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.
Come out the east exit at JR Ooimachi Station and turn left. Walk down five minutes (past LAOX dept store) then turn left into the small alleys packed with places to eat. You’ll see Impro on a white sign with other very tiny bars in the same building. The alleyway has a sign that says 平和小路.
Jazz Snack まつ (Matsu) is a gem, a classic old spot that takes you back to the days when Japanese cities had small jazz cafes like this in almost every neighborhood. Even by Japan standards Matsu is small, with 5 tiny seats at the counter and 6 more at the two tables that have virtually no space between them. The decor is vintage old Japanese jazz joint; a rickety shelf full of old albums; posters for events past and present, a chalkboard with ‘Today’s Food Special’ written perhaps ten years previously, and most notably a large blown up photo of John Coltrane live in concert. The photo has a diagonal slash on it, the victim of an angry street gangster that the owner refused to pay protection money to back when that sort of thing was much more common in Japan.
Amidst all the clutter of dishes, bottles and posters there is a turntable behind the counter, and a TV where they show some concert DVDs at times. The music wasn’t loud, as although Matsu is a very old spot, it has never been a standard jazz ‘kissaten’ where mainly solo men customers would sit with head down & eyes closed, listening to vintage albums at high volume. Shop owner Hirano-san from the beginning wanted a more jovial and warm atmosphere, hence the name Jazz ‘Snack’ rather than Jazz ‘Cafe’. (In Japan a ‘snack’ is a neighborhood bar where locals drink, talk and sing karaoke).
Hirano-san is a veteran of the jazz scene in Tokyo, having worked with the original incarnation of legendary live club The Pit Inn back in the late 60s and early 70s. (What his exact role was is unclear, will get more concrete details on this soon as on this visit I spoke mainly to the young college student manning the joint; Hirano-san only came by for a minute to exchange business cards, before returning to the second floor mah-johng parlor he also owns, also called ‘Matsu’). Today he is still involved in event promotion as an organizer with the Shinagawa City Jazz Festival, previously known as the Nakanobu Jazz Festival until 2018.
Matsu is going to be a joy for those who love the real old school Japanese jazz joint vibe, of which sadly there are less and less remaining. It’s living Japanese 20th century jazz culture, which is the highest recommendation I can give. Smoking is allowed so needless to say this is not a spot to linger in for those sensitive to smoke
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.
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..
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.
Slow Boat is a beautiful neighborhood jazz cafe opened only in 2019, on the first floor of an otherwise residential house in Ota-ward in southern Tokyo. Owner Tsunahara-san built the place with the first floor specifically designed to function as a cafe, a rectangular room that can seat about 12 at a couple tables and a small counter.
The sound is superb at Slow Boat with the volume at just the right level on customized JBL4331 speakers. Tsunahara-san has a giant collection of roughly 2000 records and 1000+ cds, covering most jazz genres. While I was visiting he was playing a mix of things from some old Gerry Mulligan, to showing and playing for me the record that gave the shop its name, The Ted Brown Sextet’s ‘On A Slow Boat To China’. Tsunahara-san is now retired but had been a long time jazz kissaten customer, collecting matchbooks from many of the shops he’s visited throughout Japan over the years, and seems to know many of the kissaten owners. He clearly put a lot of thought and care into making Slow Boat feature all the best parts of jazz kissa, without being overbearing or difficult for first-timers to enjoy.
It’s often said (including by me) that jazz cafes can feel like the extension of the owner’s home, and that the vibe is like being in their living room or basement music room at times. This is doubly true at Slow Boat, not only because of the ‘house’ factor, but decor such as the gorgeous, Korean-looking chest of drawers that sits between the giant speakers, and where Tsunahara-san charmingly puts a tiny flag saying ‘A’ or ‘B’ to indicate which side of the record is playing.
Although not in central Tokyo, its location only a few minutes walk from Yukigaya-Otsuka Station on the Tokyu Ikegami line makes it fairly easy to get to, especially for those who commute between central Tokyo and Yokohama or further south. Slow Boat is highly recommended for either coffee or a couple drinks before closing time at 2100.
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!
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
Body & Soul is one of the most historically important jazz clubs in Tokyo. Featuring many of the top local musicians but also regular groups from the US and Europe, B&S is along with the Pit Inn and Alfie one of the three most famous live spots in town. Owner Ms. Seki Kyoko is a major figure in the jazz scene for more than 50 years, knowing everyone in the jazz world here and overseas. (Visiting American jazz musicians will often stop by Body & Soul just to pay their respects, even if they are playing at another club.)
Different styles depending on the night (mostly mainstream, with a few more adventurous groups on occasion) and always packed, B&S is also the rare jazz joint with exceptionally good food, so you can plan on dinner & drinks along with the gig.
Unfortunately after 30+ years at their Omotesando location, Body & Soul is moving to a new space in Shibuya, right up the street from Tower Records, with the first gig scheduled for October 10th, 2021. Details coming soon on the new venue!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Kiri is a wonderful little basement spot in between Hibiya, Ginza and Yurakucho stations. It’s a small, square room that can seat about 15-20 people max. There’s live music on Saturday’s but other nights just master Naito-san’s vinyl collection. (Hank Mobley playing when I went in, major points for that.)
The vibe in Kiri is quiet and sophisticated without being snobby. Over 200 bottles of whiskey/scotch/bourbon behind the bar are an added attraction for serious drinkers. Pricey, so bring cash.
Jazz 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.
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.
Cygnus is the sister club to Aries in Ueno but a bit more upscale. Live shows three times a night, almost always local vocalists. A bit heavy on the jazz standards for my tastes but always high quality and a popular spot in Ginza.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Jazz Bar Gugan is a small bar in the east side of Tokyo, near both the Ochanomizu and Jimbocho areas. It was opened about 8 years ago by the friendly Yamamoto-san. You wouldn’t think it possible in such a small bar but there is live music once a twice a month. Yamamoto-san has a big collection of CDs (he was playing some live Wes Montgomery when I was last there) and quite a lot of whiskey. It’s a great place to stop by for a couple of drinks after some dinner or shopping in Jimbocho or Kanda.
(“Gugan” is a song by famous local pianist Yamashita Yosuke)
Root Down moved down the street just 30 meters from it’s original spot, it’s now
Root Down is worthy of its funky name. (For those who don’t know look up the song “Root Down” by Jimmy Smith.) It’s a small bar opened about eight years ago by the very friendly Yoshikawa-san. The place is dark but cozy with several thousand records and CDs, and two speakers that just..I don’t have the technical audio vocabulary to describe how good these speakers sound. When you sit at the bar, the speakers are up high behind you meaning the sound comes down and surrounds you from the back. Listening to Ba obby Hutcherson record there, the sound of his vibes was like nothing else.
Double extra points for the brass plaque next to the bar with a quote from Sam Cooke. Yoshikawa-san plays a lot of different styles of jazz to please all kinds of tastes, all on vinyl, and his happy to talk about the music despite the late-night atmosphere. Check his Twitter feed for a real-time update of what’s being played. Root Down is dark and expensive so is best experienced late at night for an extended drinks session. Cash only. See pics of Root Down over at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
The Adirondack Cafe is a unique jazz cafe and bar just off the main road through the Jinbocho area of Tokyo. It opened in 2008 and soon became well known among the town’s jazz fans for its food menu (burgers, Philly cheese-steaks). Most jazz cafes don’t focus too much on tasty grub, especially of the sandwich variety.
The room is small but warm, with a lot of great memorabilia hung on the walls. The couple that run it obviously have a liking of all things New York as there is a huge print of the Flatiron Building on one wall, in addition to the name of the place. (The Adirondacks are a range of hills in upstate New York). The music in the joint is a mix of classic vocal jazz albums and some more modern stuff, nothing too extreme and pretty much the perfect volume for both listening and conversing. There’s live music once or twice a week, mostly trios or duos who play by the piano along the wall at the back of the shop.
I didn’t get to speak with the owners on my last visit to learn more about them and what they did before opening Adirondack, will have to go back soon to get the scoop. Photos of Adirondack over at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
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
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.
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.
Houdenasu (ほうでなす) is a small 2nd floor bar located right in the heart of Shinjuku 3-Chome, a neighborhood packed with great music bars and places to eat. Opened 16 years ago by master Satodate-san, it’s an intimate, no frills jazz bar with mostly regular customers. There are periodic 2 or 3 piece live shows, mostly standard type stuff. Satodate-san has a nice collection of CDs and vinyl; I was pleased to see an original Hank Mobley album hanging behind the bar.
Satodate-san was a pleasure to chat music with and he invited me back anytime to check out one of the live shows and talk with some of the regulars. Houdenasu is a another great spot in 3-chome and I’m happy to have discovered it after many years of visiting the area. English menu so it’s an easy place for tourists to order in. ¥1000 seating charge.
Oh, Satodate-san told me with a smile that ‘ほうでなす’ is a bit of Tokhoku regional slang for ’ばかやろう!’
Jazz 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!
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”.
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 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.
Aries is a very local jazz live-house in the back streets of Ueno. By “local” I mean both the artists and customers; Aries feels like a place that people walk from their homes to. It’s a small square room with all the seats facing the stage, which is on the left when you walk in.
The nightly schedule almost always features vocal-led groups but in a variety of genres, not just standards and lite-bossa covers. Jazz spots like this are totally authentic and completely unpretentious, just some local artists and regulars enjoying music and drinks.
Every Swing is a small friendly club in the barren back streets east of Ueno Station. This is not an area full of music so it’s all the more welcome to have someplace representing the jazz army.
There is no set genre at Every Swing so expect to hear anything from West Indian steel drums to chanson here. Every Tuesday is the “Service” Jam Session night, open to all levels from beginner upwards. At only ￥1000 it’s a good deal as many jam sessions in Tokyo charge a lot more to join. The crowd here is usually a bit younger than many other jazz clubs, which is kind of nice. The usual drinks and light snacks are available, and check out some nice photos at their website here
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.