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Japan's most incredible cup of coffee
The blood, sweat and tradition behind the Indonesian beans in your joe
Like stress, coffee is not unique to Tokyo. But the Japanese have put their own spin on both. Whether it’s the unmatched variety of canned coffee or the little filter packs sold in grocery stores, there is an emphasis on speed, as there seems to be for the strung-out souls who seek solace against the windshield of the next express train.
Coffee as cure
Perhaps as an implicit recognition of the exasperating lives endured by many citizens, Japan’s coffee manufacturers typically promise improved mental well-being through their products.
For example, the All Japan Coffee Association makes the case that coffee can actually “reduce stress.” UCC suggests that coffee may have yet undiscovered “powers” and Key Coffee with its flagship Toarco Toraja brand claims it provides “proposals” for new lifestyles “featuring” coffee.
Unrelenting attempts at commoditizing happiness certainly put me in the market for a proposal for a new lifestyle.
A true believer in the church of consumption might stay in Tokyo and try to find satisfaction in a cup of Toarco Toraja. But I am a heretic. I have decided to break from the flock to try it at its source and without the possibility of radioactive tap water.
Fleeing the grind
Toarco Toraja is both a brand and the name of the plantation where the coffee is produced in Tana Toraja, a region of Indonesia’s Sulawesi Island.
After Brazil and Columbia, Indonesia is the third biggest supplier of unroasted coffee to Japan. But, as I found out when I arrived in the archipelago, there are a lot of fulfilling experiences to be had here besides the coffee.
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I am shuttling through the countryside on the island of Sulawesi, gagging on one of Indonesia’s tar-laden clove cigarettes in the back of a microbus with a couple of tourists and Agus, my guide.
I know I have chosen a lively one, when he starts telling them that the local diet will help improve their odor. The women laugh while I drop ash all over my shorts.
We pass a group of high school girls on their way to class and I have a small perceptual revelation when I notice their uniforms.
They are tidy and smart but unlike Japan’s sailor suits, not the least bit sexualized. It’s kind of like realizing for the first time that you can get cola without caffeine.
Coffee, cigarettes and death
We arrive at our destination -- a steep cement road heading up a hill smudged with forest. Groups of men hoisting hog-tied pigs on bamboo palanquins are marching along with the occasional water buffalo in tow.
We are on our way to one of Toraja’s traditional funerals. Together with coffee and cigarettes they seem to form the backbone of daily life here.
“People in Toraja spend their entire lives saving for their own funerals,” says Agus.
Hundreds of people have shown up to mourn the death of a single elderly woman.
Numerous bamboo huts have been erected for this one-time event and a massive speaker system has been hauled up the muddy paths by chain-smoking Torajan men in plastic sandals.
After handing over a couple of cartons of cigarettes as gifts, we sit down for a cup as my guide tells me that the high coffee consumption of the local men offsets the detrimental health effects of their heavy smoking. At least it’s a fun theory.
Unlike in Japan, Torajans grind their beans into dust and add hot water directly. As I get down to the mahogany sludge at the bottom of my cup a squeal pierces the air and decays into a sickening gurgle.
Let the blood flow
Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world but, unfortunately for Sulawesi’s swine, Torajans revere a mix of Christianity and animistic beliefs, making pork a welcome part of the traditional diet.
Pigs are stabbed directly in the heart with rusty iron daggers and then gutted. Hair and dirt are burned off their hides over an open fire before they are quartered.
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Chunks of fatty meat are mixed with the animal’s blood and stuffed into green sections of bamboo, which are then plugged with wadded-up banana leaf.
After being thoroughly roasted, the resulting pai-pong stew is dumped into pots and doled out to guests. Eaten with rice, the meal reminds me of Japanese buta-no-kakuni save for a few bristles of pig hair.
We toast with naturally fermented palm wine served out of repurposed fuel containers before it’s time for the ritual sacrifice to begin.
Buffalo occupy an unparalleled position in Torajan society. Their symbolism pervades Torajan mythology and they are often the most valuable household assets besides the home itself. From their earliest moments they are coddled, groomed and fed as beloved members of the family. Then they are slaughtered.
Buffalo are killed at all Torajan funerals and the richer the family, the bigger the sacrifice.
But before the bloodletting can begin, a pair of boys runs up the hill with a small confession. Two of the prized animals, each worth more than the average car, are jammed in a pit in one of the lower rice fields after a bullfight.
Pre-slaughter bullfights are an important Torajan pastime, but the region’s terraced paddies and deep irrigation ditches mean many matches result in broken legs and stuck bulls.
After a perfunctory apology to the cattle’s owner, the boys join most of the able-bodied men to trek down the hill to see if the animals can be extricated.
Saved for a moment
The two bulls are wedged in a narrow drainage channel camouflaged by shrubs and vines.
Ropes, sledgehammers, and picks seemingly appear from nowhere and with 30 men and an hour of hard work the buffalo are freed.
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One can be walked back up the hill. The other must meet its fate immediately.
We all return to the funeral while I worry that I might collapse in anaphylactic shock from the fire-ant bites I got while crawling around the pit.
The remaining seven buffalo are roped up in front of us and, one by one, men with machetes come by and split their massive necks open with a few swift hacks. While the beasts thrash around in the muck, dogs come and lap up the torrents of blood.
The carcasses are quickly butchered and the meat is sent home as gifts for the more important guests.
More than coffee
The next day as we make our way up the washed-out road to Key Coffee’s Toarco Toraja plantation I reflect on what I find so stressful about Japan; not being able to revel in the dirty jumble of reality.
While we sample the company’s various grades, I debate whether I should buy any to bring back home. I decide not to. The coffee tastes good, but you just can’t import the experience behind it.
As we make our way back on the bus, Agus leans over to the Indonesian girl sitting next to him, inhales and says to her nonchalantly, “You didn’t take a shower today.”
I pass by a giant Toarco Toraja poster at Haneda Airport and wonder how that pickup line would work back here in Tokyo.
There is no easy way to get to Tana Toraja from Tokyo. Both ANA and JAL fly non-stop from Tokyo to Jakarta every day; domestic carriers link to Makassar, on Sulawesi. The journey to Tana Toraja takes eight hours by bus or taxi. To avoid the hordes, travel outside June-September.