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Cafes with a Twist

Candles, Crafts, and Picture Books Soothe Customers

Cafes provide opportunities for relaxation, and visitors to Japan can find close to 300,000 such outlets throughout the country. These days, many cafes provide more than just a place to enjoy a snack with a cup of coffee or tea. A growing number of distinctive "concept cafes" are catering to customers' needs in innovative ways. Some seek to create a therapeutic atmosphere, while others serve as venues for live entertainment or to communicate the latest trends. Still others offer patrons the chance to further particular hobbies or interests.

Softly Lit Venues for Peaceful Contemplation Cafe Slow, located in the city of Kokubunji in Tokyo, is the perfect place to free oneself of worry and stress and escape from the noise and commotion of everyday life. Every Friday evening is "Kurayami Cafe" (Cafe in the Dark) night. Lights are turned off, tabletop candles flicker amid the darkened interior, and live music can be heard playing softly, creating the perfect atmosphere for quiet reflection.

Cafe Slow is a "community cafe" that embraces the importance of organic food and natural energy. The shop is dedicated to showcasing a lifestyle that does not overburden the natural environment, a concept that extends all the way down to its earthen floors. Its Cafe in the Dark was launched in 2001 as a precursor to Candle Night, an event in which people turn off their lights for an evening and illuminate their surroundings with candles instead. Candle Night is held all over Japan each summer and winter solstice in the name of "forgoing electricity and rediscovering nature." With darkness and light (candles) representing nature and humankind, the use of candles helps spread a culture of environmental consciousness. Regulars report that the cafe's atmosphere has a highly curative effect. The dim lighting heightens the senses, and listening to live music helps put customers' minds at ease.

Picture Books, Handicrafts, and TravelCafes boasting shelves lined with picture books are also gaining popularity. These "picture book cafes" have found particular favor among women, who appear to find a sense of comfort in the nostalgia invoked by reading such books. Among these are some cafes that stock exclusively foreign picture books. Book and Cafe Ehon House (ehon is Japanese for picture book) in Tokyo's Mejiro district, for example, has roughly 4,000 picture books from over 30 different countries.

Another variety of innovative cafe lets customers make craftworks while they enjoy their drinks. Tabela, for instance, a cafe and restaurant in Tokyo's Shibuya City, offers handicraft lessons approximately once a month, in which attendees learn to make accessories by crocheting and other techniques. The lessons have become so popular that the tables are usually filled to capacity. Many of the participants are groups of women who share the same hobby and attend on a regular basis.



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The city of Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, is home to another of Japan's unusual cafes. Travel Cafe Samarkand is the brainchild of a husband and wife team with many years of experience working for travel agencies and as tour guides. The cafe features foods and drinks from countries around the world and also serves as a venue for international exchange by hosting parties and other events to which foreign students are invited. A wide selection of pamphlets and travel guides are available for customers to peruse, and staff are always happy to dispense advice on both domestic and overseas travel. Customers can even book tickets at the cafe, making an ideal destination for globetrotting cafe-goers.

Launchpad for Hot New TrendsHills Cafe/Space is located in the Roppongi Hills complex in Tokyo's Minato City, a popular gathering place for fashion-conscious Tokyoites. The shop serves as a venue for spreading information on the latest trends; it operates as both a hip cafe and a venue for different events, each of which inspires a makeover of the cafe's interior.

Recently, Hills Cafe/Space hosted the live recording of a talk-radio program in an event held by convenience store chain Family Mart to commemorate the launch of a new beverage. It has also showcased products at a health and beauty event sponsored by major electronics maker Panasonic. At the same event, a special beverage made of rose and polyphenol-rich cranberry juice was served. The drink was named Cleopatra after the ancient Egyptian queen, who reputedly swore by roses as a means of maintaining her beautiful skin. Yet another event held at the cafe featured sales of the wildly popular Hanabatake Farm brand of fresh caramel, a melt-in-your-mouth confection that is very hard to come by. This event drew about 1,500 people each day over the course of its run. (August 2009)

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