Not far from the business district in the harbour city Kobe, and 5 minutes or so walk from Sannomiya JR station, unassumingly tucked away on a first floor you can find Cafe Keshipearl. We discovered it just as they were celebrating their 5th Anniversary of opening.
The understated signage at street level was stylishly attractive. When I first walked in I loved the look of the place. The interior design was minimal but certainly designed, lots of wood, and looking like a middle-class professional couple's apartment.
Stylistically, Cafe Keshipearl could be described as the anti-Starbucks. Whereas the Seattle-born global mega-chain can be noisy, busy, bustling places, Keshipearl aims to provide a serene haven from all such invasions of personal space.
Contemporary versions of Simon and Garfunkel-inspired folk music lilt softly in the background. Everything feels like it is treated with reverence. The lighting is so low the cafe has the Stygian gloom of night, despite it being the middle of a bright, sunny spring day.
First impressions are that this could be the holy grail of coffee and cheesecake (a classic paring that the Japanese have totally mastered), where the experience is elevated to something close either to a Michelin Star restaurant or a devout religious experience.
Patrons whisper their thoughts to one another in barely perceptible murmurs. The lone girl on the table next to us never makes a sound. The cafe even promotes Quiet Nights, when chat is prohibited. The aim to provide a tranquil space in which people can simply be together - and that (and a coffee and cheesecake) is all that is either needed or wanted by patrons.
I grab a few photographs of the interior on my phone, but a waiter (discretely but firmly) stops me taking photos of the café interior, but says it is ok to photograph the cheesecake.
In Cafe Keshipearl different cheesecakes are paired with specific coffees. The owners pride themselves on their attention to detail in seeking to achive the finest, complimentary blend between the two. Coffee beans are sourced locally, originally via the large Kobe Nakamura Coffee Company, but more recently the owners have switched to using beans from Horiguchi of Tokyo.
There is a limited menu setting out the few options both of coffee and cheesecake. It includes guidance on how to drink your coffee and eat your cheesecake. In many years of extensively drinking coffee and eating (cheese)cake around the world – this is new to me.
Then there's the handmade book, the size not much bigger than a postage stamp, that instructs you how to savour the experience. Your spoon should be used to mix any grounds that settle at the bottom of your cup. Sip coffee first, eat cheesecake then sip more coffee before swallowing to blend the two.
We order coffee soufflé cheesecake with rum and raisin, and a simple traditional cheesecake. Apparently both baked (how I prefer them) but they don't look it. My coffee with chocolate was odd and caught me off guard. My wife said she thought it tasted fruity. That only confused me. I was less flattering. Her coffee was more familiar territory, but quite bitter.
Cups and plates used are handmade, rustic designs and it appeared that you could buy them as souvenirs.
In the interests of this review (and sharing flavours), we swapped cheesecakes midday through. This, of course, meant switching coffee too. Otherwise there would have been a dreadful mismatch between coffee and the paired cheesecake, and I suspect a member of staff would have rushed over to intervene, politely but clearly pointing out our terrible faux pa.
Instead of being able to relax (even the hard wooden chairs we sat on looked and felt like small primary school classroom chairs – designed not for comfort but to keep you to alert!) the whole experience felt more like taking part in an academic exercise than a pleasure. Perhaps if I had known in advance what to expect my reaction would have been different.
As much as the interior design appealed to me, I never felt comfortable or relaxed. The experience felt slightly snobbish, elitist even. The Japanese are happy to be guided by those who are experts in their field and to take them on their word with a polite deference. But, sometimes, those self-appointed 'experts' can be over-zealous.
Provided the cafe is happy for its patrons to sit for hours at a time (like most cafes in Japan are) then I can understand the appeal; from the perspective of wanting a quiet (possibly even silent) place to be still, read a book, or maybe write one.
However, no sooner was our coffee and cake consumed than we wanted to leave. Shame, as Cafe Keshipearl has a lot going for it. But with the abundance of welcoming coffeehouses in Kobe with excellent coffee and cheesecake I'm not in a hurry to return. Instead I'll be ticking more of those others off my still very long 'to do' list.
So, sadly, whilst Cafe Keshipearl doesn't offer the ultimate coffee and cheesecake experience, it does provide a serene (if sometimes overly prescriptive) refuge for the coffee aficiando.
Example Price: Coffee & Cake set ¥950 (per person)
Address: 〒651-0087 Hyogo Prefecture, Kobe, 中央区御幸通６丁目１−２５, Japan
Hey! Wait a moment. Maybe you've already found the ultimate coffeehouse in Japan? Or maybe you've had similarly memorable experiences - for better or worse? If so, please leave a comment below and share your pleasure – or pain.