Japan was once known for its $10 cups of coffee and other seeming extravagances. While those days have gone–decent coffee can now be had for less than a dollar and a half–, with it has gone the slow life that the owner-operated coffee shop represented.
Well, not entirely.
Here and there one can still find a coffee shop where the coffee is fastidiously roasted, blended and prepared to perfection; where coffee is more than mere refreshment. And often the prices are competitive. Coffee Flag, a small shop in the Kochi town of Yusuhara, is one such place.
The shop is an airy, comfortable space with a bar and a few tables. The front window is dominated by the coffee roaster.
Proprietor Kenji Yamaguchi is a native of Yusuhara whose first career was in mobile phone production. When Japan’s prowess in that industry was superseded by overseas competitors, he recognized the need to remake his career and decided to play to his passion: coffee. He spend a year studying in Tokyo in order to be accredited as a “Coffee Meister” by the Specialty Coffee Association of Japan. He then returned to Yusuhara eight years ago to open Coffee Flag, a move that also enabled him to be available for his aging parents.
Kenji sources beans from around the world, which he roasts and blends himself. Using these beans, he offers his patrons a variety of excellent coffees. He grinds beans only upon receiving an order, and is careful to clear the grinder of the residue of the previous grounds before proceeding. Nothing should interfere with ensuring that his customers receive exactly the cup of coffee ordered.
He is equally meticulous when preparing the coffee, ensuring that the water temperature is exactly right as he pours it over the freshly ground beans to drip into a small pot. When the coffee has been prepared, he pours a small amount into his own tasting cup and takes a sip to ensure that it has just the right flavor. Once the coffee has passed his taste test, it is poured into a delicate Noritake cup and placed on a saucer to be served to the customer.
The end product is an indescribably smooth, flavorsome cup of coffee. This is a far cry from what the dispenser at a convenience store, or a national coffee chain, or even the famed Starbucks, can produce. This is c-o-f-f-e-e; the real deal.
It remains only to complement the coffee with a home-made cake, baked by Kenji’s wife, Kazuyo. Kazuyo is a miracle baker, every bit as passionate about her product as Kenji is about his. She turns out at least one freshly baked cake every day, from a small oven that looks like it should belong to Suzy Homemaker, ensuring that customers usually have a choice of two or three cakes to go with their coffee. The combination is a taste sensation.
Chatting with Kenji and Kazuyo while Kenji carefully and deliberately makes my coffee, I remember what a coffee shop is meant to be: a social spot. A neighborhood coffee shop is the caffeinated equivalent of the corner bar, the place where everyone knows everyone else and people stop in for a chat along with their refreshment.
It seems such a place was exactly Kenji’s goal in opening Coffee Flag, although he acknowledges that in a small town like Yusuhara (population around 3,700), he couldn’t survive on the local trade alone. Tourists visiting Yusuhara for its renowned history, architecture, and culture also find their way to his shop. There they are welcomed by his wonderful specialty coffee and Kazuyo’s delicious cakes to the chance to feel like part of a very precious community.
© 2020 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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