Birdland is a beautifully decorated cafe and bar located in the north-east part of Tokyo, just a short skip from Kita-Senju station. This is an old, working-class neighborhood that is showing signs of some gentrification with new wine bars and cafes, but Birdland evokes an older era despite being open only since 1989.
The owner Morikawa-san is an incredibly friendly guy; he let us stay in the place between 6 and 7pm, usually his break time as he prepares for the evening ‘bar’ session, and chatted the whole time with us as we took pictures and drank some beers. The feel of the place is almost European, and that extends to the excellent selection of whiskey and draft beer (Guinness & Belgian Vedette, very rare in a jazz bar). There are also a good two dozen jazz portaits hanging on the wall along the right side, be sure to look at some of the smaller ones as you’ll find some real surprises.
Birdland has live music about two or three times a week, usually musicians that are friends of Morikawa-san but also some occasional foreign guests. Straight ahead modern jazz, nothing too free and thankfully not too many vocalists. The ￥3000 music charge covers the whole evening. During cafe and bar time there’s an extensive collection of vinyl behind the bar that Morikawa-san plays from; Grant Green’s ‘Matador’ was on when we entered.
Every jazz spot has its own unique feel and Birdland is no exception. You’ll feel instantly welcome there as you settle in for a leisurely coffee of beer, and with the large windows offering plenty of natural light, it’s the perfect spot for people put off by some of the more subterranean jazz joints around town. Photos of Birdland here at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
Come out the Senju Police Station exit at Kita-Senju subway station. Turn left down the narrow lane and walk just 30 seconds or so. Then left again. You’ll see the Birdland sign down another even narrower alley.
Kissa Seikatsu (喫茶生活 “Cafe Lifestyle”) is a gem of a place a few mins walk from Higashi-Koenji station on the Marunouchi Subway Line. It’s very tiny with less than 10 seats at the counter and two small tables. A lot of floor space is taken up by the huge bags of coffee beans from Ethiopia, Brazil, Indonesia and other spots round the world. Opened in 1998, owner Toda-san is a bit of a coffee specialist and has on offer a bewildering number of blends.
There are a lot of nice album covers on the wall, a rack of magazines, books and board-games for customers to use at will, and the place is non-snoking so it smells gorgeous from all the coffee beans. Kissa Seikatsu is a great joint for some quiet reading or thinking time, just don’t expect much conversation from Toda-san. His direct quote to me was a polite but firm “I don’t really communicate with the customers. Just make the coffee and put on records.” And he does that with no days off as the place is open from 10am to midnight every day of the year.
Nefertiti lives up to its very lofty name as it’s one of the finest jazz spots in the entire Tokyo metro area. The owner Kurita-san is an extremely friendly host; he is an ex-teacher who opened the cafe after retiring several years back. (He has a long history with jazz and told us some hysterical stories of working in a ‘jazz curry’ shop when younger, then meeting his wife there as she was a regular customer).
The joint is quite a bit larger than the average jazz spot with plenty of seats and a small stage toward the back window where there are live sets once or twice a week. There’s a lot of natural light too, a nice change from the usual dark and dingy jazz bar feel. But by far the main attraction in Nefertiti is the ridiculously good sound system; Kurita-san proudly showed us several profiles of Nefertiti in Japanese audio magazines. (For those who know, here are the specs: JBL S4700, fet cr-nf equalizr amp MODEL FET99 / marantz SUPER AUDIO CD PLAYER SA-14S1 / Stereo control center C-200L)
Kurtia-san has a huge collection with some especially rare experimental/free jazz albums; I was really surprised and impressed to see a live Don Pullen bootleg album from the 70s just casually lying on a table. It’s not just heavy free jazz on the system though; the first record he put on for us to hear the audio system was some fusion-guitar from the 80s and there are plenty of jazz vocal albums hanging up above the seats so you’ll get all styles of music here.
Nefertiti is a bit of a trek as it’s a little far from Masuo Station but it’s more than worth the time it takes to get there. Opening hours may be a bit flexible so if you’re planning on going for a bit of a session then good idea to call or send a message ahead of time. See pics of Nefertiti over at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
Fat Mama is named after the great Herbie Hancock track from his album “Fat Albert Rotunda”. Americans of a certain age (like myself) have very fond memories of the Bill Cosby hosted cartoon “Fat Albert” and the groovy tunes from Herbie Hancock featured on the show. Master Matsunuma-san at the Fat Mama cafe is a big fan and used the name for his new joint.
Opened in March 2011, Fat Mama is a gem. Matsunuma-san has 2500 vinyl records on site, mostly modern jazz of all genres. Stupendous speakers, gourmet coffee, spacious seating and a lunch menu make this spot a real good place to come for two or more hours of food, drink and jazz. Check it out. More pics of Fat Mama here at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
Blues Alley Japan. is a sophisticated club with great food and an eclectic live schedule. It’s basically what the Blue Note is trying to be but isn’t; a fancy place to take some customers, but where the business crowd does not overwhelm the music.
The website has a useful guide on their live calendar letting you know exactly what genre is being featured that night, anything from straight-ahead jazz to World or even lite-soul. Lots of good pictures of the interior on their site too. Reservations are recommended, and bring your credit card..
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.
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 Haus Posy was opened in 1973 by jazz fanatic Misa. She’s a serious enough fan to have traveled all around the world to various jazz festivals, as can be seen by the numerous signed albums and photos on the wall of the bar. (I’ll have to ask her next time how the owner of a small jazz bar can afford to fly round the world 3 times a year to jazz festivals..)
The music is all vinyl, all classic jazz with nothing too heavy but nothing too quiet either. Like a lot of Japanese jazz bars, there’s a portrait of Bill Evans in the bar though Misa will also play records with a bit more groove to them.
Posy is small and dark, the kind of place where it always feels like 1AM while you’re drinking. There’s a small buzzer on a table at the entrance; push that gently and Misa or her daughter Ako will appear from the back rooms where they seem to live. The seats by the counter are tiny and close together so be prepared to get intimate with the regular customers and electric heaters during the winter. Despite the closeness, Posy never feels claustrophobic. It’s a jazz oasis in the crowded, noisy streets of Shimo-Kitazawa. See more pics of Posy over at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
Miles is a treasure. It opened in 1960 and is one of the few remaining neighborhood jazz bars from that era, stubbornly and gloriously uninterested in the modern world. Cluttered, narrow and with a ton of records, it’s a time-warp to the Showa-Era of Japan. Motoyama-san the kind owner had been ill recently and the place was closed while she recuperated leading many to think it was gone for good, but she’s back now and has the joint open most nights from 6pm. The music is fantastic; all vinyl and with good sound; last visit she played Dizzy Gillespie, Roland Kirk, Joe Wright and Clifford Brown.
Since Masako in Shimo-Kitazawa closed I believe this is the oldest jazz cafe in Tokyo. Words can’t do it justice so see photos here and video. Miles is heaven for fans of old school Tokyo jazz joints.
Ohio is great, an intimate, friendly bar with a huge collection of soul music. Owner Kin-chan has moved the bar a couple of times before settling in Yutenji a few years ago.
It can seat about 20 people, has a lovely blue light glow and good sound. Certainly a place to stop off and have a few drinks at if you are ever on the Tokyu Toyoko Line. Classic soul tunes aplenty!
Jazz Bar Impro is small, even by the incredibly small standards of most Japanese jazz joints. It’s on the first floor of a rickety old building down the Heiwa Kouji Yokocho alleyway next to JR Ooimachi station in Shinagawa Ward. This is the kind of alleyway that used to be found all over Tokyo, full of small drinking dens and izakaya run by the locals, sadly all too few these days. Impro has only been open for eight years but fits right in to the old school vibe of the neighborhood.
The entrance into Impro is a very low door you have to duck into, which immediately puts you next to the bar. There’s room for maybe 4 to stand and drink, with a tiny table at the back corner for a tight 3 to fit. The master Tsukahara-san is a friendly guy and will make you feel welcome even if you’re alone, though I wouldn’t recommend the place if you’re even slightly claustrophobic.
Tsukahara-san plays a mix of older and more modern jazz on both vinyl and CD, everything was solid the last time I visited, some old Django Reinhardt followed by Lee Morgan. He’s got some small snacks on the menu though nothing too elaborate; you wouldn’t come to a place like Impro for the food anyways. Impro won’t be for everyone (did I mention it’s very very tiny and cramped?) but I love the joint. It’s a time warp to Showa-era Japan, where every station area had dozens of standing bars like this. Open from 8pm – midnight most nights.
See photos of Impro here at Tokyo Jazz Joints.com.
I’ve known Yoshioka-san, owner and sole staff at Cafe Beulmans for several years now, since before he took over the cafe in mid-2012. He’s a sincere, heavy jazz fan who listens to an incredibly wide range of styles. Even being objective however, I can sincerely recommend Beulmans as one of the finer jazz cafes now operating in Tokyo.
Located in Seijo-Gakuen, a leafy, affluent area of western Tokyo with a ‘certain’ kind of afternoon tea clientele, Beulmans certainly takes care of the wealthy ladies with the freshly made cakes and gourmet coffee behind the counter. In its previous incarnation Beulmans was a tea & cake salon with baroque classical music on the speakers, but that’s slowly been phased out in favor of jazz during both the day and evening hours.
For the jazz cafe fan, Yoshioka-san’s large collection of vinyl and experimental tastes will be the main attraction. Though he keeps it fairly light in the day, during bar time at night be prepared for anything from Woody Shaw to Stan Getz to the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Think about that for a second the next time someone says the ‘Jazz’ at Starbucks is nice!
There are now live sessions too at Beulmans, check the schedule online. お疲れ様、吉岡さん！
Ragtime is the ideal jazz cafe in many ways. It’s a small place up on the 3rd floor of a rustic building right next to Chitose-Karasuyama station on the Keio Line, a residential part of the western outskirts of Tokyo. A small square room with about 20 seats, the feeling is cozy and inviting, the wooden walls and tables making it feel like home. There are pencils and strips of paper on each table for customer requests, always a sign of good vibes. They say only one per customer but when I went there as a many years back, spending 3 hours “studying” in the place, they took all my repeated requests. All genres represented and mostly vinyl behind the counter, of course.
On my last visit there were a couple of locals chatting at the counter seats, while the master put on a nice mix of tunes including Tal Farlow, Wynton Kelly and Joao Gilberto. Failry mellow sounds but suitable for a quiet afternoon coffee.
Ragtime is open from 3pm to 2am every day, making it perfect for either an afternoon pit stop or for drinks on your way home. Only in Japan can you find such wonderful jazz cafes in a random western outskirt. Photos of Ragtime now up at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
Opened in 2010, Juha is a small but lively coffee shop about 5 minutes walk from Nishi-Ogikubo Station on the JR Chuo Line. It’s named after a film by Finnish Director Aki Kaurismaki, (there is a huge Karurismaki poster on the wall as well as photo book on the shelf).
The music was random but excellent; some mid-period Coltrane playing when we walked in then all the way to Anita O’Day after that, some hard-bop by Cedar Walton on vinyl followed those up. I couldn’t see the collection as it’s hidden somewhere behind the counter but based on these choices the owners obviously know their jazz.
Juha has great (if expensive) coffee and a very warm & friendly vibe; no coincidence that most of the customers on a Saturday afternoon were ladies. It’s a nice addition to the jazz cafe scene.
Maze is a very hip soul music bar located right in the middle of the Koenji Pal Arcade ‘shoutengai’ (shopping street). Morita-san the owner has been running it for about 30 years, while also operating the soba noodle shop down on the first floor. He doesn’t have many DJ nights these days but still has a nice vinyl collection and is even open to regulars putting on their iPod playlists, as long as the music is funky.
It’s a fairly large bar, dark and with an extensive liquor selection. A 1971 Soul Train DVD was playing on the big screen when I dropped by, and Morita-san was chatty and warm. Highly recommended for soul fans. And yes, it’s named after the band ‘Maze’. Open from 8pm most nights.
Meg is a small cafe/club in Kichijoji, western Tokyo that is a vibrant part of the local scene. There’s live music almost every night of the week, plus jazz album/cd trading sessions, vocalist jam session nights, and workshops given by owner Terashima Yasukuni. Terashima-san has written several books on jazz in Japan, which you can buy at Meg. He also puts out a yearly compilation CD “YT Presents Jazz Bar…” which is worth a listen.
What you notice immediately when going into Meg are the huge red speakers that dominate the back wall. I’m not an audiophile, so have no idea if the shape makes any difference or is just for style, but the sound in Meg is awesome. You rarely hear such crisp, clean sound like this anywhere in Tokyo.
Meg is a classic jazz kissaten in a great area for music wandering. I highly recommend spending an hour or two there some afternoon before exploring the Kichijoji nightlife. Photos of Meg are over at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
SOMETIME Kichijoji (they use all caps..) opened in 1975 and still packs people in every night of the week. As the name says it’s in Kichijoji, an area in Western Tokyo that has long been known for being a jazz ‘town’, though there are fewer joints now than there were in the golden days of the 60s and 70s.
SOMETIME though is without a doubt the center of the Kichijoji jazz community, a great place to dive into the local scene. There are usually different Japanese musicians playing every night, all genres featured. The official name ‘Piano Hall SOMETIME’ refers more to the look of the place rather than about the music. The big black grand piano does dominate the center of the room (there is no stage), but it’s not at all a ‘piano bar’. Customers sit at the counter around the open-space, or look down on the musicians from seats in the loft.
There’s a real speakeasy feel to the place when it’s full and the musicians are out on the floor tearing it up. Even better for the poorer/cheaper jazz fan is the live charge. Gigs can be as cheap as ￥1600, and that covers you for all the sets in the evening (unlike many big-name chain clubs.) SOMETIME is a great place to kick off a night in Kichijoji, and I’d recommend the Sunday afternoon lunch sessions or even just cafe time as well. Photos of SOMETIME over at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
トムネコゴ (Tomunekogo) is a small, cozy and rustic cafe alongside the entrance to Inokashira-Koen in the Kichijoji area of western Tokyo. It’s located on the first floor of an old Showa-Era (postwar) apartment building that faces the park, although the cafe itself only opened 3 years ago.
Going through the narrow entrance you have to squeeze left in front of the tiny kitchen (right away you realize this was once an actual apartment) and into the seating area of the cafe. The decor is wooden and antique; you’ll notice in the center of the room, in front of the bookcase filled with records, a beautiful old gas heater with a kettle of of tea placed on top. It’s one of those little touches that always makes a cafe more welcoming.
The music is kept a softer volume than many other cafes; the owner says he wants the atmosphere to stay mellow with quiet conversation and mid-tempo jazz, so even though there’s alcohol on the menu don’t come here for a rowdy session. On our visit there he was playing some MJQ, then a Ben Webster ballads album, both of which sounded perfect in that space.
The entry has a small bookshelf and wooden ‘Open’ sign easily visible from the road along the park, just one minute walk from Inokashira-Park station on the Keio Line. See here for more pics of Tomunekogo.
Funky is the upstairs “Bar” part of the Bar & Kitchen Funky. It’s a sleek, dark room with a beautiful bar and great food available from the restaurant downstairs. Don’t expect too much (if any..) “funky” music here though, it’s more of a late-night wind-down vibe, great spot to end a longer Kichijoji night at. Expensive so bring enough dough. Great pics in the gallery on their homepage.
Funky is part of the Mugi group, owners of Sometime Piano hall in Kichijoji and several other bars and eateries.
Good Italian food at this restaurant/bar/club. The schedule on the website shows the genre of each night (vocal, fusion, Latin, etc) which is helpful if you are not familiar with the artists. Strings is a good way to start a jazz-bar crawl night in Kichijoji.
This is as old school a jazz bar as you will find in the Tokyo metro area. 直立猿人 (Chokuritsu Enjin = Pithecanthropus Erectus) opened in 1976 and certainly shows its age. Old concert posters, dusty album covers, tattered seats. The master recently retired due to poor health and turned the joint over to a new manager who maintains the steady flow of old vinyl on the turntable. Jaki Byard, Hank Mobley and Lee Morgan on the night I was there. There’s about 2500 records in the cabinets that line the back wall of the bar.
There are faded, torn food menus on the wall but don’t try ordering anything, they stopped serving food years ago. Amazingly, the bartender told me that they still sometimes cram in 2 or 3 musicians for live music; as you can see from the photos on the web page those must be very intimate performances.
Chokuritsu Enjin is the kind of jazz bar that simply doesn’t exist anymore anywhere in the world, EXCEPT for Japan. I recommend the trek out to distant, gritty Kamata for a few drinks here, followed by some yakitori at one of the numerous izakaya on ‘Bourbon Road’ along the tracks. Photos here at tokyojazzjoints.com
What an unreal treat Garo was to visit. It was first opened in 1967 by the very welcoming Mr. and Mrs Ono in a small two story building fairly close to Mukogaoka-Yuen station on the Odakyu Railway Line (about 20 minutes west of Shinjuku). The space is a tiny square with room for about 8 people, maybe 10 max if you crowd in.
I had heard about Garo for the first time about two or three years ago but had not met anyone who’d actually been there. There’s no website, though the bar was featured once in Japanese jazz magazine Jazz Hihyo in 2016, giving it a little exposure. When I finally made the trek out on the Odakyu Line to see it for myself I was instantly smitten. Here’s a small taste:
Not the best video ever but you can see pretty much half the joint there. 100% authentic Showa-era jazz bar perfection! Mrs. Ono played Coltrane, Miles, Art Pepper and Mingus albums while I was there, all the while chatting with me and a regular customer about the area back when they opened 50 years back, jazz bars around town and the ‘dying jazz cafe culture’ (very familiar refrain from jazz joint owners).
Garo is everything that I adore about the old jazz culture of Japan. Sincere, unpretentious and completely in its own world, with not the barest concession to 2017 (the bathroom is a hole in the ground with a plastic modern seat cover on top.) Who knows how long Garo will stay open so get there ASAP for a night of old-style Japanese jazz bar heaven. Pics of Garo up on Tokyo Jazz Joints
Coming out the station go to Bus Stop #3, take the bus bound for Shin-Yuri Green Town. Get off at the 6th stop, Hakusan 4-Chome (白山4丁目)
Gi is a tiny dining bar located just about 10 minutes walk from Musashi Kosugi station in Kawasaki. It first opened 15 years ago but current manager Jin-san has been running it for about 3 years now, with an expanded food & bar menu. There’s an occasional live gig once or twice a month but mostly just jazz CDs playing in the background. When I went in Jin-san had on Sonny Rollins’ ‘Way Out West’. There’s a rack by the back wall with a lot of CDs, mostly classic stuff on Blue Note and some old jump-blues/R&B type stuff.
Musashi Kosugi is not the most glamorous part of town but if you live along the Tokyu Toyoko line then it’s worth stopping off there to check out Gi, Muse or a couple of the other joints around the station. Gi opens right out into the street so is a nice place to sip a drink or two during the spring and summer. Great speakers in the bathroom!
Opens from 1730.
Sugar Shack Soul Brothers Bar in Kawasaki is the real deal, a place where soul music fans can sit for hours with drinks and groovy tunes. Owner Ishikawa-san had the bar in Yokohama for over 18 years then moved to Kawasaki in 2009. He’s been involved in the local music scene for years and takes pride in having hosted many visiting US soul acts over the years.
The bar is sleek and cool with a big window, and two well placed video screens to show what’s playing. Ishikawa-san and his staff were quick to chat with me about all kinds of music, making it an instantly warm vibe. Lots of classic 70s & 80s soul vinyl with some groovy jazz thrown in too; I loved it. Bonus points for the bonsai plants by the window.
Kawasaki may not have the best reputation but there are certainly some good music bars scattered around, and Sugar Shack is near the top of that list.
Jazz Spot Candy is a gem, one of the finest jazz joints in the entire Tokyo metro area. It opened in 1976, then moved to its current location in 2002 and has been run since the beginning by the ebullient and kind Hayashi-san.
It’s a small room but does not feel as claustrophobic as many other jazz spots due to its high ceiling and natural light. There are a few tables and some bar counter seats, with the right wall dominated by Hayashi-san’s impressive and varied collection of vinyl. She’s happy to take requests and talk about the music or anything else; within minutes of being there we were trading stories about how we first came to love this music. (For Hayashi-san, it was working in an electronics store as a teenager and hearing John Coltrane play on the radios and stereos.)
The left wall of the room acts as a ‘stage’ for weekend live shows, usually featuring more experimental/improvisational groups. Hayashi-san has good connections with both American and European musicians (the late, great Billy Bang was a regular visitor), as well as local ‘free jazz’ players. Cafe and bar time though you’ll hear any and all genres; during my visit Hayashi-san played B.B. King & Diane Schur, Jack DeJohnette, then some heavy Norwegian improv group.
I was so happy to finally find Jazz Spot Candy, it’s now firmly in my Top Ten Jazz Joint ranking. See good pics of Candy here at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
Sadly, 10×10 closed in 2014. A neighboring cafe owner told me that Takeyama-san closed the shop to take care of her grandchildren..I hope they appreciate her Max Roach records.
Hakuraku (白楽) 10×10 is a hidden gem of a cafe. It’s in a residential part of Yokohama city (but only about 25 mins from Shibuya in Tokyo, on the Tokyu Toyoko Line) yet has regular live events at night. The lovely Takeyama-san has been the owner for the past 40 years. She’s one of the world’s top Max Roach collectors; there are portraits and photos of the great drummer/composer all around the cafe, all drawn by the wonderfully named “Asobi-nin no Kin-san” (遊び人のKINSAN)
I only visited 10×10 a few times but Takeyama-san always treated me like an honored guest. When I left last time she gave me a copy of Kin-san’s book of essays and drawings about life and jazz as a present, proving yet again that jazz cafe & bar owners are generally among the kindest people you will ever meet. 10×10 is worth the trip out on the Tokyoko Line; after the cafe you can stroll along Hakuraku’s famous old-town shopping street, and maybe grab a meal at the legendary TanTan Ramen shop.
Bitches Brew is yet another only-in-Japan kind of place. It’s a tiny sqaure room on the second floor of a building in the fairly residential area of Hakuraku, north Yokohama. There is live music every night, but as there is no stage, the lack of space means the audience is an active part of the gig. You are literally right next to the musicians as they play.
BB was opened 10 years ago by the chatty & friendly Seiichi Sugita. Sugita-san had a long career as a photo-journalist, shooting some of the biggest jazz names at festivals in the US and Europe. He’s also quite the audiophile and has a vacuum-tube system in the place for music in between live sets. (Audiophiles can read about all his equipment up on his homepage.)
Sigita-san takes pride in putting on live shows every night with musicians who make the trek down from Tokyo just to perform there. I was stunned to hear that free-jazz legend Akira Sakata plays there regularly; imagine the power of hearing someone like him in such a small room. Bitches Brew is place for real music heads, and it’s well worth the trip to Hakuraku to check out a show there. Photos of Bitches Brew over at Tokyo Jazz Joints
Kamome means “seagull” in Japanese; it’s an apt name for a venue in the port town of Yokohama. It’s a great new-ish restaurant club in the historic but recently downtrodden Kannai neighborhood, not far from Chinatown or the baseball stadium. There’s live music every night with a really eclectic mix of styles..be sure to check the schedule (and have a Japanese reading friend confirm the genre of the evening) before going. The food is very good here and all the seats face the stage for the most part. The gigs usually end about 10pm so Kamome is a good first stop on a jazz-hopping evening in Kannai.
A reminder: there is no smoking inside many (not all) establishments in Kanagawa prefecture, to which Yokohama belongs. Certain bars still allow it but many places with food do not.
Downbeat in Yokohama is one of the classic jazz spots in the entire Kanto (Tokyo Metropolitan) area. It first opened in 1956 and is now on its third owner, then young and friendly Yoshihisa-san who took over the joint in April 2017. (He assured me he’s keeping the place as is, and even adding to the 3700+ jazz records already behind the counter.)
DB is a hardcore cafe/bar where the music comes first; the volume is loud and in your face, making conversation difficult if not impossible in the main area by the speakers on the left, though the seats on the right side by the bar counter are a bit removed and thus quieter. (The bar seats are also non-smoking) The music selections are varied; you’ll hear anything from classic swing to Pharoah Sanders and all in between.
It’s kind of difficult to capture in words the vibe of such a classic old Japanese jazz joint, with the faded posters and dark lighting. Check the pictures here for a taste, but be sure to visit there at least once. It’s a treasure for jazz fans and a place that captures the old time port style of Yokohama.
DB is in the historical port side block neighborhood of Noge, across from the main Sakuragicho-station front plaza. Lots of little drinking dens, old karaoke pubs and some other jazz joints to visit around here if you have a night.
Chigusa is the the gold standard of jazz cafes in Japan. It was first opened in 1933 in the rough, portside streets of Noge in Yokohama by Mamoru Yoshida (1913-1994). The history of Chigusa is a long and fascinating one, you can read about in English in this Japan Times article, or in Japanese on the home page.
The current Chigusa is a small, square room with all seats facing the enormous speakers set in front of the back wall. There are hand drawn portraits and photos on the walls from Yoshida-san’s personal collection, and a small gallery space exhibiting more from through the years. The music in Chigusa ranges from old-time swing to modern, experimental jazz, almost all on vinyl. They welcome requests as well so have a long look at the record ‘menu’ they offer and write down what you’d like to hear. The volume is crisp and loud; don’t come to Chigusa to have a lengthy conversation, this is a place to listen to great music. We’re lucky to still have it with us. Photos of Chigusa at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
Jazz House Five Star Records is a unique little place in the Noge neighborhood, next to Sakuragicho station in Yokohama. This is an area that still has some of the rough and tumble vibe of old Yokohama, a place packed with small drinking dens and several jazz bars. I cam across FSR by chance while wandering around Noge one Saturday afternoon.
FSR is an independent record label run by Mitsukoshi Yoshie-san, a 50ish lady who speaks a mile a minute and knows the entire history of jazz in Yokohama. Before I could finish my coffee I had pages of notes with details about the area and all the bar owners, as well as the “Yokohama Jazz Association” (横浜ジャズ協会) that puts on various events around town.
The small building has a studio up top where brothers Pat and Joe La Barbera and have recently recorded CDs while in Japan (Mitsukoshi-san kindly gave me free copies, they’re great.) The first floor bar/cafe seats about 12 people and there’s room for monthly live events alongside occasional CD release parties. There’s the usual coffee and tea plus alcohol, and a book shelf with magazines and jazz guides customers can flip through while drinking.
FSR should be one of your first stops on a Yokohama jazz night; the community is lucky to have Mitsukoshi-san around to keep things vibrant.
MARCH 2020: Minton House is closing its doors this month, possibly relocating in Yokohama though that’s not settled yet. Visit while you still can!
Minton House celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2015 and shows no sign of closing any time soon. It’s located just a few minutes walk from JR Ishikawacho Station in Yokohama right on the edge of Chinatown, and is a well known watering hole for both musicians and fans.
It is a long, narrow space with walls covered in old photos, paintings and flyers. Master Kawakami-san is a genial and mellow host who keeps the music flowing from his large collection of vinyl behind the bar on the left as you walk in. You’re likely to hear almost anything as last time I was in he played in order Grant Green, Jack DeJohnette, Pat Metheny, some female vocalist whose name I didn’t get, Eric Dolphy and then some big-band swing. Everything sounded great on the huge speakers at the back of the room. One way I always judge jazz joints is how easy it is to ‘lose time’ while sitting in there; many times at Minton House I’ve planned to pop in for a drink or two and ended up leaving four hours later.
Minton House opens at 5pm most days so is perfect for either an early drink or a post-Chinatown meal nightcap. It’s likely the best jazz bar in Yokohama, let’s hope it sticks around another 40 years. See pictures of Minton House over at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
Marshmallow is a lovely new(ish) cafe located right in the heart of Chinatown, in Yokohama. It was opened 2+ years ago by Mr. & Mrs Joufu, long time Yokohama residents and previously owners of a men’s clothing shop, but also the purveyors of the Marshmallow Jazz record label in Japan. Marshmallow Records has over the last 40 years recorded numerous jazz musicians such as Chet Baker and Duke Jordan at sessions both in Japan and around the world. (Scroll down the main web page to see the full list of releases.)
Joufu-san closed his men’s clothing store in 2015 and opened the cafe on the second floor of a building on West Gate Street in Chinatown, just seconds away from where he was born 70 years ago. The cafe is long rectangular shape, with several dozen gorgeous jazz musician portraits and calendars covering almost all the wall space. There is a mixture of vinyl and CDs from his personal collection, including Marshmallow releases of course. However there are frequent afternoons set aside for customers to bring in their own records and put them on. There are also periodic afternoon or evening listening sessions devoted to one artist, hosted by various fan clubs.
Joufu-san speaks English and is happy to chat about his label and about the jazz scene around Japan so don’t hesitate to pop in for a coffee if you’re in Chinatown; Marshmallow is perfect spot for a 90-min or so rest stop during a Yokohama day out. Open from 1-8pm, closed Mondays & Tuesdays.
Ad-Lib is an old club in Yoshida-cho, a block of dingy streets between Kannai and Noge in Yokohama. Live music nightly with Saturday afternoon cafe/record listening time. It’s a no-frills jazz & whiskey joint, down to earth and authentic.
Little John is a well known jazz bar/tiny club in the Yokohama scene, yet its erratic opening hours can make it tough to visit. It’s a small rectangular room with about 15 seats and a back wall ‘stage’, another 6 or so seats at the back counter bar. There’s live music often but not nightly so you can drop by for a drink after 7 most days. It also takes part in most of the local Yokohama-based jazz events/weekends based on the posters hung around the room.
Even after finally entering the joint for the first time (for a gig as part of the 2015 Yokohama Jazz Promenade) Little John remains a bit of a mystery. Master Furukawa-san is friendly and chatty, but not the actual owner. He didn’t really share the whole story with me but from what I gathered the owner is kind of ill and doesn’t come by much, leaving it in the hands of Furukawa-san. He assured me he’s there daily at 7 but several times I’ve been by and they were closed..the story seems incomplete, I’ll keep investigating.
Regardless, Little John has that dark, divey old school jazz bar feel to it that many customers will enjoy, a place to run into to escape from a cold rainy night. You can easily make a night of it in Yoshida-cho visiting Little John, Jazz Ad-lib, Rock Bar Sid and some of the other music bars along those back streets.
Yoidore Hakushaku (よいどれ伯爵-the name translates as “The Drunken Earl or The Drunken Count”, take your pick. Locals just call it “Yoidore”) is classic old basement joint in jazzy Kannai, Yokohama. It’s got a very vintage sense of style..I was reminded of my old neighbor Mrs. Bodenheimer’s s apartment in Brooklyn, which will make sense to some of you..Soft sofas around the room along side a bar, with the musicians up against the back wall. Owner Sato-san is usually behind the bar and up for a chat between sets, keeping the vibe very friendly (not always the case in live venues..)
It’s vocal groups almost every night at Yoidore; don’t go here expecting to hear any Pharoah Sanders covers. It’s great value for the usual 3000 yen entry as there are three sets nightly from 7:30. 10 bonus points for serving Guinness!
First is an old-school Yokohama jazz bar with a vibe and sound all its own. It’s more spacious than your average jazz joint in the Tokyo Metro Area, with room for about 30-35 customers, and space in front for live sets. There’s a baby grand piano in the corner right as you enter and a drum set to the right before you get to the tables and long counter bar along the left wall.
Mr. & Mrs. Yamazaki have been running First for more than thirty years and the bar itself dates back to 1968. It’s a bit dark and the magazines in the back corner are way out of date, but the regular customers are not just old, solitary jazz fans; First is happy to host small drinking parties and doesn’t mind even when they get a bit rowdy, though I prefer it when people are alone and concentrating on the music.
The vinyl selection is all modern jazz (some superb Joe Henderson was playing on my last visit) with a slant towards more ‘moody’ records, making it always feel like midnight in First even when you’re there in the late afternoon. First used to have about one live gig a week but recently have increased to about two or three per week. Thankfully, the live gigs seem to include a variety of styles and not just the usual vocal quartet/quintets you get at a lot of other places; check the website for the schedule before stopping by.
First is one of my favorite places to stop by in Yokohama, an all around great jazz joint. Check more pics here at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
Herbie is the kind of jazz bar you stumble upon randomly on the way home some night and end up staying in for three hours. Located in unfashionable Machida (about 25mins south west of Shinjuku on the express Odakyu Line), it’s a tiny basement bar that seats 20 people max, though it’s rarely that full. The room is a small rectangle with a mix of counter seats and 4-seat tables, but is more suited for quiet drinks & jazz time rather than a noisy get-together.
Owner Fukuoka-san is a cool cat with a taste for whiskey; there are 75 different brands of whiskey, bourbon and rye behind the bar. The music is anything from classic jazz from the 50s up to current releases; last time there I heard some 1990s fusion back to back with Horace Silver. Although you wouldn’t think it, Herbie does host the occasional live gig; check the website for the schedule. It’s a fairly dark room and may be slightly claustrophobic for some, but it’s pretty much a perfect neighborhood jazz bar to hit after dinner or for a late night-cap. Look for a picture of Herbie on the wall near the door, otherwise it’s mainly Miles on the walls.
More pics of Herbie here at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
Noise is one of the more unique jazz cafes still around. It opened in 1980 as the sister shop to the original Noise in Shimo-Kitazawa, sadly now closed. The location of Noise is truly a surprise, as it’s on the 4th floor of the otherwise unremarkable Jorna department store right next to Machida Station. I’ve visited over 175 jazz establishments in Japan but this was the first one I’ve been to that’s literally inside a department store.
Noise is also noticeably larger than the average jazz cafe, seating a comfortable 40+ customers. It’s a large square room with a kitchen along the back, a long counter, and tables spread all around, with some book shelves and jazzy knick-knacks in between. (Keep a lookout for the jazz coffee can.) The jazz portraits, photos and album jackets on the wall are particularly cool, especially the Weather Report mural in the back corner.
On Saturdays and Sundays (and occasionally mid-week) there are frequent live shows starting at either lunch time or 6pm, featuring some of Tokyo’s finest jazz musicians so be sure to check the schedule on their home page before dropping by. Machida doesn’t always have the best reputation for nightlife but if you’re nearby Noise is perfect for the first stop on a Machida area jazz joint hop. Closes at 8:30 so get there early. More photos of Noise here at Tokyo Jazz Joints.