Saturday, October 3, 2009

Hakujuji, Niigata

True, I normally make it a rule not to go to places like this - but if you look closely you'll see that Hakujuji was established in 1946 and is a Coffee Shop for the Exclusive Man. This being the morning of my birthday, old things for exclusive men seemed to be in order. Plus it looked cool in the guide book.

On one of the covered market streets in Niigata's old town (Furumachi), there's a series of old-looking coffee shops like this. I think we picked the right one; starting from the vintage signage outside, this place was a great experience on all levels - atmosphere, staff, and coffee. In order to get excited about these places, you have to have a taste for nostalgia and a willingess to suffer questionable quality. The best places are the ones that are kept neat and clean, but have been well-worn and used without redecoration since their construction 50-60 years ago. For the most part, they haven't changed what they do either, which means that your dining options are severely compromised.

See, if this was in Williamsburg, everyone would be riding their bikes to get there and making sure to keep their beards out of the coffee. Actually, hipsters wouldn't drink coffee here, because it's too retro. The people in here were either old (pictured) or else determindely retro, by which I mean that they were young but seemed like businessmen that needed to do business with old people and thus needed to dress like it was still 1960. This is very relaxing in a sort of time-warp way.

A nautical time-warp sort of way.

You can tell from this storage cabinet what the food will be like - 1960's homeiness! You get your choice of several types of toast (plan toast, cheese toast, toasted sandwich or 'mixed'), where all of the toast comes on the incredibly soft, processed white Japanese bread. In an odd way, this too is comforting. Unfortunately we didn't eat; tempting as it was, we were saving space for the sushi lunch we had planned for the day.

The master was just a lovely guy, no two ways about it. Perhaps he sees few tourists (although with this being the most lovingly-photographed shop in the current guide magazine, I doubt it), or at any rate few foreign tourists. He was the first person of several on this day to ask where I was from and then mishear my 'America' as 'Canada'. Honest mistake. We talked about how long the shop has been in business, how his kids moved out of Niigata city to the country because they didn't like the fast pace, etc. He also gave us some free house blend coffee, so of course I'm partial.

You know the funny thing though? The coffee was really good! In addition to house blend with/without milk in various combinations, there are a bunch of different locationally-named beans. This is the odd thing about these places - Blue Mountain beans are available (for Y1500 per cup), as are Kilimanjaro (pictured), as are Colombian and other less exotic choices. Actually I don't know what's exotic, and the non-Blue Mountain ones are all the same Y700 (which includes a charge for ambience and riendly conversation).

When you order a cup, the master will get some beans (I'm unsure about the provenance or freshness of the roasting, nor do I particularly care), grind them on the spot, then brew them using a genuine Jamaican hemp filter and an elaborate pouring procedure (partially true). Honestly, the Kilimanjaro made me feel like I've never had coffee before. I know lots of people are more into it and used to this sort of thing, but it was all fruity and complex and interesting. I'm not saying I'd go here every day, but it would be a cool place to be a regular, just like it's a cool place to stop in and feel all old-fashioned when you're on a (quiet, old-fashioned) country vacation to Niigata.

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