Tokyo slow cafe offers candle-lit quiet in neon jungle

Amid the hectic neon sprawl of Tokyo, the world's largest megacity, a renegade band of slow-lifers is bucking the trend with a radical idea - embracing the sound of silence by candle light.

The "Cafe Slow" is a pocket of soothing darkness in the midst of greater Tokyo, an urban expanse of over 30 million that buzzes 24 hours a day and glows brightly even when viewed from space.

In Tokyo, Japan's sleepless hub of 21st-century urban life, it also hopes to be a centre for an alternative lifestyle that celebrates organic food, fair trade and other principles of a life in harmony with the planet.

The cafe's founder, Atsushi Yoshioka, 63, looks with some pity at the millions of suit-clad "salarymen" who day after day crowd out the city's spaghetti-bowl subway system. He knows, because he was one of them.

"I was such a fast person for such a long time," said Yoshioka, chatting recently in his cafe, where the flickering light of honeycomb wax candles lit up a rustic interior fashioned from recycled timber.

"I kept moving in and out, changing place 20 times, because I always wanted a bigger place, a more convenient place," he said of his 30-year international career. "I had more money, but I was also spending it a lot faster."

Since he ended his career as a bureaucrat with the UN educational and cultural agency UNESCO, "I haven't worn a tie once," he said. "I no longer squeeze myself into packed rush hour trains either."

Yoshioka is a member of the Tokyo Sloth Club, founded in 1999, almost a decade after Japan's "bubble era" of spectacular growth ended in a stock and property crash that rang in a period of relative stagnation, and Cafe Slow is an offshoot of the movement.

"The club was created to propose a lifestyle like that of the sloth," said its general director Naoko Baba. "Sloths may have an image of being laggards in evolution. But they have survived the law of the jungle."

"They live in a tree and eat the leaves while nurturing the tree with their droppings. This is very wise ecologically," she said.

"You don't need to be strong to survive. This may give us a clue to solving many problems that our society now faces."

Motivated by the same go-slow philosophy, Yoshioka in 2001 started his weekly "cafe in the dark" nights, where patrons unplug the electricity and instead sit, talk and relax in the warm glow of candles, to piano music.

"Our civilisation has desperately tried to remove the darkness by turning the lights on all over," he said.

"But when you sit in the dark, you feel the serenity of night, appreciate the sunlight (of daytime), and open yourself up to communication."

Yoshioka said in today's Japan, many milestone events such as births, marriages and deaths, which once bonded local communities, are now managed by business entities such as big hotels and hospitals.

"I want to reconnect people's bonds in the slow movement," Yoshioka said.

The idea for the cafe in the dark was born, he said, after former US president George W. Bush in 2001 rejected the Kyoto Protocol on fighting man-made climate change.

It was followed by similar global movements, such as the World Wildlife Fund's "Earth Hour" which started in 2007, where buildings in cities around the world turn off all electricity for 60 minutes.

At Yoshioka's slow cafe, the menu lists organic and local food, as well as imported products purchased through "fair trade" systems that aim to protect developing-world producers from corporate exploitation.

"We also try to rely less on petroleum products and nuclear energy," by trying to use as little electricity as possible at all times, said Yoshioka.

What started off as an oddity has drawn many followers in Japan, where young organic farmers have started bypassing large food retailers, and where enthusiasm has grown for activities such as weekend and rooftop farming.

"When I started the cafe, people laughed at me and called me a slacker," Yoshioka said. "But I now see many young people, especially young mothers with babies, gather here and relax. A lot more people want a lifestyle like this."

"It simply feels comfortable," agreed Namiko Okubo, a 32-year-old mother sitting in the cafe with her one-year-old son. "I don't know what being 'slow' really means, but I want to feel that I'm in touch with mother nature."