Thursday noon. A scorcher in Utsunomiya. My two Japanese girlfriends have already walked around with our overseas guest before the three of them meet up with my family at noon in front of Utsunomiya City Hall to make a party of five adults and one child. We are hungry, and we were on foot.
Suited workers pour out of City Hall at noon each workday and fill up all the small nearby eateries, especially the good ones. My friend thinks a lot of them reserve seats. Do we even have a chance? Our foreheads glisten with sweat. I suggest we go somewhere by car, beyond reach of hungry civil servants. It is agreed, and we go to the car, parked nearby in the City Hall lot. My husband starts the engine to cool the interior, while I move the child seat to the trunk. We pack in. From this air-conditioned oasis, we continue brainstorming and calling restaurants. Every place, it seems, is full till 1 PM. Maybe it’s because of summer break; kids are out of school and moms don’t feel like making meals in this heat. Mutual hunger builds. We want to take our visiting friend to somewhere unique to Utsunomiya. It’s 12:40.
Far East Kitchen, like the other places, said they were full until 1 PM when we called, but it’s nearby. We decide to try again. Maybe by the time we park, it will be 1.
“Far East Kitchen. Isn’t that a franchise?” our visitor queries. No, this is a privately owned café we assure him. The name does have a familiar ring to it. What is far east for Japanese anyway? California?
“There it is!” I exclaim. If you didn’t know it was there, you could easily miss it. We pull over in the narrow one-way street in front this café. My husband switches on the hazard lights. Tomoko dashes in. She has lunched here before, and recommended this place to the rest of us. Thirty seconds later, she taps on the window of the car with a big smile and thumbs up. We clamber out of the car and dart into this cool café. My husband parks in the big lot down a side street, behind a stone wall, where he no doubt has a quick smoke.
There is nothing “far east” about the interior of Far East Kitchen, unless indeed they were thinking of California. It is fresh, bright, simple, with paned windows, plants, white painted wood. The glass doors open onto cobble stone where some comfy benches are arranged for those waiting to be seated. Nobody is waiting. A friendly, clearly pregnant, server greets our group at the door with a big smile, directs us to our table up 10 steep stairs at the rear of this small café in a kind of loft.
We step up onto the dark wood floor, pass the cash register and kitchen on the right, and the main dining area to the left. Again, like many other eateries in Japan, the word “cozy” fits because while small, it’s comfortable and pleasant.
My three year old son, recently diaper-free, needs to use the facilities right away. At the back, as expected, I spy a door marked “Toilet” beside several brightly colored plastic high chairs. “Yeah!” I exclaim in delight at the sight of both. My friends go on up the stairs.
The lady server taps on the door marked “toilet” for me, then opens it slightly, then closes it again, gives me a please wait gesture and leaves. A gentleman server brushes past me, picks up a high chair and lugs it up the ladder-like stairs. I wait. I can see about 6 tables. Mostly lady diners.
Soon we climb the steep stairs to see for ourselves what is up there. We find more shelves of books, a window, sparse walls, nice lighting, a high ceiling, two counter nooks and one table, where our party pours over the menu options.
My husband quickly translates lunch set options. All, it seems, cost Y1050. Shrimp spaghetti with cream tomato sauce. Japanese curry with root vegetables. Omerice. Famished, we chose quickly. Dessert is an extra Y210. I find shaved ice as a menu option (with sweetened milk another Y50) and request that, seeing the flavors are similar to Dough-Doughnuts down the street where we were served awesome shaved ice two weeks previously. I am told this café too makes theirs with natural ice, frozen in the mountains of Nikko during the winter months, stored there and brought to town for this dessert. Of course this is a summer specialty. All menu options change regularly at Far East Café.
Our salads quickly come. They are very basic, with a shrimp on the side as garnish. I savor the tangy creamy dressing. Next, the main course. I ordered the root vegetable and chicken curry. The main root vegetable is lotus root. It’s good. The chicken is cubed and easy for my son to eat. The curry is very mild, with a sweet note, as is typical in Japan. It is a miracle we got photos before all is devoured (well, no photo of the salad, we were too hungry at that point).
My son and I wait near the kitchen to see them make his dessert. Staff tips us off when it is time to see the giant ice cube shaved with the hand-crank machine. They add syrup, then more ice, then syrup and seem to repeat that process quite a few times until the shaved ice is piled high in the bowl. How they got it up the stairs is a wonder. The dessert lacks the chunks of mango that topped the same dish down the street, but as it is 1/5 the price, so I don’t mind. I am too full to try the other desserts that come to our table, but what variety and great presentation! Oh, and our set meal also comes with a drink. We choose mango juice (yes, we like mango!)
Coffee is not the main reason people visit cafés in Japan. They tend to be a place to socialize with friends for lunch, and are especially popular with ladies who, I think, have a sweeter tooth then men, hence fantastic desserts at Japanese cafes are common. I spot several men in the café as we were leaving so I could be wrong.
Far East Kitchen, I heard, is relatively new. The owners had a café in Nasu previously. The café is part of the revitalization of Momiji Dori. Like many streets in downtown Utsunomiya, there are many older shops that appear not busy and I dare say a bit dusty. One reason is lack of parking. Several places nearby including Far East Café and Dough Doughnuts now share an empty lot for parking and that really drums up business. Far East Kitchen's blog says they have parking for 12 cars, but I think they are speaking of the size of the entire shared lot so that is only possible nobody else is using the lot.
Far East Café is not a cat café or a maid café, so may not be of much interest to the traveler. If you have never visited a modern café in Japan, and are near downtown Utsunomiya, you may want to check it out. I have visited dozens of equally nice cafes. The staff smiles, the high chair and the shaved ice (kaki gori) made our visit to Far East Kitchen a delight.