Santa Claus Coffee in Joyful Minowa
The street bustles with a steady stream of visitors. Every now and again, one individual will pause, examining a store’s goods. Amongst this, Papa Noel stands outside too, his thin long-sleeve top protecting him from the chilly wind that moves through the shopping arcade. In one hand, he clutches a thermos; his other holds a small tower of paper cups. Today is a special day, and he will be handing out coffee – complimentarily – to people on the street.
Here, it’s nothing like the bright lights and the loud noise of Harajuku, and that makes all the difference.
One could be mistaken in believing Papa Noel is his real name, but alas – he was born Kyogoku Seiken. Kyogoku has been referred to as Papa Noel by Tokyo locals since the early days, when he would deliver coffee beans and other products to neighbouring businesses in big sacks that he would heave on his back. Rather than name his coffee shop after himself, Kyogoku favoured using this lovingly crafted nickname. Ever since, Kyogoku and Papa Noel have become synonymous with one another.
I sit inside his store, cradling the mug within my hands. Kyogoku’s specialty Toden coffee warms my soul and it is grand. He has had 30 years to perfect his craft, and he definitely knows what he is doing.
“I love being independent,” he tells me over the steady steam of the drip coffee he’s preparing to pour into his thermos. “30 years ago, when I was 30, I made this shop. My daughter was just two year old and my wife was pregnant with my son.”
Since then, Papa Noel has been a solitary endeavour, with Kyogoku wishing to be the only staff member. He loves the smell of freshly ground coffee; he loves the quiet solitude of preparing the hot drinks and being able to talk wistfully with his patrons at the small bench that accommodates six customers at a time. But don’t let this discourage you: Papa Noel offers takeaway, so grab his speciality Toden coffee – a blend inspired by the Toden tram that runs just minutes away from his storefront. This one is definitely worth a try.
Since the grand opening of his store, Papa Noel has not changed much – although the street outside, the Joyful Minowa shopping Arcade, has grown.
“This is the old part of Tokyo, so it’s not very touristy. Actually, everybody knows everybody,” Kyogoku explains. “When I started my shop, I had no money. I loathed working for hotels and restaurants and I started delivering coffee to businesses, like I was Santa Claus.”
His shop has only swelled in popularity since, and comes highly recommended by locals and tourists alike. The family behind my Tokyo homestay, Sato San’s Rest, were the ones who first pointed me in Kyogoku’s direction. “He is just like my father,” Nana-san, the mother of Sato San’s, had said.
In encountering this endeavour of Papa Noel’s, I’ve had an itch in the back of my brain: Japan is not just the boisterous, flashing-light city that mainstream media portrays. Yes, Tokyo is riddled with fun, weird, and wacky subcultures – the fashion of Takeshita-dori, the various branches of host and hostess clubs, and the wild fetish scenes that are quite openly portrayed. However, the true substance of the city is showcased when you’re shoved against the train car wall during peak-hour congestion. You’ll see the suit-wearing salary man, his briefcase in his lap, the back of his head resting against the wall behind him as he sleeps. Beside him is a woman, hands clamped together over her purse, eyes wide and alert; she is waiting to quickly skip off the train at her stop. This mundanity and ordinary life is rarely showcased – it’s always just what the western paradigm considers outlandish.
As foreigners in Japan, we have an expectation of what the culture is like based on the boisterous information that pops up for us on the internet. I’ve combed western social media, and there is nothing on Papa Noel, nor on the other family-run establishments and restaurants that surround areas like Minowa. In fact, there’s barely anything at all on Minowa online, or any other districts that don’t boast crazy tourist attractions.
While those wilder elements of Japan exist and are great to indulge in, scouring paperback guidebooks and wandering the streets to find hidden gems is, for me at least, so much better. Because if you only seek over-photographed attractions that already overpopulate Instagram, you’re likely to find little of true substance. No mum-and-pop stores where you accidentally purchase a teriyaki chicken bun when you were trying to order something else, only to be pleasantly surprised with the tasteful outcome. Nor will you see two of your friends battle it out in a fight club bar up a hairpin bend in the centre of town.
Papa Noel is just one small shop hidden from Google Maps, but there are so many more like it buried around Tokyo. It’s people like Kyogoku and Nana who hold this version of the city together. Behind Sato San’s Rest, there’s the beauty salon lady who sews patchwork pieces to display in her shop window. And the gyoza man, with his sales of eight dumplings for 330 yen – a bargain for a great meal.
So next time you look at Tokyo, know that there is always more than what is printed in the brochures stacked in the foyer of your chain hotel in Shinjuku. There is always more.
Photos by Gemma Clarke