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.
I found this small-even-by-Tokyo-standards “piano bar” while lost in Nakano one night. The system is quite unique; they have live music a couple times a week but on “bar nights” customers are welcome to start jamming or rehearsing, using the grand piano that’s wedged in the place or by bringing their own instruments. While sitting at the tiny bar in the corner one night I saw two guys walk in and order drinks, then start playing trumpet and bass. Very casual, very cool.
Pignose is a real neighborhood joint, very cramped but really friendly. Highly recommended.
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.
Jazz Nutty opened in 2009 next to the campus of Waseda University. The wonderful Mr.& Mrs. Aoki ran their own flower shop for 26 years before deciding to open their own cafe. It’s a small narrow place dominated by two out of this world speakers; this is a cafe for some serious jazz listening and not idle conversation.
All the drinks, including beer, are 500 yen. Closed on Tuesdays. All rejoice! A new jazz cafe is born in Tokyo, let’s all spend some money there so it survives!
This is a quiet piano bar with live music nightly though more BGM style, not really a live club. Nice for a relaxed drink though a bit soft for my tastes..more for a client or romantic pursuits than real jazz listening.
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”.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
CLOSED Fall 2013.
Music fans know that Japan is a country filled with dedicated, serious, almost manic record collectors. Misho Yasushi, the now 76-year old owner of Jazz Pub Michaux is one of this breed. He’s a fan of hard-bop & soul-jazz and has over 4500 records in this genre, almost all of which are originals. Misho-san has a knowledge of obscure hard-bop/soul-jazz players and albums that is just stunning..I’ve been in the bar with professional jazz musicians who were blown away by the vinyl he kept pulling out. Baby-Face Willete, Willis Jackson, Melvin Sparks, Groove Holmes, Wilbur Harden, Bobby Hutcherson (yeah!)..you can sit for 5 hours and not stop dancing off your seat, it’s THAT funky here.
Just as good as the awesome music is the conversation with Misho-san. Bearded and usually in kimono with a Mongolian hat, he is full of stories about the 50s and 60s in Tokyo. Hanging out with Black American soldiers in the various jazz joints around town, drinking with Horace Silver, interviewing Thelonious Monk during his Japanese tour..Misho-san loves to chat. Unfortunately it’s only in Japanese so bring a friend who can translate if you don’t speak (though he’ll talk to you anyways even if you don’t).
Jazz Pub Michaux is really small even for a Tokyo jazz bar, so get there early if you want to stay for awhile. There really isn’t a more friendly or swinging jazz bar in town, so check it out while you still can. ￥1000 seating charge, as there’s only about 8 seats remember, the table charges help keep these special places open in a city with stupidly high rents. Just pay up and enjoy the chance to get a masterclass in 1950s and 60s jazz.