INTERVIEW WITH THE OWNER OF THE HIPPEST CHEESECAKE JOINT IN KYOTO
You told me that you traveled quite a bit before you came to Japan?
I left New York when I was twenty years old with a one-way ticket on a freighter to Morocco and no clear
travel plan. On the ship I met a hippie from San Francisco who filled my head with fantastic stories
of Nepal and India and that was that. I was on the road. I took trains, busses and hitchhiked my way to Benares.
How did you wind up in Japan?
The first time, I took a ship from Bombay for what I thought would be a two month stay. I arrived in Kobe in October ‘69. My plan was to be back to be back in the USA for Christmas. I stayed for two years. So much for plans….
Was your first plan to have a cafe?
No, no. Not at all. I sometimes thought that owning a coffee shop would be cool, but I was far from ready to make that commitment at twenty-one. My first job was at a bar in Matsuyama in Shikoku for a few months, then I went to Tokyo and actually sold “Humouristic World Maps” (ahhh the hippie days!!) to shop owners up and down the arcade streets in Tokyo. I did that with a friend who was also traveling around theworld.
That’s a bit of a jump to owning a cafe! How did that happen?
After two years in Japan I went to Indonesia, Europe and the USA and returned to Japan in 1978. By then I was married with a five year old daughter so the free wheeling’ days were over. I taught English while learning wood
working and laquering techniques. Eventually I got a teaching job at a university. It was only a few hours a week, so I decided that it was time for me to make the coffee shop a reality. We opened our first shop in 1985.
Did it start off as a cheese cake shop?
It was originally supposed to be a Cheesecake Cafe’, but I was advised to offer some savoury foods so we made it into a sandwich shop and called it Knuckle’s (if you don’t get that ask a New York Friend). It was successful and our cheesecake line grew to a dozen or more flavours. They became so popular that after five years we decided to open a New York Cheesecake Specialty Café. The beauty of cakes is that they are all prepared in advance ending kitchen overload so quality control is easier. Eventually we added back some savoury dishes and now offer lunches and light
There is a lot to say about the food, but can you talk about the design of the Rokkaku Café?
In any owner operated café or restaurant you step into, remember that everything you see from the light fixtures to the sugar bowl was chosen. Every cup, every spoon, in a sense has a story. For this shop at Ryokkaku, I asked Sheyen Ikeda to oversee construction and design. He is very talented and also insists (to whatever degree possible) on using locally sourced materials. He and his partner Shimotori-San would go to saw mills and visit craftsmen in the area
to select wood, tiles, etc. for the interior. The result is what you see. The café is new, but because of the detail to natural materials the it feels like it has been here forever.
Can you talk about the paintings in your shop for a bit?
The original Papa Jon’s Café near Doshisha University is a gallery/cafe. We have shown local and expat artists work there from the very beginning (1990). I started collecting pieces from the shows. Most all of the art in the stores was created by friends.
It’s also no secret that you paint as well!
Yes, I started to paint four years ago. It was a fluke, really! I wanted to put some color graphics on the walls. I got wood panels cut to size and started painting. The first graphic was a red bell pepper. It is simple but I liked it enough to be encouraged. I thought, “Wow, I can do this.” It was an amazing feeling – discovering I could do something that
I previously considered out of reach.
Last question! Would you have any tips for those also wanting to open their own café?
It is important build trust with the community. In the first year of business, I decided to close shop and take a one month vacation (unheard of). I came back to find a lot some suppliers upset with me. I talked with some Japanese friends and was told that I had let the community (nakama) down. They depended on me even if only in a small way fro their sales. It was hard to gain that trust back. Treasure and build your relationships with the people you do business with. It’s a family…it’s a lifestyle.
Message from the Owner:
Hope you enjoyed reading about the Papa Jon’s. This year in October we will celebrate our 26th anniversary.
Check our Facebook page for details on sale dates.
By Life in Kansai