Written by Mattie Balagat
“Everybody that makes cheese wants it to be the best, not only for themselves but for other people. . . . When you put a piece of cheese down, you put a piece of yourself down. . . .”Scheps, an American artisanal cheesemaker (in Paxson, 2013)
Tucked in a side alley of a quiet city is KAMP, a hostel and café-bar seemingly belonging anywhere but a side alley of a quiet city. I stepped inside with six other classmates knowing almost nothing about the place—and was pleasantly surprised to find myself quite comfortable. It was a warm, casual setting, with rough-hewn wooden furniture, potted plants, and assorted worldly kitsch and knickknacks lining the walls and seating. A display of alcohol behind the bar counter and a hanging disco ball waited quietly for the sun to go down. There was a sense of well-worn ruggedness to all the interiors that lent an immediate and unexpected feeling of comfort and nostalgia, alongside a keen awareness of being in a space very different from the outside.
In the midst of it was Takuya Kitajima, the 39-year-old owner and main chef of the 5-year-old café. He excused himself from what seemed like a conversation with a regular, and stood to greet our odd party. In his large black-framed glasses and fit black long sleeves, he exuded a slick, laidback aura to him that put me at ease. Though I could not understand his answers to our interview questions, needing to rely on my friends’ live translations, it was clear that he was down-to-earth in his speech. From time to time he would pause to think of authentic answers to questions not normally asked of him. He matched the image of the cool, hip uncle everyone boasts about to their friends.
To put up KAMP was Kitajima’s dream, driven by personal interest and without any explicit influence of his childhood or his family. Rather than the homeliness of the café being inspired by the traditional idea and memory of home, it was mainly inspired overseas. When Kitajima was 16 years old, he did not go to school (whether he skipped class or quit is unclear), and instead traveled to Montana, America and lived with an American Indian family for 2 weeks. How he ended up there is a mystery we probably should have pursued. But the teepees and masks displayed in the café, along with other Native American imagery, imparted a profound sense of respect for the culture he encountered, and I believe, a desire to share what kind of home was shared with him in Montana.
Every major aspect of the café seemed to be derived from Kitajima’s experience of having a home away from home: the café is named KAMP, because of his love for camping and the outdoors (he also skates and snowboards). The K is because his English friend corrected him too late—but it means the same in Turkish, he assured, grinning. The star of KAMP’s menu is curry: a well-loved, easy-to-cook camping staple. However, KAMP’s curry is a far cry from the supermarket variations, in large part due to Kitajima’s dedication to it. He crafted all the recipes and cooks the curry every day; the staff merely serves it.
In fact, the café is Kitajima’s way to keep cooking curry. He had no problems setting up the café, enjoying the process though without a formal background in cooking or running a business. For him, cooking for profit and for fun can be done simultaneously, so it is not hard to imagine how his hobby of cooking curry motivated him. He traveled extensively (and still does) to better his curry —he asked other chefs, tasted different kinds of curries at restaurants and festivals, and attended workshops in Tokyo, Osaka, India, and Fukuoka. The spice levels and flavors of his curry changed as his taste for curry absorbed these experiences, along with feedback and validation from friends all over. KAMP’s curry is a curry that changes as Kitajima learns more, but which remains proudly, and originally his: an expression of his experiences and a bricolage of influence and personal interests. His curry keeps up with his goal of serving food which he himself likes. To focus on just bettering curry is practical as well—he professes the need to focus on only one food to increase the chances of it being more popular.
Kitajima lamented shortly how he could not make the perfect curry due to it being costly, though he thinks a lot about it. He remarks that the curry is best eaten right after serving to preserve the smells he intended, but he appreciates how some customers like the taste better after waiting for some time. In a way, to allow customers the freedom to eat how they would like to eat assures the experience of dining somewhere home-like. Those eating around our table seemed to embrace the freedom of this no-rules, lighthearted atmosphere: chatting and laughing out loud, leaning back into their seats.
There is more that makes KAMP than just the youthful Kitajima, though his independent drive and genuine love for his work definitely built the café. On the stage with the deck he sometimes DJs on, he invites live bands or musicians to play. In the interiors, which he designed with his friends, the experience-worn and handmade is celebrated—dog-eared magazines and paperbacks, craft beer, chalkboard events, handmade dolls, and alternative culture magazines are for sale. The flavors of his worldly curry are rooted to home using local vegetables from his vendor friend, who sometimes sets up shop outside his café. The backpacker is welcomed to relax and be themselves, and maybe take a yoga class. The independent culture Kitajima loves demands to be shared, and so the café continues to be a special niche where that sharing is possible, supporting non-mainstream endeavors as he progresses in his own self-styled path.
I could not write this without eating Kitajima’s curry, so I returned with two friends. I ordered Half-and-Half—two choices of curry heaped on a large plate, separated by a slab of rice. It was a mix of the Japanese and Indian curry I had tasted before—the pork curry being a little sweet, and the keema curry bringing a lot more spice than I expected. Every spoon went down my system well, like a flow of rich, warm umami which lights up the stomach and makes conversation easy. I was so carried away with talking that I didn’t notice how I was slowly licking my plate clean. It is easy to connect the rich taste of the curry to Kitajima’s own enthusiasm for curry and travel, precisely because it was a delicious culmination to my understanding of his story.
As my friends and I continued to talk over our empty plates, rolling the flavors over in my mouth, my favorite female British indie singer came on the café’s speakers. In the serendipitous period of knowing the lyrics to the song being played, everything my senses had recently taken in was digested easily, tiding over the feeling of being home. Indeed, Kitajima was doing KAMP right—it was like home outside my own doorstep, all at once everything I want to expect from the side alley of a quiet city.
The article was originally submitted for Anthropology of Food, Winter 2019. Interview with Takuya Kitajima-san was organized and conducted with Justine, Trung, Forrest, Alyana, Minami (translator), and Riko (translator). Photos belong to Mattie Balagat. KAMP can be found at 3 Chome-1-35 Hokancho, Kita Ward, Okayama, 700-0026.