Sunday, February 05, 2006


Sutaabakkusu is Japanese for Starbucks. And I'm going to come out of the closet and admit that I am a fan. "Boo, hiss" I hear my reader cry. "Why are you supporting such an evil culturally-imperialistic faceless multinational corporation as it stamps its ugly jackboot in the face of timeless Japanese culture and beauty?"

It's 100% no smoking, that's why.

One of the more annoying features of everyday Japan is the omnipresence of smokers. The proportion of the male population who smoke is one of the highest in the world - and there's no getting away from them. I wouldn't care if they kept it to themselves, but they don't. Until recently, a lot of cafes and restaurants didn't even have a no-smoking section. So although you might go in, spot a quiet smog-free corner and sit down there, you would always have the risk that 5 minutes later some old man would sit right next to you, and start coughing and spluttering and blowing smoke over you and your food. This "cigarette of Damocles" hanging over us is hardly conducive to a relaxing meal. Even when a cafe had a no-smoking section, it was never anything more than a few tables barely visible through the haze - about as much use as a "no pissing" end in a swimming pool.

And then, after we'd been here for a year or so, the first Starbucks opened in Kamakura. And it was 100% no smoking (there are a few tables outside for the addicts). And everyone flocked there. For - surprisingly enough - the non-smokers actually outnumber the smokers, and even the smokers like to sit down in a nice clean environment every now and again (you must have noticed how the smoking carriages on trains are always the last to fill up, with smokers preferring to sit in a non-smoking area and pop out for a smoke once or twice).

There was an article about the success of Starbucks in the JT a couple of years ago. OK, here it is. I remember thinking at the time that the author was astonishingly out of touch in the way he seemed to think that their growth was despite, rather than substantially because of, their no smoking policy. Perhaps in his sneering superiority, he had never actually been to one. Maybe he is one of the addicts for whom clean air is an unwelcome assault on the senses. Maybe he is just a nutcase. Anyway, the rest of Japan is scrabbling to follow in Starbucks' footsteps, with no smoking areas now springing up all over the place. Even the newly rebranded in-house JapanRailways "Becks" cafes - haunt of the haggard overworked salaryman - now generally have large, well-segregated no smoking areas. The small branch in Ofuna station is 100% no-smoking for at least part of the day. Our favourite restaurant is also fully no smoking (it's the best Indian restaurant in Japan, so be sure to try it out when you're in the area). There are still plenty of smoky dives to be found, but they are slowly dying out. I'd prefer it if they went no-smoking themselves, but as it is, when I want a coffee or a snack, I look out for the green and white sign.

Recently, a new and even better Starbucks has opened in Kamakura. It might have happened some time ago - it's in a part of town we rarely visit (west of the centre, in front of the city office). It's a big bright airy building and even has a view into a garden. So I can often be found there on a Sunday morning, worshipping the roasted bean at the Church of St Arbucks. In fact, I wrote most of this blog there. Who's for a green tea jelly frappuccino with whipped cream and caramel?

Update 5/2/06

And I'd just like to mention that British-style pub The Tavern in Yokohama has just implemented a no-smoking side too, which is great news! The owner said that far from chasing away customers, it had proved a great success so far. With the bar splitting the room into 2 sections, it looks like the smoke-free part should stay fairly clear. The pub does good British-style food so it will be much improved without someone puffing away right next to us. I know I'll be more likely to pop in for a drink and a bite to eat. Thanks John!

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