The Name of This Place is Asia Coffee (From Exile Osaka #3)
By Matthew M. Kaufman
I was in Kanadian one day talking about interesting places to hang out, and Miki-San, the owner, said, “You have got to go to Asia Coffee (Ajia Co-hee). That’s where all the freaks hang out.” I think that the word “freaks” in Japanese has a slightly different connotation than it does in English; it has a positive meaning (in a David Lynch sort of way.) So, I imagined that Asia Coffee was one of those dives where artists and musician types hung out with drifters, winos and other characters.
One of the employees of Kanadian drew a crude map for me on a napkin, and I set off on my journey. I walked around for about an hour and a half; I knew that Asia Coffee was located in Tsuruhashi, but I just couldn’t find it. So, I gave up and took the train home.
A month later, Jaye, a fellow English Teacher, and I were having lunch in Kanadian, and I told her about Asia Coffee. We decided that we should go there afterward. I got a better map this time from one of the waiters, and we walked down to Tsuruhashi. Tsuruhashi is a wonderful neighborhood. It has one of the largest Korean populations in Japan, and there are loads of great Korean restaurants in the area.
We walked up and down the same block about 75 times, but we still couldn’t find Asia Coffee. Finally, we walked down a narrow street near the train station and there it was — a rusty old shack with “Asia Coffee” written across the top in faded katakana (Japanese characters used mainly for writing foreign words). There was a light on, but we were hesitant to go in — it was like walking into someone’s house. We opened the door and peeked in. There was only one table in the place and three people were sitting there, drinking beer and talking. The place looked as though it hadn’t been cleaned in 20 years — it was crammed with assorted junk, including an old bicycle and a clock that didn’t work. The floor was made of stone, and there was a cat chained to a chair in the corner. Everyone got up immediately as soon as we walked in, and an old woman cleared off the table. A thin old man in a black turtleneck asked us if we wanted anything to drink.
“What do you have?” I asked.
“We only have two things: Kirin Beer and Nepon [a bottled orange drink],” said the old man.
“Well, I’ll have a beer,” I said.
“I’ll have a cup of coffee,” said Jaye.
“No coffee; only two things: Kirin Beer or Nepon.”
We ordered a beer, and the old woman brought out a beer from the refrigerator and wiped it off with a towel.
“You don’t have coffee?” I asked. “But the name of this place is Asia Coffee.”
“Yes,” said the old man.
“But you do have curry?”
“Yes three things: curry, Kirin Beer and Nepon. No Coffee.”
A man of about 40 introduced himself to us. His name was Nishikawa and he was the son of the old women who owned the place. He told us that he worked in a Yaki-Niku restaurant in Namba. His brother usually worked here, but he was in the hospital. “Her other son is a drunk,” the old man volunteered. “He’s in the hospital for aru-chu (alcoholism — aru is short for alcohol; chu is an abbreviation of chudoku, which means poisoning).
Nishikawa told us the history of Asia Coffee. It was started by his mother 36 years ago. (Asia Coffee did at one time serve coffee.) Several years ago, a writer named Nakajima Ramo “discovered” Asia Coffee and wrote about it in one of his books. That led to sporadic media coverage from magazines, television and radio. Asia Coffee developed a cult following, and people from as far away as Hokaido would search out Asia Coffee when they were in the Kansai area.
One of the big attractions at Asia Coffee is the aforementioned Nepon orange drink. Nepon is manufactured by Tsuruya Shokuhin Kenkyusho, a research center in Kobe. Nepon is not widely distributed — presumably Nepon is made from oranges used in some sort of research and Asia Coffee is the only place in Osaka where Nepon is sold. (The company has someone deliver the drink twice a week, even though Asia Coffee is an hour away by car.) Nepon is very sweet. (It reminds me of Sun Dew, an orange drink that used to be sold in a plastic container. I haven’t seen one in years.) When Kansai Television interviewed Nishikawa’s son (the drunk one) he told them that drinking two bottles of Nepon would cure constipation. People believed him and more people wandered into the shop.
Nishikawa finished his story by saying that he wants his mother to come live with him, but his mother has no desire to give up Asia Coffee.
“She’s 80 years old,” he said. “Asia Coffee is her life. She opens the store at 5:30 a.m. and usually stays until 9:30 p.m. She likes drinking with the customers.”
“When she’s gone,” he added matter-of-factly, “this place will probably close down for good.”
“All kinds of people come in here,” the old man added. “Corporate presidents, vice-presidents, college students. She can drink them all under the table. She drinks five bottles of beer a night. And by the way, I’m not that old. I’m only 52.”
We had been calling him O-chan, an affectionate term for uncle. “Well, O-chan, we have to be going.” I had to take a piss and there was no way that I was going to use the toilet. It was literally a hole in the ground and it didn’t flush.
O-chan wanted us to sign a piece of cardboard to hang on the wall among the collection of greasy photographs and faded articles about Asia Coffee from magazines. We signed our names, paid the bill and left.
“Come back again,” said O-chan. “Don’t catch a cold.”
ASIA COFFEE PART II:
21st Century NEPON shop
Escargot, Yoshi-Yoshi and I were sitting around drinking beers one day after a Pagado gig and I told them about my venture into Asia Coffee.
“That’s the place where they have Nepon,” said Escargot.
“I’ve heard about it but I’ve never been there,” said Yoshi-Yoshi.
We decided to go to Asia Coffee the following Sunday. We met up at Kanadian. I told the boys some bad news. I forgot that I have an appointment with another English teacher to work on some stupid project. I had to leave in two hours.
“Well, we stopped by Asia Coffee yesterday, ” said Escargot. “We told the O-chan that you were coming and he said that he would prepare some special food for you and everything.”
I had to drop in. At least for an hour or so. We drove to Tsuruhashi and Escargot told me that O-chan used to belong to the Yakuza.
“Didn’t you see his hand? He’s missing one of his fingers! He was telling us about his days in the Yakuza. He was in jail and everything.”
“Did he ever shoot someone?”
“Well . . .”
We entered Asia Coffee and got a warm welcome from O-chan. Mrs. Nishikawa was asleep on a cot by the kitchen.
“She had too much to drink last night.”
Her son wasn’t there this time, but her brother-in-law was. He was wearing a Yankees cap and jacket. He got up from the table, be we insisted that he sit down and have a drink. We ordered beers and poured one for him and offered one to O-chan. I was trying to get a good glimpse of his hand.
“O-chan, are you related to Mrs. Nishikawa?”
“No, I just help out here. I used to come here when I was a boy.
“So, what’s the name of that cat over there?” Escargot asked.
“His name is Ryu (Dragon). He’s three years old and still a virgin.”
“Do you know that for a fact?” I questioned.
“Yes, I do. I take him for a walk every day.”
I finally got a good look at O-chan’s hand. He was missing the top half of his left pinky.
“Hey O-chan, how did you lose your pinky.” I wasn’t really sure if it was appropriate to ask such a thing, but it soon became apparent that O-chan had told the story many times.
“Well, it’s like this. My brother borrowed a large sum of money and couldn’t pay it back. So, I had to deliver my pinky finger as payment to the oya (yakuza boss).”
Mrs. Nishikawa woke up suddenly, and before we knew it, she was pouring us drinks and drinking quite a bit herself. Brother-in-law scolded her for drinking so much. Then he left.
O-chan pulled out a brainteaser for Escargot and Yoshi-Yoshi:
“This problem is very difficult,” he said. “They use it on college entrance examinations: You are standing in a field on a cliff overlooking the sea. There is a fire coming towards you from the north. The wind is also blowing from the north.” He sketched a diagram on the back of a napkin. “If you jump off the cliff, you will be killed. You don’t have a shovel either; the only things you are carrying are items that the average man has on his person.”
We tried to guess the answer.
“You jump over the fire.”
“A helicopter comes and saves you.”
“You hang off the side of a cliff.”
“No, you’re all wrong,” said O-chan.
We had to admit that we didn’t know the answer. “Tell us the answer, O-chan. It’s impossible.”
O-chan grinned. “Okay. I told you that you’re only carrying what the average man has on his person. Well, every man carries a lighter, does he not?
“Uhhh…okay, ” I said, still skeptical.
“All you have to do is set fire to the area at the end of the cliff and wait until the fire you set burns out. Then you stand in the area at the end of the cliff . . .”
“Wait a second! ” we all objected. “That’ll never work. What about the fire coming toward you?”
“The fire that you set with your lighter will burn out faster because the wind is blowing in your direction. Then you stand in that area. When the big fire finally reaches that area, it will have nothing left to burn and you’re in the clear.”
“That’s the most ridiculous . . .”
“No, it makes perfect sense,” O-chan said. “When I was younger, I thought I’d go to college so I started memorizing problems like this.”
We poured O-chan another glass of beer.
“I never did go to college. I spent 10 years in jail, from age 20 to age 30 — 10 years.”
Now, while this was going on, I had been taking pictures of everyone. All of a sudden, I realized that I had forgotten to put film in the camera.
O-chan started laughing. “Where you buy that camera, America?”
I was not about to get into an argument about international trade friction.
“No, I bought it at Daiei ” (Daiei is the K-Mart of Japan).
“Daiei? Why don’t you buy a real camera? Maybe you just don’t know how to use a camera . . .”
O-chan was ranking on me pretty good. I poured him another drink and he brought out another bottle and poured me one. It was time to leave, and I couldn’t drink anymore.
On the way home I started to realize what made Asia Coffee so special: Osaka suffered a lot of damage during the war. Asia Coffee was built 15 years after the war ended — maybe it was typical of the kind of business that one could start at the time if he or she saved up enough money. With the tremendous growth of Japanese economy in the ’80s, places such as Asia Coffee became susceptible to land-development projects. Old neighborhood shops started disappearing; replaced by modern ones devoid of charm and lacking any history. But Asia Coffee hasn’t changed at all in almost 40 years — it’s an anachronism. Perhaps people go there to leave the modern world for a couple of hours. If you’re ever in Japan and find yourself tired of eating at McDonald’s; shopping at 7-11; and hanging out at gaijin bars day after day, week after week — wondering why you came to Japan in the first place — search out an old run down place like Asia Coffee. You’ll be glad you did.
UPDATE 1: I went to Asia Coffee on Feb. 19, about a month after the big earthquake. O-chan and Mrs. Nishikawa were really down in the dumps. O-chan told me that the company that manufactures Nepon was destroyed in the quake. They haven’t heard any news from anyone in the company and are worried about their well being. There were only about 50 bottles of Nepon left, and O-chan wonders if Asia Coffee can survive without it. To make matters worse, Ryu ran away a few weeks before and hasn’t returned. I promised to bring them a kitten next week. I hope that everyone at Tsuruya Kenkyusha Shokuhin is okay.
UPDATE 2 (from Issue #4): Asia Coffee is back from the dead. The company that produces Nepon is back on its feet after being destroyed in the Great Hanshin Earthquake. O-chan is no longer there. We were told that he was arrested for trying to rob someone. Mrs. Nishikawa’s son Tsuneo is now in charge. I did bring them a kitten as promised. I found her in the middle of the street in my neighborhood. She was filthy at the time, but she has grown to be a beautiful cat. Her name is Takeshi. Asia Coffee made national television again when Mrs. Nishikawa raised the price of nepon to ¥500 ($5) a bottle!
UPDATE 3 (from Issue #5): Asia Coffee has closed down. I went there with Scott Burgeson of Bug, and it was just a hole in the ground.
Photos (Top) Mrs Nishikawa holding Exile Osaka #3. Mrs Nishikawa and Tsuneo.
Bottom: Tsuneo and O-chan.