Donato has the look, feel and sound of a classic old Japanese jazz kissaten, yet is a relatively new spot only opened in November 2021 in the Ochanomizu neighborhood of central Tokyo. It’s a spacious cafe style shop, with a square shaped front room and a semi-detached back room with a counter, seats and some extra tables, total capacity about 25 seats.
Like many jazz cafes, there is a book shelf lined with old music magazines and books to browse, right along the front windows facing the street. Decor is minimal, a bit wooden and old-fashion ‘European tea room’ aesthetic. But all that is secondary, with the main draw at Donato being the impressively deep musical selections, the high volume they play the records at, and the wonderfully charming old phone booth that contains their audio set up.
The music when I visited on a late weekday afternoon was intense and loud. I was particularly impressed with the early ECM label, very rare album ‘Girl From Martinique’ by Robin Kenyatta that they had on. I’m sure there is some Blue Note hard bop in the collection as well but my impression is that Donato leans toward the heavier, more experimental side of the jazz spectrum. Each album playing has its jacket placed on a chair next to the audio-phone booth with a ‘Don’t Touch’ sign prominently displayed. That plus the ‘Please keep you voices down’ (not that it would matter with the volume they keep it at) written on the menu let you know you are in a serious joint; its about the music here.
There is an attractive food menu too as well, with cake sets and tea/coffee, plus the usual alcohol on offer for evening visits. Donato is open from 1200-2200, so it’s perfect for mid-day coffee or a night cap after dinner, though its not a place for conversation so be ready for some focused listening while you drink. With so many old kissaten closing around the country, having a gem like Donato arrive on the scene is a blessing.
Closed Mondays and Tuesdays; Non-Smoking
Naru in Ochanomizu first opened in 1969 as the sister live spot to the Naru jazz cafe in the Yoyogi neighborhood, and remains a popular live spot after 50 years for the high quality of local musicians that appear nightly, both Japanese and other nationalities. It’s a small, dinner-club type of jazz club and the food is actually very good at Naru so it’s worth stopping by at lunchtime just to eat and listen to some records. The chef is from Madagascar and cooks up a range of dishes, mainly Italian but the menu changes often.
Owned by sax-player Ishizaki Shinobu, the lineup features some of Tokyo’s best gigging jazz musicians hosting monthly gigs, with the occasional one-off shows as well. There is no stage and the tables are all very close together, some close enough to touch the grand piano along the back wall. (Like many Tokyo jazz establishments, some overseas customers may find the room slightly claustrophobic). But this greatly adds to the intimacy, and listening to a band grooving so close to your table is an unbeatable experience.
Naru is one of the best no-nonsense live clubs in town for jazz that’s not too light, but won’t scare away those customers who can’t handle free/more experimental jazz styles. A bargain too at only ￥2500 (US$ 22) plus drink charges for all three sets.
Root Down moved down the street just 30 meters from it’s original spot, it’s now
Root Down is worthy of its funky name. (For those who don’t know look up the song “Root Down” by Jimmy Smith.) It’s a small bar opened about eight years ago by the very friendly Yoshikawa-san. The place is dark but cozy with several thousand records and CDs, and two speakers that just..I don’t have the technical audio vocabulary to describe how good these speakers sound. When you sit at the bar, the speakers are up high behind you meaning the sound comes down and surrounds you from the back. Listening to Ba obby Hutcherson record there, the sound of his vibes was like nothing else.
Double extra points for the brass plaque next to the bar with a quote from Sam Cooke. Yoshikawa-san plays a lot of different styles of jazz to please all kinds of tastes, all on vinyl, and his happy to talk about the music despite the late-night atmosphere. Check his Twitter feed for a real-time update of what’s being played. Root Down is dark and expensive so is best experienced late at night for an extended drinks session. Cash only. See pics of Root Down over at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
The Adirondack Cafe is a unique jazz cafe and bar just off the main road through the Jinbocho area of Tokyo. It opened in 2008 and soon became well known among the town’s jazz fans for its food menu (burgers, Philly cheese-steaks). Most jazz cafes don’t focus too much on tasty grub, especially of the sandwich variety.
The room is small but warm, with a lot of great memorabilia hung on the walls. The couple that run it obviously have a liking of all things New York as there is a huge print of the Flatiron Building on one wall, in addition to the name of the place. (The Adirondacks are a range of hills in upstate New York). The music in the joint is a mix of classic vocal jazz albums and some more modern stuff, nothing too extreme and pretty much the perfect volume for both listening and conversing. There’s live music once or twice a week, mostly trios or duos who play by the piano along the wall at the back of the shop.
I didn’t get to speak with the owners on my last visit to learn more about them and what they did before opening Adirondack, will have to go back soon to get the scoop. Photos of Adirondack over at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
Big Boy is a tiny cafe/bar on a side street off the main road through Jinbocho, the old book shop area of Tokyo. It was opened ten years ago by ex-advertising man Hayashi-san, a very serious jazz collector. He right away started telling us about his large collection, as well as the names of other jazz cafes all around Japan. We immediately felt at home with the warm welcome by Hayashi-san and his wife.
The space is a small one, seating maybe a max of about 15 people. Hayashi-san has taken great care with his audio system and as a result, the sound in Big Boy is incredible. (Details on his web page about all the equipment.) There’s a vast amount of vinyl along with CDs behind the bar, all genres though Hayashi-san points out that unlike a lot of other jazz cafes, he plays a lot of contemporary jazz from Europe. There was a new CD by a Polish piano trio playing when I last visited, very swinging.
Big Boy isn’t the kind of place to go if you want to have an extended chat; the music is loud and the sound system so crisp, you’ll want to just sit back and enjoy the music. Open until 5pm as a cafe, then from 7pm as a bar. Take note: ￥1000 table charge at night. Photos of Big Boy over at Tokyo Jazz Joints
Kiri is a wonderful little basement spot in between Hibiya, Ginza and Yurakucho stations. It’s a small, square room that can seat about 15-20 people max. There’s live music on Saturday’s but other nights just master Naito-san’s vinyl collection. (Hank Mobley playing when I went in, major points for that.)
The vibe in Kiri is quiet and sophisticated without being snobby. Over 200 bottles of whiskey/scotch/bourbon behind the bar are an added attraction for serious drinkers. Pricey, so bring cash.
Jazz Bar Gugan is a small bar in the east side of Tokyo, near both the Ochanomizu and Jimbocho areas. It was opened about 8 years ago by the friendly Yamamoto-san. You wouldn’t think it possible in such a small bar but there is live music once a twice a month. Yamamoto-san has a big collection of CDs (he was playing some live Wes Montgomery when I was last there) and quite a lot of whiskey. It’s a great place to stop by for a couple of drinks after some dinner or shopping in Jimbocho or Kanda.
(“Gugan” is a song by famous local pianist Yamashita Yosuke)
Jazz Olympus was opened by the very friendly Komatsu-san in 2009. It’s a sleek cafe/bar that is already well known in the area for it’s lunch-time menu (rare is the jazz cafe with good food!). Komatsu-san has a nice collection of about 4000 records and CDs in the place, with some beautiful album covers hanging on a few of the walls. His collection is mainly from the 50s and 60s but not exclusively, and he’ll play any genre of jazz depending on the time of day. When I was there on a sleepy, rainy Monday afternoon it was Anita O’Day coming out of the exquisite sounding speakers.
Komatsu-san also has record sharing and record release events at the cafe about once a month. There are flyers by the front door but don’t be afraid to ask him about them if you can’t read Japanese. Olympus is another great spot on the now plentiful Ochanomizu jazz joint map.
Non-smoking until 2pm.
Small Hours is a new cafe/bar located in the back streets between Ochanomizu, Jimbocho and Suidobashi stations. Owner Nihei-san opened it in June 2011 and has already established a loyal customer base. It’s a long, narrow space with a beautiful wooden counter bar that comfortably seats about 10 and a table for 4 or 5 in the front.
The friendly and chatty Nihei-san is not a typical jazz cafe owner as she is young and not a manic record collector. She plays sax and flute though and certainly knows the music. “Soul Station” by Hank Mobley was playing when I walked in the first time; that gets immediate respect. One of her goals with the cafe is to have a space for those non-“maniacs” to come hear the music but not feel intimidated by older, regular customers who can be a bit prickly about the music (and new fans.)
For either coffee or some drinks Small Hours has a completely relaxed vibe where anyone can feel welcome. There’s beer and a large whisky selection though closing time is 9pm so get here by 8 for an early nightcap.
Grauers is a new cafe/bar opened August, 2011. Owner Furusho Shinjiro is a long time jazz journalist in Tokyo whose major project in recent years was a massive documentation of the complete Riverside Jazz Records discography. This book and many others by Furusho-san and other jazz writers are in a cabinet in the cafe available for customers to poke through.
It’s a fair sized cafe with one counter area as you walk in and some non-smoking seats in the are to the back. There’s a lot of wine and fancy snacks on the menu and with the minimal decor I think it works better as a nighttime bar rather than an afternoon cafe.
The space is dominated by two huge speakers along the back wall. Furusho-san informed me these are not for sale to the general public and were acquired from a recording studio. The sound was exquisite. Overall, Grauers is a happy new addition to the Tokyo jazz scene.
Kissa Ko is one of the older cafes in town but had a facelift in 2012 so now has an all new decor. It’s in the is back streets of Jimbocho in an Edo-style wooden house that seems to be one of those buildings that survived the war.The owners have kept some of the original furniture in the small second floor tatami-space, a very relaxing spot to linger in.
They specialize in gourmet coffee here and are open from 7:30am during the week for breakfast. The jazz is mostly standard stuff with some vocals, nothing too challenging but nothing too “lite” either. Kissa Ko is a great place to stop by after browsing the book shops in Jimbocho or even a late morning coffee before hitting the streets.