Release Date: Oct 20, 2015
At 101 years of age,
Ichiro Sekiguchi is the Coffee Master and head roaster
at Cafe de L’Ambre in Ginza, Tokyo.
Sekiguchi-san was born into a big family – 7 sisters and 2 brothers. He is a single man, has never been married, and still to this very day prepares his own breakfast each morning…all by himself. His nephew (who also works at the cafe) lives downstairs, but their setup is quite separate with their own bathroom and kitchen. Each morning after breakfast, Sekiguchi-san gets ready for work, steps outside, puts his helmet on, gets on the back of his BMW motorcycle, and is chauffeured into Cafe de L’Ambre, about a 15 minute ride. And he starts doing what he has done since 1948 – roast coffee 3 times a day. As one of his staff says while I sit in awe listening to his remarkable story: ”Japanese working a lot”.
By the cafe entrance is a door to the roasting room, which opens up with a part of the roaster actually positioned right outside. The smell of coffee drifts through the back street of Ginza and many passersby stop momentarily to take in this glorious smell. It’s Friday at 3pm and Sekiguchi-san’s 3rd roasting session has just finished. He roasts in small batches to ensure freshness. After roasting, Sekiguchi-san sits back and takes a break. He drinks a cup of coffee, and smokes his pipe.
Sekiguchi-san often says that the Yemen coffee he used to roast and serve about 40 years ago was his favorite, as it used to have endless amounts of character. “Coffee today is nothing like it was back then,” he says. I order a cup of that Yemen one he’s talking about. The staff look confused and explain that those beans were beans from 1975… the joke is on me. I ask what is the most popular drink out of the 30 or so options, “Sun Dried Ethiopian has elegant characters… easy to find and enjoy”.
I watch 28 grams of coffee being ground, and then brewed using a Nel-Drip for a serving of just 75ml. I’m very excited to taste the coffee. There’s a punch. And it’s a dense and rich one. This coffee could easily be mistaken for something alcoholic. (Just to put it in perspective – most newer micro-roasters roast lightly and serve with much less, Switch Coffee uses 15g of coffee for a 240ml serving, Nozy Coffee similarly uses 18g of coffee for a 280ml serving).
It’s well worth the visit. The thick wooden curved counter. The old swivel chairs. Every appliance and coffee tool looks like they were discontinued years ago. I have been to thousands of cafes, but everything here seems completely original.
I ask about the coffee pot. “Sekiguchi-san’s design. No patent. But very easy to pour. Look at this part. It holds the water so well. For drip this is very very good.” It’s obvious; this all evolved from a man that first tasted coffee in junior high school, and was hooked right from the beginning. I feel privileged to be having coffee time here.
I sip my coffee and glance to the left. The two girls who are sitting next to me don’t seem to be Japanese. They are taking photos of the cafe while frantically writing in their notebooks. They tell me they are from Taiwan, and ventured to Japan specifically to visit this coffee shop and meet the coffee legend. Every single thing I’m hearing today is overwhelming… It turns out the two young girls go to a coffee school in Taiwan and are training to become baristas. Their teacher visits Tokyo once a year especially to come to this cafe to continue to learn new (but very old) methods. In their class in Taipei, their teacher often refers to Sekiguchi-san’s techniques, and encourages the students to visit Tokyo during their holidays. I hear them ask if Sekiguchi-san has ever been abroad. “Only Guam, for fishing.” I guess that’s okay – he has fans visit him from all over the world.
One staff tells me that Sekiguchi-san is about to head home and that now might be a good time to say goodbye. Nik and I head for the exit – Sekiguchi-san is on his way out… by himself. Nik goes to grab the door, Sekiguchi-san gestures that he doesn’t need any help today. We go around the front and watch him go to step foot on to his BMW motorbike. His niece comes running out – “helmet, helmet, just a moment!” He puts it on reluctantly, gets on the bike, maneuvers himself to the back of the bike…. His nephew hops on the front and starts the engine. Sekiguchi-san looks towards me, and gives me a nod. We all need a little help every now and then – even this coffee legend.
Photography by Nik van der Giesen