I'm not a big coffee drinker, but I visited eight cafes over the course of my three-day trip to the small town of Onomichi in Hiroshima Prefecture, because I just couldn't resist. I was drawn in by the unlikely names, the eye-catching shopfronts, the blend of hip cafe culture with the shabby Showa-era shopping arcade. Here, at the edge of the Inland Sea, where signs of Japan's aging and the countryside's depopulation are everywhere, seven out of eight of the owners of the coffee shops I visited seemed to be well under 40, and their small shops were full of interest and life.
Though the avid cyclists and temple-explorers who generally seek out the town may not have time for eight coffee shops, everyone should get a taste of at least one or two. Highlights include Cafe Coyote, with its narrow bar-like entry leading into an inviting back room of dark wood, bright-colored pillows, and wall art from the Czech Republic and its Communist Museum. The banana juice is sublime. There's Cafe 1770, named for an Australian village that its owners once visited and loved. All things Australian decorate its walls, from surf boards to guns to travel guides, and the menu offers a pizza toast unmatched by any of the many I've tried all over Japan.
More coffee shops than I could count were scattered across the shotengai, but I stumbled upon the jewel in the crown among a cluster of abandoned homes in Onomichi’s hills. Cafe Owl House is fairly high up the staircases that wind away from the downtown. It overlooks a jungly thicket of neglected vines outside, and inside, where tree branches seem to grow right up through the floor, owls (in trinket form) peer over the doorway, line the shelves, perch among the antique tables and worn sofas. There's even an owl-shaped parfait!
It’s like the treehouse I always wanted, one that is elevated and isolated, but that also serves warm drinks and plays soft jazz.
If you can bring yourself to leave, explore the mini-galleries, studios, and gardens in the narrow staired lanes just below, to drink in the tale of a small town's decline and tentative rebirth. Onomichi once played a co-starring role as the fading hometown in movie classic Tokyo Story. By now, many of the old homes have crumbled, but Cafe Owl House and a few of its neighbors are bringing it slowly and lovingly back to life.
These days Onomichi is the launching point for the spectacular 70-km Shimanami Kaido cycling route linking Honshu and Shikoku. Airy bridges and backcountry islands beckon, but stop in town long enough to check out these cafes, and you might just find yourself wanting to stay for yet another cup.