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.
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 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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
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
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.
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.
Music Bar is part of the new development Yoyogi Village (read more about it here. It’s not purely a jazz bar though the night I dropped by they were playing Nina Simone and Jimmy Smith records on the phenomenal sound system.
It’s a bit of a fancy place with elegant decor, well-dressed staff (who raced over to stop me from taking any pictures or videos..ahem…) and expensive prices, more of an Azabu or Omotesando type joint than the dingy jazz bars this site usually profiles. The sound is truly incredible though and there’s an extensive vinyl collection against the wall at the end of the bar. As a spot for a late night drink or two it’s certainly atmospheric. Good date spot for music geeks.
The Ribbon is what most people would think of when hearing the words “Ginza Jazz”. It’s a bar that features nightly live vocal jazz, serves up some gourmet snacks, and serves a lot of whiskey on the rocks. It’s sleek, expensive and very very “Ginza”.
B2, right side on the sign in the pic above. One look at the website will tell you all you need to know about this place.
Masuda-san sadly passed away in 2012.
Stardust is an old bar, first opened in Asagaya in 1971 by the very chatty Masuda Junko-san. It’s been at its current spot for about fifteen years and has a steady customer base of mostly locals. It’s a dark basement bar with beautiful photos of jazz greats all around the place (as well as randomly hung American flag). The kind of bar that would have been plentiful back in the 60s and 70s but now is becoming all too rare.
Masuda-san plays all genres of jazz and is happy to take requests. Just be ready to wait awhile for your drinks while she chats away happily to you in Japanese (whether you can speak it or not!) Lovely lady and a lovely bar.
吐夢 (Pronounced “To-mu” or just “Tom”) is unique in a couple of ways. Its got two rooms with large tables in both along with one long counter; they cook up a lot of fairly good food (rare to get tasty grub in jazz joints); there are about a hundred signed baseballs up on the top shelf above the bar, right over about 3000+ albums; it has a very spacious vibe that you don’t get at most jazz bars in the center of Tokyo.
吐夢 has been in Asagaya for more than forty years and is well known by most locals. The music almost always fits the mood; when it’s quiet and fairly empty you get some slow burning blues or hard-bop. When it’s packed and noisy you get some hard-swinging soul-jazz or even big band. It’s a good place for larger groups who want to drink a bit but still get to hear some swinging tunes. One of my favorite of many great jazz bars along the JR Chuo railway line.
Extra star for having a special 400 yen happy hour for glasses of Ebisu draft beer. Bargain for a jazz bar. See more pics of Tom over at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
Note: Closed in early 2015. I guess he couldn’t get many customers after all…
Cafe Ellington was opened in June 2012 by the warm and chatty Onodera-san, a retired apparel merchant. It’s a small, non-smoking cafe open from 3pm-10pm, with a simple drinks menu of coffee, tea, beer, whiskey and sherry. The shape is a bit odd with some rather too-large tables making it a but cluttered, but the coffee is good and the speakers excellent.
Onodera-san doesn’t keep a huge collection of vinyl in the place, only about 300 at a time. He rotates the play list bringing from his collection at home, mostly standard jazz with nothing too “heavy”. He was playing a wonderful Roland Hanna/George Mraz duo album when I visited recently. Onodera-san hasn’t put up a website or used any social media to promote the place so the cafe is not well known, even among some Asagaya residents. It’s a relaxing spot for an afternoon coffee or early drink so I hope he builds the customer base up.
Scratch is a quiet cafe/bar that’s been in heart of Kichijoji since 1974. They open during the day for cafe time and have an extensive food and drink menu with over 100 cocktails, many of them with jazz related names like the “Bill Evans Waltz for Debby”, a strawberry and walnut cream daiquiri looking thing.
The vibe is mellow and dark, with the huge main window looking out across at John Henry’s bar across the alley separating Scratch’s building and the huge LOFT department store building. Along one wall of the room are a whole bunch of album covers , anything from Miles to Mingus, but most of the music they play is on the “cool” side…last time I was there Julie London and Sarah Vaughn albums were playing, very mellow but nice.
Scratch is a good place for some solo jazz cafe/bar time, just you, a book and some tunes. Scratch also wins points for having the greatest bar slogan of all time: “Coffee & Bourbon, Music Now, You meet the nice people in Scratch”. See more pics of Scratch over at Tokyo Jazz Joints. Not recommended if you have an aversion to cigarette smoke.
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.
Jazz, Funk & Soul are on tap at Miles’ Cafe. The Ikebukuro area is not known for having a great music scene but Miles’ Cafe is well worth a visit. There’s live music every night with frequent jam sessions in all genres. The place is divided into the B1 “Blue” section, and the B2 “Agharta” section.
Miles’ Cafe is also a good spot for non-smokers, as smoking is only permitted at a counter near the elevators, the rest of the venue is non-smoking. There’s a couple of good videos on the website that give you a look at the place. Keep a look out when there for a trumpet player in sunglasses who calls himself “Miles”..he’s the owner..
Jazz Spot Dolphy opened in 1980 but moved to its current location in 1990 and has kept up a steady live schedule since then. It’s a small, square space that seats about 50 people, most seats facing the stage.
The music can vary with everything from extreme free jazz to vocal-led standards groups. Pianist Itabashi Fumio is a regular (I was told the piano usually needs repairs after one of his energetic performances..) Jam sessions and student led jams happen a couple times a month, and the whole room is available for private events. Occasionally owner Komuro-san even joins in with his own gigs as does manager-vocalist Sachiko-san. Very friendly atmosphere with an extensive drinks menu, it’s an all-around great jazz joint.
Dolphy gets extra points as well for staying open late so you can pop in for a drink after the live sets have finished about 10pm. Look out for the really nice portrait of Thelonious Monk on the wall next to the bathroom door. More pics of Dolphy here at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
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!’
Haikara-Tei is another Shinjuku jazz bar that somehow never popped up on my jazz radar after all these years in the neighborhood. A basement bar with a real American feel to it (is it the red brick or the Miller beer sign? not sure…), it’s a great place for some quiet drinking and record listening. The picture above pretty much says it all as you can see the bottles on offer, and the two huge hanging speakers (which were playing some crisp Art Pepper records when I dropped in one night).
“Haikara-Tei” in Japanese is a pun, the phonetic pronunciation of “High Collar” (think “white collar”) and “Tei” being a “place to stop by”. Thankfully there’s nothing pretentious or off-putting about this bar, and the record collection on the left as you walk in immediately told me that the owners were serious about the music. It’s more spacious than the average bar so it’s a good joint to head to if you want some personal space or got a group of rowdy jazz fans out for the night. The address is Shibuya-Ku but Shinjuku Station or JR Yoyogi are the closest stations.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Gekko Sabou (月光茶房 “moon-light-tea-chamber”, a wonderful name) is not a jazz cafe/bar in the traditional sense, advertising itself as featuring “jazz, free music, improvised music, tribal & trad music, voice and singing”.
It is a small place with only ten seats at a long counter. It has been through several changes in design and outlook since it opened and now functions as a coffee and tea specialty cafe. The menu for both is extensive, but you have to read Japanese.
The room is sleek, modern and dark with a really nice collection of tea and coffee sets above the bar, and framed record sleeves all along the back wall. Owner Harada-san and a regular customer were in the process of changing the albums when I was there, with the new batch consisting entirely of French records. I didn’t catch the name of what was playing at the time but it was some really minimal, improvised electronic music which fit the atmosphere perfectly. Gekkou Sabou is a beautiful, contemporary update on the classic jazz kissaten, a quiet place, good for either an afternoon tea or a beer at night.
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.
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.
Neighborhood cafe/bar/small live club. This is the kind of place you really only find in Japan; intimate, friendly and wonderful. Live music most nights but it’s not really a “club”.
Genius was one of Shibuya’s more famous jazz cafes for more than 20 years before increasing rents pushed them out, necessitating a move to sleepy Nakano-Shinbashi, a bit west of Shinjuku.
It is owned and operated by the lovely Suzuki-family, a warm and chatty couple with many jazz stories in their past. The cafe is filled with beautiful black & white photos taken at gigs over the years, as well as a substantial collection of Japanese jazz magazines and journals. The main attraction at Genius though is the huge record collection; Suzuki-san humbly claimed it was only ‘a couple thousand, with some more at home’ but there’s certainly more than that. By my eye test I’d guess 5000+, and word from some customers is that they have another 5000 at home, rotating what they bring to the cafe. When I was last there he pulled out an amazing John Coltrane in Europe bootleg featuring Eric Dolphy, an absolute treasure.
The sound system is pristine and there is tasty cake and coffee on the menu, plus the usual alcohol options. Genius is yet another perfect spot to spend an afternoon listening to jazz. Pictures of Genius are over at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
Many years back I found Mary Jane by accident, as I had been looking for the wonderfully named ‘Hardbop Cafe’ (sadly now closed). Discovering MJ has been open for 40+ years and that it has its own distinct rustic vibe was a nice consolation prize.
MJ serves food all day, unusual for a jazz kissaten, and the owner Matsuo-san seems to really like Scandanavian jazz so you`ll hear a lot of the Nordic ECM label players here. I asked why it was called Mary Jane and he said ‘it’s just a name’ with no smirk or wink, so I don’t think it’s a marijuana reference. (Matsuo-san is not the original owner however so he may not know.)
The room is square shaped with many flyers and jazz books spread around, a very relaxing space for coffee and the tasty cheese cake on the menu. It’s very near Shibuya station but on the much quieter South Exit side away from the manic crowds of shoppers, meaning it’s a good place for a pit stop if you’re stuck in Shibuya.
Check the web page for his current, extensive playlist of new cds.
Pics of Mary Jane over at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
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.
The B Flat in Akasaka is a great straight-ahead jazz club in an area without many other options for good music. There is a healthy mix of acts on the schedule with both local and overseas groups playing in a variety of styles.
B-Flat is large, so spacious that it’s one of the few clubs in town that actually feels like it could be in New York. It’s a long rectangular space with the stage along the right side as you walk in. Look out for the brick wall behind the stage with the signatures of all the visiting musicians throughout the years.
There’s a substantial food and drinks menu so you can have dinner during the show but the best thing about B Flat is that unlike some other clubs in town that will remain nameless, once you enter you can stay for both of the evening’s sets. Highly recommened club. Keep an eye out for the owner, a real dandy gentleman who sits by the door chain smoking while cooly greeting customers. Good pics on the homepage.
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
Despite its old-world cafe atmosphere, Swing only opened in 2014 and is one of the newer jazz spots in town. Owned by friendly trombone player Suzuki-san, it feels like a ‘classic’ place, with some vintage instruments and old 78rpm vinyl stacked on the shelves. Suzuki-san was quick to chat about music and the cafe itself, immediately making us feel at home.
Swing is fairly small, a square room that can hold about 20 people at the counter and the tables along the wall. There are occasional small live sets but mostly it’s a place for afternoon coffee, lunch or evening drinks. It’s an intimate but not at all intimidating place to relax in, so if you’re in Shibuya and need a jazz respite then I’d heartily recommend an afternoon at Swing. Word of mouth has it that they serve some of the best coffee in Tokyo. See pics here at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
The central streets of Shibuya often conceal some cool little music spots amidst the brand stores and chain restaurants; the recently opened Quattro Labo, located in the basement of Parco Department Store is another fine addition to the music bar scene.
It’s a medium-sized square space that can seat about 35, with the whole left wall covered in vinyl, over 5000 records in total and plenty of CDs as well. Not just jazz but roots, rock, soul, reggae, from past to present in pretty much all the best genres on a top notch audio system.The vibe is mellow and not at all stiff; they’re about the music here and you can tell.
The previous version of Quattro Labo was located in Kichijoji but after closing for awhile relocated to the all new basement food & bar hall in Parco Department store. Open from 1100 to 1700 as a cafe and then from 1800 as a bar, with a rotating number of special guest DJ nights, I strongly recommend stopping by here for either a coffee or some drinks. Extra points for having Guinness on tap and no table charge. Audio system as follows:
TURNTABLE：Technics SL-1200G ×2、LUXMAN PD171A×1
CD PLAYER：Accuphase DP-550
MIXER：ALPHA RECORDING SYSTEM MODEL-9000 Music Mixer
<MAIN SPEAKER SYSTEM>
SPEAKERS：HANDMADE by Haruo Nomura
POWER AMP：McIntosh MC275Ⅵ
CONTROL AMP：McIntosh C22
<SUB SPEAKER SYSTEM>
SPEAKERS：TANNOY Autograph Mini
PRE-MAIN AMP：McIntosh MA5200
Volontaire moved to its current location in Akasaka a few years ago after more than three decades in the heart of Harajuku. (Read about the old place here)
There’s nothing too memorable about the interior of the new place but though it lacks the charm of the old one, it’s certainly more spacious and comfortable. Nice collection of vinyl, mostly standard stuff with nothing too heavy. Good spot for either afternoon coffee or a night-time whiskey, and a welcome addition to the otherwise dull Akasaka area.
Koen-Dori Classics is a small performance space located underneath a church in the heart of Shibuya. It seats maybe 30 people max, with all seats facing the performance area (there’s no stage).
The lineup of events leans towards the experimental; fans of improvisational music and dance will love this place. It’s a unique spot right in the heart of commercial Shibuya madeness. There’s performances almost nightly but check the website for details; the space is available for private rental so if you have an event you’d like to hold this could be a great spot for it.
Bar Bossa in Shibuya is a quiet gem of a place, perfect for bossa nova fans and/or couples looking for a dark & romantic spot to drink. It was opened in 1997 by owner/sole bartender Hayashi-san, a warm and mellow host who has been to Brazil several times over the years.
The bar is spacious with room for six at the counter and about 14 seats spread around some small tables. Hayashi-san keeps the music low and mellow; this is not the place for those looking for rowdy Brazilian samba and dancing. The wooden decor and warm colors are effective, as you relax immediately upon sitting down.
The drinks menu is impressive, featuring some Brazilian choices like Pirassununga51, Ypioca Ouro and of course Caipirinha, in addition to cognacs, whiskies and wine. Small and delicious snacks are available but with all the great food available on the back streets of Udagawa-Cho in Shibuya it’s easy to eat before or after stopping in Bar Bossa.
Bar Bossa has a nominal policy of not allowing in male customers by themselves as to prevent harassment of the female drinkers, but this can be waived if Hayashi-san knows you (and generally is not meant towards non-Japanese visitors, but rather drunken old Japanese men.) A few kind words explaining you read about Bar Bossa here or on his JJazz.Net blog page and Hayashi-san will surely let you in. For bossa nova fans or anyone just looking for a quiet, sophisticated place amidst the Shibuya craziness, Bar Bossa is heartily recommended.
Hashi no Shita (橋 の下 means “Under The Bridge” in Japanese) is in Akasaka-Mitsuke on the main road outside the subway station, a long row filled with hostess bars and restaurants. Open as an afternoon “cafe” and evening “bar” they serve a lot of food and is particularly popular with the neighborhood business people for lunch.
They used to have small live sets of duos and trios with no table charge, but that doesn’t seem to happen much any more. It’s open till 4am so it’s a good spot to remember if you miss your train and need some jazz to get you through the night. Be sure to check out the wall of vinyl album covers.
INC Cocktails opened in late 2018 just a short walk from Shibuya Station. It’s a very large basement bar that will appeal to distinct kinds of customers: audiophiles, and liquor connoisseurs.
First about the audio system: INC has a set up of an ALTEC pre-amp, and power amp, one of the few places in town with such a system. (Read more about ALTEC amps here) In addition to the amps and speakers there are two ALTEC 612a speakers, totally vintage. Two GARRARD 401 turntables and a collection of about 2000+ records on the shelves al add up to an awesome listening experience. (I got to DJ there once and can vouch for the sound quality). The music ranges from jazz to soul to some pop, but always groovy and never too loud to make conversation impossible.
The liquor menu is the other main attraction at INC, with over 100+ bottles of vodka, gin, whiskey and liqueurs, plus a monthly menu of specialty original cocktails. There are even some bottled craft beers made specially for INC by their partner company in Okayama Prefecture.
INC is a large space with plenty of seats either at the bar or tables and booths, with the lighting kept low for maximum ambience. A rotating roster of DJs appear frequently and the bar is also available for private parties. INC is a welcome new joint for both music geeks and high-class bar aficionados alike. Open until 3am so INC is perfect as well for a nightcap away from the crowds of Shibuya.
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.
Pres Jazz Bar is located up near the end of “Center Gai” street in Shibuya, not the most likely spot for a jazz bar. Named after the great sax -man Lester Young, owner Iwasaki-san opened the place about twenty years ago when there were still some jazz cafes and bars next door (unfortunately all gone now).
The counter in Pres a U-shaped, with the seats a bit close together but still comfortable. The atmosphere is dark and serious, with the music at just the right volume. By far the most memorable thing about Pres are the murals painted on each side wall, large and very lifelike portraits of jazz greats, of course including ‘Pres’ Lester Young. They watch down over you while you drink and listen, like gods quietly observing their worshipers. It’s a unique feeling for sure. See more pictures of Pres over at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
For a bar right in the middle of screaming teenage Tokyo, Pres is a wonderful oasis of good music and sophistication. Perfect spot for post dinner drinks.
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
Seabird is a lovely old cafe next to Aoyama Gakuin University, between Shibuya and Omotesando stations. It’s been open for about 30 years and has a very homey vibe, cluttered but cozy. The menu has the old style Japanese cafe ‘morning sets’ (toast & coffee) and a small liquor selection.
The music is a mix of jazz styles but nothing too heavy, with small live/jam sessions on Fridays and Saturdays. Mr. and Mrs Toriumi (‘Tori’鳥 = bird, ‘Umi’ 海 = sea) are super friendly and generous (they invited me to join them for dinner in the cafe last time I dropped by) making Seabird the kind of place you want to be a regular at. Amongst all the over-priced, soulless cafes of Omotesando, Seabird really stands out for its warmth and authenticity.
Note: there are two entrances to Seabird.
Electrik Jinja opened in April 2012 and quickly became the hippest spot in Roppongi. It’s a spacious basement joint only 2 minutes walk from Roppongi intersection.
They play a nice mix of jazz, world music and contemporary beats, with the occasional live jam session in the midnight hours. Local trumpeter Toku-san hosts his weekly ‘Toku’s Lounge’ event on (most) Tuesday evenings, and DJs also do occasional parties. The bar is already a well known hang out for visiting foreign musicians as well after they finish their early gigs elsewhere.
Owner Kenji-san is a a friendly host who knows the local music scene back to front so it’s always great to chat with him about what’s currently going on. The food menu was recently expanded too beyond the usual bar offerings so you can get some late-night grub without leaving. Roppongi’s main drag is full of dull bars with horrible music; Electrik Jinja thankfully provides a home for real music heads.
Vanilla Mood is a cool little jazz bar/club just across from Roppongi Hills. It has been open for sixteen years, run for the last five by Amagai Ken-san.
Amagai-san hosts events there almost every evening, ranging from DJ nights to improv sessions to straight-ahead swing. He’s putting a lot of effort into making the space one that is both casual for customers, but also serious enough for musicians who want to experiment. He told me that too many jazz bars/clubs in Tokyo cater to only one kind of audience (older/richer) and that he’s trying to bring in a different kind of crowd. The Friday ‘New York Jazz Room’ nights featuring a regular group of formerly NYC-based Japanese musicians is well worth dropping in for.
The vibe is warm and friendly at V Mood and the space large enough that you can move around; the big glass doors opening out onto the street give it a real different feel to most claustrophobic jazz joints. I was very happy to find Vanilla Mood, it’s a groovy jazz spot in Roppongi that you can escape to if your friends are heading to some meat-market/awful-music club.
Bar Spice is a classic little Soul music bar overlooking Roppongi-Dori, right across from the Roppongi Hills complex. The dandy owner Kato-san has been there for 30+ years and has seen all the ups and downs of the area, all the while playing classic soul tunes (on cassette!) and serving up drinks.
Kato-san opens early most nights so this is a great place to grab a couple drinks before hitting a longer evening in the Roppongi area, or perfect for a quiet nightcap on the way home. Extra Extra bonus points for the albums and photos on the wall, be sure to look at them closely including the incredible James Brown in concert print in the stairwell.
There’s a beautiful simplicity about JBS (Jazz,Blues,Soul). Owner Kobayashi-san has more than 11,000 records in his tiny cafe, with no other decor visable. Even in a nation filled with maniac collectors this is an impressive site. I’d never seen such a collection up close before so it was quite overwhelming on my first visit. A great Jack DeJohnette quintet album was on when I first dropped by, followed by tenor-sax man Gary Bartz, both original vinyl pressings of course.
It took a couple of visits to get Kobayashi-san to start chatting, he’s a quiet, seemingly very shy man in his late 50s with a knowledge of “Black Music” (as they say here in Japan for any African-American music, from blues & gospel to soul & hip-hop) that is astounding. He’s written frequently in magazines and journals about the history and sociological impact of Black Music on America and the world. Behind the bar I could see some of the books he had with titles like “African-American Slang Dictionary”, “Hip-Hop Beats” and “The Death of Rhythm & Blues” alongside all the jazz disk guides.
JBS is a place that is about one thing only, and that is music. When I go there I go alone with a couple hours to spare, just listening to one great album after another, with the occasional question for Kobayashi-san. Even more so than than most jazz cafes, JBS is a music library where for the price of a coffee you get access to an incredible collection. It’s a diamond in the loud, vulgar streets of Shibuya.
Music Bar 45 is a small 2nd floor joint located just a few minutes walk from the south exit of Shibuya Station, in the same neighborhood as well known spots like Mary Jane jazz cafe and funky jazz bar/live space The Room. Opened in mid-2015 by twenty year record company veteran Takahashi-san, 45 is tiny gem of a spot catering to music fans with broad tastes.
The chatty and warm Takahashi-san keeps it simple: ‘I’ll play anything here’. In the generally over compartmentalized music scene in Japan where people often settle into only one genre, this is a refreshing attitude. Although there are not events every night, at least twice a week DJs will stop by to play variously themed events; well known spinners Yuichi Kumagai and Rafael Sebbag both have monthly nights at 45. Takahashi-san is very open to people doing their own DJ sessionsn so chat with him if you have an event you’d like to set up.
The space is fairly small, a rectangular room with one long bar counter and a big window on the right, letting in some welcome natural light to keep it from feeling claustrophobic. The bar menu has all the usual liquor and a fairly nice beer selection, with some daily snacks listed up on the board behind the counter. Tokyo music fans are spoiled for choice when it comes to nice music bars to drink in, but thankfully 45 has made it past the always difficult first year of operations to build up some regular customers and establish itself as a welcome addition to the Shibuya music scene. Open from 7pm most nights, closed Sundays.
The Room is one of Tokyo’s best clubs, if not THE best for fans of funky/groovy music. It’s home base for the Kyoto Jazz Massive and owners the Okino Brothers often DJ there, alongside DJ Kawasaki and Tokyo’s funkiest DJ, Kuroda Daisuke.
There are frequent live performances as well (very crowded) and the vibe is kept friendly and not at all elitist by manager Sato-san. The Room needs to be your first stop if funk and funky jazz is what you are looking for. Events almost every night so check the homepage; some may feature Latin/House/Hip-Hop DJs and not funky jazz.
Jikan Ryokou (the sign is in Japanese 時間旅行, it means “Time Travel”) is simply wonderful. It’s a tiny 12-seat joint in the back streets of Nakano, an area full of small drinking dens. The owner Asai-san is in her late 50s and opened the place about twenty years ago..she was being coy about dates and her age as bar mama-sans often are.
As you can see from the video below, the walls are covered in classic rock album covers as well as jazz records. In one night there I heard John Coltrane, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Cannonball Adderly and as I was leaving late at night I think she was pulling out some Mozart. So it’s not exclusively a jazz spot but most music geeks I know would have no problem with any record in her huge collection.
Very supper-club type place, most nights featuring vocal-led bands. The food is good, the service rude and the prices are a bit high..so no, I’m not a big fan. Good place for business dinners & drinks though. The is the younger sister branch of the original Satin Doll in Kobe.
Rompercicci is a fairly new jazz cafe/bar just a short ten-minute walk from Nakano Station. It’s a bright, warm space with superb speakers and an extensive vinyl collection covering all genres. Looks like some nice cakes available for afternoon coffee/tea time plus wine, whisky and beer for night time drinking. It’d be nice to have an addition to the Tokyo jazz cafe scene rather than the usual subtraction as more and more places close down No smoking joint, which will appeal to a lot of people. Video below.
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
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.
I found this small-even-by-Tokyo-standards “piano bar” while lost in Nakano one night. The system is quite unique; they have live music a couple times a week but on “bar nights” customers are welcome to start jamming or rehearsing, using the grand piano that’s wedged in the place or by bringing their own instruments. While sitting at the tiny bar in the corner one night I saw two guys walk in and order drinks, then start playing trumpet and bass. Very casual, very cool.
Pignose is a real neighborhood joint, very cramped but really friendly. Highly recommended.
The Owl cafe in Ikebukuro was a great mystery to me as the first three times I went by it was closed, but a recent trek up to Ikebukuro on a Friday afternoon was a success as I finally made it inside.
It’s fairly small place with just a few tables and a long counter. Owner Ooshiba-san was welcoming though not particluarly chatty, sitting behind the counter and reading while I checked the out the joint. There is a corner wall unit full of records, CDs and jazz magazines, plus some great old posters on the other walls. The music ranged from vocal/swing to fusion while I was there; he seems to have an all-round collection.
There is the usual beer and whiskey on the menu but the Owl’s specialty is coffee (and the cake sets looked better than the usual jazz cafe snack options). Though the interior of the cafe seems quite old, Ooshiba-san said he’s been open for only 12 years. This was a surprise, it feels like a Showa-era jazz cafe. It closes early at 8pm so don’t go by expecting a long drinking session (it’s also closed on Saturdays).
Located on a dreary street in the shadow of the huge Sunshine City building, the Owl is a perfect spot to escape from the grime of Ikebukuro over coffee and good tunes. You’ll see the sign out on the street next to a Chinese restaurant and the posters lining the stairwell up to the shop.
Absolute Blue is a new club opened in Feb 2015 by Ayumi Hoshikawa, previously a club owner in New York City. Hoshikawa-san has brought a NYC sensibility to her new venue (see the website) including not only nightly live performances but workshops and jam sessions as well.
Ex-Brand New Heavies vocalist N’Dea Davenport does Sunday afternoon vocal lessons, local bassist Derek Short hosts twice monthly jam nights and well known bassist Kenji Hino does bass lessons and also performs regularly in a duo with Takashi Sugawa.
Hoshikawa-san speaks excellent English and is making a real strong effort to make her club a spot for both Japanese and visiting foreign musicians to gather and perform. It’s a basement space quite far underground but looks sleek, with all seats close to the stage. I’m hoping she can keep it going as Absolute Blue is a welcome new addition to the live jazz scene.
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.
NOTE: Masako closed in FEB 2010…I’m leaving it here anyways, so people will remember.
Masako in Shimo-Kitazawa is close to perfect, one of those places you could stay in for hours drinking coffee or beer, listening to one album after the next. As one of the oldest remaining jazz cafes in Tokyo it has a regal sort of atmosphere to it. When you walk in you come face-to-face with a large oil painting of Masako herself with the great Mal Waldron, a long-time visitor to Japan. A look further inside reveals a series of oil paintings on the walls, all of famous jazz musicians. What I liked even more were the old concert posters spread around the paintings, some from as far back as the 1950s.
No live music here, just 2000+ records and roughly the same amount of CDs. Lots of swing and 1950s and 60s albums in the collection, but even some fusion too. Requests are gladly accepted if they can find it in the cabinet. The seats and tables are low and the shop is kept fairly dark; like all the best jazz spots it’s a place for hard core fans who want to listen intently to the music and not work on their lap top or chat loudly to their friends.
There are two bookcases packed with old `Swing Journal` and `Jazz Review` magazines, fun to browse through even if you don`t read Japanese. I’ve learned a lot about jazz by browsing these magazines over the years, and still remember working my way through a long Japanese-language profile of Freddie Hubbard one day.
Masako passed on in 1984, and the place has been run since then by Fukushima-san. He said there weren’t as many regulars as there used to be, but every time I go there it’s packed so business seems good. (I’ve noticed again and again that jazz bar/cafe owners here often moan about the lack of customers compared to 30 years ago, yet their places are still open and usually at full capacity…. nostalgia for the old days perhaps?)
Masako is the oldest jazz cafe in Tokyo and second oldest in the whole Kanto area after Chigusa in Yokohama. Here’s hoping it stays open another 50 years.
Kenny’s Bar is by far the hippest place in not-so-hip Ikebukuro. It’s a small, dark joint with superb speakers and occasional live gigs. Many bonus points for the super-cool Mingus and Coltrane posters up in there, and for Kenny (Katakura-san) himself being so welcoming. Lots of hard-bop classics on the stereo and good chat sitting at the bar. One of my favorite places in town for a beer and some good music.
Organ Jazz Club: the name gives it away, doesn’t it? One of the few places in town with a real Hammond Organ, this place is a must-visit if you like your jazz to be funky. Live gigs almost every night.
Lady Jane has a very cinematic feel to it, the kind of joint that a lot of people outside Japan would envision upon hearing the words ‘Japanese jazz bar’. It’s dark, but clean and sleek, and the staff are immaculate, the drinks poured perfectly. The music is present but not overwhlemingly loud like in a cafe. If you grab one of the tables by the windows you can have some privacy or you can sit at the bar and chat with the bartender while sipping some drinks.
With all that you could think that it’s simply another cool & maybe slightly stuffy jazz bar for some quiet drinks, but Lady Jane also has weekend live gigs featuring a huge variety of local and foreign acts, including some unexpected experimental musicians. The vibe of the place completely transforms then into an intimate club with dedicated fans. It manages to keep a very fine balance between sophistication and true dedication to the music, something not many joints can do.
Lady Jane celebrates its 40th anniversary this year in 2015 and looks to continue to bring a grown-up jazz vibe to the funky, crowded Shimo-Kitazawa neighborhood in western Tokyo. Open until 3am most nights so it’s a perfect spot for that night-cap whisky.
Tokyo Jazz Joints photos of Lady Jane are here.
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.
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.
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.
Montgomery Land opened up a couple of years ago just a short walk from Ikebukuro Station. It’s a standard issue narrow, basement bar with an incredible sound system. Master Iwasaki Yoshitsugu and his wife Kimiko-san run the place and are warm, chatty hosts. Within minutes of sitting down we were immersed in conversation about music and the Tokyo scene.
Iwasaki-san has a good collection covering all genres, with a lot of hard-bop records (and of course, a lot of Wes Montgomery albums.) Although it’s a small place they host semi-regular live events at very reasonable prices, usually 2000-2500 yen. Ikebukuro has a surprising number of nice jazz joints and Montgomery Land is another great addition to the list.
Paper Moon (ぺーぱーむーん) is a 15 seat L-shaped counter bar opened and run by the friendly Yamamoto-san since 1982..and except for the cds scattered around the place the decor or furniture doesn’t seem to have changed since ’82. And that’s a good thing, I like my jazz bars to have soul and to feel lived in.
Yamamoto-san plays a wide range of music here, from free to Latin to local Japanese musicians. The beer was cold and you can bottle-keep if you want to be a regular. The window was open and the lights were kept fairly low, just a perfect spot for night-time drinking and jazz listening. Paper Moon is classic, one of my favorite places in town, and no table charge makes it just about perfect. Warning: not for people who are put off by a bit of dust.
Photos of Paper Moon over at Tokyo Jazz Joints.