Yasutsugu Ishiwatari
Yasutsugu Ishiwatari


Yasutsugu Ishiwatari

WAT inc – CEO

Looking ahead, through the café
Tolerance of the city, people, and public

Representing WAT inc. Yasutsugu Ishiwatari continues to tune in to the characteristics of the city and create places for people to gather, without being bound by the land or location. The popular KNAG café in Kabutocho and the Marked grocery store in Kuramae and Shibuya are testaments to this ethos. For this interview, we spoke to Ishiwatari, who is transforming the idea of ‘public’, through the creation of comfortable spaces and cafés.

●Where are you from?
Ukyo Ward in Kyoto. I grew up at the foot of Mt. Ogura, in an area known as Saga-Arashiyama. It’s popular with tourists as it’s home to many different sites such as the Watarazuki Bridge or the bamboo grove of Nonomiya, and temples including Tenryu-ji Temple.

●Born and raised in a tourist town, what was your impression of the city?
When I was a child, there were only domestic tourists, so lots of seniors and school excursions, but my impression is that the number of inbound tourists has gradually increased. The Wataragatzuki Bridge area has become a big theme park, with more and more stores catering to tourists and rickshaws running in the area.

●Tell us about your student life in Kyoto.
My student life was quite normal. I went to elementary school in my hometown, which was an area full of nature, and for junior high and high school, I went to a private school in the city of Kyoto. I’d often go and play billiards by myself, which was a popular sport at the time. I’d go by myself every day, and thinking back on it now, I spent a lot of time by myself.

●What kind of environment did you live in, in Kyoto?
In my childhood, I used to climb Mt. Iwata in Arashiyama, where people often go to feed the Japanese macaques. Being so close to Mt. Ogura, Mt. Atago, and Kiyotaki, which has a clear stream where you can swim, made me feel close to nature. I was also a member of the mountaineering club in junior high and high school, but all I can remember is how hard it was. Nowadays, all kinds of outdoor gear looks cool, but those were the days of knickerbockers. I was 40 years old when I decided I wanted to climb mountains again! I had been living close to nature and taking it for granted, so living in Tokyo was probably exhausting in that respect. I feel at home in Kyoto, tinkering in the garden.

●When you were a student, how did you access information outside of Kyoto?
Those were the days when it seemed like the only thing worthwhile was taking an entrance exam. At least our private school was like that; it was rural Kyoto in the 80s, so not many choices. However, I would browse through fashion magazines, grab my allowance, and go to Ame-mura in Osaka or a high-end shopping area in Sannomiya, Kobe.

●Why did you leave Kyoto for Tokyo?
Actually, I don’t remember so well, but I think I might have had a sense that I shouldn’t stay in my hometown or somewhere so close to my old school community. Without having a clear idea of what I wanted to study, I wasted one year and went to a university in Tokyo.

●What was your first time in Tokyo like?
I started living in Asagaya, and for the first time, I experienced loneliness. However, I made friends quickly at the university, so I got used to it in three days!

●How was your college life?
I have vivid memories of binge drinking, part-time work, and skiing. I was not at all enthusiastic about my schoolwork. I saved up to buy a motorcycle and spent my days going back and forth between Asagaya and Kunitachi, where the school was located.

●Did you have any passions?
I was in a ski club and skied 60 days a year. To do this, I worked part-time during the summer and stayed in the mountains during the winter, and repeated this for four years.

●You were in the mountain club in high school? You must really love the mountains!
I wasn’t aware of it, but now that you mention it, skiing is also mountainous. However, in my junior year of college, I was in a motorcycle accident that nearly killed me. At that time, I decided that I had to do what I wanted to do, so I decided to take a leave of absence from the university and go backpacking.

●Wasn’t the term “backpacker” still a rarity back then?
It was 1996, so I don’t think the word “backpacker” had gained popularity just yet. When I returned to Japan, I was called a “Saruganseki” (Japanese comedy duo) a lot!

●You are a Denpa Shonen! (a Japanese reality TV show which aired from January 1998 to September 2002 on the Nippon TV network). Where did your trip take you?
From the port of Osaka, I took a ship to Shanghai, China, then to Mongolia, and from there to Europe by the Trans-Siberian Railway and then to North Africa.

●You went all the way to Africa?
I stopped in North Africa, but I ran out of money there and came back. Of course, there was no Internet at that time, so the only way to keep in touch with friends was by postcards. I relied on “Globe-Trotter” and “Lonely Planet,” as well as information from people I met at the cheap hotels.

●Did you feel like you were in uncharted territory beyond North Africa?
It felt unknown when I entered any country, but there was a sense that Africa was even more unknown. When I asked, “Can we go into Algeria?” I was told, “You should not go into Algeria because there are landmines buried there.” I asked, “Can we enter Libya?” and they replied, “No, you can’t get a visa as a Japanese person.” It was the kind of journey where you are forced to turn back as soon as you get there.

●Today, the world is spread out on a single screen, but back then, you had to make your own way. The information that you can actually experience firsthand over time must be completely different from what it is today.
It was exciting to see firsthand the diversity in people’s lives. I realized that even though the borders of a country are connected, the air in the country changes, or rather the smell of the air is different.

●How long did you continue your backpacking trip?
Once there, I cut it short after about six months. The insurance money from the motorcycle accident quickly ran out due to alcohol and gourmet food, and I returned home in a hurry. After returning to Japan, I saved up money once again and continued my trip.

●Where did you go?
From Turkey to the Middle East. From Jordan, through Israel, and finally to Egypt to climb the pyramids. In those days, climbing to the top without permission was not offensive and it was tolerated at the time. After that, I caught dysentery and was forcibly confined in the hospital for 10 days.

●Did you find a job after returning to Japan?
I was late for the usual job hunting period and was barely accepted by NEC and worked there for four years. But I guess I was not suited for the job. When I was 28, I decided to start a business with a friend.

●I know it was common in those days to stay with the company, but how did you make the decision to go out on your own?
I didn’t think too much about it. It was a time when the word “startup” did not exist. Perhaps it was a time when even the words “to start a business” were unfamiliar. My parents were against it at first, but they are also free thinkers. Perhaps it was just their egos that wanted to have at least one serious person in the family!

●What made you feel like you didn’t fit in?
It’s completely my problem. I didn’t grasp the essence of the job over those four years. The reason I quit was that I was just giving it up, thinking that I could shine in another area. However, 28 years old is still an age when a little thoughtlessness is acceptable, now that I think about it.

●What specific work did you do?
It was a group that sold mainly telecommunications infrastructure overseas, and I was pounding Excel, or in the early days, Lotus. I think one of the reasons I quit was that the scale of the work was so large, with several billion-dollar projects running, that I could not grasp the substance of it at all just by being at the headquarters.

●What have you done since becoming independent?
In 2002, there was the World Cup in France, and soccer fever was very high. My friends and I, who met through futsal, wanted to create a place where a futsal court could be combined with a café, so we created such a place in Toyocho in 2004.

●Why are you starting a business in futsal again?
I simply wanted to do what I loved to do. Also, the desire to deepen the restaurant business or to create a place for people to gather was something I developed while working.

●Do you think you preferred the approachability of futsal, which is easier to partake in than soccer?
Of course, that aspect is very strong, and I don’t think there are many sports where men and women, young and old, are crazy about a ball and chase it in the heart of the city. It’s fun to watch, and I think it’s an athletic sport that is also viable and wide-ranging.

●Then why go into food and drink?
I still play futsal because I love it, but in 2010 I joined another company in order to hone my skills more in the development and management of food and beverage businesses and cafes. After gaining a variety of experiences, I once again became independent and founded WAT in 2013.

●I believe Blue Bottle landed around 2015?
It was 2013 when we first heard about their launch into Japan. It was a brand that was still unknown in Japan. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work with them, and it was my first job after becoming independent.

●What kind of work did you do to land Blue Bottle?
It was to learn about the brand and create a highly replicable store in Japan. Specifically, this included establishing a corporation, hiring key personnel, directing and managing roasting, and building operations for the café.

●The futsal court was in Toyocho and the first Blue Bottle Coffee store was in Kiyosumi-Shirakawa. Why did you set your sights on the East Tokyo area?
It was by chance. It’s not that we have deep feelings for East Tokyo, but rather the result of being guided by the inevitability of each. However, I think that both sides have in common the fact that they are not businesses that can be established in areas with high rents.

The theme we set forth in creating KNAG was to "loosen facial expressions," so we thought of ways to loosen people's expressions through conversation and food.

●Japan has a unique coffee culture, and with the arrival of the Blue Bottle and the popularity of Third Wave coffee, the relationship between the city and people in cafes seems to be gradually changing.
It started with coffee shop culture, then brands like Doutor were created, and then Starbucks landed, while there was also the Lotus and Bowery lineage, and I think that is where the Third Wave lineage came in. I think one of the best things about cafes is that they can flexibly change their appearance in response to the demands of the times.
Regarding the relationship with the city, nothing seems to have changed in terms of people gathering at a café for some specific purpose or spending time alone, which is what the city needs.

●”KNAG” was established in the financial district of Nihonbashi Kabutocho. What was the concept behind the establishment of KNAG?
Since the café was created at the request of Heiwa Real Estate, the first premise was that it should be a café that could solve the issues they were considering. They wanted to create a new type of liveliness in the town, moving away from its previous role as a financial district.

●I know there are many different impressions and characteristics of the city, but what was your impression of Kabutocho?
I thought there were a lot of people in white shirts! I also felt that there were many people unable to express themselves. The theme we set forth in creating KNAG was to “loosen facial expressions,” so we thought of ways to loosen people’s expressions through conversation and food. Thanks to Heiwa Real Estate’s ideas, I think we have an area with lots of great stores that add character to the town, rather than just being a business district or a business district full of chain stores.

●You have worked on a number of stores, including Honjo and Shibuya’s “Marked,” but what would you say makes “KNAG” a unique store?
The larger space means that there is less interference between customers and more tolerance amongst them. This was something that was difficult to achieve in the small spaces that we have been working with up until then. The sense of openness also makes it easier for customers to enter the restaurant, and I think it also makes it easier for us to declare, “We accept everyone! We are open to everyone!”

●What do you think is needed to revitalize the city? Going back to the topic of the city’s margins, I think there are cases where the city can become rigid by being set up completely. Instead, don’t you think that by being more tolerant and allowing change without fear, the city will instead be revitalized?
A kind of margin may be necessary. Originally, we also considered the business type and menu with the idea that the “hypothesis is 30%,” and emphasized the ability to correct the hypothesis when it goes wrong. If we are too rigidly set in our assumptions, we will end up operating under a false hypothesis for a long time. In that sense, I think it is necessary to have a margin.

●You think a hypothesis would be off anyway?
It may just be that the hypothesis is too coarse, but we don’t have the resources to spend a year creating an elaborate hypothesis, and I don’t think we live in an era where we do. I think speed is very important.

Even if it is the same thing, if it is oriented toward the past, it might be conservative, and if it is oriented toward the future, it might be something like innovation.

●Kyoto has a strong image of tradition, but what kind of temperament do you think the city has?
It’s not clear what kind of image people have of Kyoto, but many may perceive it as traditional and conservative. On the other hand, Kyoto is home to world-class companies such as Nintendo, Kyocera, and Murata Manufacturing. Unlike the image of being traditional or conservative, these companies always have their eyes on the world and seem to have a forward-thinking spirit.

●Isn’t traditional culture a burden?
Traditional culture must have been edgy or progressive at some point in time. It may have become conservative the moment those who took it over tried to protect it in a highly reproducible way, and in that sense, it may be a burden in some cases, but it should have been something creative in the first place. Even if it is the same thing, if it is oriented toward the past, it might be conservative, and if it is oriented toward the future, it might be something like innovation.

●Do you think Kyoto businesses are continuing to look forward?
Of course, some companies are. However, I think it’s also a place where various creators gather, even those that do not fall into the category of a company. There are many things you can sense from the culture and history, and simply walking around the city never gets old.

●Brian Eno’s solo exhibition at the former bank site, and that kind of use of space is interesting.
In Kyoto, I think there is a sense of mission, like justice to preserve old buildings, so it is nice to have a great project in such a space.

●I know you recently opened a café attached to a library, what did you gain from this thought process?
I believe that the role of libraries is not only to lend out books, but also to play various roles according to the purpose of necessity, such as focusing on study, holding workshops and seminars, and families spending weekends together. I believe that role is also significant because it’s a role that serves the public. I don’t think it is that difficult to think about the role that cafes can play in this context.

There is so much information out there that I personally feel a bit bored, so I think it’s important to have the attitude of tasting something that is not important.

●The nature of public space is gradually changing.
There are more and more cases where cafes are merging into public spaces. We’re also very grateful to be thought of as such a space.

●I like that the products are an extension of the act of meeting people, like the coffee that the barista brews for you.
We live in an age where people want to not only taste new things but also want a story to go with them. So we have to take this into consideration when we offer our products to our customers. On the other hand, there is so much information out there that I personally feel a bit bored, so I think it’s important to have the attitude of tasting something that is not important. It’s not a question of which is more important, but rather, I think it’s better to live in a way that is convenient for you!

●If you could take a week off, what would you do?
I’ve been thinking about going to Kumano Kodo, but I haven’t been able to go for a long time. The other day I went to Oze for an overnight stay. Otherwise, I would love to go on a Mediterranean vacation for a month.

●What is your routine in Kyoto like?
When I’m in Kyoto, I always go to a particular coffee shop every morning and sip a coffee that has no particular name. If I’m in the mood, I get up early and run along the Kamo River or do some stretching and muscle training at Demachiyanagi Delta. If the situation permits, I also have meetings while walking. Morning is my golden hour, so I try to think about important matters in the morning. For lunch, my wife will sometimes prepare me a salad or onigiri (rice ball), or I choose a reasonably tasty meal in the Kyoto University area, depending on my mood that day. At night, I sometimes eat out at a bar, and sometimes at home. I take long baths and often go to public bathhouses. I’m very grateful that everything can be completed within a radius of about 2 km, and I have come to think that the idea of routine is also important, even if it’s already familiar to me.

●Is there a theme you are thinking about these days?
How can we live with ease? Why is it that the more we move toward that theme, the busier we get!

Yasutsugu Ishiwatari

Yasutsugu Ishiwatari

Born in Kyoto in 1973. He established WAT Co. Ltd. in 2013 while engaging in management planning for restaurants. He has been involved in the development of Blue Bottle Coffee and Dandelion Chocolate in Japan, as well as KNAG in Kabutocho, Marked in Kuramae, and other cafes that combine the characteristics of each city to create places where people can gather.

Text : Jun Kuramoto

Photo : Naoto Date

Interview : Jun Kuramoto

Yasutsugu Ishiwatari

WAT inc – CEO

People working at the Tokyo Stock Exchange, Heiwa Real Estate Co.

Interesting people in Kabutocho

People working at the Tokyo Stock Exchange
I would like to hear what it is like to work in the financial district of Kabutocho on a daily basis.

Heiwa Real Estate Co.
Development seems to have come to an end, but I am also concerned about the future of Kabutocho.