A café created by the couple to “offer something real”

The café is “Nem Coffee & Espresso”, a hidden gem in Hiroo, Tokyo.

Enter a narrow lane and you will see this café, a mere 2-3 minutes’ walk from the station but tucked away in a quiet residential area. The owners of this café are a husband and wife team of Takumi and Akiyo Watanabe.

To realize his teenage dream of one day owning his own shop, Takumi started working at a surf shop selling and repairing surfboards. After refining his skills, he worked at an interior furnishings shop, “HIKKADUWA Nishiazabu” where he acquired interior and space design skills.

At “Fireking Café” in Yoyogi Uehara, he learned about service, the basics of the food and beverage industry. Lastly but most importantly, he acquired his coffee skills from learning to be a barista at “Saturdays NYC Daikanyama”.

Akiyo worked in sales and operations at a clothing brand and after working as the store manager of the second-hand store “PASS THE BATON Omotesando”, she worked sales and as a barista at a coffee roaster.

In 2016, at the same time that these two got married, this café opened.

The store is on the first floor of an old, renovated house.

At the front of the café is a silk tree (known as nem no ki in Japanese and the origin of the store’s name) with widespread branches that welcomes its customers. Inside, it is filled will the warmth of the tree while comfortable jazz music plays in the background.

Their French press coffee that is carefully brewed, one cup at a time, tastes both clean and comforting.

The silk tree purchased from Kagoshima blooms flowers in the summer. The language of these flowers is delight, tranquility, creativity, and matrimonial happiness, which is perfectly fitting for this café.

Takumi is in charge of decorating the store’s interior with plants.  When I visited in the early days of the summer for this article, there was refreshing mint displayed on the counter.

Store interior. “People from many different countries come to our store so I wanted it to be without a specific nationality identity.”

The two have a shared desire. It is their conviction to “offer something real”.

They have a “no photography” rule in the café unlike many cafes and coffee shops.

They hope that customers visit the café thinking “I want to drink good coffee again”, “I want to have a leisurely cup while chatting with friends”.

Takumi says “We hope to become a café that is loved by our neighbors but we keep advertising to a minimum and ideally people visit by finding out about us through positive word of mouth. We want to be a place that our neighborhood regulars who come every day are able to sit and relax whenever they visit so we also don’t want the place to get too busy.

We also want to avoid the spread of only the surface layer of information taking on a life of its own in ways we aren’t aware of.” (Takumi)

“We hope to continue honing our skills while slowly but surely improving our café” (Akiyo)

It was by choosing to be “genuine” and placing importance on true nature that they began to incorporate the concept of nature, sustainability, and being considerate of the earth as well as of people.

How is Nem Coffee & Espresso being ethical?

3 ethical actions taken by the Watanabes

01: Straws are eco-friendly

“Straws for iced coffees consumed in the café are made of stainless steel while for take-out orders, we use straws made from plant-based materials such as sugarcane.

Plastic cups are all recycled PET and we have also introduced straw-less cups.

Originally, many of the customers at Nem tended to sit to have their drink, even if just for a couple minutes or they would bring their own tumblers.  But as we move forward, we are currently looking for paper cups and lids for take-out that use materials which are ethical and can be returned to the earth.” (Takumi)

Iced oat milk latte 640 yen / Single origin iced coffee 610 yen~

02: Energy used is also natural energy

Coffee machines when in use, consume a fair amount of electricity.

“In 2016 when there was a deregulation of electricity, one of our customers said, “there’s a company that deals with natural energy” and recommended us to Shizen Energy Inc. (a natural energy company).

Now, we extract coffee using renewable energy such as sunlight and wind power, and even the second floor, which is our residence, uses 100% natural electricity.

During the seasons with many sunny days, solar energy is abundant which helps us save on the electricity bill for the following month and this has made us even more conscious of the weather and seasons. There is a lot we have started to do based on our conversations with our customers and we have obtained a lot of knowledge from them.” (Takumi)

03: Wide range of milk-alternative products

From left, oat milk, almond milk, soy milk

“I have always had a dairy allergy and I can’t drink caffe lattes that use cow’s milk. I also can’t eat nuts.

We have almond milk, oat milk ,and soy milk that go well with coffee so that even those with various predispositions are able to enjoy a latte” (Akiyo)

Food items carefully selected by the couple and their new dream for the future

The store’s counter is lined with carefully selected products beginning with coffee beans and baked goods. What caught our attention was the “Rakutaki Genmai (soaked brown rice)” which is a Koshihikari brand of brown rice, made in Takumi’s hometown of Niigata.

They sell not only food items related to the café but also a selection of items they believe to be “truly good” and by giving us with a glimpse into the producers behind the product, there is a sense of security with their selection.

Akiyo has yet another dream.

“Ever since I was young, I have had sensitive skin” says Akiyo who is allergic to additives and synthetic detergents. Therefore, as much as possible, the dishwashing detergent and laundry detergent for their store and residence is plant-based.

They also take into consideration the environment by not using any petroleum-based surfactant or products that use palm oil.

“However, I still sometimes have skin problems. For people like me who struggle with this, work in the food and beverage industry, or damage their hands from washing with water, my goal is to develop and sell daily necessities such as moisturizing creams for those winter days when hands get dry from the skin directly touching detergent and from washing.” (Akiyo)

She is currently studying hard to acquire an Australian Government-certified “diploma of clinical aromatherapy”. Her objective is to make 100% organic products that are kind to “people” and the “environment” and uses producers, raw materials, and manufacturing that are safe.

To that end, a lot of knowledge is necessary. There are many different rules that intermingle, and amidst many vague regulations regarding organic certifications, in order to make products that have obtained the world’s most uniform standard ,the “Cosmos Organic certification”, Akiyo decided to obtain this diploma.

Akiyo says, “I’m starting with what can be done now. Little by little, we are adopting things that we can easily continue doing. Moving forward, we hope we can continue listening to the opinion of our customers and materializing things that we believe from the bottom of our heart to be “good”.

What is most attractive is the changes to the space every time one visits

In one corner of the café, a gift from Paris from a regular customer

The most attractive aspect of Nem Coffee & Espresso is “building together with the customer.” The white spaces in the café are brought to life with gifts from regulars, messages written on the wall by people from many different countries, and items from customers who work as designers and artists.

Together with the growth of the silk tree, I am filled with excitement to see how the café will continue to change and update itself.

Nem Coffee & Espresso

Opened May 2016. Their concept is “coffee that you want to drink every day”. The coffee is medium roasted, smooth, and clean with a pleasant flavor. In addition to coffee, there are light meals such as sandwiches and baked goods on sale. This café is fashionable and the refined space is attractive for adults to relax comfortably.

Photographs by Tomoko Yonetamari (G.P.FLAG)

* Information in this article are as of September 9, 2020

Sonomi Takeo

Freelance editor and writer. Born and raised in Tokyo but loves nature. Currently lives in Kamakura. After having worked at a publishing company editing fashion magazines, a magazine focused on Hawaii, and cooking magazines, she became a freelance editor and writer. Since becoming independent, she has worked in a wide range of fields including being the editor of a video media site, directing an ecommerce site for a clothing brand, and writing about cosmetics and interviews. She moved to Kamakura after becoming ill and discovered wellness. She realized the importance of nature and the environment and became interested in ethical consumption. She continues to study about this topic.

English translation by Kumiko Kaneda