A single cup of coffee can move people’s hearts and become a turning point in their lives. Offering specialty coffee in Japan’s former capital Kyoto, ABOUT US COFFEE strives to touch the senses of visitors. We interviewed proprietor Yasunari Sawanoi, who says, “That something that touches and resonates within a person is different depending on each person and that is why I insist on diversity. “
It doesn’t have to start with coffee
In the old streets of Fushimi Inari, Kyoto, is a building that almost looks like a gentleman in a black suit. The white Roman letters of ABOUT US COFFEE are written vertically like Japaneseto create an artistic atmosphere.
Many people may stop by the shop because its appearance tells their intuition that it must be a place where they can encounter something fashionable and exciting. Inside the store, the interior feels spacious with an abundance of white.
“White is like a canvas and black is like a painting frame. I wanted the shop to be a place where the staff, customers, and products add color to this canvas, so I pursued a monotone and chic atmosphere. I am happy to see that the catchy design attracts many young customers. Originally, because of Kyoto’s location, I wanted to attract tourists and people from overseas, but six months after opening we were hit by COVID-19.”
Sawanoi, who has a pleasant smile on his face while he answers our questions, is of course one of the people who add color to this canvas. Some days he wears a slim suit, and other days he chooses a more casual style like a hoodie.
“The customers are the main component, so I pay attention to the color of the clothes I wear but I don’t set any rules. I believe that a diverse outfit for staff is a part of the store’s color scheme as well. Any incentive to come to this shop is fine. Some people come because they are interested in specialty coffee, while others are attracted to the store’s interior and atmosphere. What is important is that people come here and find a cup of coffee that will leave a lasting impression on them. I want as many people as possible to have that experience, so I was particular about an interior design that attracts people.”
Starting a coffee shop with zero years in the industry
“I hope that people from all walks of life will come to this shop and encounter coffee, regardless of their incentive to visit.” says Sawanoi, whose passion for coffee stems from his dislike of it as a student.
“At the time, coffee was just something I drank to stay awake while studying for school tests. Of course back then, I used to drink instant coffee. When I became a college student, I started going to cafés, but I mainly enjoyed the stylish atmosphere and didn’t realize the appeal of coffee. It wasn’t until I became a working adult that a cup of coffee had an impact on me. It may sound like a cliché, but I was surprised by its fruitiness.”
Sawanoi’s interest in coffee started there, but he had never worked in the coffee industry before opening his shop.
“At the opening, I was already 30 years old. I thought that starting a business would be a shorter route to my goals than learning the trade somewhere else. Of course, I had my worries. But during an apprentice period, the scope of the work you are entrusted with is fixed, isn’t it? Rather than that, I thought that I would be able to develop faster if I took on the responsibility all at once, so I took the plunge.”
After that, Sawanoi enjoyed visiting cafés and began to think about starting a career in coffee while working as an apparel salesperson for a luxury brand.
“Both of my parents were self-employed, so I didn’t imagine myself continuing to be an office worker until I retired. When I was contemplating what I could do, coffee became my guiding light. While working as a salaried employee, I went to a technical school and learned everything from extraction and roasting techniques to running a café.”
Playing the lead role in your life
The name of the shop, ABOUT US COFFEE has two meanings. The first is that everyone, including the producers, involved in the process of creating a cup of specialty coffee — in other words, all of “us” — plays a leading role.
“The other is a message to customers: Everyone is the main character in their own life, so let’s make our own way in it. It’s a message that I want to keep telling myself and one that I want to spread to as many people as possible through this shop, which is why it’s not focused only on”ME”, but “US”.
When I was a child, I was the type of person who walked the path laid out by my parents. I took entrance exams at schools that my parents decided on, and I was forced to take up martial arts even though I really wanted to play baseball. Looking back on it now, it was a good experience, but I wanted to do what I wanted to do. That is what led me to feel that I only have one life, and I want to live it my way.”
As a reaction to these experiences during his school days, Sawanoi’s desire to express himself became stronger. When he started working in the apparel industry, he chose to work for top fashion brands such as those that appear at the Paris Fashion Week.
“I think that individuality is the accumulation of experience that comes to the surface. People are always influenced by someone or something. What we see, what we hear, and other experiences accumulate as seeds of our senses and become a part of us. When you think about it, the experience of being exposed to various things leads to the opportunity for a person to change. That’s why I want to create a place where people can acquire various experiences from the shop’s interior, staff, and coffee, so that they can make it into something of their own.”
A coffee shop that expresses diversity
Diversity is the keyword to create a shop that can inspire or make an impact on customers. In addition to the standard blended coffee, the shop offers about five different types of coffee selections, with as little overlap as possible in the coffee’s individuality.
“Just as there is a fashion for every situation, there is a cup of coffee for every situation and mood, and I believe that what resonates with a person’s senses is unique. The production area, process, or roasting degree that I like, may not necessarily resonate with other people, on the other hand, I may have an unexpected encounter with a cup of coffee that will leave a lasting impression. In the past, I’ve had such experiences, and here I am. I want to create opportunities for people to encounter coffees they have never tasted before, so I offer tastings on weekends.”
If you want to achieve diversity, it may seem like a good idea to simply select and purchase a wide variety of coffee, but Sawanoi is aiming for an assortment that can only be found here.
“When speaking about a wide variety of coffees, I want to express ‘my idea of diversity’ in them. That’s why I decided to start from roasting. What is interesting about roasting is that it is a process that brings out the individuality of the coffee, but you cannot add something it doesn’t have.
In other words, there is only so much you can do with roasting. Roasters put their heart and soul into how to make their coffee manifest itself. One of the roasters I admire, Mr. Aono of aoma coffee, uses the phrase “to shape up the coffee”. It’s not enough to simply bring out the individuality of the coffee.
I think it’s important to combine it with the approach of expanding its potential.”
Opening the door to coffee
In the two years since its opening, the number of customers who visit the shop has been increasing, despite the challenges in the food and beverage industry because of COVID-19. This is likely due to Sawanoi’s passion to create his shop.
“I’m grateful that so many people are coming. Many of them come to the shop to find comfort and fulfillment in the atmosphere, and some of them are not fond of coffee. But when they say, ‘I would drink this, It’s good!’ It reminds me of my past self, and that makes me happy.
I believe that one of the keys to enjoying and mastering anything is to know the spectrum of its quality. I realized this when I was exposed to the top brands in the fashion industry. The waves of fashion created by the top tier brands take several years to arrive in Japan. In other words, if you know the top tier quality of the spectrum beforehand, you can predict what will come next, which makes it easier for you to act.
Besides, knowing the top tier of the spectrum can help you see the true nature of the lower tier of the spectrum. For example, take an expensive piece of clothing as top tier, and compare it to a reasonably priced piece of clothing. If the latter is made of high-quality materials for that price, you will be able to identify its value because you are familiar with the top tier.
Whether it’s fashion, art, wine, or anything else, it tends to require a lot of money and time to get to know top tier quality. However, top tier coffee (specialty coffee) is accessible and widely enjoyable. I think that’s the fun and good thing about the world of coffee. Recently, I had a new opportunity to drink commodity coffee from Central and South America, and I was surprised to find that it was a lot better than I had expected, and I think that was because I am familiar with top tier coffee.”
More recently, more and more young people have been approaching Sawanoi at the shop, saying they want to open a café. According to the roaster who teaches at the technical school he attended, nine out of twelve students who entered the school did so because they admired Sawanoi. This is a sign that they do not only enjoy coffee, but also want to enter the world of coffee from the same angle, perhaps due to an impactful cup of coffee.
“Labor in the fashion industry is increasingly being addressed as a social issue these days, and the coffee industry is in a similar position. It’s sad to see an industry you love in bad shape for such reasons. I would be happy if I can contribute to the industry even a little bit by providing good coffee.”
Currently, ABOUT US COFFEE is preparing to open its second roasting location. We are looking forward to seeing this shop, which offers a variety of coffees and their knowledge to gently open the door to the world of coffee, appear in a new city with a new look.
Originally written in Japanese by Chiho Maezawa
Edited by Tatsuya Nakamichi
Photo by Makiko Takemura
Translated by Jouke van der Woude
Tasting a cup that I have never experienced before always excites me. My heart skips a beat when I encounter a farm, a method of production, or a flavor that is new to me. As the concept of the shop suggests, I am always looking for opportunities to encounter and be influenced by something new.