TOTTORI - Sunaba Coffee is one of the most entertaining topics when it comes to Tottori Prefecture.
Three Sunaba Coffee shops opened last year, inspired by the Tottori governor's statement that while the prefecture has "no Sutaba" ("no Starbucks"), it does have Japan's No. 1 sunaba - which literally means "sandpit" but actually refers to the famous Tottori Sand Dunes.
Of the nation's 47 prefectures, only Tottori Prefecture has no Starbucks outlets at a time when the Seattle-based coffee shop chain is taking over the globe. Gov. Shinji Hirai seems to have taken advantage of the prefecture's image as a left-behind rural area and succeeded in publicizing it with humour and wit.
To get the lowdown, I headed to one of the locations, namely the Sunaba Coffee Tottori Ekimae shop in front of JR Tottori Station.
Although it was only 7.30 am, the shop had more customers than I had expected.
I inspected its menu to order a breakfast platter. In addition to the standard toast set, the shop offers onigiri rice balls and rice porridge.
Being a lover of Japanese cuisine, I ordered the rice porridge set.
I seasoned the porridge with a little grilled eel-flavored sauce before I dug in.
The dish warmed my hungry stomach with the rice's mildly sweet flavor.
The siphon coffee that came with the set was a bit strong but actually complemented the porridge rather nicely.
On the wall of the shop, I saw a map of Japan with many pins affixed to it.
The shop said it asks each customer to place a pin on their prefecture on the map.
Heartwarming notes written by customers from across the country were collected in a guest book titled "Message & Comment Cho."
At lunchtime, I went to the Sunaba Coffee Karo shop near Tottori Airport.
There, I ate a hot crab sandwich, enjoying the exquisite harmony of delicious crab, a local specialty caught off the prefecture, and a white sauce.
Although I didn't have time to visit the Sunaba Coffee Kokufu Manyo no Yakata shop, allow me to summarize my impression of the two shops: First, the staff's service was warm and accommodating.
Second, the meal portions were generous. Third, the shops had a comfortable retro atmosphere.
Kazuyoshi Murakami, the 68-year-old owner of the Sunaba Coffee chain, told me he was, in fact, a big fan of Starbucks.
Recalling some of the positive things that have come out of opening the shops, he said, smiling: "There was a man in his 20s who had learned about Sunaba Coffee on the Internet, and he visited our shop with his mother. He was from Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, and he told me he had withdrawn from society for many years until he visited our store. I was very happy to hear it."
He added, "I hope my interactions with customers in the future will be just as valuable."
In September last year, Starbucks made news by announcing it would open an outlet south of Tottori Station in May.
It would be nice to see Sutaba and Sunaba cooperate to promote the prefecture.