Brews Through: Starbucks in Japan

A Starbucks in Nagano, Japan.

A Starbucks in Nagano, Japan. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Yoshiko Iwai

 

Monday, January 1, 2018 - 11:47pm

Like every good story, mine comes with a cup of coffee — an Americano with no room, to be exact.

As I start my final semester at the University, finishing two degrees and leading up to what is probably my 2,190th cup of coffee (365 days x 4 years x 1.5 cups on average), I’ve come to appreciate the coffee shop culture in Ann Arbor. It’s contributed to the way I feel a part of the Ann Arbor community — aspiring journalists, novelists, physicians, researchers and artists alike.

It goes without saying I am mildly addicted to coffee —  not to caffeine —  but to the bitter taste of espresso that stains my teeth and accounts for the majority of my dental bill. Before I leave the University and the city that has now become my home, I’ve made a promise to myself to explore, to the best of my abilities and schedule, the coffee hubs that make up Ann Arbor.

Coffee is never just coffee. It’s never just a buzz, an alternative to caffeine pills, a natural laxative or a conversation starter. It’s so much more than the full-bodied taste of freshly ground coffee beans. It’s an experience. When I drink coffee, it rarely comes without sentimentality.

I’ve realized — because this is what my nostalgic senior-year mind does in its spare time — each chapter of my life comes with a different coffee drink. Soy chai latte when I was in middle school, exploring the world and realizing there was more than plain milk, matcha latte after I left Japan for boarding school in the U.S.; skim latte when I copied everything my mom did; dirty chai in high school; and right now I take everything black because I like that it makes me feel like an adult. (No, I genuinely like the way it tastes.)

A vast majority of these early coffee epiphanies were rooted in a Starbucks. Yes, maybe it is heresy to write about Starbucks in a coffee column — I do prefer independent local coffee shops to massive chains any day. But it happens to be that some of my best and hardest memories came with coffee and a green, two-tailed mermaid.

There’s one Starbucks my mom and I went to near our home in Kobe, Japan. Japanese Starbucks stores aren’t much different from the ones in the United States. The drinks seem smaller because they are rigorous with measuring the exact amount of milk and syrup (the drinks never overflow with whip cream like they do in the U.S.) and are generally more expensive, and they have different seasonal features like white chocolate green tea lattes instead of pumpkin spice. The merchandise is different and of course, the people are different. But if you close your eyes, you could hardly tell the difference.

It still has that bold smell of roasted coffee beans with a slightly sour aftertaste that clings to your nose. There is the flutter of silverware and plates that occasionally make it hard to hear conversation, and the intermittent loud steam from the copper-colored espresso machine. No matter what time of day or day of the year, it is never empty. Eight times out of ten, there’s a stroller parked in the store somewhere. There is a flux of chatter and a warmth that makes it feel cozy, even if it is an outpost of an 85 billion dollar enterprise.

The Starbucks my mom and I go to is a part of a small mall that faces the Hanshin train station. It has floor-to-ceiling windows on one side so light fills the store during the day. The Hanshin train runs above ground and you can see it pull into the station above the buildings. We watch the flurry of people walk out of the station as the train leaves. Sometimes a truck pulls by the window to drop off loaves of bread and pastries to the bakery next door.

We always sit at the table furthest from the windows, I don’t know why. We sit at the same table close to the exit, where we can still see the train but also the other stores inside. It’s close to the pick-up counter so there is usually a barista close by. The table with honey and cinnamon is always behind me, on my left shoulder.

We laugh about it now, how much has changed since we first sat in that Starbucks at that same table. We held hands and cried over our half-eaten blueberry scone as I tried to digest the recurrence of her cancer. I remember being nauseated from anxiety when I thought I wouldn’t be able to continue school in the U.S. because of my visa. We talked only paperwork over our drinks. After my ACL surgery, I hobbled on crutches to the same table and watched my mom carry our drinks — I had to sit on the other side because I couldn’t bend my knee, I thought my world was ending. When I decided on U-M, we were both so happy we finished our drinks and food the fastest I’ve seen yet. We’ve seen baristas come and go and the wallpaper painted, retouched and finally changed. We sit, holding hands across the same table, talking about my dreams, her future, the hypothetical grandkids and mother-daughter book tour.

We’ve cried and laughed at the table, her over a skim latte, and me over a constantly changing drink. She is my constant — of course she is, she’s my mom. But in some ways, so is Starbucks.

I like that I can drink the same drink with her at our table by the barista, watching the train pull into the station, and in the Michigan Union during midterms. I like that I can order a grande or venti Americano in Kobe and be reminded of it when I traveled to Portugal for a writing conference. I like that I can drink that same coffee as I talk about my post-grad plans with professors I admire. I like that I can eat a blueberry scone in Japan and in Ann Arbor and know it tastes the same, even if I’m breathing different air on different soil. I like that I can simultaneously feel at home and part of so many different worlds.

And maybe that’s what’s unique about a global enterprise like Starbucks. Less the quirky types of coffee beans and picture-worthy foam art, but more the unique ability it has to spread and blend experiences.

I can still remember the first Strawberries & Creme Frappuccino I ordered after a dance competition in Los Angeles, when I was eight or so. When I drink an Americano now, in Kobe or Ann Arbor, so much has changed. I realize I’ve come further than I would’ve ever thought, that the world has changed tenfold and the future is even more unpredictable.

It’s so much more than just coffee, it always is.