Seasoned Traveller
Chooka’s,
Brunswick

Chooka’s Japanese cafe serves soulful omusubi (rice balls) worth lining up for

Words & images by Sofia Levin

TikTok might have spread the word about this “aesthetic cafe”, but it misses the Japanese soul that makes it special.

There’s a vague sense of magical realism when you sit down at tiny Chooka’s cafe in Brunswick. An ethereal Studio Ghibli soundtrack wafts from the Mission Style building’s ivy-fringed archways. Dappled sunlight twirls across the outdoor tables, while the resident cat – the cafe’s namesake – slinks between chair legs. It’s sincere, serene and an insight into Japanese dining customs. 

Kogoro and Ruri Kubo took over Chooka’s in 2023 after working for the previous owner. They specialise in omusubi (also known as musubi and onigiri), rice formed into balls and triangles that's swaddled, speckled or stuffed with ingredients. The Japanese word for omusubi (お結び) is similar to the word for “knot”, and refers both literally and symbolically to connection.

“Omusubi is very family food in Japan,” says Kogoro. “It is not something special, but we believe things which are homemade, handmade, heart-warming food will make people happy. I even believe that could be helpful for the peace of the world.”

Back in Osaka, Kogoro’s mother would make him omusubi to eat at school or after his soccer games. In fact, he moved to Melbourne in 2022 to pursue a sporting career. Kogoro retired from soccer to take over Chooka’s, keeping the name and launching a month-long pop-up to test his favourite childhood snack among locals. It was a hit. They closed for a month, renovated the kitchen and have occupied their zen-like corner ever since. 

With only eight tables, customers line up for a taste of Japanese comfort food. It’s a lovely scene outside the historic, 1930s Spanish Mission building, which originally operated as Melbourne's first self-service grocery shop, the Brunswick Market. It went into liquidation within a few years, unable to compete with Sydney Road’s traders, and became storage space for multiple businesses before becoming a cafe. 

Chooka’s calming atmosphere is a million miles away from its former life as a market. Customers use the QR codes on the tables to order omusubi (only $6.50 to $8), teishoku (set meals), Japanese pork curry, hearty rice bowls, Japanese desserts, and sweet milky drinks flavoured with matcha and sesame.

Kogoro says that, initially, 90 per cent of customers were “young Asian girls who like to take photos on Instagram.” But Chooka’s is so much more than an “aesthetic cafe” (the Gen Z, social media term where “aesthetic” is an adjective referencing the visual and atmospheric attractiveness of a venue). It’s a mini sanctuary that encourages respect for food through inherent Japanese customs – in other words, mindful eating before “mindful” became a wellness catchphrase. 

粒のお米には七人の神様がいる

“We have a saying: there are seven gods in a grain of rice,” says Korogo. “Our omusubi is simple, but it shows the soul of the Japanese.”

The proverb is a metaphor for soil, water, sun, wind, pollinating insects, clouds and farmers; a way to teach children to appreciate what’s on their plate. This is reflected in Japanese phrases around eating. Before a meal one says, “itadakimasu” (いただきます), which translates to “I humbly receive”. When finished eating, it's, “gochisousamadeshita” (ごちそうさまです), which means “thank you for the meal”. The latter has lexicological roots in acknowledging the effort of someone riding a horse to source food for a guest. 

“A lot of things happen every single day, happy things and sad things… but being able to eat food is so happy as human beings, so we have to thank everything that works to bring the food to your table,” explains Kogoro. “We would like to share this respectful culture through our homemade Japanese food."

1 Ballarat St, Brunswick, instagram.com/chookascoffee

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