Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan

Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan

A weeklong electronic journal.
Sept. 10 1997 3:30 AM

Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan

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       We walked into the Doutor coffee shop in our building this morning, drenched and dripping from Tokyo's second straight day of apocalyptic rain. Like every other coffee shop in this city--every other public place, really--our Doutor is filled with cigarette smoke thick enough to hang our umbrellas on. It is nearly impossible to get into a taxi or to eat in a restaurant here without stinking of smoke. This coffee shop is like a blue-gray curtain we pass through every morning to get from the sidewalk to our desks.
       The tables are filled with people drinking watery coffee and eating pastries that look good but taste like pulp. Japan is home to some of the world's most delicious food--nobody does it better with rice and fish--but morning food is maddening. Tokyo's coffee shops and bakeries sometimes don't open until 10 o'clock. Finally, a bagel store opened in our neighborhood and, sure enough, it opens at 10 and is closed on Sundays. One day we delayed going to work and waited for it to open. As we walked in, a huge tray of sesame bagels was waltzing out of the oven. Delirious, we asked for half a dozen. "Oh, no, sorry," said the clerk. All these were for a special order. Right at this moment, there were NONE available. So it was out the door and back to those Japanese muffins and croissants that toy with you. They look all fluffy and inviting. But it's an illusion, like virtual food. The pastries rip sickly in your teeth like a gas station cheese sandwich. It's like they were made by somebody working from a photograph, not a recipe. Maybe that's why so many people eat hot dogs instead. Japanese coffee shops do a big morning business in wieners. Our Doutor has three kinds: the lettuce dog, the spicy dog, and the German dog. Nothing like a cup of Joe and a sauerkraut dog to get the pistons pumping in the morning.
       As bad as the pastries are, the coffee is worse, which makes no sense at all because the Japanese consume tons of it. Chains like Doutor and Pronto are always packed with customers: businessmen in their blue suits bingeing on cigarettes and espresso; schoolgirls in their blue skirts and saggy white socks giggling over tall glasses of milky iced coffee; "office ladies" in their blue uniforms sipping cups of weak "blend" coffee. Although tea is Japan's traditional drink, the caffeine buzz that keeps Tokyo humming comes from coffee. But most of it is nasty. The espresso drinks are bitter and harsh, and the "American"-style coffee is weak and thin. If you're a caffeine addict, it takes at least two cups to even get your sleepy brain's attention.
       Thankfully, Starbucks has arrived. We never thought that grass-green Starbucks logo would look so good. When we left Washington two years ago, there were at least six cafes within a mile of our house. We joked about being glad to be away from all that silly coffee lingo, glad to never again hear anybody order a tall skinny mocha latte. But when the first Starbucks opened here last year, nobody got there faster than we did. There are now nine or 10 Starbucks shops in Tokyo, but none of them is close to our house or office. On weekends, we have been known to take a $10 taxi ride to the closest one, where there is coffee with actual taste and real cranberry muffins. Oddly, the prices are about the same as they are in Washington, even though everything else here is priced as if every person in Japan owned a Saudi Arabian oil well.
       This is not to say we think American stuff is better than Japanese stuff. (But the United States really does win when it comes to breakfast: These Japanese squash muffins and potato pastries are disgusting.) Maybe this is why Japanese people are so skinny: They don't eat breakfast, aren't tempted by a waffle with strawberries and whipped cream or a Spanish omelet or an all-you-can-eat IHOP run. Still, this country is on a diet craze: Young women who would have to shop in the petite department of any American department store are taping their index fingers because it is supposed to control the appetite. They are swearing off sweets and, at lunchtime, they eat rice balls and hit up the vending machines for one of the many no-calorie Japanese diet drinks. Of course, when we use the vending machines we are not going for the Zero Calorie High Vitamin Drink. We buy the $5 Asahi beer (one very large can, ice cold). We have never actually plopped in $16 for the really bad Chilean chardonnay that one of our neighborhood machines offers, but we have often wondered what stops 10-year-olds from getting smashed on all the booze, even whiskey, that is dispensed in outdoor machines. Now, there are many, many things available in vending machines here: $100 stuffed bears, cameras, gift-wrapped ties, $20 bags of rice. The country is mad about automation. But why, we wonder, can't they make breakfast? At this point we would take a cab ride for a good box of Hostess doughnuts.

Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan are co-bureau chiefs for the Washington Post in Tokyo.