When Cafe Casa’s popular hotcakes were featured on a well-known Japanese television program, the lines of customers waiting to try one stretched down the block for several weeks. But while the cafe’s fluffy, thick version of a classic pancake may be what draws many people there initially, regulars know that it has much more than that to offer. Tucked behind a welcoming facade of colourful plants and twinkling string lights, Cafe Casa is in many ways a quintessentially Tokyo establishment, representing both the old and the new. It has occupied its homey space for over three decades, and its die-hard customers have fond memories of the days when its original proprietress would serve them cakes and coffee while engaging them in a conversation on whatever topic took their fancy. Today, the faces have changed, but the friendly atmosphere still remains. The cafe is now run by the original owner’s daughter, Ai, and her American husband, Jonathan Hebert. The mother still drops in from time to time to mingle with the diners, and the family dog, Mame-chan, also holds court in the hall. For Hebert, it’s not a life that he could have imagined for himself when he was working as a decorative painter in Boston, but it’s one he has embraced wholeheartedly. “I started off by washing the dishes when everyone else was busy making hotcakes, and I have gradually learned the ropes since then,” he says. Hebert and his family live above the cafe, and on a typical day he is the first one in the kitchen, preparing the hotcake batter and making the nel drip coffee, a time-consuming process that he describes as a kind of meditation. Next come the part-time staff, who prep for the lunch rush before Ai comes down and begins the cooking. While some of the menu items, including the famous hotcakes, have been passed down from her mother, Ai developed many of the current recipes herself. Having studied cooking in Florence, she enjoys experimenting with different methods and combinations that are well suited to Casa’s tiny kitchen. One of her best-selling inventions is the baked keema curry, which consists of a layer of rice in a skillet, topped with spicy curry, shredded cheese, and a whole egg before being cooked in the oven. “Unless we continue to innovate, people get bored with it,” Hebert says. “We’re trying to turn the cruise ship. We don’t want to change too much too quickly, but we do want to take it in a new direction.” That new direction also includes the cafe’s look. While it retains its classic Showa-era charm, Hebert has used his artistic skills to put his own personal touch on it. He added colourful stained glass windows to the front wall, and his illustrations grace the menu and signboards. “We just want this to be the place where people are comfortable coming. Casa in Spanish is house, so I want this to feel like a home, for Japanese and foreigners alike,” Hebert says.
The humble rice ball, for centuries a cornerstone of the everyday Japanese diet, is normally known as an onigiri. Mothers make them for their children before they go to school. Office workers grab them from convenience store shelves to eat at their desks. But Chieko Okura’s rice balls are different. And she calls them ‘omusubi’. “The word onigiri sounds so hard,” says Okura, owner of a small restaurant specialising in rice balls. “But omusubi is soft and attractive.” Indeed, the rice balls she creates at Omusubi Marusankaku deserve a name of beauty. In one, tiny ‘sakuraebi’ shrimps appear to be swimming below the surface. Purple chrysanthemum pickles spiral through the rice grains of another, or in springtime edible cherry blossom flowers. Her brown rice and ginger omusubi radiates a soft, golden glow. A thoughtful woman whose life has benefited from both good planning and good fortune, Okura chose the name of her shop, Marusankaku, with characteristic consideration. Combining the two words ‘maru’ (circle) and ‘sankaku’ (triangle), it describes the shapes of the foods she makes. Okura points one-by-one at the three corners of a triangular omusubi. “Rice. Salt. Water,” she says. “They’re the three most important ingredients of any rice ball.” In the native Shinto religion, rice, salt and water are symbols of harmony and the key ingredients of meals offered to the gods. Even the word ‘omusubi’, she goes on to explain, is connected to the name of Shinto deities. Harmony also describes her parallel career as an architect and ‘colourist’ designing medical facilities and buildings for senior citizens that “balance the needs of humans, nature and the city,” she says. She discover healing potential in rice balls while designing colour workshops for school children. “I was looking for something they could make with their hands using many different colours,” she recalls. “Rice balls were perfect.” Out walking in the Jingumae neighbourhood, she happened upon the space that would become Marusankaku, renovating it with clean lines, a soothing palette, and plenty of natural wood. In the kitchen a black ‘donabe’ clay pot sits on the stove, slow-cooking the rice; out front, sliced radishes and mushrooms lie in a circular wicker tray, drying in the sun. Marusankaku is regularly open for breakfast and lunch, and most customers order their rice balls to take away. Those who don’t can sit at stools along the kitchen counter or at two small tables – one a circle, the other a triangle. Keen to show that ‘omusubi’ are more than just snacks, Okura hosts evening wine-pairing events, at which she serves bite-size rice balls with ingredients like dried tomatoes or lemon. She keeps a collection of serving vessels for these special occasions – fine ceramics, perfectly weighted teacups, and cocoons of carefully carved wood. “We need contact with beautiful things in our daily lives,” she says. “They can be healing.”