Friday, November 16, 2012

Japanese coffee shops

In the novel I'm currently writing, a character finds his way into a Japanese coffee shop in the early 1950s. I may have caused an anachronism because I've place the character is in Japan before I was there, but the shop is based on one where I spent many happy off-duty hours in the year and a half I was stationed in Japan.

At the time, independent coffee shops (kissaten, 喫茶店) were a feature of Japanese city life. For the price of a single cup of coffee, one could sit all afternoon, read a book, chat with friends, smoke, and listen to the music. The coffee was expensive (240 yen a cup), but in my memory it was the best coffee I've ever had and the music was free. Different shops specialized in different genres: American jazz, country & western, classical, and there might have been more. (Japanese folk songs? American folk songs? Possibly.)

My favorite shop was L'Ambre, which featured classical music. Not only did the shop have a state-of-the-art high-fidelity sound system, a large collection of LPs, it held regular recorded concerts and printed up a program of the month's events. For some reason, I kept the program illustrated here. I was always interested that the shop's French name ("The Amber") was written in phonetic Japanese (らんぶる). The map on the back shows how to reach the shop from Shinjuku train station.

The three inside pages, the first of which is illustrated, alerts customers to the evening's concert. On Sunday, June 1, for example, the shop played Shostakovich's oratorio "Song of the Forests." On Monday, you could have heard Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana."

In addition to the regular concerts, patrons could request works the owner played in the order received. Which meant that you might have to sit through a couple hours of other great music before your selection made it to the turntable. It was a tough life.

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