Set in the hills just outside Asahikawa, Cafe Good Life offers more than just a good meal for those who make the journey. Established a little more than five years ago, the cafe attracts tourists drawn to nearby Asahidake, Hokkaido's tallest peak, as well as locals from the surrounding towns. (The Shibuya's built their reputation for good food and charm during a five-year stint at a rental property near Higashikawa.) Reasonably priced, delicious food in a beautiful rural setting is what attracts them, but it's the atmosphere the owners, Shibuya and his wife Machiko, create that makes people linger and keeps them coming back.
The sight of an old tractor and a small wooden sign are all that mark the entrance between tall oaks. The cafe and adjacent studio, a matched set of small wood and stone buildings of Shibuya's own design, sit back from the road in gardens overflowing with black raspberry brambles, blueberry bushes, vegetables, herbs and flowers. Sondre, the chocolate labrador named after the father of Shibuya's first passion - telemark skiing, greets guests with a friendly tail wag before guiding them along the gravel path to the front door.
Cafe Good Life is a masterpiece of coziness and visual interest for all seasons. Bees trundle about the garden in summer near patio tables shaded by leafy vines. Light plays over the snow-covered landscape visible through one of the cafe's enormous windows while the warmth of the wood stove seeps into cold toes. An eclectic assortment of metal sculptures, old agricultural and antique kitchen tools, decorate the walls. Sondre wanders in and out, mingling freely with the guests or flops on the wood floor to observe the action before dozing off.
Puddles of melted snow just begin to form under my boots when my lunch set arrives: a steaming plate of vegetable curry, salad, and bread. The smell alone reassures me that I've made the right choice. The curry is creamy and spicy, and I savor the okra, squash, carrot, onion, shishito (mildly hot Japanese pepper), eggplant, mushroom, and potato in turn. Chunks of whole spices surface as I eat. Paired with the salad of crisp lettuce, shredded cabbage, carrot, and a single slice of lacy lotus root all dressed with a sweet-vinegar dressing, I'm lost in the swirl of flavor and color.
The kitchen where Machiko bustles about with her small staff produces a variety of dishes favorable to vegetarians and meat-lovers alike. Tomato and bean soup with fresh bread, a generous hamburger, homemade gnocchi, along with carefully constructed desserts are all spectacularly satisfying. Dishes and desserts, including the cake I'm nearly too full to eat, incorporate fresh or preserved garden bounty as the season dictates. The coffee, too, is good and strong.
Machiko, wiping her hands on her apron, emerges during a lull in cooking to help customers choose a tea, jam, marmalade, honey, or spice mix from the small display near the register. Most items, including a selection of sweet breads and Sondre-shaped cookies, are crafted on the spot or made locally. Meanwhile, Shibuya brings in a fresh load of firewood and sits down to talk with a small family who just arrived. Within moments, the little girl and Sondre head off to explore the snowy grounds while I settle in with my coffee and reach for my book. After all, I'm on vacation, too.
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Joan Lambert Bailey lives and writes in Tokyo where she is lucky enough to get her hands dirty on a local organic farm in between forays to explore Japan from top to bottom. You can read about her adventures learning about Japanese food from seed to harvest to table at Japan Farmers Markets.