Yanaka Tokyo-05 - Yanaka exterior

Think for a moment about random acts of kindness: big or small, there’s something about a good deed that makes us feel good. It might be giving up a seat on a crowded train, sharing an umbrella in the rain, or a kind word on a bad day. Sometimes, it might be as simple as a free cup of coffee—exactly the case at Yanaka Coffee in Tokyo’s Shimokitazawa neighborhood, where good deeds cost twelve stamps, and come in the form of a unique pay-it-forward card.

Yanaka has been supplying and roasting coffee for the citizens of Tokyo for some thirteen years now, with stores spread throughout twenty-four different locations. And while the basics are always the same—a focus on a wide selections of beans and coffee roasted to order—each store is unique in terms of style, design, and approach. What makes the Shimokitazawa branch interesting is a simple board filled with an ever-growing number of stamp cards: the Onokuri Board.

Yanaka Tokyo-01 - onokuri board

You see, each cup of coffee at Yanaka earns you a stamp on an onokuri, or “pay it forward” card. Twelve stamps results in a free cup of coffee for anyone at all, so long as it’s not you. The aim is to get people thinking more about giving than taking. Completed cards are addressed to a lucky someone and placed on the Onokuri Board, where they wait patiently for pick up.

“When we started in April, people didn’t understand the concept,” says owner Ryuji Tanikawa. “We had to explain the idea—that it’s fun to share something nice. But once people caught on they ran with it and started getting creative. Everyone seems to have a lot of fun with it.”

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Yanaka Tokyo-09 - coffee and counter

The wall tells a colorful and eccentric tale of Shimokitazawa and the local Yanaka coffee community. While some cards are addressed to people by name, others reach out more generally, and others still are humorously specific. There’s a great sense of playful communication and connection through inside jokes and a shared sense of fun. Here’s a transcription (from Japanese) of just a few of the cards up right now on the Yanaka Onokuri Board:

To: A sweet tooth (From: A foodie)
To: A cat lover (From: A fellow cat lover)
To: A woman (From: A man)
To: A beef lover
To: Anyone who visits my shop
To: Anyone who just moved to Shimokitazawa (From: a friend)
To: Any man with glasses and a beard (From: A man in glasses with a beard)
To: Anyone who follows my Twitter account!

The backs of cards are signed by whoever uses them, and Yanaka keeps them in a clear plastic folder by the register. It totals around fifty now, and it makes for a fun look at communication between friends and strangers alike. Signed cards range from a simple thank you to longer messages and sometimes even illustrations.

Yanaka Tokyo-04 - more signed stamp cards

One card addressed to “Anyone who had something nice happen to them today” is signed, “I’m getting married in July, and I’m in town today to pick up the ring! Thanks!”

Another, addressed to, “Any disgruntled man less than 160cm tall” (From: “A 156cm tall man”) is signed, “I’m only 158.9 centimeters tall, but let’s do our best! Thanks for the coffee!”

Yanaka Tokyo-11 - to anyone from yamaguchi prefecture

Owner Ryuji Tanikawa says, “For us, this is a way to meet people, connect people, and create a sense of community. For customers, it’s easy and it’s fun: all they have to do is come in, enjoy their coffee, and share it with others. It’s been a fun way to open lines of communication between people.”

With fifty cards in the book, another seventy on the wall, and some 400 more floating around in people’s pockets, wallets, bags, and purses, it feels as though they’ve started a movement here at Yanaka’s Shimokitazawa branch. Fortunately, this system is easily replicable, and it echoes the “buy a cup, give a cup” coffee shop cork boards from an earlier, simpler time. Tokyo is a huge city, and can feel impersonal at times, but not here. This is more than just a free cup of coffee; it is a community-building, neighborhood-loving, karma-positive act of human kindness!

Yanaka Tokyo-08 - yanaka coffee bag design

Yanaka Coffee’s Shimokitazawa cafe is located at Setagaya-ku, Tokyo 2-33-6 Kitazawa. Hours daily from 11am to 8pm. More information is available by phone at 0120-935-466, or online at Yanaka’s official website.

Hengtee Lim is a Sprudge.com staff writer based in Tokyo. Read more Hengtee Lim on Sprudge.  

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