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Jeff Babcock, Zoka Owner writes...

Well it was once again off to visit our friends At Zoka Japan and to get ready for the Japanese National Barista Championships. Phuong Tran San and Jeff San would do what we could to help Kumiko get ready for her shot at the big title. Mr. Sakamoto had already done a great job in getting her ready and into the semi finals. We would see if we could get her into the final round of 5 (knowing there was some very tough competition). We left on the 8th of March, a Friday and arrived on Saturday loosing a day in transit. Getting up early on Sunday and down to the training section of the Zoka office, we worked on Kumiko's tamping and a little on her cappuccinos hoping we could gain some more points in the upcoming competition. With some simple adjustments Phuong helped set her at ease and Kumiko began performing like a true champion with renewed grace and confidence. Our evening followed with a wonderful dinner given to us by our Japanese Host Mr. Han. By Monday Phuong was putting the last touches on Kumiko’s presentation and we were off to visit Paul Bassett’s new store near Ginza and The Bar Del Sol an Italian style coffee house run by the 2002 Japanese Champion Mr. Yokoyama. I would give you the street names but I am not so hot at reading the signs. My Japanese needs a little more work as yet you know…. Paul Bassett’s Coffee and Chocolate house was quite new and beautiful inside with a formal yet hip European style ambiance. It has a small Boyd 22 kilo roaster in the front, a sweet coffee bar with store manager Dominique from Australia serving the drinks.. and a chocolate bar at a 90 degree angle from the coffee counter. Business was brisk and for a $ 6.00 latte and$ 3.00 chocolate bar the experience was an elevated one (a little pricey) with great service and beautiful latte art prepared by Dominique. The Bar Del Sole owned by the 2002 Japanese Barista Champion Mr. Yokoyama was a classic Italian style coffee house and bar with a wide selection of food, deserts, wine and a full bar and of course great coffee and espresso. Our only complaint( as in all Italian coffee bars) is the smoking that still goes on in most Japanese coffee houses seems to greatly diminish the experience of fine coffee aromas that should permeate the air. Thankfully the Zoka experience lets us really appreciate the aromas of coffee instead of tobacco smoke. Next stop was Macchinesti in the neighbor hood of Azabu . This was a very nice local coffee house with great food and good baristas, a delightful staff who were very exited about the competition and the excitement surrounding next years world event in Tokyo. By Wednesday we were ready for the competition and we took to the subways and trains to the convention center named … The Big Center. This is the new Tokyo convention center that is built as if four blooming pillars were protruding skyward in quite a magnificent manner. It is a huge Convention center which has 6 convention programs going on simultaneously. It is also where the World Barista Competition will be in 2007. That’s right…next year!!! Mr. Noboru Ueno the Secretary General for the SCAJ is expecting a huge international event this time next year!!! The competition was fierce, as the Japanese Barista competitors are now world class, finishing second in last years worlds competition. Kumiko was poised and a true professional during her presentation and she made us very proud as we watched her compete. She did wonderfully and finished 8th in the competition. Not quite enough to get in the finals but out of an original 120+ competitors we think fabulous on her first competition. Just wait until next year …we think both Kumiko and Kenji will vie for top honors. After another wonderful dinner we got some sleep and ready for the next day’s finals . First thing in the morning though we had to visit Café des Arts Pico a small roaster retailer about 20 minutes away by subway. What a great treat this visit was. The owner So Tanabe was there roasting away on his 5 kilo roaster built in Japan. He dad a small stool in which he sat next to his roaster while roasting, observing every single bean, removing every imperfection as it cooled in the cooling tray. This man was truly serious about his craft. Much of the roaster was of his personal design as most of what he wanted or needed was just not available when he put his roaster together. He told me that some day his dream was to have a Probat, but that would be a ways off as the coffee culture was still new in Japan and it would take a while for the market to demand such a substantial roaster. We each had our choice of individually prepared coffees by his wife. Either blended or by origin the choice was ours - each cup made individually by a melita cone drip. . The coffees were excellent and it reminded me of some of the same experiences I have seen in the past and why I got into this business so many years ago. Well back to the competition the next day . And yes I must give many thanks to our interpreter, guide and train schedule assistant Asako Narusawa ...without her guidance we would have never been able to get any where on time, if at all. The train and subway system in Japan is a site to behold and quite intimidating at the beginning. Often these underground terminals are like small cities with tens of thousands of people hustling from place to place and train to train. We should have arrived to the finals much earlier because there were several hundred people watching the competition and no place to find a seat when we arrived. The competition was tough and the difference between first and second was only a few points. Last year's champion Mr. Hiroyuki Kadawaki from Café Rosso in Shimane prefecture was out paced by Mr. Shunichi Takemoto who was extremely sharp in his execution. I was very impressed with the seamless and quick delivery throughout his performance. He will no doubt be a strong contender in Berne, Switzerland for this year's World Championship in May. Our last day before heading home was a day off so Phuong, Mr. Sakamoto and myself were off to Kyoto via Bullet train. I must say that the train ride was very pleasant and smooth at speeds of over 180 mph. Our ventures in Kyoto took us to Inoda Coffee a 60 year old coffee house were we had Cheese cake, chocolate and coffee, Ishida coffee and tea house, a ten year old coffee bar run by Ms.Yoshiko Ishida - where we had Matcha green tea and hot chocolate, Rokuyosha Coffee House - an old 50’s style 55 year old coffee house run by Mr. Hajime Okuno and Ms. Megumi Sugawa ,.. and Ogawa Coffee , a modern coffee cafe were their star barista Mr. Okada finished in this years semi finals along with our Kumiko. And of course along the way we stopped at several temples and shrines which included the golden Pavilion Rokuon-ji Temple built in the 1200’s, and the Kiyomizu Temple. Kyoto is a fascinating city with a vast history and should be on every ones list of places to go in Japan when they visit….. Our return Bullet train ride gave us a birds eye view of Mont Fuji. Ahhhh…..we have only scratched the surface…. and the next day…… home……

-Jeff