For the Japanese, drinking coffee is a collective lifestyle, shared and adored by millions. In Tokyo alone, there are nearly a thousand cafes, offering coffee drinkers a brief respite from the bustling city. It’s because of the love for this aromatic brew that many decide to venture into the coffee business, but this is easier said than done. In a super metropolis where rental is sky-high, owning a brick-and-mortar place is no easy feat. Enter the “mobile cafe”, where capital remains relatively low, thanks to the no-frills coffee truck concept. It’s said that to find great coffee, all you need to do is follow its unmistakable scented trail.
Today, we paid a visit to Aoki-san, who has been operating in Chiba prefecture for almost five years now. He used to be a salaryman who loved his aromatic morning pick-me-up on the way to the office, working the 9-to-5 routine just like everyone else. One day, an “aha” moment came to him: what if he blended business with pleasure and started selling his own coffee? Throwing caution to the wind, he traded in his briefcase for an apron, and started exploring his passion by apprenticing in a cafe at the ripe old age of 27.
It was there that Aoki-san befriended a man who owned a coffee truck, and the two hit it off, often ending up having long conversations about coffee. His friend extended an invitation to join him as an assistant, and Aoki-san readily agreed, coming on board to help on his off days. For the next three years, Aoki-san lived and breathed coffee. Realizing that he had become well-acquainted enough with the intricacies of operating a mobile coffee truck, he decided to venture out and start his own humble business.
It’s been five years since Aoki-san started his daily rounds on the streets of Chiba. When asked “What’s the biggest challenge of all?”, his answer isn’t about preparing the coffee, but instead, about how to find the best parking spot to set up for the day. “To operate with total peace of mind, it’s necessary to obtain a proper license from the City Council. There’s also one more thing – how can we make sure that this tiny sliver of space in the cabin stays spotless and inviting, so that passersby feel tempted to stop by for a cup of lovingly-brewed coffee?” From Aoki-san’s words, the meticulous, thoughtful nature of the Japanese becomes even more evident. (Take this year’s World Cup for example; Japanese fans took the initiative to clean up after the match, leaving the stadium cleaner than it had been before.)
For the coffee nomad, a day’s work isn’t just about grinding and blending; it’s also about appreciating and finding satisfaction in the smallest things we tend to take for granted. Aoki-san likes to partake in activities and festivals that allow him to traverse Japan in his mobile cafe. Apart from taking in the beautiful scenery, he also gets to rub shoulders with people from all walks of life, broadening his horizons and gaining new experiences along the way. This is exactly the kind of life he’d be missing out on had he stayed within the confines of his corporate cubicle, he quips.
With every change of venue, more coffee enthusiasts (both local and international) get to taste Aoki-san’s hand-blended coffee, bringing forth even more positive reviews from various social media platforms. This has created a steady fan base of curious newcomers and returning loyalists, some of whom even take the trouble to hunt down the location of Aoki-san’s truck in search of yet another cup of well-made java. To him, this is the best type of encouragement.
Aoki-san believes that the pursuit of the perfect cup of coffee is never-ending. He bases his criteria on the aroma, followed closely by the taste – “slightly sweet, not sour and not bitter”. Even after finishing the coffee, the aftertaste that lingers should be one that’s worth recalling.
A melodious female voice floats towards us from the counter, making us wonder if there’s any type of music Aoki-san prefers. Jazz, he replies without missing a beat. “It creates a comfortable, relaxing feeling, and the rhythm is a great accompaniment to my coffee blending!”
Rightfully said, by the man who appreciates the uncommon, judging from his uniquely-shaped portable speakers that also boast an impressive sound quality. We took a peek at his carefully-curated cafe playlist, and to our delight, found a library of jazz tunes that would definitely put a smile on even the most particular customer’s face!