Friday, January 8, 2010

Hats Off to Harimaya

Business at the American Embassy here in Tokyo yesterday took me to Toranomon, an upscale part of town situated along the Ginza Subway Line. One thing you can always count on in this city is the surprise of something new. More I think than is the case in large metropolitan Western cities, Tokyo is ever-changing. Cycles of rebuilding and renewal are shorter here, and traditional thinking holds that unless it is a landmark structure, a building is old in ten years and ready for replacement. But with many of the modern skyscrapers and building projects today, that way of thinking will have to change. Still, ground level facades and stores continue to come and go. I had not been to Toranomon in a while and was surprised to see the new Free Café Harimaya Station.
Imagine a cafe on Fifth Avenue or Rodeo Drive where a person can enjoy coffee, tea and snacks without spending a cent. And make no mistake, Harimaya Station is no soup kitchen, but instead a smart, well-designed and totally comfortable oasis for shoppers and business people. There are at least two cafés in Tokyo (another is in Ginza), and others in the western cities of Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe and Fukuoka. In addition to fresh coffee, tea and juice, people can help themselves to a range of traditional Harimaya Honten rice snacks at the buffet bar.
So, what’s going on with these cafes located in high rent areas serving food and drink at no charge whatsoever? Harimaya Honten, a company making traditional Japanese rice crackers (senbei and okaki), and the sponsor of these free cafés, says they have two goals: to share the delicious taste of traditional Japanese rice crackers with young Japanese, and to share with young people the seriousness and pressing nature of environmental problems. Let me quote their management philosophy: ‘The central tenets of our management philosophy are our heartfelt desire for every person throughout the world to be able to live in lasting peace and happiness and our desire to enhance and develop the humanity and cultural sensitivities of the Japanese people…’ Company President, Sukejiro Harimaya says, “My one and only absolute goal in life is to provide fundamental solutions to global environmental problems.”
I do admire this philosophy and goal, and Harimaya gets five stars for that, but lest we lose sight of reality, let me point out that Harimaya Honten stocks all the Free Café Harimaya Stations with their own boxed products, which are not free, but for sale. From what I saw, the cashiers at those counters aren’t twiddling thumbs.
Below is a translation of the sign in front of the café.
Now, and continuing on into the future, everything in Harimaya Station is free for guests. The selection of rice crackers at the buffet is also free of charge. Please relax and enjoy some time in Free Café Harimaya Station. When the café is crowded please be considerate and make room for others. We are sorry, but none of the food or drink can be taken out. (As loud or ill-behaved children are a bother to others, please keep an eye on your children.)
Note on two photos: Photos of the senbei bar and the café interior with tables are from another café location.

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America