I found this cafe while walking from my mom’s apartment to my dad’s new retirement home in an area too remote to be called a suburb but not quite rural. I saw a river, a rice field, a driving school, and a row of houses. I didn’t see any other pedestrians. A strange location for a cafe, I thought. The door, tinted deep green, said “Cafe Star River.” I couldn’t see through it. The windows were obscured by the bushes. There was no menu posted outside. The image of this place lingered in my head for a few days.
On the way back from my dad today, I decided to go in. It was smaller than I imagined, with about twenty seats. A couple was finishing lunch. I sat down, and an old lady came out with a glass of iced barley tea. On the walls were many antique clocks, an antique mirror with the Coca-Cola logo, and an Oklahoma license plate.
I ordered the ginger pork lunch set with rice, miso soup, two small plates of Japanese pickles, and crackers—600 yen, about $4.20. The quality of food in Japan is much higher in general, so I can walk into any random restaurant and expect a delicious meal. Star River was no exception.
After the couple left, I asked the lady how old the cafe is. About forty years, she replied. Her husband had studied in America in his youth and brought back some of the pieces of Americana adorning the cafe, including some of the chairs. He now has a heart condition that prevents him from working, and she runs the place by herself. I told her I live in New York. She was pleasantly surprised and said her husband would have enjoyed chatting with me.
For most Japanese people, especially those living in suburbs and rural areas, the world outside Japan has no reality, something they see only on TV. It was rare for someone from her generation to have lived abroad, an experience others could only understand in concept.
It may not be wise to judge a book by its cover, but Star River’s facade somehow told me there is a story inside I’d be interested in. The idiosyncrasies of the otherwise ordinary cafe functioned like secret codes. After all, I, too, harbor a secret inside the otherwise ordinary Japanese facade.
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