{BUZ} : Lightyears ahead in retrospect

{BUZ} is not your typical furniture store. In fact, it’s really 3-in-1: vintage retailer, daytime café, and nighttime ba (バー : bar).

{BUZ} : hip, cool, now; generating interest and excitement.”

The name {BUZ} is actually a contraction of the slang term ‘buzz’: all that’s hip, cool, now; the latest ‘word on the street’ generating interest and excitement. And that’s exactly what it is and does.

Located a very short walk from Sakuragawa Station in Ōsaka (2-7-1 Saiwaicho, Naniwa-ku) the quaint little shopfront belies the depth of its interior, both in volume of space and in what’s on offer.

Jonathan E. Akers, co-owner and co-founder of the shop – a collaborative venture alongside his talented wife – is not new to the world of business. He already owns another vintage furniture shop in Awaza, Ōsaka, namely ‘Cat Bird Seat‘, from where he runs his architectural & interior design studio.

He’s clearly a busy guy, swapping a variety of hats many times in a day: dreamy creative, social networker, interpretative consultant, resolute businessman, intrepid entrepreneur, and jack-of-all-trades labourer. It’s not unlike his early work experience of juggling two or three jobs at once.

Sourcing furniture primarily from the United States, Jonathan travels back-and-forth several times a year to meet the demand of his predominantly Japanese clientele. Sometimes his trips incorporate a self-guided tour of the local flea markets for these clients. ‘Americana’ is very popular in Japan evidenced by the fashionable area in Ōsaka known as America-mura (アメリカ村 : lit. American district).

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Not surprisingly, Jonathan has the background and the experience to pull it off. Although born in the US of A, he has lived here in Japan for almost 25 years married to his Japanese wife, Yoshi, who together have raised their two (now grown-up) children.

Growing up himself on an equestrian farm in upstate New York as part of a large family, Jonathan adamantly preferred motor bikes to horses. However, nurtured by the great outdoors, he developed a keen appreciation for an honest day’s work. And though he attended a Catholic boys military school his beliefs over the years have evolved into something more ‘self aware’ with distinct Buddhist leanings. On saying this, his philosophy is pretty straightforward:

“We’re all connected, we’re all in this together.”

Mind you it has been a process of development since, as a young man fresh out of high school, the big city lights of New York City (NYC) cast their spell. Like a moth drawn to a flame he was unable to resist the pull. The experience proved invaluable, helping to shape and mould him in ways the countryside never could. It was, after all, there in NYC that Jonathan met his wife-to-be.

It’s interesting that their long-term partnership is as much a business venture built upon their mutual design skills as it is a family endeavour encompassing a deep love for one another.

It’s a team effort, seamlessly operating like a well-oiled machine.

I see this in the way they run the store: it’s a team effort, seamlessly operating like a well-oiled machine. And I have the good fortune to be invited to a sōmen (素麺 : noodle) night at {BUZ}, or more specifically, nagashi sōmen (流し素麺 : flowing noodles) that promises to be interesting.

The noodles are a cross between udon (饂飩 : うどん) and soba (蕎麦 : そば), made from wheat flour like the former but narrower like the latter; similar to those used in a bowl of ramen (ラーメン).

Jonathan – ever the handyman – has cleverly constructed a series of bamboo chutes ingeniously engineered to facilitate a steady stream of water from the mezzanine section down to ground level. It requires a Goldilocks-scenario with a ‘not too fast, not too slow’ approach for optimal effect.

The plan is to release the sōmen at the top from whence they cascade their way through the network of open pipes. To liken it to the game of Mouse Trap unnecessarily complicates the procedure yet the principal of enjoyment is essentially the same. The ultimate aim for diners is to use their chopsticks to pluck the sōmen from the ‘river’ and eat their fill.

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The party’s about to commence yet I see Jonathan, tape measure clipped to his belt, is still making last-minute ‘tweaks’ to his apparatus like a scientist conducting an intricate experiment: adjusting the water flow; timing how long it takes for the bin at the end of the chute to fill-up. Making it all happen appears to be a never-ending job.

And Jonathan is quick to agree that like the bamboo chute this shop, which seems to undergo rearrangement ever time I drop-in, is a work-in-progress. As items of furniture are sold, new ones purchased, and events take place, the need to reorder the objets d’art, large and small alike, within the available space is as much a necessity as it is an aesthetic.

As the crowd builds and the ravenous participants wield their hashi (箸 : chopsticks), the festivities begin: deftly capturing noodles like wriggling worms, patrons then dip them in a plastic cup half-filled with dashi (出汁 : a type of clear broth or cooking stock), grated ginger, and shallots. The combination of flavours tastes terrific and it’s a lot of fun.

The beauty of this activity is its ability to bring people together. It’s a community event where folk of all ages participate. One couple look to be in their 60s whereas another have a toddler-in-tow. A 20-something boy and girl compete for strands alongside adults twice their age. Yet it’s not really a competition; more a pastime liberated from the confinement of strict rules.

There’s plenty of cheering and clapping, shouts of encouragement and squeals of laughter, not to mention smiles all-round. A few participants appear to be as lubricated by the liberally supplied drinks as the water transporting the sōmen.

Water … acts as the primordial force uniting friends and family.

Water – long a symbol of life as it both sustains us and mimics the blood coursing through our veins – acts as the primordial force uniting friends and family. Yet perhaps, more simply, it’s just a novel and enjoyable way to have a meal and unwind at the end of a busy week. As the ‘up-tempo’ music playing in the background builds I find myself almost wanting to dance – almost.

When I next visit the store I’m able to explore and admire the vintage furniture and accoutrements more closely: Mason Jars and Fishs Eddy mugs, battered leather chairs and plump canvas cushions, risqué picture postcards and esoteric key rings, brushed-steel lamp stands and funky old calendars. An eclectic range of items that evoke nostalgia, drawing from an era long before mobile phones, the Internet, and selfies.

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Jonathan’s keen eye for detail is what led him down the artistic design path. He readily perceives that information needs to be visually accessible and appealing thereby permitting the quick association of fascinating products with otherwise mundane descriptions. Hence the database and in-house app he created for his business cleverly incorporates an image of each item on its price tag providing a user-friendly experience for both customers and staff alike.

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In much the same way the combination of comfortable sofas, a cool atmosphere, and a cultivated environment creates a great place to relax; to chill-out. An old jazz LP plays wistfully in the background, in keeping with the retro-American theme.

An oasis in the hustle & bustle of otherwise hectic lives.

I wonder if Jonathan’s underlying carefree, easy-going, social nature – his penchant for meeting people and making connections, discussing concepts and sharing anecdotes – is the driving force behind the establishment of a place such as {BUZ}? A place where one can easily drop-in to have a chat, shoot-the-breeze, and compare notes. An oasis in the hustle & bustle of otherwise hectic lives.

Yet Jonathan is more than just a thinking man; his lithe physique and muscular arms speak volumes about his preference for manual labour. He enjoys making stuff – being practical – something he attributes to his family heritage: his father was a plumber and he has a brother in construction. It calls to mind some of his early childhood memories: building things, fixing tractors, and bailing hay on the family farm.

Upstairs he shows me around the next stage of the building’s development: an open area that it is being remodelled into a space-for-hire targetted at events such as exhibitions and parties.

Of course, he’s doing much of the demolition and renovation work himself. Transforming it with an artistic flair and creative genius. His hands-on approach allows him to better translate what’s in his mind into the real, concrete world. For an inquisitive thinker fluent in both English and Japanese, finding the right words can nevertheless be elusive. My conversations with him remind me of a teacher and pupil or a parent and child: imparting knowledge and wisdom is an imperfect process.

“We could go down that rabbit hole.”

Intuition & information duel, mythologies & mysteries compete, and ideas & ideologies battle as truths swirl around the vortex of his mind. It’s not unusual for Jonathan to veer off on a tangent and “down another rabbit hole”; as much intrigued by the complexities of the world we live in as by the forces that shape and manipulate it.

Yet, like the new glass installation downstairs, Jonathan is all too aware that shifting one’s position can easily change one’s perception. What is abundantly clear at first can suddenly become opaque. Perhaps we see only what we’re taught to see?

As a young boy he would tinker with computers – pulling apart keyboards and reconstructing component parts – eager to recreate and recompose the old into the new. Always questioning and constantly searching, he’s excited about what lays ahead: with regards to his family as well as the business. But it’s one step at a time as he works on seeing this project through to completion.

Whilst Jonathan considers himself lucky he doesn’t take for granted what he’s achieved.

“Ultimately, relationships are far more important to me than success.”

He reassures me that it’s all about finding balance. Yet ultimately, relationships are far more important to him than success. They’re wise words: very palatable and easy to digest. And so I find myself nodding in agreement as I order another beer and share in one of life’s simple pleasures: friendship.

Kim*

Brooklyn Roasting Company Ōsaka

Conveniently located in Kitahama (北浜) is another great kissaten (喫茶店 : coffee shop) that I had the good fortune to stumble upon the other day.

The interior is stripped back. Cement walls, floor & ceiling give it a raw and exposed air of hip confidence.

The music is a little funky and obscure yet as inviting as the comfortable chairs and leather sofas that other patrons are reclining in as they read, write, meet and relax.

Bar stools are scattered around modern timber tables, one with a few stylish plants adorning it, probably courtesy of the adjoining florist: bois de gui (lit. mistletoe wood).

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There’s seating for over 30 although the entire space (inside and out) could probably host a small cocktail party of 60+.

Along the walls are shelves and boxes containing zasshi (雑誌: magazines), a small coffee machine, a skateboard, and an espresso tamper. There are also products for sale including books, t-shirts, coffee beans (コーヒー豆) and similar related items.

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Wi-fi is advertised on a small card attached to one wall but I’m unable to login.

Outside is a large 3m x 10m area with seating for about 20 people. It overlooks the canal called the Tosabori-gawa (土佐堀川) towards the Museum of Oriental Ceramics on the opposite shore.

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The ivy clad walls are unassuming and rustic, softening the harshness of the grey, cement walls. The verdant green of the new shoots adds a gentle touch of friendliness.

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I order a cappuccino, similar to an Australian flat-white when made by a coffee shop like this in Japan. Needless to say it’s excellent. I can easily compare it to the quality of Bar ISTA, another favourite in Ōsaka, sans the kawaii (かわいい : cute) latte art.

My late afternoon arrival sees a few customers drinking beer (ビール), specifically an Irish pale ale (my preferred style of beer) called McSorley’s

An interesting aside is that one of the baristas is from Senegal of all places: a tiny West African republic that was once colonised by the French.

The heat of the day is starting to dissipate and a light breeze is blowing. The balcony’s northerly aspect means it doesn’t cop the brunt of the afternoon sun which is a bonus.

As I extend my stay to include one of the aforementioned cold beverages I notice too they sell assorted pastries and Mast Brothers Chocolate. Mmmmm!

This place definitely deserves future visits.

www.brooklynroasting.com

Mon to Fri: 8am8pm
Sat, Sun & holidays: 10am7pm

Kim*

Streamer Espresso Ōsaka | 2

What makes a good coffee shop – a café, a kissaten (喫茶店: きっさてん) – great?

Lifting it far above its counterparts to become a favourite?

Is it the coffee beans (コーヒー豆) they use?

The way they combine those beans (豆: まめ) in the process of selecting, blending, roasting, grinding, tamping, extracting and pouring?

Maybe it’s their stylish latte art?

And the suave ambience of the premises?

Or perhaps the friendly baristas and other staff serving behind the counter who bring a smile to your face with a simple “good morning” (「お早う: おはよう」)?

I would like to think it’s a combination of all-of-the-above. And then some.

After all. There are innumerable kissaten between where I’m staying in Ōsaka and the humble dispenser of pure coffee joy at the end of my “yellow-brick road”.

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Each and every day (毎日: まいにち) I traverse the great divide between Kitashinchi (北参道) in the north and Minamihori (南堀江) in the south.

A 3km45 minutes each-way – trek through the labyrinthine concrete jungle offering up countless alternatives to my intended destination.

Yet none have ever seriously tempted me.

None have drawn me away with their siren calls.

Their whispered offers of cool, crisp airconditioning and plush, comfy sofas and a foreshortened journey to ease my discomfort.

All very alluring in this oppressive, sweltering heat & humidity (蒸し暑い: むしあつい) of summer (夏: なつ).

For what they try to pass off as coffee is – quite literally – rubbish.

Insipid. Weak. Tasteless.

However, the prospect of a hot brew created with a deft hand and loving tenderness still needs more.

Why? Because we are incredibly adaptable creatures.

Easily convincing ourselves that what we’re consuming is quite alright. It’ll do. Close enough is good enough.

But more what?

“… ay, there’s the rub” Hamlet: Act 3, Scene 1

I reckon it’s the people.

Ultimately we’re all looking to connect.

Establish bonds. Cultivate relationships. Forge friendships. No matter how subtle or complex they might become.

And that happens best when there’s a common interest.

In this case, it’s an appreciation of fine coffee.

Once the foundation is established it becomes easy to build upon it.

The structures of shared experiences and insights pieced together like a LEGO set.

The bricks building up one upon another until there exists an interwoven mesh.

The multi-coloured layers forming a latticework of memories and emotions.

Now perhaps I’m ascribing too much to a band of rogues I hardly know.

Yet daily contact and a constant supply of caffeine is as helpful to me as their frequent provision of linguistic tutelage and recommendations of travel photography assignments.

What’s more, I’ve had the pleasure (快: かい) of meeting many other interesting folk in the hallowed confines of this mecca.

Photographers. Models. A masseuse.

Humble shop assistants. Proud business owners.

Locals and foreigners (外人: がいじん) alike.

So I ask you: “What more could one ask for?”

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Streamer Espresso Ōsaka is quite simply an oasis of comfortable familiarity in a desert of abject solitude.

Kim*

Link

I decide to stray from my regular haunts and try some drip coffee instead of my standard espresso.

I’d read about a café called Link on a website and figured it deserved closer inspection.

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It’s easy to miss, located in the backstreets near Dōtonbori at 1-13-19 NTビル1F Higashishinsaibashi, Ōsaka.

On entering the premises I’m immediately impressed by the modern yet warm surroundings.

Shades of brown (yes, not grey) dominate. Timber and suede.

There’s soft, comfortable seating for about 18 people at both tables and a long counter bench.

They appear to take their coffee seriously. In the style of Café de l’Ambre in Ginza. Though perhaps with not quite the same obsession.

Jars and jars of coffee beans sit neatly in alcoves on one wall.

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A separate “roaster’s room” provides them with the facility to freshly roast beans and thus create their own “homemade” blends.

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The menu provides a range of bitterness strengths (strong, medium, light and soft). About 16 to select from all up: Columbia (コロンビア), Peru (ペルー), Kenya (ケニア), Kilimanjaro (キリマンジャロ), just to name a few.

I choose to play-it-safe and order their “LINK blend” (ブレンド).

It’s perfect! Just the right balance of acidity and flavour.

And sweet enough that it needs no sugar. Always a good sign.

The music playing is quiet and gentle: easy listening yet soulful.

Desserts and light meals can also be purchased. Although perhaps another time, as I’ll definitely return to sample some of the other beans on offer.

Mind you, I still prefer espresso. But this place does make a very nice change.

Kim*

www.linkcoffee.jp

Bar ISTA

Another excellent kissaten (喫茶店: coffee shop) in Ōsaka is Bar ISTA.

In the same general area as Dōtonbori but a few streets off the main drag and thus in a much quieter part of town, this small hole-in-the-wall has a warm, cozy and very friendly vibe to it.

The proprietor, Fumiaki Nozato (野里史眧), does more than just brew a great brew. He creates art: latte art!

He is so talented that not only did he win a competition a few years back but now he teaches wannabe baristas how to do the same.

I suppose when latte artistry is of such a high standard it’s easy for the recipient to be dazzled so that the kōhī (コーヒー: coffee) is of secondary importance.

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But not at Bar ISTA. The coffee is superb. As good as any I’ve had in Japan.

And the set-menu of pasta + coffee at lunch for ¥900 is a bargain.

As is often the case with shops like his, there are knick knacks decorating the premises: kawaii neko (cute cats), a jar full of corks, objects made from twisted wire, coffee beans (of course), a wind-up chattering-teeth toy, and chain links.

I’m sure they all have some significance and perhaps I’ll find out over time.

At night, the shop lives up to it’s clever name and becomes a (バー: bar).

I return in the evening and as I enter the ongaku (音楽: music) playing is mellow: Jack Johnston. Setting the mood and creating just the right atmosphere.

I sit down to enjoy Shiraz by the glass. But there’s also Heartland beer on-tap and various liqueurs.

What’s more, an assortment of dishes are available at very reasonable prices.

My pasta with a cream sauce, yasai (野菜: vegetables) and buta niku (豚肉: bacon) is oishii (delicious).

Later the music becomes more up-tempo. Yes, it’s jazz, although with a little more energy than what I’ve been hearing in other places.

I can see myself returning here many, many more times before I depart.

Kim*

Cafe Contempo

On the advice of a friend I decided to try out another café. He said he liked it so much he got a job there.

It’s located in Orange Street, across the road from Ippudo where I ate yesterday, and literally a few blocks from Streamer Espresso.

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Yet unlike Streamer Espresso, this place has lots of chairs & tables. Quite a few in fact. Which is unusual by Japanese standards unless you’re in one of the large chains like Starbucks, Doutor, Tully’s or the like.

They also have light food such as muffins & cookies (although sadly they’re pre-packaged and not freshly baked), apple pie as a winter special, and chocolates.

Importantly, the coffee is good. Yet I would insist that Streamer Espresso is definitely better.

However, if you need a place to sit and chat, study or simply read a book then Cafe Contempo offers a more practical solution given it’s set-up.

It even has a large, separate room for the smokers!

The music is relaxed: jazz, of course.

And the decor is, well, contemporary. Coffee art of one sort or another adorns the walls.

I like the place. Please don’t get me wrong. I just don’t love it.

Perhaps there’s something about the intimacy of smaller, less populated café’s?

A coziness that comes from rubbing shoulders with other patrons?

And personality: both that of the venue as well as the barista(s)?

My next taste-test will be Bar Ista for this very reason.

Stay tuned!

Kim*