Where true bonds between human and culture are created

Jul 21, 2018

Where true bonds between human and culture are created

Coffee L’ambre

On a side-street in Shinjuku, there’s an amber sign for classical music cafe: fitting for a place named L’ambre. It opened its doors in 1969, opened by the current owner Yasuhiro Shigemitsu’s grandparents. They believed that culture is born from kissaten (western style coffee shops) — a place where you can come up with new ideas, and share inspiration through conversation. It was a part of a post-war revival of music spaces, after a ban on most international music was lifted.

Inside, a flight of stairs leads you to a cavernous underground seating area with burgundy velvet chairs. The interior is an homage to Europe, among other places the founders liked to travel. “Locals would call this a Western-style cafe because of the chandeliers, the velvet chairs, the faux wooden windows on the wall. But it’s always fascinating to hear that this cafe looks Japanese from the perspective of international customers. I guess it’s a Japanese interpretation of other countries, and that’s what makes it feel Japanese.”

In this retro space, it’s no surprise that it’s a cash-only institution. Although not uncommon in Japan, here the decision is meaningful. “When our staff handle money directly, and then see how we use funds to source ingredients, and pay their salary, it teaches something important about the flow of money, and the centrality of human interaction in it all.”

This care for relationships extends beyond staff and customers, to the neighborhood. “We’ve been buying our ice cream from the same place for the past 50 years. They make it fresh every day and deliver it to us.” They also have strong relationships with businesses on their street, predominantly through the annual local festivals. These ties are what it means to do business in Shinjuku. Every year they go to the streets, carrying a portable shrine on their shoulders just like they carry the histories of family businesses, and the neighborhood, on their backs.