With old wooden chairs and tables, a comfy Chesterfield sofa and a menu that includes sticky toffee pudding and scones with clotted cream, it could be any typical English cafe… but this one’s in Japan.
James Shoesmith and his Japanese wife Natsumi have created a little corner of England in Sendai, a bustling city of a million citizens in the north of Japan’s southern island of Kyushu… and the locals just can’t get enough of it.
Japanese customers, along with expat Brits and Americans, gladly queue to wait for a table in the tiny cafe.
A World Away
It’s half a world away from the Lancashire villages where James, now 27, was brought up, but it’s a country he’s happy to call home.
James’s fascination with Japan began when he was a pupil at Blacko Primary School, near Nelson. A visiting Japanese lady teacher told the pupils about her home country. “I must have only been six or seven. The teacher was only there for a few weeks, but I was really interested in what she told us about Japan and its culture.”
After his family moved to the little hamlet of Wycoller, near Colne, James went to Walton High School at Nelson then Clitheroe Royal Grammar School sixth form for A levels. He then went to Liverpool John Moores University to study international business and Japanese, learning the language from scratch.
Natsumi was having to go back to Japan, and I thought I’d go back there for a third time and
take my chances
For his third year at university, James realised a dream by spending a year in Japan. He returned to Liverpool for his final year, then worked as a sales assistant at a bike shop before returning to Japan to teach English to high school pupils in a small fishing town where he was the only foreigner.
“The job was enjoyable but I realised it wasn’t going anywhere for me and I came back to England after two years,” James recalls.
James meets Natsumi
James made use of his knowledge by working for a Japanese logistics firm near Heathrow. He met his future wife Natsumi, who was teaching nursery children in London. They met at a cafe in Northfield, a suburb of London where Natsumi was living. That’s the name they would eventually choose for their English-themed cafe.
In the meantime, Natsumi’s visa was due to expire and James was getting tired of working long hours. “Natsumi was having to go back to Japan, and I thought I’d go back there for a third time and take my chances. While we were in London we’d talked about the future. The cafe idea came up, and we thought it would be cool to have our own quiet business going on.“
Natsumi went back to Japan and I stayed in London. Then I took a two-week holiday to meet her parents and see where she lived. It felt so much like home. It felt just right, where I needed to be. I went back to London and handed my notice in.
“We still didn’t have a solid plan, and we were in Tokyo. Natsumi was working in a nursery again and I got a job in a Franze and Evans cafe and deli that had just opened. That was my first experience of working in a cafe, and it was something I liked. The main thing was learning how to use an espresso machine.”
James and Natsumi still dreamed of starting their own business but decided Tokyo was too big and too busy. So they set their eyes on Natsumi’s home city of Sendai. Natsumi’s father, who is a dentist, surfing enthusiast and entrepreneur – “a bit of a character” – found them
premises on the third floor of a block of businesses where various shops and other businesses rub shoulders.
Building their dreams
They launched a successful crowdfunding appeal to raise the £7,000 they needed to start up, and knocked the typical 1950s premises back to bare walls to create Northfields, a small cafe that would be quite at home in a Lancashire or Yorkshire market town. The rustic shabby chic decor combines wood with bare concrete, and the walls are hung with interesting British signs
and artwork – but no cliché Union Jacks or London buses!
We’re both from northern parts of our countries
“A friend of the family who is a carpenter helped us with the big jobs. We did everything else ourselves,” James says. “Natsumi had worked at cafes in Sendai and in Tokyo when she was at uni, so she had that valuable experience running a cafe.
“We’d met at a cafe in Northfield in London, so it took us just 10 seconds to decide on Northfields as the name. It’s quite fitting, because we’re both from the northern parts of our countries.”
The couple opened Northfields in September, just a few weeks after they married in a Japanese ceremony.
An authentic English cafe
“There are actually quite a few English style cafes in Japan. But they’re really quite unauthentic and run by Japanese people. They serve their idea of a typical old English afternoon tea. But we went for the real deal with the decor and the food.
“Our sticky toffee pudding served with ice cream has gone amazingly well. And we’ve just started doing apple crumble with custard. Carrot cake’s a favourite, and scones – with preserve and clotted cream, of course.”
For savoury tastes, James has also started serving up an individual mini version of toad in the hole. “It’s just something that’s easy for me to make” – and a smaller version of a full English breakfast is a possibility in future.
The couple’s enterprise has been featured on local television, and business is booming.
“I never thought it would be so popular,” James says. “Japanese people actually seem to enjoy queueing, and on Sundays especially they’re queueing down the stairwell.
“We can’t take on more staff, because there’s literally just room for the two of us to work, but we’re hoping we may find somewhere a bit bigger.”