Five years into the 21st century and trends have become so fast-paced that they no longer make any sense. Our culture rusts immediately upon touching the air. The so-called “trendy café” feels dated the minute it opens. By the time the blueprints are drawn and the pillars erected, the table design, seat upholstery, and menu fonts have all become considerably outmoded.
We, fashionable individuals, must then retreat back to the basics, the teiban (定番). So if you want a cup of coffee, there is nowhere better in Japan — nay, the world — than Lion in Shibuya — Tokyo’s premier classical music kissaten.
Lion was originally built in the first year of the Showa Era (1926), but burned up in the WWII firebombing of Tokyo. They were miraculously able to restore it to its original design in 1950 — which appears to be based on a miniature 19th century European concert hall. Two gigantic, high-quality speakers are nestled in the altar area. Patrons sit in creaky wooden seats that all face the music. Tables are separated by high dividers — almost like we are riding on the Orient Express from Munich to Vienna.
The lights are low and the air vaguely smells of pipe smoke. Music is the main event, so talking is strongly discouraged. Waiters slip menus for their antiquated beverage selection — “milk egg,” anyone? — onto the table, and orders are taken in whispers. The experience is a bit like going to church with all the text removed. When a piece ends, the manager will come on the intercom and announce the title, but otherwise, there is little noise to distract from the music.
Today, I enjoyed a milk coffee while listening to Mozart’s delightful flute sonatas K10-K15 (written at the age of eight). Caffeine goes very well with the baroque harpsichord arpegiating at 100 miles per hour with the high-pitched toot-toot of the clavi organ.
The only downside to Lion is when people come in who don’t know the Lions Club rules and start gabbing away like it was Excelsior. Things are so quiet that even hushed human voices can easily override symphonic grandeur. Perhaps this is an apt metaphor for Japan. Everything works in beautiful harmony until clueless outsiders pop in and start disobeying the orders.