nowadays in Japan they’re on every corner. And everyone has their favorite. They embody a certain hip, casual and chic lifestyle. But the café wasn’t always around. It’s actually a relatively recent phenomenon. This is a short history of the designers who started it all.
During the Summer of 1997, Bowery Kitchen emerged in a quiet upscale residential neighborhood, near Komazawa Olympic Park where the 1940 Tokyo Olympics were slated to occur, but were cancelled due to the war. The shop was designed by Ichiro Katami under the direction of Uichi Yamamoto, a charismatic duo who later would become known as the godfathers of contemporary interior design.
At the time there was nothing like it. Bowery Kitchen wasn’t a restaurant, nor was it a coffee shop. With its naked concrete walls and exposed wiring, its metallic interior and open kitchen, the industrial café was both ambiguous yet to the point. And it instantly met the needs of a niche group of people. At first it was mostly wealthy residents of the neighborhood, with their finely trimmed French poodles (pets were allowed inside), who adorned the tables. But word spread of this new concept and the crowds began lining up. Bowery Kitchen was once featured in BRUTUS magazine as “a shop that is worth waiting 1 hour to get in.” After that, you were lucky to get in within an hour.
Three years after Bowery Kitchen stole the hearts of Tokyoites, a second project by Ichiro Katami and Uichi Yamamoto, Lotus, opened its doors in Omotesando, just off of the main avenue lined with luxury boutiques. Yamamoto had recently taken a trip to New York and, upon returning, mentioned that New York offered its city dwellers so many options, a luxury that Tokyo did not have. Thus, Lotus was to become a Japanese eatery that one might find in New York.
The retro-futuristic interior is achieved through florescent-pink walls, a vaulted ceiling with bold lighting and lotus-paneled walls. Depending on what time – of year and of day – you visit Lotus (it’s open until 4am) you will probably have very different impression. Yamamoto believes that, like its customers, the restaurant is alive; it should change, much like its patrons change. The walls may get painted a different color, the menu may rotate depending on the season, and tables may get rearranged. However, the central theme remains the same.
Yamamoto once said that the chairs and tables were deliberately placed close together so as to create the environment of an energetic eatery. This can definitely be felt if you visit Lotus during later hours. The bicker of people next to you, shouting from the kitchen, and orders being announced over the speakers can almost be overwhelming. But the result was undisputed. Something had changed within the Japanese landscape of restaurants and interiors.
By 2002, cafes had sprung up across Japan, each taking hints from the other while trying to create the most original space. Eyes remained fixated on Ichiro Katami and Uichi Yamamoto, who were planning their 3rd project together. This time they were involving more people; fashion retailer JUN Group and graphic design company positron.
Katami and Yamamoto’s style continued to evolve, but their philosophy was solid. They believed that good design was necessary, but should not be overpowering. Design should be responsible for solving the little problems that make people slightly uncomfortable. Design should cause you to inhabit the space, making you come back and, even after the 10th visit, should make you say “I like this place.” During December of 2002, montoak opened its doors to much anticipation.
Located in Harajuku, the 3-story building boasts floor to ceiling windows and glamorous interiors with black leather seating. Much like their previous designs, details are calculated and deliberate. There is no sign or menu outside, giving the café a snobbish and arrogant feel. Upon entering you are greeted with a “Hello,” a shocking deviation for the traditional and ultra-polite welcoming.
Seating by the windows is bright and casual, while the inner depths of the café are dark and romantic. The 3rd floor is the most glamorous of all, but at night there is a cover charge.
At a time when Harajuku – known for its rockabilly dancers and cosplay teenagers – was fighting for its identity, Katami and Yamamoto successfully identified the needs of group of individuals, and filled that gap using an appropriate, and perhaps necessary, design.
To conclude my series on Tokyo’s Café boom, I’d like to show a more recent work by Ichiro Katami and Uichi Yamamoto. SO TIRED opened in April of 2006 in the business district of Marunouchi. The concept was to create a church-like atmosphere where businessmen can relax after (or during) a hard days work. The stained glass is a nice touch that creates a unique environment, very uncommon to Japan. But what’s even more impressive are the chairs. If you look closely you’ll notice that on the rear of the chairs there is a bible holder. These are actual church chairs imported from Europe.
SO TIRED serves a blend of Cantonese and Western cuisine. And, quite contrary to what the name suggests, high-octane woks and energetic staffers characterize the general feel of the shop.
The design is comforting, but not too noisy or overpowering, something that the 2 designers emphasize in all of their work.
Since 1997 to the present, their stores have been met with enthusiastic intrigue. Is it a coffee shop? Is it a restaurant? That ambiguity was probably what was needed to interfere with the rigid structure of day-to-day Japanese lifestyle. That ambiguity was probably what was so relaxing about cafes, and what kept people coming back. Ichiro Katami and Uichi Yamamoto possessed the foresight to identify the needs of Japanese consumers, proposing solutions through elegantly designed cafes. Perhaps that, over their artistic skills, was the true genius behind the duo.
That concludes my piece on the Japanese Cafe boom. If you are interested in visiting any of these cafes I’ve created a google map that lists them.