Little Canada in Big Tokyo
Dru Tang is a Canadian blogger and honorary Tokyoite. The man behind HinoMaple’s Guidebook and their concierge service that helps travelers find their way across the sprawling metropolis and the rest of the country. Born and raised in Vancouver, B.C, Dru has lived in Tokyo since 2005. During the first 6 months of living here, he set out to explore every corner of Tokyo, getting lost hundreds of times while gathering a vast array of knowledge of the immense megalopolis’ unique culinary and cultural offerings. Dru takes us on a crash course through all the haut-eats in Tokyo, with one catch—they all have to be Canadian!
We first meet up to catch a coffee and an early bite at The Canadian Coffee House, or literally カナディアンコーヒーハウス (Canadian Ko-Hee House) in Tama city. This local staple, with its distinctive building and roof, has been a namesake of the area for over 34 years.
Canadian by name and appearance, The Canadian Coffee House offers the conventional experience of a Japanese coffee house with its traditional ‘morning service.’ A staple that started as a morning ritual for Japanese in the 70s and 80s who were too busy for a traditional Japanese breakfast. Morning service includes a good thick toast with butter and jam, a hard-boiled egg and a cup of hearty coffee (sometimes tea is also available).
Upon entering, you suddenly get the feeling of being in a lodge on a Canadian country road back in the mid 80s. The coffee shop has the appearance of a Canadian log cabin with a curved roof, like the inside of a canoe. The decorations are all cedar, with odd paintings of mountain sceneries, topped with retro stained-glass hanging-lights from the early 80s. One can’t help but be reminded of old diners in towns like Thunder Bay.
As the server manages to tell us, this is due to the Canadian cedar that was used in building the lodge and the exposed wood interior during Japan’s growth in the 80s and 90s when the country was importing vast amounts of Canadian lumber. B.C.’s main importer of timber was Japan up until about 1996, when the results of the Kobe earthquake and the lingering effects of the Japanese economic slowdown nearly ceased lumber imports altogether.
The place first opened in 1984 by a Canadian man who relocated from British Columbia with his Japanese wife. The man formally owned a lumber mill and a tree nunnery in B.C. where the wood for the building actually comes from. As far as the manager can tell us, the original owner’s name was Bradley A. Pelton from B.C (or Baduli). It appears as though during the slowdown, Bradley and his wife sold their coffee shop to the current manager who still remembers them fondly.
The Canadian lumberjack and his Japanese wife, who originally set up the Canadian Coffee House, began their business through the import of lumber into Japan during the nation’s rise into its infamous bubble economy. When the bubble burst, the shop persisted, frozen in time as a testament of a bygone time in the second half of 20th century Japan, as well as Canada. Eventually, the two returned to the town of Maple Ridge, in B.C., where the nunnery is still located (although upon further research, it was sold to a larger consortium in 2008).
Back in Tama city, the building and its counterparts across the country, have remained the same for over 30 years, with little changes to the exterior and interior. The place was passed onto its current owner some time ago. Although the server can’t tell us much more than a few vague details on the place and its owners. As it stands, The Canadian Coffee House is a long-established cafe with an outpost in the area and time-honored regulars. One of the customers tells us that he remembers being interested in the unique shape of the building as a kid nearly 23 years ago.
There are several other Canadian Coffee Houses in equally interesting locations, and the same distinctive construction that evokes a certain nostalgic Canadiana, especially for two B.C. Canadians living in the Far East, sitting inside a Canadian log cabin made of cedar from British Columbia that’s older than the both of us. In a way, this log cabin in Japan is more Canadian than we are.
The other outposts of The Canadian Coffee Shop are scattered throughout Japan in places that the husband and wife duo found interesting during their travels, like the beautiful mountain trail in Aichi prefecture. They can be found in unique settings whose locations hark back to the B.C. coast and its mountains (although one is located in a parking lot somewhere in Osaka). Tucked away throughout Japan, there are a handful of Canadian lodges serving up morning blends to age-old customers. Who knew?
For our second stop the next day, Robson Fries.
Upon shaking off our shared nostalgia for childhood in B.C. in the 80s and 90s; we visit Robson Fries (ロブソンフライズ), named after the popular shopping street in Vancouver. Robson Fries specializes in that fully Quebecois culinary mastery -- known as poutine. When I’m told our next stop is a poutine place or poutinery, I am personally flabbergasted that such a place exists. Not too long ago, after a few beers at an Izakaya in Yokohama, I was craving a poutine convinced that I could never find such a uniquely Quebecois creation in the home of sushi and sashimi. With unabated breath, I await our long travel by train to the poutinery located in central Setagaya, Tokyo.
Although Canadian by name and nature, Robson Fries is owned by Japanese guy who first encountered the dish while living in Vancouver for a year back in 2008. Yuta Fujino is a Canadianphile if you’d ever see one. Originally, Yuta wanted to immigrate to Canada where he tasted gravy for the first time which he curiously calls the ‘brown sauce’, something formally unknown in Japan.
“I was immediately surprised by the combination of fries, cheese and brown sauce. We do not have those kinds of tastes in Japan. The brown sauce is not known here. People were asking me, is it sweet like maple syrup?” he says.
Yuta decided to visit Canada during a leap year, on a one year work/travel visa available to Japanese and Canadians under the age of 30 (as well as a host of other mostly OECD participating countries). These days, he makes frequent trips to Quebec in order to stay faithful to the poutine tradition. Back in 2015, Yuta and his staff, took a culinary trip to Montreal to taste the best poutine in the city. Inspired by the trip, he developed the new menu on offer today; which includes toppings like jalapeño, roast beef, sausage, three different kinds of mushrooms, meatballs, popcorn chicken, as well as newly appropriated Japanese staple—classic grilled chicken.
Although upon ordering I am aghast at the lack of cheese curds, we’re told that they’re simply too hard to import or make. Instead, simply the finest cheddars and mozzarellas available in Japan are used to similarly tasting effects (I might add, to the disapproval of Quebecois readers). Next, we try an array of toppings, including meatballs, mushrooms and roast beef to generally positive results from experienced Canadian taste buds. But, who are we kidding? It’s hard to go wrong with gravy, fries, and cheese (no matter the kind). Adding extra toppings only augments the experience, especially when you’re far from the nearest Canadian city. For anyone who insists that this is not Quebecois, I urge you visit La Roulotte in Montreal (specialists in everything poutine) who also add chopped up wieners and peas to their creations which happens to be one of Yuta’s favorite inspirations. Although in Japan, it would be interesting to see Yuta experiment with some uniquely Japanese ingredients, but as the French say, “c’est la vie.”
Feeling non-surprisingly full, we decide to follow our culinary trip with some Canadian brewskies and some Canuck wines, all while still in Tokyo (believe it or not), at the uniquely Canadian, Whistler Café. Up to this point, I was amused and at the same time confused as to the strange appearance of Canadian inspirations so far from home, like seeing an alien ship in the sky then trying to describe the excitement. Perhaps just like Canadians (and with more Michelin starred restaurants than any other city in the world for them to choose from), Tokyoites are the type of people who are always willing to try a new dining experience as well as anything delicious that comes from halfway across the world.
For our final stop later that night, we visit the Whistler Café. Even as Canadians, sometimes we aren’t fully aware of what Canadian food entails. Not so at the Whistler Café in Tokyo, where a visit would convince you of all the culinary offerings we have to export, some of which pretend to be from somewhere else (original Canadian sushi? Nachos?). At the Whistler Café, everything is Canadian. From wines of B.C.’s Okanagan, to Calgary-bred beef, even the B.C. style California roll with minced fake crab, mayo and avocado. How can the average business, even as an importer/exporter, do all that you ask?
Well, the Canadian Whistler Café started as a venture to promote Canada among Japanese tourists in Japan with the theme of ‘Canada & Skiing’. With a focus on tourists interested in snow culture (i.e. skiing and snowboarding and winter sports). The unique PR stunt took the shape of a pop-up restaurant in the Naeba Ski resort in Niigata prefecture, a place facing the Sea of Japan which typically gets the most snowfall out of anywhere in the world.
Today, The Canadian Whistler Café has expanded to three restaurants, including their popular Tokyo eatery at Jimbo-cho, which we visit late into the night, and another one at the Maiko Ski resort. Noted as the ultimate Canadian dining experience located in the eastern hemisphere, the Whistler Cafe started as a collaboration between Japan’s largest ski resort and Canada’s world-renowned ski capital of Whistler/Blackcomb.
Tonight, the house is serving up Ribulose steak from Montreal and wines from Southern Ontario; the taste of which is uniquely and distinctively Canadian, believe it or not. The potato wedges and cheesy nachos (which are more popular and common in Canadian eateries serving cold brews during hockey games, than in Mexico) can’t hurt either. Opening in 2006, the Whistler Café recently celebrated a decade of serving up the popular tastes and eats of Canada. The café also offers a creatively strange experience that will bring a tear to the eye of any Canadian visiting the Japanese capital. Knowing that an authentic Canuck eatery could be so far from home yet feel so genuinely close to the real thing.
Although few in number, but no less in passion and truly expressive of Canadian identity, these eateries offer a unique window into the soul of everything Canadian. Either through trade, tradition and the fateful marriage of two countries (be it through the union of two people, businesses across the world, or even man and potato); the tastes of Canada are served up in a loyal way which foreigners find as strange and unique and just as much delicious and tasty. Who knew that Canadians were so sought after and exotic?
Thanks to Dru, from HinoMaple’s for showing us around the crazy world of little Canada in Tokyo.