It was the day after I arrived in Japan, and now the buzz of getting here had subsided, I realised I craved the buzz of a cup of coffee.
There was no kettle, English tea or instant coffee in the accommodation where we were staying, an inner city apartment that I was sharing with Jack, the other sophomore here for a semester of mathematics and good food.
I hustled up and down a few streets for a convenience store. I found one, nestled among high-rise buildings, down the third street I searched. It was plastered in screens showing bright and chirpy displays of bargains that lay within.
Inside was like walking into the future. Clean and bright. Japanese writing everywhere. And a couple of store maids, immaculate in blue and white uniforms, pottering amongst the aisles, putting slight touches to the alignment of products that already looked perfect.
One thing I could not sense anywhere was a coffee machine. There were no mounds of coffee beans waiting to be freshly ground, no barista sacrificing themselves to the fine art of the brew, no telltale whirring or steaming noise of hot milk being frothed, nor was there the velvet smell of a flat white being gently layered into a takeaway cup.
Back home in Auckland, you didn't have to go to a coffee shop to get a coffee. Overpriced coffee was everywhere, in service stations, bookshops, and even convenience stores. Why had I assumed it'd be the same here?
I suddenly felt tired. What if I don’t manage to find a cup of coffee? My caffeine levels were dropping, I could feel I was getting cranky. How was I going to get through the day?
I summoned some courage, perhaps not dutch courage but caffeine withdrawal courage, and approached one of the young store ladies. She wore a blue and white dress that was surprisingly short, and looked a bit like a fancy dress sailor, except very feminine.
"Konnichiwa," I said.
She said the same hello back, bowed, and said a lot of stuff very fast that I didn't understand. But it sounded musical and beautiful.
"Where can I find some coffee, please?" I replied.
She frowned slightly, blushed and then giggled to fill the silence.
"Coffee. Where?" I said louder as if her ability to hear was the problem rather than the fact that she didn't speak English.
She smiled sweetly and was graciously patient. She finally said, "Sumimasen, watashi wa anata o rikai dekinai."
I took her to be saying she didn't understand. And yet, rather than getting impatient, how did she command so much grace with me, a complete foreigner, obviously rudely assuming everyone spoke his language and even doing the classic near shouting to gain comprehension?
"Coffee?" I said, with a hint of crestfallen, the dream fading fast.
I remembered that Jack, who I was flatting with here, had shown me an app after we landed where he held his mobile over Japanese writing and it would magically show the English translation. That was a super cool trick but it wouldn’t help now. Unless I could ask her to write things down. But first, she’d had to understand my request, and it was probably easier to get her to understand the fact that I wanted coffee rather than an abstract plan to communicate.
I shook my head and must have looked quite the sight to her. The scruffy student lost in his own thoughts. Desperate, I got my mobile out anyway as if it was a great oracle that could provide answers. I opened the app store. The loading circle went round and round. Why was it taking so long? I looked at the top right of the screen and saw there was no internet connection. Of course. I was not set up to use my phone in Japan yet. I hadn’t gotten around to it after we arrived last night and I’d just crashed out.
Graciously, unexpectedly, she took out her mobile and smiled. It was the latest Samsung, and she’d stuck a picture of an anime character with big adorable eyes on the back. She tapped away and handed it over.
She'd brought up a web-based translation service and the English part read: "How could I help you?"
I smiled. Typed in "Coffee." Which was translated to "Kōhī". And showed her.
She said, "Ahh," which was the first word she'd said that I'd fully understood, and gestured me to follow her.
We arrived at a giant refrigerator that was full of cans. All of them said Kōhī on them, or コーヒー. They were all cold cans of coffee, sacrilegious if you asked me, and I did my best to maintain composure.
She looked at me expectantly, awaiting the happy customer appreciation moment, but I just couldn't deliver it. Taking inspiration from her grace, I smiled and gently tugged at her mobile, typed "Hot" into the app and showed her the result: "Hotto".
"Ahh," she said again, and my percentage comprehension rate increased further. She ushered me to follow her with an increased sense of urgency.
She led me to a far corner of the store that seemed tucked away from regular customers and with a flourish pointed out the coffee machine. I was disappointed, to say the least. It was a black rectangular thing with four grey buttons. On the top were styrofoam cups, which you placed under a little plastic tube to get your drink.
I feigned another smile. She pointed at the correct button to press and waited dutifully. I placed the styrofoam cup, its tacky feel an affront to my palm, into the allotted place on the drip tray and pushed the button. The machine made a clearing sound, like someone clearing their nose, and then a slightly translucent white liquid, which I assumed must be milk, trickled out. It stopped, and there was another clearing sound at a higher pitch, and then, finally, a golden black colour emerged into the cup. The cup filled about halfway and then stopped.
She looked at me expectantly, curious to see me sample this delicacy. So I took a sip. It was an oxymoronic moment. On the one hand, it was the foulest, vilest coffee I'd ever drunk. The milk was slightly off, and the coffee was the cheapest insulting instant you could find. But on the other hand, it was still a coffee. And I was finally getting my hit. And how it tasted at this point was only a secondary concern. So I was able to smile for her. "Good," I said.
She seemed pleased.
We headed to the till and I handed over the smallest bill in yen that I had and was relieved that it seemed to be the right amount to be giving. She handed back some coins. Her hands were soft. There was another customer waiting but she kept looking at me and smiling. I held her gaze.
“What is your name?” I said.
“Sakura,” she said, seeming to understand perfectly.
“Jake,” I said.
I kept coming back to that convenience store each day after that. And it wasn’t for the coffee.