Kyoto Flame: sparking untold narratives in Kyoto

By Charles Roche

In advance of our next print issue, KJ 107 (on the theme of Fire and Kyoto), Charles Roche, long-term Kyoto resident, reminisces about The Flame, a unique monthly community-based storytelling event held at his hospitable Papa Jon’s Eatery. As figurative keeper of the flame for three years, Charles sparked a conflagration that lit up the local scene. With the scintillating allure of a flickering campfire, or the beckoning lanterns of Bon-Odori, the Flame brought our Kyoto neighborhood together and provided much-appreciated illuminations, brilliance and warmth.

A small flame can ignite a roaring fire; a simple story can spark a much larger narrative.

As a child, stories came in two flavors: my Father’s, read from a storybook, and my Mother’s, shared from the heart. My Father visited us on Sundays. We sat on the couch, and he would tuck my sister under one arm and me under the other and read to us from the Better Homes and Gardens Story Book. The illustrations were colorful, and I enjoyed the stories. Still, there was not much that could hold the attention of a six-year-old with attention deficit disorder. My mind wandered from the story to the storyteller. To the weight of his arm across my shoulders, his huge hand turning the pages, his smell (Old Spice), and his soothing baritone voice while I was trying to soak up enough of him to last until next Sunday. The magic of storybookstorytime was the connection with my Father.

My Mother told us rambling family stories around the kitchen table. She was the youngest of seven children of Italian immigrant parents. She grew up in New York, catching the end of the Roaring Twenties, Prohibition, and the Great Depression; she married and raised her children during the Second World War years. Her stories painted pictures of life in a bustling Bronx neighborhood, the hubbub of our large family gatherings, and their resilience during the tough times. She wasn’t just telling stories but sharing family history and nurturing family bonds.

I first heard “The Moth” podcast, a New York-based spoken word event, in the ‘90s. People from all walks of life told true, unscripted, unpolished stories with regional accents, colloquialisms, and bumpy grammar intact. Listening awakened childhood memories and planted the thought of someday creating such an event. The opportunity came in 2012 when I was offered a cafe space large enough to seat forty or more people. It was on the third floor of the Shinpuhkan in downtown Kyoto (presently the Ace Hotel). The Moth had provided a realistic model, and my desire to hold a story event was alive. I signed the lease, and (as it were) the dog caught the bus.

After we renovated the space, which we named “The Eatery,” I contacted Ken Rodgers, a long-time acquaintance and MC convener of the “Kyoto Connection,” an open-armed free monthly open-mic event that drew poets, musicians, singers, actors, etc. The “Connection” flourished for fourteen years (1985 ~1999), leaving the Kyoto community with fond memories and lifelong friends. Ken’s enthusiasm for a story event in Kyoto was encouraging, and his advice, based on his years of hands-on experience, was invaluable. Ken also offered to videotape the Flame’s performances (all posted on Ken’s YouTube channel <iwakuraken> and on The Flame’s Facebook  page. <>

Phil Norton, musician, storyteller, writer, and poet, was part of the project from day one. He coined our name “The Flame” at our first brainstorming session. Phil became the backbone of the event, contributing a unique combination of original music and spoken word pieces at virtually every story night during our three-year run.

We held the Flame on the third Sunday of the month. Each had a theme: one Halloween was “Heebie Jeebies,” and another I especially liked was “Mama Maya,” to celebrate that although the Mayan calendar had run out, our world hadn’t. Themes like “Odd Jobs” and “Through the Looking Glass” were suggested by the Flame regulars.

Annette Levy

Opening night was not my first “first,” if you get my meaning. As anticipated, “Mild Anxiety” and “Doubt” showed up early and eager (actually, they visited the night before, just as I was getting into bed). “Hope” paced the floor, and “Sense of Achievement” (the one I was most hoping to see) I knew would not show up until the coast was clear.

Phil emceed. The theme was “On and Off the Road: Travelers’ Tales of the Unexpected.”

Word-of-mouth advertising filled the room with an audience of friends and friends of friends. A bit of canvassing added local word people, such as Kevin Ramsden, Ted Taylor, and John Ashburne, to the bill, still allowing time for an open-mic session during which my son, who showed up unexpectedly, told a story about his trip to North Africa that coincided with the tumultuous Arab Spring uprising (an absolute hair-raiser for Daddy).

Chris Roche

Listening to his tale was a full-circle moment. The simple sharing of his story enriched our family history and extended the bridge from my childhood storytime kitchen table into the now.

“Sense of Achievement,” sidled up and slipped me a red lollipop.

Mike Barr and storytelling accomplice


The lease on the Eatery ran out in 2015, and despite the intention of finding a new venue to continue the Flame, that has yet to happen.

But that’s another story.

Special bonus video links:
Ai & Drew, from Flame 17
Phil Norton and Catherine Littlehale-Oki from Flame 30

Phil Norton: ‘Fire in the Fire Station‘, recorded beside the Kamogawa, June 2024
For more videos by Phil, see preachermansays

The FLAME glowed for three years from May, 2012 through November, 2015. Thirty-three events, roughly 150 true unscripted stories. They were all my favorite.

kyoto journal logo red


Charles Roche

Author's Bio

Charles Roche, a New York native, came to Japan in 1969 for what was meant to be a two-month visit. This stay extended into a two-year adventure, during which he bartended, busked, cleaned squid, and imported Afghan embroidery. After returning to the U.S., he took up furniture making as a hobby. In 1978, he returned to Kyoto to hone his skills by studying Japanese woodworking and lacquering techniques. In 1985, Roche and his wife Mieko launched a New York-style eatery in Kyoto. This venture blossomed into Papa Jon’s, a specialty café renowned for its cheesecake. Today, the couple continues in the café business in Kyoto, where they exhibit the work of local artists.


Flame logo by Eldwen Laurenzi; photos and posters courtesy of Charles Roche.