Although bleak and scary on the outside, on the inside Maruya is the epitome of reliability and value.
Every once in a while, traveler/writer Kowloon Kurosawa treats us to one of his adventures in the less-traveled corners of Asia. However, this time he has found something right here in Japan hidden in plain sight in the Nishinari Ward of Osaka.
He had heard rumors of a coffee shop named Maruya and its amazingly low prices, but couldn’t believe it in this era of designer cafes. So he headed to downtown Osaka to find out for himself.
Maruya was said to be located in the Nishinari’s Ginza shopping district, not to be confused with the high class Ginza area of Tokyo. Although he knew the difference himself, this had thrown Kowloon off track a bit as he expected Osaka’s Ginza to be more in the heart of the city as well.
Instead he ended up hiking about 30 minutes from Tengachaya Station before he saw the Ginza sign. It turned out that it was next to Nishi Tengachaya Station, a sleepy little stop that only gets a train every 30 to 40 minutes.
Generally, these old shopping arcades and their unchanging decor are a bit of a throw back to the ’70s and ’80s in Japan. But Ginza really took the cake. Kowloon stood outside Maruya and marveled at how it looked more like the ruins of a coffee shop than an actual functioning one.
He peered through the dingy storefront glass to look at the food samples and their prices. There was a wide range of foods like “ham toast” and “banana juice” and none of it was priced over 300 yen ($2.64).
Elsewhere, next to a rusty and cracked ice cream cone model, hung tattered strips of paper advertising other dishes for sale at Maruya such as rice omelets and curry rice.
Kowloon saw an enigmatic sign on the window which read “In business 八+2 years, good stuff for cheap.” At first he mistook it for a math equation (since 八 is the kanji character for “eight,” he thought is meant 8+2=10) but then realized the plus sign was actually the kanji for 10 (十), making the meaning “In business 82 years.”
He entered and was “greeted” by an emotionless man in his 70s with a beard and beret. He looked like he could have been the founder but judging by the sign outside he must be the second-generation owner.
Kowloon took a seat and saw torn scraps of paper on the tables which he soon learned were the menus.
Precariously held together by scotch tape, they looked as if they would crumble to dust the moment Kowloon touched them.
He ever so delicately opened the menu to reveal the entire history of the restaurant’s pricing scheme and menu changes. The original, professionally printed menu was intact but a few new items were jotted into the margins while others were crossed out.
Also, all of the prices were drastically reduced, many by half and some even more. The hotcakes were once listed as 400 yen ($3.50) but now could be ordered for only 80 yen ($0.70).
A restaurant putting its own indecisiveness out in the open like this was somewhat refreshing, but probably not what people are looking for in a food service provider. Kowloon deciphered the menu enough to settle on an egg salad sandwich and a cafe au lait.
The shopkeeper replied without a hint of intonation, “One egg sandwich and one cafe au lait. S’cuse me, that’s 280 yen,” and held out his palm.
It was a little unusual in Japan to have a pay-first service, but that was far from the strangest thing about this place, so Kowloon obliged and handed over a few coins. He was relieved to see that he wasn’t being singled out as a potential dine-and-dasher either as an elderly couple a few tables down were also requested to pay prior to eating.
Kowloon received his sandwich and coffee to find that they both tasted fine. Not amazing nor bad, just very ordinary.
That appeared to be the secret to Maruya’s longevity: reliable food at rock bottom prices. As mentioned earlier Kowloon wasn’t the only person eating there that morning and according to locals, this coffee shop has its share of regulars who value consistency above trendy flavors, slick advertising, and doting customer service.
The only things that seemed to have changed here in decades are the prices and that was for the better. However, it likely came at the expensive of altering anything else in the slightest, from the furniture to the taste of the food, and even to the emotions of the proprietor.
It was a strangely unique business model in its plainness, and one that seems to fly in the face of corporate elites who preach that you must always adapt your business to survive. Kowloon hopes it continues to operate in this unusual this way – outside of both time and standard business practices.
Maruya / コーヒーショップ マル屋
Osaka-fu, Osaka-shi, Nishinari-ku, Senbonkita 2-1-33
2-1-33 Senbonkita, Nishinari Ward, Osaka City, Osaka
Open 7:00 a.m.-7:30 p.m.
[ Read in Japanese ]