Saturday, April 4th, 7:30 a.m.—While the Nishihara neighborhood begins to awaken from its slumber, Paddlers Coffee celebrates the grand opening of its very first cafe. As the day wears on and the space fills with visitors and passersby, it feels more like a friend’s living room and terrace than a coffeehouse. A few people sit chatting on the Portland-made sofa, while others sip Stumptown Coffee and chat at a communal table in the center. Music from a vintage record player fills the interior. Outside, cherry blossom petals occasionally float lazily on down from a tree.
“It’s not perfect,” says owner Daisuke Matsushima, but it’s the first space they have that truly feels like it’s their own—and in time, they hope it will blossom into a hub for communication and new experiences.
“We wanted to make the new space simple,” he says. “We didn’t want to make it like, too cool. It’s just supposed to be warm. I want everybody to come. People with pets, older people, younger people. This is a neighborhood area, and I wanted to make it a space for anybody and everybody.”
Paddlers started out as a coffee stand pop-up at Life Son, and was the only place you could get Stumptown in Tokyo. After a year, they moved in with Todd Snyder’s, a swanky speak-easy space that is still active. But after two years, Daisuke was ready for a place to call his own—somewhere slightly bigger, and with espresso to go with the ever-present Chemex pour-over. The decision to set up in the local neighborhood of Nishihara was twofold: first, to say thanks to the local crowd that supported them at the start, and second, to bring a little youthful energy to an aging neighborhood shoutengai, or shopping arcade.
Says Daisuke, “I really like the idea of the shoutengai, that collection of shops that make up the neighborhood just outside of the station. My parents owned a watch shop, so I was born and raised in shoutengai. I grew up hanging out with next door neighbors who ran sushi shops and lunch shops. I love the idea of independent shops, and I wanted to be a part of it.”
The new store is something of an ode to the Paddlers way of life, and Daisuke says the people who put it together are all friends, from the construction workers to the interior designers to the architects. The feeling on the construction site five days out was one of hard work and friends putting in time. People who shared a laugh at working too late, then simply stayed overnight amid the construction so they could start up again with the sunrise.
And speaking of sunrise, I ask, why set your grand opening at 7:30 in the morning? According to Daisuke, Paddlers wants to introduce a morning coffee culture to Tokyo, and they hope that a gradual cultural shift will result in locals and travelers alike meeting for a morning coffee and getting their days off to good starts.
“We speak both Japanese and English here, so we can share the good spots in Tokyo—the cool shops and the cool places,” Daisuke tells me. “I wanted a space where people can come from overseas and really enjoy Japan while they’re here. I mean, everybody needs coffee, right? I want people to go home and share their love of Tokyo—it would be great if we could help with that.”
But I was curious as to how it all started—besides the distinct log cabin setup, Paddlers is the only place you can get Stumptown coffee in Japan. How does a person realize they want to run a coffee shop, and how do they get there once they’ve decided?
Daisuke spent his high school and college years in Portland, but says he didn’t think much of coffee at the time. After returning to Japan at 21, he worked just long enough to head off traveling again, but moved back home to help with volunteer work when the tsunami devastated northern Japan in 2011. It was here that the seeds of Paddlers Coffee were first planted—in the communal, shared accommodation, where everyone lived together, cooked together, and shared experiences. It was something he felt was missing in Tokyo.
“Coffee is cheap, but it’s the best way to gather people and have them relax. It’s the only space where people can gather everyday, you know? When I went to Portland to learn about coffee, I would always go to Stumptown. Maybe I didn’t drink coffee all the time, but it was the space I liked—it helped start my day, or maybe I just hung out with people. In Tokyo, I feel like we need that too.”
But with zero experience, Daisuke needed somewhere to start, so he jumped on a plane to Guatemala, and lived out of Crossroads Cafe in Panajachel for a month, hitchhiking around coffee plantations and learning the process from the ground up, firsthand. Daisuke says he’s always preferred to dive into things head first and learn up close, through experience.
On his way back to Japan, Daisuke dropped by Portland, and took an interest in the local coffee scene while catching up with old friends. After stumbling into a local cupping, he struck up conversation with a Stumptown wholesale account manager. From there things took off, and after enrolling in some Stumptown training sessions, Daisuke was back in Japan with a backpack full of Stumptown Coffee and a desire to find his own space, a space he would eventually name Paddlers.
“The name Paddlers Coffee comes from the saying ‘paddle out,’ and it’s about going with the flow. There’s no need to rush, and that’s our theme. I feel like people in Tokyo walk fast, and I feel like they need a space to forget about that pace. I learned that in Portland, and I want to share that.”
It’s a simple idea that permeates the modest interior of the cafe, from the retro tiling against the back wall to the low-tech records and cassette tapes that sit on a shelf by the espresso machine. These old-world touches help create a subtle message to any visitor at Paddlers Coffee: take a moment to remember a time that was a little slower, and relax among good company, good vibes, and good coffee.