Interview by Isao Tokuhashi
Edited by Daniel Penso
Cafe owner/Barista/Cafe consultant
Finally, we were able to conduct an in-depth interview with this person.
In October 2020, My Eyes Tokyo editor-in-chief Tokuhashi participated in a PR project. He visited an old private house cafe in Matsudo City, Chiba Prefecture. An Indonesian man, Rino Senlewa, ran a small Indonesian coffee shop called “Mahameru Coffee” there. He never stopped moving, not even for a second, talking to customers while taking their orders and brewing coffee, and politely answered Tokuhashi’s questions even though he was so busy.
Around the time he closed the store, Tokuhashi told him about My Eyes Tokyo. He said, “I’m always looking at this website!”
Tokuhashi was so happy that he offered an interview to Rino. He agreed, but the interview was postponed because both of them got busy. The interview finally took place in August 2022, when his cafe was reopened at a new location about 200 meters away from the old house. Almost two years had passed since the appointment, but when Tokuhashi opened the door of the cafe, he was greeted with “It’s been a long time!” and Rino welcomed him with the same cheerful voice as back then.
On the day the cafe was reopened to the public, Rino, who was congratulated by many customers for his new start, told us about his life, which was filled with gratitude for all the people he has met.
*Interview at Mahameru Coffee (Matsudo, Chiba Prefecture)
We had a glass of the cold brew, which is perfect for a hot day, right before the interview.
Coffee makes everyone equal
“Mahameru”, part of the name of my cafe, is the name of a mountain in Java, Indonesia. Before opening this cafe, I started a coffee farm in Java, where my wife’s parents live. My in-laws had a coffee farm, and I bought it. It was the first business I started on my own so I named the cafe after the place where the plantation was located.
I am so familiar with coffee because I have been drinking it since I was 3 years old. But that is not unusual back home. Indonesians love coffee so much that they even let their babies drink it (laughs). Moreover, when guests come to the house, the youngest child in the family makes coffee for them. One made by children is inevitably sweet, but that’s OK. In Indonesia, there is no custom of drinking black coffee. I also started drinking it after I came to Japan.
I believe that coffee is “a tool that connects people from all walks of life because coffee treats everyone equally. For both affluent people and not-so-affluent people, bitter coffee is bitter and sweet coffee is sweet so when you come to this cafe, extraordinary people and ordinary people are all the same. There is no discrimination or distinction here. Even if you are extraordinary, when you come here, everyone is the same inside. That’s what my cafe is like.
Happy Meals changed a street racer
Before I came to Japan, I was a street racer. I worked as a mechanic for cars and motorcycles while attending a mechanic school in Indonesia, and after work, I modified my own bike and enjoyed riding it. But, eventually, I began to wonder why I was doing that job. Why was I racing? What was the point of me repairing and modifying other people’s bikes? On the contrary, if I modified one and made it go too fast, I might end up killing the person riding it.
As such, I decided to “reset” my life. Around that time, my grandmother who was married to a Japanese man and living in Ibaraki Prefecture asked me if I wanted to come visit her in Japan. I decided that I would never work on engines again. I got out of the mechanic business and came to Japan in 2002.
When I first arrived in Japan, the only thing I could do was order a “Happy Meal” at McDonald’s. Even though I couldn’t speak Japanese, I could say “Happii Setto!” (*Happy Meal in Japanese), and the burger even comes with a toy. When I brought the toys back home, everyone was delighted. Seeing their smiles made me happy, too so I am very grateful to McDonald’s and I don’t think of their food as junk food. I still go to McDonald’s from time to time, and the moment I bite into a hamburger, I cry because I remember those days.
To be honest, however, I did not have a very good impression of Japan when I first arrived. Japanese people are serious, don’t tell jokes, and don’t come to you unless you talk to them so I returned home after about three months. But, I didn’t want to judge Japan based on just one visit here. I thought, “If I find Japan boring, is it because I’m not good enough or because the Japanese are not good enough?” I wanted to find it out. If the Japanese are serious and rigid, then I should be soft and casual. I came to Japan again on a tourist visa and stayed for three months at a time, repeating the trial-and-error process. I finally came to enjoy life in Japan on my third visit to Japan and, then, I decided to live here after my fourth visit.
We had a second cup during the interview. Hot Mahamel Blend Coffee will be good for the coming autumn season.
”I want to be a human being”
Whenever I returned to Indonesia, I brought back hundreds of Happy Meal toys. When my grandmother in Indonesia saw this, she said to me, “If you can afford to think about souvenirs for others when you are going through hard times, you have already succeeded.” She told me that I wouldn’t have to go back to Indonesia anymore. Those were the last words she said to me. I promised her, who passed away the next morning, that I would be a real success and build a nice house and hire 10 nannies.
At the time, I was studying at a Japanese language school and working part-time at a pet store owned by my grandmother in Ibaraki who let me live with her. When I reached 500,000 yen (Approx. 5,000USD) in savings, I said to her Japanese husband that I wouldn’t become a ‘human being’ if I keep staying here with them so I’ve decided to leave. If I don’t succeed, I will come back here and bow and apologize to them. Then, I said jokingly, “I might become someone you can only see on TV someday.” But, he said, “You will be. You should be like that.” He encouraged me by saying that with a straight face and I told my grandmother that if anyone asks him about me, just tell them that I ran away. Then, I left the people who had supported me up to then.
After that, I took the first step toward independence by moving to an apartment in Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture. I was living a comfortless life in a sparsely decorated room with no bed, using a stack of jeans as a pillow. To escape such a situation and make life in Japan a little easier, I had to become as close to a Japanese person as possible. But to make that happen, I knew that learning the Japanese language at school alone would not be enough. I decided to learn various linguistic expressions and the way of life of Japanese people through work, so I started working at a fish paste shop in the basement of the Marui department store near Kita-Senju Station in Tokyo. During the Christmas season, I received many unsold cakes from a confectionery shop on the same floor and distributed them to elderly women and homeless people in the neighborhood. In return, someone made me breakfast and invited me to visit their houses, and I began to receive support from all kinds of people.
I also worked at factories, construction sites, and demolition sites. I sacrificed my sleeping hours, but I still worked hard because I wanted to show my friends, with whom I used to drive cars and motorcycles in Indonesia, how successful I had become in Japan. “I used to be a street racer, but I was able to change myself.”
He used his experience working at some construction sites to build this cafe, including varnishing the planks.
The fish paste shop in the department store even asked me to join them as a full-time employee instead of a part-time one. But, I politely declined in order to move on to the next step. After working at a convenience store and a wi-fi router rental company, I approached a pharmaceutical company in Tokyo.
A signature that encouraged my dream
At a job interview where I brought a resume that did not contain the reasons for applying for the position, I told the interviewers that I didn’t care even if I had a salary of zero, as long as I would not be a gofer. “If you value me, please start paying me from that time on. If you don’t appreciate me, I will leave the company. That’s all.” In fact, this is what I have said at every interview I have ever had. The reason I didn’t write anything about the reasons why I applied for the company in my resume was that I didn’t know anything about the companies yet. But, the people who I was talking to were executives from a major pharmaceutical company. After I had told them everything, they stood up. I thought that they were going to slap me… But, they congratulated me and shook my hands.
After joining the company, I was assigned to the manufacturing department as a part-time worker. I asked the company to let me do anything and started with chores such as cleaning toilets. I also asked my seniors to introduce me to the strictest person in the company because such a person must be either good at his/her job or close to the president of the company. Being around such a person would only benefit me so it would be a waste to avoid him/her just because he/she would be strict. Other employees spoke poorly about me behind my back saying that that foreigner was a brown-noser but I didn’t care at all. After that, I went through various forms of employment and eventually became a full-time employee.
Nevertheless, I was born and raised in a family of businesspeople and I always wanted to do business by myself someday. Coffee, in particular, is something I have enjoyed since I was a child and adults drink it, and even children drink it with milk. That’s how widespread coffee culture is. In Japan, people enjoy coffee without sugar or milk, which means they enjoy the taste of the beans themselves. Therefore, I was sure that I could sell good Indonesian coffee here. In Japan, coffee is so much a part of daily life that there are people drinking coffee from vending machines to refresh themselves when they are drunk. I was really excited about the unlimited possibilities of developing this “black water business” in Japan.
I told the president that I would be leaving the company to open a cafe. He told me that I was being ridiculous. He knew that I had worked hard to become a full-time employee from a part-time position and that he had high expectations for me so perhaps my decision was difficult for him to be happy about. Moreover, he said that coffee shops don’t make any money. I countered that ”You won’t know unless you try. I don’t want you to decide what to do with my life.” Still, his intention remained unchanged so I decided to consult the chairman of the board.
One day I went to dinner with the chairman and president. At that table, the chairman asked me how much I was thinking of charging for one drink.
I said, “Three hundred yen (Approximately 3 USD).”
“What?” The chairman wondered because their products are far more expensive. “Is that price OK for you?”
Then the chairman took out his business card and signed the back of it.
He said, “If you are ever in need of money, come to the company and show it to them.”
Most employees would not have had a business card with the chairman’s signature. He gave it to me, an ordinary employee, which was a sign of his intention to support me whenever I needed it. Since the chairman supported my future, there was no way the president would not agree with me. Thus, I resigned from the pharmaceutical company where I had worked for about eight years and set out to realize my dream of opening my own cafe.
The third cup during the interview was “Honey Milk Tea.” This gem offers the sweet harmony of tea leaves and honey from Java, Indonesia.
“Another mayor in town” supported my business
I have lived in Matsudo, Chiba Prefecture since I worked at the pharmaceutical company. Even after quitting, I never left the town where rent and prices are low and you can get to the central Tokyo locations without having to change trains. I often walked around the town looking for potential cafe locations. One day, I found one old house near Matsudo station. It was labeled “Matsudo Tankentai Himitsu-do,” which was a tourist information center. I wanted to contribute to the town in some way so I joined as a volunteer. Then, I met a woman named Rumiko Ishigami, the head of the tourist information center.
She seemed like an ordinary woman. But in fact, she was kind of “another mayor” of Matsudo, connected to all kinds of people in town. I thought, “If I work for her, I will have a chance to meet all kinds of people!” In fact, I connected with many people, and they supported me in realizing my dream. Furthermore, Ms. Ishigami kindly allowed me to use the Himitsu-do space as my cafe.
Mahameru Coffee when was located in a 100+-year-old house. The “Himitsu-do (ひみつ堂)” sign can be seen on the right side of the building.
*Photo provided by Rino Senlewa
In March 2016, about two years after leaving the pharmaceutical company, my first cafe, Mahameru Coffee, opened. However, it was a tough start with zero sales on the first day and 500 yen (Approx. 5 USD) on the second day. I told my wife that I still had some money saved, but if this situation continued, I would be in trouble! But, she said it was my first time so I could take my time. Her words cheered me up and I began to talk more with customers to find out what they wanted, and I consciously tried things I had not done before. Having an attitude of honestly listening to them increased the number of repeat customers, and the constant presence of people in the cafe created trust in the shop, which eventually led to an increase in the number of new customers.
Even after the relocation and reopening of Mahamel Coffee, “Matsudo Tankentai Himitsu-do” is still located above it.
I will be like the “father of Japanese capitalism”
I still reflect on my customer service every day. I always wonder if I talked too much to the customers today or if I spoke too strongly to someone. Sometimes I actually apologized to customers. Also, I have to acquire knowledge and information to talk to anyone who comes in. Of course, if I don’t understand what they are saying, I ask questions without pretending to know. If you work with a tense feeling like this, every day will be fulfilling and enjoyable. On the other hand, if you get used to your job, that is where your personal growth stops.
Besides, I did not want to just come to Japan, study, hang around, work, earn money here, and return to my home. If I did that, I would not be able to leave my mark on Japan. If I don’t leave something behind here, I will not be able to encourage other students just like my old self who will come to Japan from Indonesia in the future.
Even foreigners can do something in Japan. There is nothing they can’t do. I believe that my 20 years in Japan have been spent proving this to myself.
When I was studying at a Japanese language school, I read books on the great figures of the late Edo and early Meiji periods. I was particularly fascinated by Eiichi Shibusawa, a Japanese industrialist known today as the “father of Japanese capitalism”. Because of his outstanding achievements, such as establishing the first bank in Japan during the Meiji era, his ideas and actions may not have been understood by people at the time. But, he left many things behind for future generations. That is why the Japanese economy exists today.
Like Shibusawa, I want to be someone who can leave something behind for Japan. If I could do something as the owner of a cafe, it would be to open my own cafes in various places in the countryside. My dream is to make Indonesian coffee more accessible to people in rural areas and to create wonderful spaces with them.
What is Japan to you?
It is the country that changed my life.
When I was in Indonesia, I was a daredevil type of man who made money from racing. When such a guy came to Japan and worked diligently, carefully, and hard, all kinds of people supported him. Thanks to them, I was even able to open a cafe here.
The term “Made in Japan” has tremendous power. If beans purchased from Indonesia are roasted in Japan, the coffee will be “Made in Japan.” No matter where you go, it is easy to do business with Made in Japan products because they are trusted.
In Japan, which has produced such trusted products, I believe that anyone can realize what they want to do. Conversely, it is up to you whether or not you do it. If you find what you want to do, express it clearly and openly to many people, and gain their trust little by little, you will be able to realize it here in Japan.
You can change your life, your destiny, everything by yourself – I believe that is Japan.