Located in the back streets on the west side of Asakusa, the most popular tourist neighborhood in old-town Tokyo, Subtone (サブトーン) is an 8-seat only jazz cafe/bar that specializes in high grade coffee and expensive, rare imported Scotch whisky.
Open since 2010, the narrow space is dark but with soft lighting, has a gorgeous wooden bar top, and a wonderful aroma of fresh coffee beans. The owner Minegishi-san plays both vinyl and CDs, some older classic jazz but also more current releases. On my visit he was eager to talk about some contemporary musicians he was recently listening to from the US and showing some YouTube clips of recent live performances from NYC. He also has some contemporary Japanese jazz albums in the bar, something not very common in most Japanese jazz spots.
Although open in the afternoons and clearly a place suitable for coffee lovers, Minegishi-san spoke at length about how Subtone is not a traditional ‘jazz kissaten’, and that he considers it to be ‘a bar that plays jazz music, rather than just a jazz bar’, the meaning of which is open to interpretation. Certainly whisky lovers will have a field day at Subtone as there was such a big stock including some hard to find in Japan Bruichladdich bottles on the shelves. It’s really a perfect spot for an afternoon recharge coffee while wandering around Asakusa, or a nightcap for a couple of fine drams after dinner.
Open from 1500, Closed Wed and Thur. Smoking allowed.
8 minute walk from Tawaramachi Station on the Ginza Subway Line, located behind Honzan Higashi Honganji Temple.
Even by Japanese bar standards, Shelter People is an intimate drinking experience. Located in the basement of a large ‘entertainment’ building in downtown Yokohama, Shelter People is simply one counter with five seats, a lot of wood, and a killer little sound system.
Yamada-san the owner, member of the popular jazz DJ crew ‘Baker’s Mood’, opened the joint last year constructing the wooden interior himself from scratch. He keeps the decor to a minimum, with the focus being the small corner on the right with speakers and a turntable. Records are kept under the counter; about 500+, including many vintage 7-inch European pop records along with the jazz. Yamada-san said that he will rotate in and out the albums from his collection at home so what’s on the playlist will be changing regularly.
Although it feels more like a bar due to the location and the counter seating, opening hours are generally 1300-2300 so it’s a good spot to drop by for some high grade coffee in the afternoon ‘cafe time’. There is of course some booze on the menu as well, so its also perfect spot to pop in after an evening in at some live jazz around Kannai or drinks in the nearby Noge neighborhood both within walking distance. With only 5 seats, if you’re going in a group it’s best to contact Yamada-san ahead of time so he can stagger the incoming customers.
Needless to say, if you have any type of issues with enclosed spaces then Shelter People may be a very short visit, but I strongly recommend popping in for at least a coffee or a drink or two. Yamada-san is friendly and happy to talk at length about music (and he can speak a bit of English as well.) It’s the type of music bar that could only exist in Japan, and is a very welcome addition to the jazz spot scene in Yokohama. (And the name ‘Shelter People’ comes from the Leon Russell album).
Donato has the look, feel and sound of a classic old Japanese jazz kissaten, yet is a relatively new spot only opened in November 2021 in the Ochanomizu neighborhood of central Tokyo. It’s a spacious cafe style shop, with a square shaped front room and a semi-detached back room with a counter, seats and some extra tables, total capacity about 25 seats.
Like many jazz cafes, there is a book shelf lined with old music magazines and books to browse, right along the front windows facing the street. Decor is minimal, a bit wooden and old-fashion ‘European tea room’ aesthetic. But all that is secondary, with the main draw at Donato being the impressively deep musical selections, the high volume they play the records at, and the wonderfully charming old phone booth that contains their audio set up.
The music when I visited on a late weekday afternoon was intense and loud. I was particularly impressed with the early ECM label, very rare album ‘Girl From Martinique’ by Robin Kenyatta that they had on. I’m sure there is some Blue Note hard bop in the collection as well but my impression is that Donato leans toward the heavier, more experimental side of the jazz spectrum. Each album playing has its jacket placed on a chair next to the audio-phone booth with a ‘Don’t Touch’ sign prominently displayed. That plus the ‘Please keep you voices down’ (not that it would matter with the volume they keep it at) written on the menu let you know you are in a serious joint; its about the music here.
There is an attractive food menu too as well, with cake sets and tea/coffee, plus the usual alcohol on offer for evening visits. Donato is open from 1200-2200, so it’s perfect for mid-day coffee or a night cap after dinner, though its not a place for conversation so be ready for some focused listening while you drink. With so many old kissaten closing around the country, having a gem like Donato arrive on the scene is a blessing.
Closed Mondays and Tuesdays; Non-Smoking