UPDATE: Found out just yesterday that the lovely Matsuura-san passed away just about two years ago in May 2021. The shop is still there sitting empty, with a closed notice from May two years ago still on the door. A very sad loss, this was a special joint for me, which I mentioned in the opening essay to the upcoming Tokyo Jazz Joints photo book. Sorry I never got to say goodbye..
I was walking through the back alleys of Kagurazaka, the “little Kyoto” area of Tokyo, and saw the magic word (jazz) on a sign. Unfortunately it was only 3pm so I had to come back at night to investigate further, but the Corner Pocket was worth the return trip. It’s a small hole in the wall which can’t hold more than 15-20 people but has a real warm vibe. The owner Matsura-san is incredibly friendly; within 30 seconds of me sitting down we got into a conversation about jazz and his little bar.
Matsura-san plays the trumpet, and opened the Corner Pocket in 1982. He spent some time in NYC soaking up the scene then came back to work as an “event producer”. He’s a huge swing fan but his collection of over 4000 records covers all genres, though you’ll often walk in to find him watching some concert DVD on his TV.
Amazingly for such a small place, Saturdays frequently have jam sessions with Matsura-san and a revolving cast of players. Matsura-san said on jam nights he clears out the two or three tables that are in the place and has people stand; with most of his customers regulars no one seems to mind and the atmosphere is always welcoming. I spent about half-an-hour just chatting with him and before leaving (but after using the “meditation room”, i.e. bathroom) promised I would come back soon for one of the jam sessions. Corner Pocket is no frills and don’t head there expecting a varied drinks menu or formal service; instead it’s a warm, cluttered, unpretentious joint where you’ll immediately be treated like a friend. Three cheers for Matsura-san!
Recent pics now up at tokyojazzjoints.com
Gate One is a small bar run by the husband and wife guitar-vocal duo Hashimoto-san and Kajiwara-san. They have live music at least three nights a week here with a ￥2000 cover-charge, very reasonable. Hashimoto-san sadly passed away in July 2021, but the bar remains open with a regular schedule of live sets.
The vocal+instrument live show is very common in Japan, often because of the limited space in the bars where having a full quintet can sometimes be difficult. These kinds of spots may a bit soft for some jazz fans, but they offer the most authentic ‘local’ feel of what many customers in Japan experience on their way home. The Gate One is warm and friendly and well worth a visit if you’re in Takadanobaba. Be sure to stop upstairs in Bar Stereo for a drink on your way out.
Someday is a nice, spacious club in Shinjuku, well known for their various big band and Latin jazz nights. Plenty of foreign musicians on the roster as well as local acts, a fairly good food menu and you only pay one entry fee for both sets. Great place for some live tunes before doing some late night jazz bar hopping in Golden Gai or Shinjuku San-Chome neighborhoods. Extra bonus points for the ‘classic’ website that has a lot of friendly English on it.
Milestone sadly closed its doors at the end of July, 2019 after 45 years in business.
As the name gives away, you’re going to hear a lot of Miles Davis at this place. Milestone is another classic jazz cafe perfect for when you have two hours to kill. Master Orito-san is a soft-spoken, kinono-wearing, really nice guy who keeps the vibe there mellow but swinging.
What really stands out about Milestone is the wall of books and magazines on the right side as you walk in. Although most are in Japanese, there are enough jazz photo books that even if you can`t read Japanese you can still spend a fun hour or so doing some browsing. Orito-san keeps the place open fairly late and there’s booze on the menu so it’s also a great spot for a few early drinks in the evening.
Takadanobaba is a “student town” so there’s always a few college kid jazz fans in here, along with a few random salarymen. I spent a lot of my student days at Waseda University “studying” at places like this in Tokyo, and Milestone is one of the best.
Tokyo Jazz Joint photos of Milestone are here.
The ‘New Dug’ in Shinjuku is a cafe/bar with a complex back story. It was the annex bar to the original Dug, a legendary jazz bar/club in the heart of Shinjuku, owned by photographer Hozumi Nakadaira. This version of Dug opened a few doors down the street but without live music; sadly several years ago the original Dug closed its doors for good as the building it was in was torn down..in some of Nakadaira-san’s photographs you can see the original place hosting some of jazz’ greatest musicians as they dropped by while in Tokyo.
What do you need to know about this version of Dug then? It’s small, dark, and underground with a great whiskey selection to go with the usual beers and cocktails. There are several of Nakadaira-san’s photographs hanging around the cafe, as well as a large Miles Davis painting. The music is always good, with a special emphasis on hard-bop albums.
Dug is a perfect escape from the bustle of Shinjuku, suitable for some quiet time with jazz and a drink or a chat with a friend. It gets two extra points for the great postcards of jazz musicians on sale for only ￥100, all copies of Nakadaira-san’s original pictures. I strongly recommend you drop by Dug as part of a Shinjuku jazz joint crawl, it’s an essential part of the jazz history of Tokyo. Open daily from 12noon. See more pics of Dug over at tokyojazzjoints.com
Jazz Room Stick is a great old jazz joint in the heart of Shinjuku, located almost directly behind the Studio Alta building. It was first opened in 1970 (‘When Shinjuku was burning!’) by the wonderfully jovial Wariya-san. The place seats about 25, either at the bar or at the low tables towards the back wall.
The room is dominated by the print on the back wall, a photo of fusion-era funky Miles Davis and Jack DeJohnette. On the other side are numerous under-water photos; Wariya-san is a licensed scuba-diving instructor and even at age 74 still dives now and then. The right wall has postcards featuring movie-posters from all of Kurosawa Akira’s career. Quite a random and cool mix of decor, surrounding some vintage 1970s furniture.
Wariya-san has a good-sized collection of vinyl behind the bar, though I have noticed that when it gets busy he puts on a mix-cd of jazz “classics”. I’d prefer he hit the vinyl of course but the atmosphere makes up for it as the Stick is a lively place, perfect for those times you want to drink and be merry in a jazz joint..and probably get a bit loaded when Wariya-san brings out some of his home-made umeshu (plum wine) on the house or starts pouring from his collection of Polish gin. Stick is old school; get down there for a drink while you still can. No website, twitter or Facebook. ‘I’m an analog man, no internet!’ – Wariya-san
Photos of Stick here at Tokyo Jazz Joints.com
The Old Blind Cat in Shinjuku has a long and fascinating history, as much as any jazz bar in town. It’s located down in the second basement (B2) of a building right across from the East Exit of JR Shinjuku station, and dates to 1945 when it opened amidst the rough blackmarket that sprung up the day the war ended.
The bar passed through several owners’ hands before the current owner Kikuchi-san acquired it in 1965. Longtime bartender Nishizaki-san ran the place while Kikuchi-san ran another joint over in the Shinjuku-San Chome neighborhood. (Nishizaki-san has been ill recently and is taking some time off; both these guys are in their mid-70s) During this time the OBC was a popular jazz bar amidst the chaotic Shinjuku streets of the 60s & 70s. World famous author Haruki Murakami even worked there briefly during his student days and loved it so much he opened his own jazz bar before focusing full time on writing.
The bar itself is old and charming, a railroad-car shape with a long counter bar along the left side, small booths along the right side. It’s dark and there are no windows; this is not a bar for anyone even slightly claustrophobic or cannot be around second-hand smoke. The music is standard jazz though with a lot of contemporary live DVDs showing on the large TV hung above the bar. Last time I was there a Roy Hargove live set from Smalls in New York was playing.
The OBC is probably a bit heavy for casual jazz fans (B2, smoke, etc) but if you’re a veteran jazz bar hunter then you will love it, as I do. See pics of OBC here at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
Jazz Pepe is as old school as it gets. Opened in 1969 by the now 77 year old Okuma-san, Pepe is a basement bar that has made virtually no accommodations to the present day, making drinks there feel like you’ve been instantly transported back to Showa-era Japan.
The music is almost entirely jazz vocalists from Okuma-san’s large collection. Okuma-san himself is a joy to talk with, open and friendly while drinking and chain smoking as if it was still 1969. Like many Shinjuku old-timers, he was quick to share stories about the old days when there were jazz bars on every corner and Shinjuku was a rough & tumble part of town.
Surprisingly for such a small, divey place, Pepe still hosts monthly live performances by some local singers. For years I had thought Pepe was out of business due to the broken door leading down to the joint and graffiti covered sign that was never lit up. Going down the stairs and finding it open was one of the best jazz experiences I’ve had in Japan. Photos of Jazz Pepe here at Tokyo Jazz Joints.com
The Pit Inn remains near, or at the top, of any list of live jazz venues in the Tokyo area. 2015 saw an ongoing series of shows celebrating the club’s 50th anniversary, and it shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.
Unlike far too many jazz clubs these days, the Pit Inn puts the focus squarely on the music. All seats face the stage, and the audiences are mostly dedicated fans who don’t spend half the show talking or fiddling with their phones. The atmosphere is exactly what you imagine an old, basement jazz club in Tokyo would be; old posters, dark lighting, ‘minimal’ service. The only minus point for me is the lack of a good beer menu.
The style of music varies so check the schedule in advance; their English language web page always has a full description of the featured band so it’s easy to find the type of gigs you want to attend. No other club in Tokyo features as many of the best local musicans so let’s hope they keep going for another 50 years. It’s a cliche but true: the Pit Inn is the Village Vanguard of Tokyo.
Eagle is really the prototypical jazz cafe. It opened in 1967 in Yotsuya, right down the street from Sofia University, so four decades worth of college students have passed through the place along with the usual sleepy afternoon salarymen and jazz freaks. Its got all the usual jazz cafe bits (magazine reading material, fliers, expensive coffee) and a massive record collection. In the afternoons they put up a sign on the door announcing a ‘No Talking’ policy, keeping the focus on the music.
Last time I was there I got lucky as they played Grant Green’s”Matador” album on Blue Note, then Eric Dolphy`s “Live at the Five Spot” with Booker Little on trumpet. These sounded like completely different records to the ones I play at home on my tiny system. The music in the Eagle is kept loud and the sound system is crystal clear, so hearing old records in there is a whole new experience. It’s completely worth blowing off work for the afternoon to spend a few hours in there immersed in classic jazz records. The interior of Eagle has been redone so it doesn’t feel as old and atmospheric as some other cafes, but still has a place near the top of any Tokyo jazz joint list.
See photos of Eagle over at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
It’s all about vinyl at Hal’s Jazz. Owner Ikeda-san keeps a few racks of cds in the corner but pretty much concerns himself with the wax, and he’s got a serious selection packed into the small shop. The range of classic, original Blue Note albums, as well as the 70s free jazz section is very impressive as is the Japanese Jazz rack. The most unique thing about Hal’s is probably the large number of European jazz albums available. I was really tempted by an orignal Polish issue of Krystof Komeda’s ‘Astigmatic’, one of the best European jazz albums ever recorded and on sale for ￥8000 (about US$90). I wasn’t so tempted by an original copy of `The Artistry of Nunzio Rotondo` selling for a tidy ￥420,000..forty-five hundred dollars for Nunzio? Seeing albums like this for sale, and having Ikeda-san confirm that he sells such expensive albums regularly, really shows you the love and appreciation Japanese jazz fans have for the music.
Ikeda-san or his son, who is there more often these days, are happy to chat with you and to put stuff on the store system for you to give a listen. Their knowledge is unmatched; I brought my free-jazz label boss friend from Chicago there for a visit and he was stunned that Ikeda-san was familiar with even the most obscure acts on his roster. Both father and son speak some English so it’s worth a visit just to have a browse and some conversation. The Ikedas are proof of how jazz in Tokyo is never going to die.
Jazz SPOT Intro in Takadanobaba is a tiny basement bar about 2 minutes walk from the station. In addition to the long-running Saturday night jam sessions (which go till 5 in the morning), there are live jams now Tuesday – Thursday from whomever shows up. It’s a very mellow place with no set line-up, the only regular being bar manager Inoue-san on alto sax. There’s a real old-school ‘jazz workshop’ vibe to the Intro, with the musicians communicating freely while running through standards.
Inoue-san acts as bandleader and bartender, pumping out swinging solos and then running behind the bar to refresh your drink while the band vamps. Try to make it on a Saturday as Japanese and foreign jazz musicians often pop in to sit in with the band. The level of play ranges from amateur/students up to professionals who stop in after midnight. Be prepared to give up some personal space and get there early if you`re in a larger group.
There are about 1500 vinyl records and 1000 cds placed around the bar for nights when there’s no live sets. I`ve heard everything from solo Keith Jarrett to the latest Japanese bossa-nova compilation there, so feel free to request anything. Intro is a unique place, and I have very fond memories of my weekly visits there during my student days.
Tokyo Jazz Joint photos of Intro can be seen here.
Samurai is located in the building that used to house the Shinjuku Pit-Inn before they moved to their current location. When you enter to the left off the elevator you immediately are taken into another era, face to face with a 5-foot manneke-neko (招き猫`lucky cat figurine`). These cat figurines are omnipresent at the entrance to Japanese eateries and shops, beckoning in customers with a raised paw. Inside the Samurai are more than 2500 of these lucky cat figurines spread throughout the interior, hanging from the walls, piled in cabinets, in paintings and in photos. Some frowning, some scowling, some with a serene smile..it’s an awesome site. Hanging on the walls are scrolls of haiku calligraphy, left wing underground theater posters plus some seemingly right-wing nationalist Japanese propoganda..a bewildering mix that adds to the mysterious atmosphere.
In between the cats and the scrolls there are signed album sleeves on the wall, from owner Miyazaki-san`s time in New York in the 1970’s. The music reflects Miyazaki-san’s maverick character; in one visit I heard John Zorn, James Carter, Count Basie, Abdullah Ibrahim and Big John Patton..quite a mix of styles in one sitting, and all glorious. Dark, quiet, extremely peaceful..with the cats making it just a tiny bit unsettling,the Samurai is a place that lends itself to contemplation.
Miyazaki-san is usually there early on Saturday afternoons for “cafe time” but call first. And be sure to look for the postcard on the front door, it will explain the origin of the name “Samurai”..and it’s not what you think..
Tokyo Jazz Joint photos of Samurai can be seen here.
I found this tiny gem of a jazz cafe amidst the chaos that is Kabukicho in Shinjuku. It is a small place run by Kawashima-san, an exceptionally friendly lady with a taste for free jazz. She’s got a nice vinyl collection in the wall cabinet, the usual Japanese jazz magazines for browsing, and some surprisingly delicious coffee on the menu. (Bonus point for the vintage pink payphone which may or may not work.)
What really knocked me out about the place were the photos to the right of the bar, some old, out-of-focus shots of guys playing by the window in the front of the cafe. I thought I recognized one of the musicians..a guy with dreadlocks playing the trumpet..it was Leo Smith! Then in another picture a guy with a huge grey beard blowing into a sax..Evan Parker! Turns out that up until a few years ago, Kawashima-san would have live solo gigs in the cafe, featuring some really extreme players like Smith, Parker and even Charles Gayle. Imagine hearing Charles Gayle play a live solo gig in that space… Unfortunately Kawashima-san said they stopped doing the gigs (no reason offered when I asked)..Maybe we can get a petition going to start them up again? The world needs more free-jazz cafes.
Photos here at tokyojazzjoints.com
In 2013 Black Sun moved from it’s long time home in Nishi-Shinjuku to the heart of Kabukicho. Now in it’s 41st year, owner Ujie-san has been there from the beginning. He’s an extremely mellow and friendly guy who will drink and smoke along with the customers while chatting. I hadn’t been there for maybe five years but he remembered me.
The new Black Sun is a bit different to the old place, more open and with space for some live music (once a week, generally.) The tunes are all genres and the crowd of regulars are very welcoming. Considering that a lot of the bars in Kabukicho are either boring chain-type ones or those catering to ‘adult’ tastes, having a first-class jazz bar open up there is super welcome. I always enjoyed the old Black Sun and look forward to enjoying the new one as well on subsequent visits. ¥1000 charge.
How can I describe this place? It’s small, dark and old; owner Otsuka-san was surly and uncommunicative the first three times I went; it’s expensive and the seats are uncomfortable..yet I quickly fell in love with Shiramuren. There is a certain kind of jazz-bar cool that is hard to convey in words; think of any Japanese film from the 1960s, where the main character was downing whiskey and peanuts in a dark joint called something like “Bar Luna”, with the bright sign hanging out the front window..this is Shiramuren for me.
Otsuka-san is unique, even for a Tokyo jazz bar owner (you`ll notice right away that he only has one arm.) He’s owned the place for more than thirty years so is by now used to making drinks and changing CDs (CDs only in Shiramuren). My first time there “No pictures” was all he said when I tried my best polite Japanese, asking for permission. By the third visit he warmed up a bit and though he went on a bit of a rant saying that “Jazz was dead in Tokyo, and young people don’t know the music, etc etc” he seemed to appreciate my interest. He also was very open about recommending other bars around town.
He has a very diverse collection of music behind the bar; the Frank Wess CD he played (tenor sax quartet + harp) my first time there really blew me away. After that was an electric klezmer cd, then some down-home Jimmy Smith. Sunday evenings at Shiramuren used to be ‘free jazz night’, but it doesn’t always happen these days. Otsuka-san will probably mix in some experimental stuff anyways even if it’s not an official ‘free jazz night’ so be prepared for it.
I am sucker for 1960s jazz nostalgia and have also watched way too many Japanese movies from that era..it was a given that Shiramuren would be one of my favorite jazz bars in Tokyo.
Curtis is one of my favorite bars in Tokyo. As the name gives away, this is a soul music bar with an impressive collection of vinyl. Owner Ryutaro-san keeps the tunes flowing, jumping back and forth from behind the bar to hit the two decks. He also hosts DJ nights and parties; although it’s a small space there is also a roof patio where people can hang out and still hear the music.
I had many great nights in Curtis over the years, chatting music with Ryutaro and his very knowledgeable regular customers. Highly recommended spot.
Houdenasu (ほうでなす) is a small 2nd floor bar located right in the heart of Shinjuku 3-Chome, a neighborhood packed with great music bars and places to eat. Opened 16 years ago by master Satodate-san, it’s an intimate, no frills jazz bar with mostly regular customers. There are periodic 2 or 3 piece live shows, mostly standard type stuff. Satodate-san has a nice collection of CDs and vinyl; I was pleased to see an original Hank Mobley album hanging behind the bar.
Satodate-san was a pleasure to chat music with and he invited me back anytime to check out one of the live shows and talk with some of the regulars. Houdenasu is a another great spot in 3-chome and I’m happy to have discovered it after many years of visiting the area. English menu so it’s an easy place for tourists to order in. ¥1000 seating charge.
Oh, Satodate-san told me with a smile that ‘ほうでなす’ is a bit of Tokhoku regional slang for ’ばかやろう!’
Jazz Tweeter was opened a couple of years ago by long-time hotel restaurant chef Ishizuka-san. He’s a real friendly guy that spent three years wandering Tokyo’s jazz joints, collecting information and learning before opening his own place. Obviously we hit it off and chatted immediately.
Being a chef, Ishizuka-san takes pride in his lunch menu (note:lunch not available on Saturdays). He also emphasized that he built the entire speaker system (as well as the bicycles and fishing equipment hanging on the walls)from scratch by himself. He takes pride in knowing audio equipment and the sound in the cafe is indeed amazing, with the volume just at the right level.
Tweeter is open on weekdays from 1130 and closes at 2330, operating as a local lunch spot, afternoon cafe and evening bar. Be sure to check out the extensive Blue Note collection on CD near the kitchen and the great collection of jazz photographs hung around the walls.
The Vagabond is a classic joint right next to the West Exit of Shinjuku station. I think the review from the Japan Times in 2002 pretty much says it all. Have a drink downstairs to start, then head up for some food when the live music starts. Lots of good pictures on the website.
Pearl Bar is a real sleek “grown up” jazz bar in the center of Shinjuku. Lots of cocktails, nightly piano & vocal/instrument duo live music, ‘romantic’ view out the long bar window. It’s a nice place to take your customers or a first date to. The music is fine, nothing to write home about. A quick look at the website is enough to tell you all about the place.
Jazz Nutty opened in 2009 next to the campus of Waseda University. The wonderful Mr.& Mrs. Aoki ran their own flower shop for 26 years before deciding to open their own cafe. It’s a small narrow place dominated by two out of this world speakers; this is a cafe for some serious jazz listening and not idle conversation.
All the drinks, including beer, are 500 yen. Closed on Tuesdays. All rejoice! A new jazz cafe is born in Tokyo, let’s all spend some money there so it survives!
This is a quiet piano bar with live music nightly though more BGM style, not really a live club. Nice for a relaxed drink though a bit soft for my tastes..more for a client or romantic pursuits than real jazz listening.
Hot House is the world’s smallest jazz club! Maybe 8 or 10 customers max in this place. Make a reservation, get there early, and be ready for a really intimate show. The owner Aki-san behind the counter will provide little snacks (and some stern warnings to be quiet..don’t get on her bad side..) This is an only in Japan experience, you have to go at least once.
Very small place that is really just a bar with live music every night of the week. I’ve got it in the “Club” section because the vibe is more like a club than a bar where you can sit and chat while drinking; at KoKo the live music dominates the space. There are often jam sessions on Weds and Sundays.
Kissa Sakaiki gives me hope that the spirit of the Japanese jazz-kissaten will survive. Owner Fukuchi-san is a passionate and dedicated guy who represents the new breed of jazz kissa owners. In his mid-30s, Fukichi-san has a great awareness and respect for the jazz kissa tradition in Japan, but is also fully engaged with the modern scene. He’s created a space for people who love music and art to gather and engage with one another, something not always easy to do in a city that can be as alienating as Tokyo.
There is simultaneously a very Japanese sensibility and European aesthetic at Kissa Sakaiki. Be prepared to remove your shoes and navigate a beautiful Japanese-script menu (someone will assist you if you can’t read it), while soaking in the tea-salon like decor. My favorite thing to look at is the wooden chest along the back wall, upon which lay an extensive collection of vintage match books from old jazz kissaten in Tokyo, many of which are now closed down. The music leans toward the experimental side of jazz with a lot of European hatOLOGY and ECM label recordings alongside American free giants like David Murray.
Kissa Sakaiki is a small space with a side room that is used for live performances, art exhibitions, “record concerts” (people bringing records to listen to and talk about) and calligraphy lessons. The customers are usually regulars including many musicians, artists and designers. Fukuchi-san will always take the time to introduce you to everyone in the place, making conversation easy and relaxed. It takes a special kind of talent to create such a vibe: I think all Tokyo jazz fans are lucky that Kissa Sakaiki exists to take us into the 21st century jazz scene.
CLOSED Fall 2013.
Music fans know that Japan is a country filled with dedicated, serious, almost manic record collectors. Misho Yasushi, the now 76-year old owner of Jazz Pub Michaux is one of this breed. He’s a fan of hard-bop & soul-jazz and has over 4500 records in this genre, almost all of which are originals. Misho-san has a knowledge of obscure hard-bop/soul-jazz players and albums that is just stunning..I’ve been in the bar with professional jazz musicians who were blown away by the vinyl he kept pulling out. Baby-Face Willete, Willis Jackson, Melvin Sparks, Groove Holmes, Wilbur Harden, Bobby Hutcherson (yeah!)..you can sit for 5 hours and not stop dancing off your seat, it’s THAT funky here.
Just as good as the awesome music is the conversation with Misho-san. Bearded and usually in kimono with a Mongolian hat, he is full of stories about the 50s and 60s in Tokyo. Hanging out with Black American soldiers in the various jazz joints around town, drinking with Horace Silver, interviewing Thelonious Monk during his Japanese tour..Misho-san loves to chat. Unfortunately it’s only in Japanese so bring a friend who can translate if you don’t speak (though he’ll talk to you anyways even if you don’t).
Jazz Pub Michaux is really small even for a Tokyo jazz bar, so get there early if you want to stay for awhile. There really isn’t a more friendly or swinging jazz bar in town, so check it out while you still can. ￥1000 seating charge, as there’s only about 8 seats remember, the table charges help keep these special places open in a city with stupidly high rents. Just pay up and enjoy the chance to get a masterclass in 1950s and 60s jazz.