Freelance Barista in Miyagi Prefecture Attracts Coffee Lovers at Pop-Up Coffee Shops

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Barista Shun Sugawara makes coffee in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, on March 14.

KESENNUMA, Miyagi — Shun Sugawara, 29, will go anywhere upon request to serve delicious coffee. Residing in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, he calls himself a “coffee shop with no name” and travels around the prefecture and beyond at his leisure, enjoying unexpected encounters in unfamiliar places. As the novel coronavirus pandemic got many people to rethink the way they work, Sugawara chose to switch his career from coffee shop employee to freelance barista.

In mid-March, Sugawara visited a coffee shop “nagame” on Kesennuma Oshima Island, part of Kesennuma. He serves coffee here once a month when the coffee shop is closed, charging ¥600 to ¥700 per cup. Customers have to rely on social media to know where Sugawara will next brew his coffee. However, when he opens his pop-up shop, admirers come from as far away as Tochigi and Iwate prefectures to enjoy a hot drink.

After brewing, Sugawara stirs the coffee in the server to keep an even flavor. When pouring the coffee into a cup, he uses a wine aerator, a tool used for pouring wine, to lightly expose the coffee to air. As he does so, the fruity aroma of the coffee rises and tickles the nose. “I listen to the mood of my customers and adjust strength and other factors accordingly, and make each cup of coffee seriously,” the barista said.

“The way he pours [the coffee into a cup] is innovative and interesting. I’m learning a lot [from him],” said a cafe owner from neighboring Iwate Prefecture, who was watching Sugawara with great interest.

Sugawara tells his first-time customers that it will take about five minutes to make a cup of coffee. Older customers tend to cancel their order if it takes that long. However, Sugawara says that young people usually say they don’t mind waiting.

“I encounter accidents and unexpected incidents everywhere I go [to make coffee]. That’s what makes it fun,” Sugawara said.

One such occasion included a reunion with his former primary school teacher who happened to visit the coffee shop on the day he was making coffee. On New Year’s Day this year, Sugawara was encouraged by an acquaintance to set up on a shopping street in Hanamaki, Iwate Prefecture. When he was returning home in the evening, he found his car had been buried in snow. Six or seven of his customers provided assistance by deftly removing the snow from his car.

Sugawara has always loved the service industry. After graduating from high school in Kesennuma, he began working at a ryokan inn in Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture. At the time, he did not like coffee at all, thinking it was just bitter. On a day off from work, he mentioned this to the owner of a neighboring cafe, who offered him a cup of lightly roasted Ethiopian coffee. It was translucent, aromatic and not bitter; rather, it had a subtle sweetness that made him want another cup. He was amazed by the taste.

Since then, Sugawara has been engrossed in the world of coffee. After training at Sarutahiko Coffee, a popular specialty coffee shop in Tokyo, he worked at a coffee shop in Iwate Prefecture for three years. However, customers suddenly stopped visiting due to the pandemic. After much consideration, he quit his job and decided to work as a freelancer from the summer of 2021.

Working as a freelance barista is full of discoveries and inspirations that are hard to come by when working at the same coffee shop day-by-day. Sugawara always sees the opportunity for new customers and networking whenever he is invited to open his pop-up coffee shop. All he requires is a power supply. He does not charge for trips when asked to visit another location. To cover living expenses, he works at a hotel in addition to his barista duties.

“I’d like to express what I think is beautiful coffee without being restricted by location, with just a set of tools in my bag and myself,” said Sugawara.