Thursday, August 21, 2014

A Real Happy Place: Namiki Café (Kure, Hiroshima Prefecture)


(BGM: "Natsu No Omoide" by Ketsumeishi)

Approaching Namiki Café from the road...
Isn't it funny how the most inspiring places can come to you completely by chance? That's exactly how we found Namiki Café, and it went a little something like this:

(Rewind a few months...) One clear, crisp afternoon in May, my Hubby had the itching desire to explore some new coastline that we hadn't seen before, so we jumped into the car and headed towards southern Kure. The road was wide and smooth all the way up until Yasuura, where we took a turn towards the Kanda Dockyard and suddenly found ourselves on a frighteningly narrow single lane jungle road with blind corners at nearly every turn. We kept going straight not only to see where the road led, but because there was absolutely nowhere to turn around and head back. We were locked in! When it finally opened up into Shichiura Beach beyond Kawajiri we felt delivered, surprised to have made it through in one piece. (Yes, it was that harrowing. I never exaggerate). 

We drove on towards the shore, past old storage shacks and cabins, fruit trees and gardens; the only thing missing from this scene was a lemonade stand! Beyond a gate of living sculpted pine tree was a standard government-issue concrete structure similar to the kominkan community centers we always see in these small communities. But this building was unique; it was painted in the most vivid array of dreamy, psychadelic colors as if straight off the boardwalks of Santa Barbara, California. Where the heck were we?

Namiki Cafe in Kure, Hiroshima. (Stunning mermaid painted by Hiroshima artist Kodama Kozue).
Quirky signs and curious paintings covered just about every structure: the chicken coop, the outhouse, the café...(café?). Some of the art looked deliberate and some resembled graffiti. But all I could think was awesome! Did we stumble upon a private clubhouse? Was this an artists' commune like we have back in Alaska? I worried for a moment whether or not it was okay to be on their property (like a good American should), but Hubby found the mystique of the place pulling him in like the Death Star tractor beam. 

The funkiest, most glorious chicken coop I've seen in my life!
I told Hubby we should consider turning back, but he ignored my pleadings and parked the car anyways. We both treaded lightly on the crunchy gravel towards the café, passing drunken fellas staggering their way towards the outhouse. I let Hubby cautiously step first through the open front door and we were greeted (somewhat) by two nonchalant dogs, the mascots of Namiki Café.

"Nana." :-)

"Sakura." :-)
Once inside, we noticed people of all ages laughing and chilling in this casually pimped-out pad. The walls, shelves and tables were decorated appropriately with seashells, musical instruments, beach art and lots of books. A wide smile spread like sunrays across my husband's face and I instantly felt at home, reminded of my favorite artsy-fartsy, sea themed hangouts back in Homer, Alaska

Namiki Cafe's unpretentious, laid-back interior.
The colorful and inviting bar at Namiki Café.
The kind, accommodating staff encouraged us to sit wherever we wanted. Hubby spotted a railing-free open deck facing the sea. On it sat black metal garden tables with matching loveseats, which my man immediately claimed for us. Just five seconds after sitting down, I felt as if my whole life had reached its pinnacle. This was plenty for me. I didn't need a single thing more as all my tensions lifted off my skin, evaporating with my sweat into the hot summer air. This entrancing view, these happy people and well-behaved doggies contentedly shuffling to and fro -it was paradise! Again, the Hubby and I had inadvertently stumbled upon yet another earthly heaven while searching for something completely different. I started to feel overwhelmed by our excellent fortune.

If the tide comes in high enough, fish swim underneath the patio. Now that's waterfront dining! :-)
The corners of my mouth stretched upward in a grin as I sat there comfortably, watching other guests playing freely like little children, leaving all inhibition behind. In the distance, three brave young boys in black swimwear took turns leaping off a metal platform into the crystal aquamarine seawater, while giggling college students played volleyball on the beach. (I hadn't seen Japanese people this relaxed since the Earth Garden Aki Festival in Tokyo!) It was a redeeming sight to see!


The chief cook, a gracious young lady with impeccable color sense and a glittering smile, served us cups of ice water along with chilled, fragrant shibori hand towels. Behind me bubbled a large aquarium filled with turbo snails, some beautiful pink and black wrasses and a pufferfish wearing a resentful expression. (Tank occupants change with the seasons). The lapping of waves upon the shore in time with Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's haunting vocals made certain that every one of my senses would become engaged. This was going to be a much-savored treat, indeed!

Pink and black striped wrasses curiously inspect my smartphone.
The whole place vibrated with a natural, playful energy I hadn't felt in a long, long time. Back inside the café, I couldn't ignore the shelf displaying several books by my favorite Japanese author and world-circling philanthropist Takahashi Ayumu, writer of Dear. Wild Child and Love & Free. It didn't take me long to feel some of his inspiration curling in the air around Namiki Café.

"Freedom" (c) 2014 Genkilee, Gen. All Rights Reserved.
But we couldn't sit here staring at the sea forever. This was, after all, a dining establishment! Time to order something, I guess.

This welcoming smile made us feel right at home! 
Fortunately for us, we didn't see the menu inconspicuously placed under the table. From the kitchen above us, a dashing sun-kissed gentleman (whom I actually mistook for an American ex-pat), kept flashing me his disarming smile as he scrubbed and prepped the grill. Making sure his voice reached us from over the wall, he asked us about our stories and shared with us a little history of the place. (He was a sheer delight to converse with!) The owner (Mr. Youjiro Tomie of Hiroshima, owner of BAR Swallowtail), who just happens to be his son, took over this beachside café seven years ago, breathing new life into it with hip art and creative touches.

The most badass basket in town! I swear if it ever stops raining this year, I'm doing this!
We asked about all they had here and he listed off some of the many fun activities and services available at Namiki Café. We were dazzled by the options: rental rowboats, swimming gear, BBQ kits, day-use private rooms with hammocks, all sorts of balls and pool toys available for use and of course, the dog park. Guests could even rent fishing gear, catch a fish and the staff would clean it and turn it into a full-blown meal! And for an unbelievably reasonable fee, it was even possible to stay the night in one of the rooms above the café, fresh egg breakfast included! The only thing they didn't offer was camping space. But further down the beach it was okay to pitch a daycamp tent, providing you picked up after yourself and kept an eye on the tides. This place really had everything! (And if it didn't, I had the feeling the staff would bend over backwards to make sure every request got filled, somehow).

Rowboat rentals available (the push out to sea by the owner is free!). 
I spotted more than a few concepts found in Takahashi Ayumu's writings in effect around here: an environment-friendly approach to business (recycling, re-using, incorporating community produce, etc), a fun atmosphere of play and joie de vivre, a deep-rooted love for humanity, and the feeling of freedom passed on to the customers. Patrons at Namiki Café could fully personalize their dining experience, making it completely their own through hands-on participation.

One love. 
A brief walk around the grounds of Namiki Café helped me to clearly see the effects of this harmonious philosophy in action. Honeybees buzzed peacefully on patio flowers. Goshawks and herons fished undisturbed in tidepools teeming with fish. Grandparents introducing curious children to tiny hermit crabs and other intertidal lifeforms crawling over the sands. Namiki Café had achieved a virtual garden of eden for all to share and enjoy for the mere price of a cup of coffee. And I could sense these joyous vibrations flowing through everyone and everything around here, pulling me in with it like a current. The sensation was exhilarating. 

Tiny life in the seagrass at low tide.
Blazing sunlight heated up the sand around us and all our talking had finally made me hungry! The entertaining, simply-drawn white and blue menu offered an interesting mix of egg dishes (made with fresh eggs from just across the lawn), noodles, an unusual collection of original pizzas, traditional Japanese entrées and other specialties I could forever delve into and never re-emerge.

(Fast-forward to the present moment). From that fateful day in May, I became a hopeless fan of Namiki Café. Over the course of the next few months, we tested various samplings from their menu. Everything we ordered was carefully prepared and arranged, with attention paid to pure, natural flavor. I found the food at Namiki Café a welcome change from the usual.

Rich, smooth creme brulée topped with a cherry from Yamagata! 

Gomen, Sakura. This is people food! :-)
Fresh cheesecake lovingly made with eggs from their own hens. A slice of HEAVEN! 

Scrumptious (!!!) thin crust pizza with fresh tomatoes, savory sausage chunks and herbs. Divine!
Rejuvinating sweet-and-sour perilla (shiso) juice drink, homemade, of course!

A refreshing array of pickles, part of the "taiken lunch."
We even treated ourselves one day to the "taiken lunch." The grillmeister prepared our season-specific fish and served it up alongside hot rice steamed in a traditional kama, some tsukemono pickles and soup. The taiken (体験 do-it-yourself) part of the lunch consists of picking your own egg from the chicken coop, shaving fragrant katsuobushi from a rock-hard filet of dried bonito fish and assembling your own rice bowl topped with raw egg, said fish flakes and a dash of soy sauce. For fans of Japanese food made in the traditional way, this is one experience not to be missed! The whole meal was a lot of fun and really inspiring (would be perfect as a brunch, too!).

The owner (Youjiro Tomie) showing us Hubby's fish: a shimmering pink sea bream.
Juicy, decadent turbo snail grilled tsuboyaki style over glowing hot coals.
And of course, what's a day at the beach without a barbecue? For just five-hundred yen, you can bring your own food and use Namiki Café's BBQ equipment. We celebrated a birthday with a Namiki BBQ spread, making sure to call in advance so they could have everything ready when we got there. For the reasonable price of a standard set lunch, they chose for us a well-balanced mix of fine meats, seafood and vegetables which we grilled right at our own table. Single servings of seafood in season (such as the spring turbo snail pictured above) were available if the meat ran out.

Seaside BBQ anyone? :-)
All of these options were more than satisfying, but we'd only scratched the surface! Namiki's summer outdoor food stand "Umi-no-Ie" (pronounced /ooh-mee-noh-ee-eh/), dishes up other items on the menu such as curry & rice, udon noodles, fish & chips and yakisoba -perfect for hungry kids weary from a fun day in the water. Namiki Café's bar also has a full line of coffees, alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. What more could anyone want?

Namiki Café's outdoor food stall Umi-no-Ie (海の家, Lit: "ocean house").
Obviously, the one thing I always want here is simply more time to enjoy. Minutes melt effortlessly into delicious, relaxing hours at Namiki Café. Helplessly fixated on the ever-changing sea and intrigued by the festival of flavors dancing in my mouth, it's tough for me to notice the time until the hungry cry of a kite soaring overhead snaps me out of my private reverie on cue. When the sun tucks itself in behind the mountains, it's time for the café to close up for the evening. It seemed like decades since I last felt relaxed enough to spend hours in a café without having some task to do like cramming for test. But this place was indeed magic! (It wasn't just me, either. Other patrons have told me they've also experienced the same time-slip effect at Namiki Café, spending up to five hours when they'd only planned on minutes! Thank goodness the staff are so patient).

Detail of wall art by Kodama Kozue.
Anyways, I think I've finally found my "happy place," and it's a place anyone can experience and return to again and again (providing everyone drives slowly down that harrowing jungle road). Once there, allow the feel of the place to really sink in, and you'll know what I mean. Peace.

Darling little ghost crab digs a home by the balcony steps at Namiki Café.

Namiki Café Information
Operating Hours: 10:30am to 6:30pm, year-round and even on rainy days! :-) (Closed on Fridays and certain holidays).
Parking Fee: (Depends on what services you use. Check with the staff).
Facilities: Café, bar, BBQ stalls, seasonal outdoor food stand (open 10:00am to 5:00pm, summer only) rental party rooms (check for availability), dog park, private beach (roped off for safety), volleyball nets, rental rowboats, life vests and other floatation devices, rental swimwear, rental fishing gear, basketball hoop, kiddy pools (summer only), upstairs B&B, BBQ equipment rentals, pay shower, Western-style toilet (in the café), Japanese-style toilets (by the parking lot), and much, much more!
Dog Park: Open from September to June. (Check with staff for rates).
Address: 737-2503 広島県呉市安浦町大字安登 1048-160 波輝カフェ
(In English: Namiki Café, 1048-160 Yasuura-cho, Oaza Ato, Kure-shi, Hiroshima-ken 737-2503)
Access By Car: It might be easiest to plug the above address into your car's navigation system or a navi app and just follow it. Their website also has comprehensive instructions with photos that clearly show (in Japanese) how to get there.
From Kure City: En route to Yasuura, head down Highway 185 past the Mt. Noro turnoff. You'll see a mint green WANTS drugstore on your left and a 7-11 on your right. Turn right at this intersection and you'll see a sign for the Kanda Dockyard. Follow this very narrow road along the coast through a tiny hamlet of Kawajiri, straight through into the woods up the hill. From here there will be cute little Namiki Café signs you can follow. (It's about a 10-minute drive from the 7-11 intersection to the café).
From Akitsu (Higashi-Hiroshima): Facing Kure, head down Highway 185 to the Yasuura Bypass East Entrance intersection (marked by a Family Mart on your left). Turn left onto the Bypass. Follow this highway up the hill for about fifteen minutes, past the Royal Hotel (on your left) until you see Resutoran Momo (レストラン桃), again on your left. It's the tiny U-turn immediately after that (on your left), marked by a blue sign for Mt. Noro. Follow this narrow, winding road down the cliff to the tiny hamlet of Kawajiri until you meet the seawall and turn left yet again. Follow this road straight through to the woods (the Namiki Café signs should be visible at this point). Keep going straight, passing two small beaches (one with a pink flamingo pedal boat). You'll eventually see Namiki Café on your right.
Access By Train & Taxi: Take the JR Kure Line from Hiro, Onomichi or Mihara to Yasuura Kawajiri Station (安浦川尻駅). From there, you can take a taxi to Namiki Café, but be sure to show the driver the above address in Japanese.
Telephone (Japanese Only): (0823)-87-5512 (Since they have lots of property to cover, the staff might not always be able to answer the phone).
Insider's Tips: When it gets really busy during summer weekends, the staff might ask that you carry your own empty tableware to the bar counter. Rented and borrowed items should be returned as well and not left on the beach. (It's only fair since they offer so much). Since omeletts take too many eggs to make, they're only available on weekdays. Also: If you order the BBQ, Nana and Sakura might give you wistful, begging stares for handouts. If you choose to feed them, they will proceed to gently nudge your thigh with their chins and paws until you donate more. (They won't bark or bite. They're very mellow). It's hillarious and endearing, but might make you feel guilty for eating your order. ;-)
For More Information: Check out Namiki Café's homepage or "Like" their Facebook page! Namiki Café holds various events and specials throughout the year, so it's worth checking frequently for updates.

Sakura and Nana hope to see you there!
Copyright 2014 Genkilee, Gen. All rights reserved. No part of this blog (written or photo content) may be reproduced or reprinted without the expressed permission of the author. 

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