At a cozy, unassuming coffee shop located in the western Japan city of Nara, co-proprietor Shoko Iijima greets her regular customers as they walk by the doors of her establishment, often left wide open on nice days.

Iijima's engaging approach to her cafe, Inside Astral Ray Coffee, sets the light-hearted, playful mood that patrons and staff embrace.

Here, people from various walks of life seek a place to connect freely with others in a "third place," a social setting that is neither home, school nor work, but a place where they can interact and refresh before heading home.

Photo taken on April 10, 2024, shows Astral Ray Coffee in Nara. (Kyodo)

Tired from work or home life, Astral Ray Coffee customers can unwind with a relaxing roasted brew and some good-natured banter. Dedicated to being oases of respite, such third places are still rare in Japan but are slowly increasing in number.

Experts believe one of the main obstacles to people finding places to be outside of work or home is a difference in thinking between Japan and elsewhere about the use of private time.

For example, in Africa, Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere, people regularly stop by cafes or bars after work, giving them a place to be that requires little effort on their part, unlike obligations at work or home.

In Japan, the majority of people do not have a third place, but that fact is not frowned upon, rather it casts them in a positive light as serious and hardworking members of society.

At Astral Ray Coffee in the city that was once one of Japan's ancient capitals, all of the windows and doors are kept open in the summer, creating a welcoming atmosphere for those who stop by. Long bench seating encourages customers to converse with each other.

Iijima, 36, is a former high school teacher. She had been thinking of creating a relaxing space for adults and came up with the idea of a cafe with her friend Taeka Shibata, 28, who shared her belief that such a locale was needed. The shop opened in June 2022.

Fumi Miyazawa, 38, a regular at the Nara cafe, loves the coffee shop as it gives her the opportunity to engage in stimulating conversations with staff and other customers, a welcome pause from her job as a nurse.

"I can have face-to-face conversations with people at the counter. It's a great stress reliever," Miyazawa said.

Understanding the worth of a third place is not new. Most cultures around the world value their own versions, whether it be a bar, barber shop, beauty salon, bookstore, church, community center clubs or park.

Shoko Iijima (L) chats with customers at the Astral Ray Coffee cafe in Nara on April 10, 2024, as she works alongside co-proprietor Taeka Shibata. (Kyodo)

The phrase "third place" was coined in 1989 by American sociologist Ray Oldenburg in his book "The Great Good Place." Oldenburg feared communities in the United States were in decline due to the expansion of suburbia and a reliance on cars, which he argued lessened a sense of belonging.

In his book, Oldenburg summarizes the facets of a third place, including being "neutral ground" to which one has little to no obligation. The place also has regulars who set the tone of a place, it has good accessibility and amenities with a playful mood devoid of hostility and a sense of belonging as a home away from home.

As the United States became an automobile-centric society in which people shuttle back and forth between the suburbs and work alone in their vehicles, Oldenburg argued that they required places that serve as a social lubricant to "anchor" people amid the stresses of modern society.

According to a multi-answer survey conducted among people aged 20-29 in Tokyo by the Organization for Promoting Urban Development, when respondents were asked what places they find most "comfortable," 82 percent said their homes. Twenty percent listed izakaya (Japanese pubs), while 14 percent and 12 percent said private karaoke rooms and cafes were their favorite place to be.

For middle school and high school students in Yokohama, 82 percent said they were comfortable in their own homes or friends' places; 14 percent enjoyed hanging out at parks; 12 percent going to fast food restaurants; and 10 percent to arcades.

While there were disparities in places enjoyed by gender, age and financial wealth, fewer than half of respondents listed places other than their own or a friend's home as a "comfortable place."

Nobutaka Ishiyama, a professor at Hosei University who studies third places, believes that although still in its infancy Japan is witnessing a shift in values from what he calls "big stories" that pursue a sense of belonging to a community or organization to "small stories" that emphasize individuality in its many forms.

He says people are looking for places where they can freely interact with each other based on similar hobbies or interests outside of work. Acceptance of outsiders is also a feature.

Ayako Sakai is pictured at her cafe Stray Cat in Oyodo, Nara Prefecture, on March 8, 2024. (Kyodo)

"If we can create a place where strangers can freely connect and feel safe and included, it will enrich Japan as a whole."

Ayako Sakai, 28, a former Tokyoite who runs the Stray Cat cafe in Oyodo, Nara Prefecture, worked as a community development volunteer from 2018 for three years before settling in the area. She took advice from locals when opening her business in 2021.

Sakai has seen an increase in regular customers, with some who purposely drop by to see her. Some confide in her about their problems at work or are happy to tell her about pursuing new career paths. "Hopefully they go home feeling better," said Sakai, who takes joy from her interactions with her customers.

Sakai said she wants Stray Cat to continue to be "a place where people can come and relax (so I can) repay my debt to this community that has treated me so well."

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