the barn berlin

Tokyo Coffee Festival - Spring

The branches of the cherry blossom trees were speckled with tight little baubles when I headed up to Tokyo last month. For the most part they stayed that way for the duration of my time there. It might have nice to see the fluffy fireworks that broke out all along the Meguro river the following week, but somehow, that tension of being on the verge of a beginning was exactly the right tone for the trip. 

I was kindly asked by the charming Mr. Ralf Rueller of The Barn Coffee Roasters to come and help him at the Tokyo Coffee Festival. Ralf is keen to plant a flag in Japan for The Barn, and this was perhaps the first real push for presence. The Barn was sharing a tent with their collaborator Standart Magazine, who it so happens I have also done work for. The new Japanese edition of Standart was fresh off the press and so it was perfect timing for them to spread the word and reach out to the coffee community in Japan. So in this context of familiar faces on new frontiers my role was basically to be as helpful as possible, whatever that might entail.

I arrived up from Kyoto all rosy on the Shinkansen on the Friday morning, got a taxi to PNB Coffee. The owner Peter and I didn't know each other, but somehow I ended up sort of making base camp in his cafe for the day, so we got to know each other reasonably well. As it happened, PNB, which is a carefully curated cafe of Scandanavian good taste, had already unwittingly become more of an EU outpost as Standart (Slovakia/The Netherlands) and The Barn (Germany) had had all their event stuff sent there in the days prior. 

Peter and I talked Coffee Collective and paper stock while I waited for Ralf who was awol. When Ralf finally shown up, Oronamin C drink in hand - something he bought more out of bemusement than necessity - we got down to business of making sense of all the boxes. Then a bit of lunch with Peter - now it feels like I've known Peter for ages - and then the serious stuff of working out the grinds and pouring technique for all the coffees for the weekend. We did this until we were all over-caffinated and no longer able to tell wood from trees and then Ralf set about grinding the coffee while I finished the shopping. All of these rather humdrum tasks took a surprising amount of time, but by the end of the day, we were reasonably confident we were ready for the festival.

The next morning it was bright, sunny and as warm as you could hope for. I was first to arrive at The Farmer's Market in Shibuya. The market is terrifically well organised. It has great infrastructure for traders in place, just as you would see in established markets across Europe. As such, set-up played out like a symphony. (A stark contrast to the sea of chaos that was the festival at Shimogama Shrine back in January). I was joined by Kouhei Shintani of Sporty Coffee, Osaka. Another friend of The Barn, we basically met Ralf more or less around the same time. Along with Ralf, and the Standart guys, who would basically be running their own corner that was basically to be our team. Peter had warned us several times that we were going to be completely rammed with customers all day. Even knowing that I had taken that sort of lackadaisical Irish attitude that also regularly manifests itself at sporting events and other times of trial of: "Ah sure, it'll be grand. We can only do our best.". In my case, it may also be that once I saw someone cook a venison main course for 70 people in an ancient domestic-use fan oven that's left a lasting impression on me that anything is possible. 

We were indeed drawing visitors before we'd even finished the taste check and the volume of customers quickly ramped up to full capacity. TCF had anticipated this, and implemented a highly effective queing system at a distance from our tent so that we didn't get crowded in front, allowing punters to pass easily and for us to get in and out if necessary. The staff also were great to regularly check our needs. This allowed us to focus on our own tight system and get people served as fast as possible. Ralf was keen to introduce the coffees to the customers and was a bottomless well of interesting information but it was difficult to deliver both this and the actual coffee at a pace satisfactory to everyone. This is where the symbiotic relationship with Standart shone: people waiting for coffee could get drawn into the magazine. People perusing the magazine would also discover the coffee. 

The other thing that made what could have been a long flat-out slog into a pleasantly busy and energising day was the fact that we were not alone: we had a gold-star team of volunteers that helped absolutely every detail fluid and stress-free. Pouring coffee and managing the queue to either mini tasting cup or normal-size coffee, switching in at the bar so that everyone could grab a break. It was really a dream. 

We wrapped up the day on a high note and then there were a few hours to kill before the Standart Japan launch party at Blue Bottle Coffee in Meguro. I had scouted out a clean and modern sento nearby and so I passed a restorative hour or so there before perambulatlng up to Blue Bottle. The Meguro Blue Bottle is a curious building: the initial impression is a big house-y shape of glass and white. You see multiple layers and levels of space at once, and with the industrial aesthetic gives a sense of it as a hive for humans. I was especially amused by the "event pit" in the back. A concrete-cast space below street level with no real furnishings other than a few trees in oversize planters. Un-wishing to be left vulnerable out in the open, people line up neatly along the walls. Given that this was industry-based gathering where most people fit into the same age/lifestyle bracket, attendees were also for the most part, uniform in dress. (While we're on the subject of dress, I notice that the cobalt blue jacket is fashionable amongst men in a big way. I call this the factory foreman coat or the Bill Cunningham look depending on length of jacket. Curious to know if either of those were actually the inspiration for this trend). 

There was beer and coffee and coffee-inspired bossa nova (?). Everyone knew more or less everyone. Lots of nodding of heads. Many people having seen each other several times already that day. Michael and Toshi made their speeches and Standart Japan was officially launched. It's been roughly about a year since I first did work for Standart. They have come on at dazzling speed in that time. It was great to be able to be there at start of something new and special for them. Michael and I met in person for the first time late last year, two Europeans in Kyoto, and bonded over love of Japan and also martial arts. It's bizarre sometimes, how the dots join up. 

Sunday was much the same as Saturday except our teamwork had levelled up and things went so smoothly it was almost relaxed, even though the stall was busy all day long. I really have massive appreciation for how amazing and professional our team was, considering we didn't even know each other before the event. My experience of the specialty coffee world is that it's full of intelligent, charming, friendly people, and I am very happy to be part of it. The breaking down of the stall at the end of the event went smoothly and we all went our separate ways. In the Standart guys' case, back to Europe immediately. Everyone gave positive feedback of their experience and were willing to help again in the future.

On Monday, for the third day in a row, the weather was superlative, and I had a free schedule. I started at Naka-Meguro station, had a pretzel croissant (latest pastry fad?), visited Onibus Coffee and then wandered up along the river in the sun, generally headed towards Yoyogi Park. Ralf had a cupping event at PNB at noon. By sheer coincidence, I was drifting near PNB around this time so I dropped by to see how everything was. It was about ten minutes before starting; Ralf had apparently had some trust issues with the electric grinder and as result, decided to grind all ten coffees on his Commandante hand grinder. When the participants arrived, Ralf, Peter and I were still engaged in some kind of coffee-grinding relay race. Ralf stalled with first a welcome, followed by a stream which then became a torrent of information about coffee processing. There was a glassy silence which was hastily filled in with a translation and the atmosphere warmed up once again. Ralf encouraged the participants to actually get involved in the process of the cupping, not just tasting. I found this interesting and bit seem to make first-timers feel less intimidated. It was a good turn out and lots of people were keen to talk to Ralf. After this I slid off back into the sunshine and had an afternoon of adventure in Tomigaya. 

Tuesday was rainy and I hit a few places I'd been keen to see before rendez-vous with Ralf at The Local. We hung out with the lovely people there brewing coffee and talking a little business also. After that I escorted Ralf on a cafe tour until we admitted that we just wanted to be dry and warm and recover from the weekend. Wednesday we headed back to Kyoto in the morning to continue our coffee adventure tour with Cafe Frosch, Kurasu Kyoto and Weekenders Coffee and then with Elmers Green and Sporty Coffee in Osaka. It was really a singular week, even for me where normally work and fun generally mix into a grey area, I had a good time being a sort of switch board operator linking up people and bringing coffee-centric community fun. 

Kamome Cafe

Kamome Cafe (Seagull Cafe) was a neat little project that happened in August where I managed to channel all my interests and skills into and produce a satisfying result. I ran a pop-up cafe in Nishijin, Kyoto for fours days by myself, where I came up with the entire menu, sourced all the ingredients directly from local farmers and served The Barn coffee from Berlin. The event, in a way, was a manifestation of my convictions on which I generally operate and sort of validated them for me. For this reason it was a very important experience that anchored me in the waves of everyday life as a lone aikido kenshusei/illustrator/other, and so while these aren't dazzling insights, I feel they're worth sharing.

Saying 'yes' is generally more interesting and rewarding than saying 'no.'

My dad, for as pessimistic and conservative he could be about things sometimes, was always a man to say "yes" to a job and work out how to do it afterwards. This is a model I have also followed and has previously led me to singular experiences such as building a bee-friendly green roof on top of a shed, based on a solid week of reading books on the subject beforehand and a keen knowledge of soil and eco-friendly gardens, all for a show garden at Ireland's biggest garden show. It comes down to a sort of loose equation of balancing fun, learning and money against possibility of total failure. Generally, it's difficult to fail so spectacularly that you would actually not gain anything. If your first impression is not that something is totally and terrifyingly incomprehensible, then you can probably work something out. Similarly, when it was offered to me to do some sort of pop-up in Cafe Frosch, it was easy maths of making tasty things and having people pay to eat it vs. risk of having a stock pile of homemade meals-to-go in the freezer for several weeks after the event was over. So I said "yes" and things were in motion, as opposed to saying "no", which would have the world slightly more boring. You might think that it would be maintaining status quo but I think not doing something has as much an effect on your life as doing something, but in a much more negative way, and the more the pattern repeats, the smaller your world gets and you are constantly haunted by regret. Scary.

Communication is key, especially when you're drowning in a swap of personal trauma.

This was early summer and we were still a ways off, just having idle conversations about a concept and things I like about Ireland and cafes. Then I got blown rather drastically off course: I had a near mental breakdown due to stress in other areas of my life. I was nearly incapable of even being in public without fear of suddenly breaking down crying, at home I spent most of my time sleeping. I certainly wasn't planning my event or even thinking much further ahead than two days time. In this time Sumi-san, the owner of Frosch, was incredibly supportive and said that if I didn't want to do it it was fine. This constant stream of communication in the run-up was very important. In Frosch I felt very free to be myself, whatever kind of pathetic snivelling creature that sometimes meant I was, and while I wasn't sure if I would have the mental strength to do the event, I frequently had fun conversations with Sumi-san about what kind of things would be interesting or delicious. Thanks in no small part to her outstanding support as a friend, I eventually overcame my other problems and became mentally healthy enough to say with confidence that the Cafe was definitely on. 

Starting with blue sky is fine. Then get some structure, or find someone who can make you have structure. 

My concept for the cafe pop-up started off rather unwieldy. Not satisfied with putting my cooking, cafe and people skills to use all day, I wanted to make as much of the time as possible to play out what I felt were all Ireland's strengths, turning to my other loves: art and craft. I wanted to do screenings, maybe talks introducing things and people I felt worthy of note, maybe hang artwork, maybe MAKE artwork. At this point Sumi-san pulled me back down to earth saying that it was probably impossible to do everything at once, but there would be more opportunities in the future for such events. I think she was also worried I would overwork myself again to the detriment of my mental health. I listened to her on this and shelved my extracurricular plans for another time. 

I wanted to exhibit lots of artwork but in the end I just sold the tote bag I had designed for The Barn Berlin. Thanks to them for sending me over a few.

I wanted to exhibit lots of artwork but in the end I just sold the tote bag I had designed for The Barn Berlin. Thanks to them for sending me over a few.

Going back to the food, I had tons of ideas and lists and recipes but I hadn't quite worked out a menu. Here Sumi-san presented me with another challenge so pedestrian, it hadn't crossed my mind for even a moment: to come up with a "theme" for my event and to introduce it and myself with a blurb for the Frosch homepage and other advertising. The reason being, she explained, for the Japanese customers to get an easy handle on what the event was about so they would come. I was so focused on making the event fabulous I couldn't imagine having to explain to anyone why it was fabulous. It was even more troubling to have to introduce myself to a general audience, having many different identities depending on what day and even what time of the day it is. After struggling for a while to express my multi-coloured aikidoist/illustrator/foodie-self in a way that wasn't stressful to read, I settled for what seemed to me the almost comically understated: "Robin from Ireland". 

Building imagery on Instagram leading up to the event.

Building imagery on Instagram leading up to the event.

As for a theme, I felt I had already sorted this one ages ago with my fixation on the pleasing sound of "Kamome Cafe". For me, nothing says "Dublin" like a seagull trying to take a bit out of your sandwich or glare menacingly at you from the street curb by the garbage bags while you sit outside drinking a coffee. I then extrapolated on the tenuous connection between seagulls and Summer, the sea and nostalgia for Europe. This is the sort of vague image Japanese people tend to like and I felt like it was one of those cultural loops you just have to jump through to make things run smoothly. No one was going to actually cross-check the relevance of menu items to the theme. 

This was all a domestic bit of game-playing and it was probably good to have had a steady hand on my shoulder to guide me through it. Being a bright young upstart, I can tend to not be bothered by or even notice conventions, quite happy to blaze a new trail without thinking to look back and see if anyone is willing to follow. Even the concept of a "pop-up" was something that had to be explained as a "limited time" experience because Pop-up Culture is only just starting in Japan right now. 

Trust yourself, your instinct, your experience. If you think you can do it, you can do it.

This sounds terrifically cliched and can actually be hard to follow through on but it turned out to be true for me. In the two weeks leading up to the event I became busier than I have been all year. I was literally working from the time I got up in the morning till after midnight everyday on an unrelated but total dream project. I scheduled to wrap up with that project mere days before the event started. In this time I could not prep for the cafe and still didn't have a set menu. I wasn't entirely sure what vegetables my farmer friends were going to provide, and when they did give me lists of what was on offer, I gave back completely arbitrary numbers for how much I wanted of things based on thoughts like "it's useful to have a lot of that" or even simply "tomatoes are great at this time of year".  

About two days before I had settled on four sandwiches and then a changing salad menu depending on what I had to hand. This way I still didn't have to work out exactly how to use the vegetables until the day I was using them. When it came to the day before and I saw the mass of produce I had to get through I questioned myself, wondering if I had been a bit too eager. It seemed like mountains of produce and I felt an immense pressure to not waste one precious bit of it. Miraculously, I wasted nothing. The amount I had sustained me perfectly over the four days without having to buy anything extra or be left over with anything. Of course it's probably less of a miracle and more a result of years of estimating quantities of food with Kevin in Dublin and also being a food waste fanatic - once, in third year of college I accidentally let a one euro box of Tesco button mushrooms go bad because they got lost in the depths of a shared fridge. I will remember them forever. Also juggling the menu so I used less or more veg day on day. The last day I made a kicking minestrone and put it on instead as one of the salads. I had also made a focaccia so I could offer a soup set. This flexibility day on day to offer the best of what I had to hand was deeply satisfying. 

The kitchen work itself was also terrifically therapeutic. I had not worked in this systematic way of prepping and making mise-en-place for a long time. Getting in early and doing that mindless stuff like chopping, frying, boxing things while listening to music I like over the cafe sound system was familiar and comforting and made the space mine. Each day, look at the remaining vegetables and decide the salads, write them up, make up more of whatever I was low on, check the carrigheen puddings - probably the only really Irish and "on-theme" thing on the menu. Each day was a little better and more organised and delicious than the last. Each day in I added and took away based on what worked and what didn't. The zucchini cake that appeared on the second day made up for the failed cinnamon scrolls.

The first day was a rush as a lot of friends came to show their support and was a bit hectic, but from day two I was organised enough to be able to do everything myself without being stressed out or making people overly wait. That confidence that comes from getting through each day at a profit by yourself from things you made is probably one of the most valuable experiences for me this year.  

It's all about the people.

Oh god, it really is so very much all about the people. It may have been just me standing behind the counter but if it wasn't for Sumi-san, Ralf of The Barn Berlin, Kevin answering my questions about things at all hours, my produce-supplying friends, and then of course most importantly all the amazing people who came and ate and drank coffee at the cafe it would have been nothing. I really felt a powerful sense of gratitude to those people everyday. 

Since quite a number of years ago I've been doing food and event related projects in Dublin and always it's been about having a network of great people to work with, to call on, and then a great network of friends and supporters who are rooting for you that have made it brilliant and successful. For about a year I worked at a Kyoto style bar/restaurant that has been running ten years. I saw how the regulars were the ones that really made the restaurant turn over on a daily basis. The life-blood of the place. Here also, when stuck Ken-san, the owner occasionally calls on ex-staff friends to help out and has helped out at their places in return. So for me, this was an unquestionable truth: no man is an island, your livelihood, especially in this kind of business IS your social connections. You have to love them and respect them and they'll pay it back. 

However back in the dojo, where most of my life happens, someone who I respect a lot told me that they felt the key to success was to have a compact life with as few social connections as possible and that getting involved with people was messy and distracting from our sole pursuit of aikido. I had struggled for quite a long time to see how that made any sense, especially as aikido is about connecting with people quite physically.

In doing this event, I was blown away by how many people went out of their way, brought friends to eat my food. People I've known for only a year or less wanted to come and spend time in the little world I'd created for four days. I got amazing feedback like "It was delicious and a great chance to catch up that friend, I haven't seen them for ages, thank you!". One person came every single day in order to try all four sandwiches. And finally to top it all off, on the last day three Japanese people my age came in and stood at the counter and asked if I recognised them. We last saw year other maybe five years ago when they were studying in Trinity College Dublin and I was a member of the Japanese society there. We hadn't really ever been in touch since then but they had seen the event over Facebook and as they live in Kansai they came to show support. I dunno, maybe I am easily impressed but I think that's absolutely amazing. With that I felt very decisively that I was fucking right. It all starts and ends with the people. If you meet amazing ones, hold on to them no matter what. Even if it's just a tenuous Facebook connection. 

So once again, a heartfelt thanks to everyone who made the Kamome Cafe project a success. For each thing I served, I honestly feel like I got back double. Thank you.

So that's the story of Kamome Cafe. I hope there was something in there for you. For me it was the start of a huge turnaround in my life here in Kyoto that's made me happier and more confident in my strange life choices. The next part will be the sister event in Dublin: Kyoto Soul that happened two weeks or so later. Stay tuned!