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.
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
‘Modern Jazz’ Players Bar R started in June 2022 in the existing Players Bar R, with a bit of a complicated back story, but basically now is open three times a week as a vinyl jazz spot and is a must visit both for jazz fans with a deeper interest in audio equipment, but also new fans who may be unfamiliar with the jazz cafe and bar culture in Japan.
Owner Tuskamoto-san, like many small business owners, faced many challenges as the pandemic hit in 2020, considering ideas of how to keep the bar open during very difficult economic times. Over the years he has been friends with several of the regular customers at nearby Jazz Bar Charmant, Tokyo’s oldest remaining jazz spot open since 1955. Upon hearing the news that Charmant would sadly be closing its doors, Tsukamoto-san along with Charmant regulars Mr. Sakashita and Mr. Hayasaka decided to refurbish ‘R’ into a more jazz oriented listening bar, a place where the spirit of Charmant could be carried on and the customers could hopefully move to make their new jazz bar home.
Sakashita-san brought his own audio system from home to install along with 1500+ records, while the others set up the new decor and shop ‘guidelines’. Unlike the old style jazz kissaten of the 1960s and 70s which often had a ‘no talking’ rule in the daytime and could be very forbidding spaces for young customers, women and new jazz fans, ‘R’ makes clear that not only are novice jazz fans welcome, the staff are eager to take questions and requests. Talking about the music is a main goal of all the staff, and customers can even bring in a record or two to play on the phenomenal sounding audio system (featuring JBL 2135 speakers). On my recent visit there one customer had brought a Modern Jazz Quartet Live in Japan album from 1966, then pulled out the concert program to show us as he had attended the gig while still a student. (This kind of thing happens often in Japanese jazz joints, and is always wonderful!)
While the menu is still a bit limited (you can order food from the Chinese joint downstairs, and there is lunch available on Saturdays) the bar has a unique take on the ‘bottle keep’ system that is still common in Japan. Customers can bring their own preferred bottle of liquor and pay a one time ¥5000 (about USD 45) to store it on the shelf. On each subsequent visit there is only a ¥1000 charge for ice and and a mixer.
There have been all too many jazz spot closures the last few years, for both predictable but also unexpected reasons. Having ‘R’ take on a successor role to the historic Charmant is great news, and while it can’t capture the charm of that historic shop, it very capably fills in the void in the northern areas of Tokyo.
Open Thursdays 1800-2200, Fri & Sat 1100-2200
JULY 2022: Minton House has been under threat of closure the last two years, and the owner is still in negotiations with the new land owners about how long he can stay in the building. This is a complex situation with a lot of Japanese real estate ‘grey zone’ rules, so it’s unlcear how long the shop will actually stay open. Get there while you can!
Minton House celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2015 and shows no sign of closing any time soon. It’s located just a few minutes walk from JR Ishikawacho Station in Yokohama right on the edge of Chinatown, and is a well known watering hole for both musicians and fans.
It is a long, narrow space with walls covered in old photos, paintings and flyers. Master Kawakami-san is a genial and mellow host who keeps the music flowing from his large collection of vinyl behind the bar on the left as you walk in. You’re likely to hear almost anything as last time I was in he played in order Grant Green, Jack DeJohnette, Pat Metheny, some female vocalist whose name I didn’t get, Eric Dolphy and then some big-band swing.
Everything sounded great on the huge speakers at the back of the room, but if you’re sitting towards the back then be prepared for the volume; those seats aren’t for conversing in. One way I always judge jazz joints is how easy it is to ‘lose time’ while sitting in there; many times at Minton House I’ve planned to pop in for a drink or two and ended up leaving four hours later as it has just the right combination of music, ambience, menu (Guinness AND Orion beer, lots of whiskeys) to keep you trapped.
Minton House opens at 5pm most days so is perfect for either an early drink or a post-Chinatown meal nightcap. It’s likely the best jazz bar in Yokohama, let’s hope it sticks around another 40 years. See pictures of Minton House over at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
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
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.
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).
Located in the in historic Bashamichi area of downtown Yokohama, Airegin is one of the best live clubs in the Tokyo Metro Area. Owned by the friendly Umemoto-san,who took over from the original owners in 1980, Airegin has since 1972 been one of the key spots in Yokohama for live jazz, particularly for those groups and musicians on the more experimental side.
The history inside the club is remarkable, with a who’s who of Japanese jazz legends like Yamashita Yousuke and Hayashi Eiichi having played their regulalry for years, but with also an incredible number of overseas musicians like Mal Waldron and Woody Shaw having done gigs. Airegin has also for many years been the spot to see some of Europe’s top jazz musicians (the website currently features rotating photos that include Peter Brotzmann from Germany and Han Bennink from Holland, though of course during the pandemic there have not been any acts visiting from overseas).
The space is a cosy room that can seat up to 30 fairly comfortably, though seating arrangements can change depending on the lineup of any given gig. The decor is everything you expect and love about classic old Japanese jazz joints, with the walls covered in old posters and framed portraits. Tables are small so be ready to sit very close to others in the audience. The live charge is usually ￥2500 (about USD22) though can be higher for special events; check Umemoto-san’s blog for the updated schedules and live rates. (Note: the website is a little confusing and sometimes not updated right away, so check the twitter feed for more up to the minute announcements)
Yokohama has a long history with jazz and Airegin remains perhaps the best place to experience that history, while also listening to cutting edge live music. Now Non-Smoking during all gigs.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Aketa No Mise (“The Open Store”) is out in west Tokyo, not far from Nishi-Ogikubo station. The Ogikubo area was well known in the 1960s as a gathering spot for hippies, artists, political dissidents and drop-outs and you can get a taste of this scene at Aketa no Mise. It’s a great basement jazz club with no pretensions or care for current trends, a space solely concerned with creative expression via music. The live acts they book are on the experimental/free side, which is unfortunately all too rare these days. Owner Aketagawa-san, who runs the ocarina-shop across the street as well as overseeing the Aketa Discs independent label, keeps the schedule diverse and interesting; last time I dropped by in the afternoon there was a trio rehearsal going on between a tympani drummer, electric guitarist and a female vocalist.
That’s not to say there aren’t some unpleasant things about the club. It’s down in the basement and as a result is very dark and damp, and the cans of Sapporo beer were kind of warm..never acceptable, even a place devoted to free jazz! But those minor points aside, I love this joint. There are too many jazz clubs around Tokyo that feature the same vocal + quartet singing the same standards, night after night. Knowing there is a place like Aketa no Mise still in business is comforting to all jazz fans who want to keep the spirit of improvisation alive.
What an unreal treat Garo was to visit. It was first opened in 1967 by the very welcoming Mr. and Mrs Ono in a small two story building fairly close to Mukogaoka-Yuen station on the Odakyu Railway Line (about 20 minutes west of Shinjuku). The space is a tiny square with room for about 8 people, maybe 10 max if you crowd in.
I had heard about Garo for the first time about two or three years ago but had not met anyone who’d actually been there. There’s no website, though the bar was featured once in Japanese jazz magazine Jazz Hihyo in 2016, giving it a little exposure. When I finally made the trek out on the Odakyu Line to see it for myself I was instantly smitten. Here’s a small taste:
Not the best video ever but you can see pretty much half the joint there. 100% authentic Showa-era jazz bar perfection! Mrs. Ono played Coltrane, Miles, Art Pepper and Mingus albums while I was there, all the while chatting with me and a regular customer about the area back when they opened 50 years back, jazz bars around town and the ‘dying jazz cafe culture’ (very familiar refrain from jazz joint owners).
Garo is everything that I adore about the old jazz culture of Japan. Sincere, unpretentious and completely in its own world, with not the barest concession to 2017 (the bathroom is a hole in the ground with a plastic modern seat cover on top.) Who knows how long Garo will stay open so get there ASAP for a night of old-style Japanese jazz bar heaven. Pics of Garo up on Tokyo Jazz Joints
Nefertiti lives up to its very lofty name as it’s one of the finest jazz spots in the entire Tokyo metro area. The owner Kurita-san is an extremely friendly host; he is an ex-teacher who opened the cafe after retiring several years back. (He has a long history with jazz and told us some hysterical stories of working in a ‘jazz curry’ shop when younger, then meeting his wife there as she was a regular customer).
The joint is quite a bit larger than the average jazz spot with plenty of seats and a small stage toward the back window where there are live sets once or twice a week. There’s a lot of natural light too, a nice change from the usual dark and dingy jazz bar feel. But by far the main attraction in Nefertiti is the ridiculously good sound system; Kurita-san proudly showed us several profiles of Nefertiti in Japanese audio magazines. (For those who know, here are the specs: JBL S4700, fet cr-nf equalizr amp MODEL FET99 / marantz SUPER AUDIO CD PLAYER SA-14S1 / Stereo control center C-200L)
Kurtia-san has a huge collection with some especially rare experimental/free jazz albums; I was really surprised and impressed to see a live Don Pullen bootleg album from the 70s just casually lying on a table. It’s not just heavy free jazz on the system though; the first record he put on for us to hear the audio system was some fusion-guitar from the 80s and there are plenty of jazz vocal albums hanging up above the seats so you’ll get all styles of music here.
Nefertiti is a bit of a trek as it’s a little far from Masuo Station but it’s more than worth the time it takes to get there. Opening hours may be a bit flexible so if you’re planning on going for a bit of a session then good idea to call or send a message ahead of time. See pics of Nefertiti over at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
First is an old-school Yokohama jazz bar with a vibe and sound all its own. It’s more spacious than your average jazz joint in the Tokyo Metro Area, with room for about 30-35 customers, and space in front for live sets. There’s a baby grand piano in the corner right as you enter and a drum set to the right before you get to the tables and long counter bar along the left wall.
Mr. & Mrs. Yamazaki have been running First for more than thirty years and the bar itself dates back to 1968. It’s a bit dark and the magazines in the back corner are way out of date, but the regular customers are not just old, solitary jazz fans; First is happy to host small drinking parties and doesn’t mind even when they get a bit rowdy, though I prefer it when people are alone and concentrating on the music.
The vinyl selection is all modern jazz (some superb Joe Henderson was playing on my last visit) with a slant towards more ‘moody’ records, making it always feel like midnight in First even when you’re there in the late afternoon. First used to have about one live gig a week but recently have increased to about two or three per week. Thankfully, the live gigs seem to include a variety of styles and not just the usual vocal quartet/quintets you get at a lot of other places; check the website for the schedule before stopping by.
First is one of my favorite places to stop by in Yokohama, an all around great jazz joint. Check more pics here at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
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
The ‘New Dug’ in Shinjuku is a cafe/bar with a complex back story. It was the annex bar to the original Dug, a legendary jazz bar/club in the heart of Shinjuku, owned by photographer Hozumi Nakadaira. This version of Dug opened a few doors down the street but without live music; sadly several years ago the original Dug closed its doors for good as the building it was in was torn down..in some of Nakadaira-san’s photographs you can see the original place hosting some of jazz’ greatest musicians as they dropped by while in Tokyo.
What do you need to know about this version of Dug then? It’s small, dark, and underground with a great whiskey selection to go with the usual beers and cocktails. There are several of Nakadaira-san’s photographs hanging around the cafe, as well as a large Miles Davis painting. The music is always good, with a special emphasis on hard-bop albums.
Dug is a perfect escape from the bustle of Shinjuku, suitable for some quiet time with jazz and a drink or a chat with a friend. It gets two extra points for the great postcards of jazz musicians on sale for only ￥100, all copies of Nakadaira-san’s original pictures. I strongly recommend you drop by Dug as part of a Shinjuku jazz joint crawl, it’s an essential part of the jazz history of Tokyo. Open daily from 12noon. See more pics of Dug over at tokyojazzjoints.com
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
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.
Downbeat in Yokohama is one of the classic jazz spots in the entire Kanto (Tokyo Metropolitan) area. It first opened in 1956 and is now on its third owner, then young and friendly Yoshihisa-san who took over the joint in April 2017. (He assured me he’s keeping the place as is, and even adding to the 3700+ jazz records already behind the counter.)
DB is a hardcore cafe/bar where the music comes first; the volume is loud and in your face, making conversation difficult if not impossible in the main area by the speakers on the left, though the seats on the right side by the bar counter are a bit removed and thus quieter. (The bar seats are also non-smoking) The music selections are varied; you’ll hear anything from classic swing to Pharoah Sanders and all in between.
It’s kind of difficult to capture in words the vibe of such a classic old Japanese jazz joint, with the faded posters and dark lighting. Check the pictures here for a taste, but be sure to visit there at least once. It’s a treasure for jazz fans and a place that captures the old time port style of Yokohama.
DB is in the historical port side block neighborhood of Noge, across from the main Sakuragicho-station front plaza. Lots of little drinking dens, old karaoke pubs and some other jazz joints to visit around here if you have a night.
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.
Jazz & Coffee Swan first opened in 1965 and still retains every bit of ambiance from that golden age of jazz cafe culture, right down to the large portrait of John Coltrane hanging in the front corner near the door. Located in distant Shin-Tokorozawa just over the border of Tokyo within Saitama Prefecture, Swan is a place spoken of often by jazz kissaten customers I have met around town, referred to as one of the few remaining cafes from the old days.
Swan feels fairly roomy; the space is rectangular shaped with the bar along the right side and a small area by the back for live performances (about twice a week, with occasional jam sessions on Sundays). There are a few tables along the left wall, and some seats at the counter; if full the place could fit about 25 or so. Behind the bar are about 5000+ original records, partially hidden by one of those sliding shelve units with bottles of booze and glasses stacked on it. First Bud Powell, then Art Pepper was playing when I went in.
The current owner Sutou-san is a genial host; he was happy to chat with me about the joint and other jazz spots around western Tokyo and Saitama, answering all my questions and introducing me to one of the regulars (shout out to Mr. Hiroo there for buying me a beer.) Sutou-san took over Swan from the original owner about 15 years ago, inheriting all the records and keeping the place pretty much as is. Being much younger than many jazz cafe owners though he’s fully engaged online with both a Twitter account and Facebook page, making it easy to get updates about events and opening times.
Swan really does have it all; the records, the booze, the conversation, and that gorgeous Coltrane on the wall. It’s well worth the trip out west for an afternoon or evening there. See more pics of Swan over at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
Charmant opened in 1955 and certainly looks and feels its age. It’s a tiny bar on the second floor of a rickety building in Nippori, right at the edge of the Yanaka Ginza Shopping Street, a very old part of working-class Tokyo that is filled with traditional mom & pop shops (and some hip coffee houses, a sign of gentrification perhaps?)
The original owner died last year, but 4 years earlier had sold the bar and all its records to a long-time customer, dentist Ishioka-san. Ishioka-san is some kind of character; he immediately greets you in loud English while pouring drinks, dancing to the music and sneaking a smoke or two. He told me he still owns his dental clinic so only opens the bar three nights a week (Wed, Fri, Sat) for now as a hobby. In addition to the usual liquor he keeps the bar stocked with some rather rare and expensive bourbon, and kindly gave us a free shot on our first visit.
The music in Charmant is loud so don’t go in expecting lengthy conversations. Ishioka-san told three Japanese customers, clearly first-timers, that ‘sorry, I can’t turn down the volume’ when they requested such. Now THAT’S a jazz bar owner. The music is all vinyl, all classic and modern jazz. A regular customer in there told me on Friday nights after 8pm, some of the regulars will come by with vinyl to put on the bar, which Ishioka-san will then play. It’s that kind of joint; the music comes first.
Words can’t capture the magic feeling inside an old jazz bar like this. If you’re at all a fan of old jazz joints then Charmant is a must-visit. You’ll easily feel yourself transported back to 1961 when Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers visited the bar while on tour in Japan. Check pics of Charmant here at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
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.
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.
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.
S.U.B. Store (Small Unique Bookstore) is a very hip new hybrid cafe/bar/gallery/bookstore/recordstore/live space in the always vibrant Koenji neighborhood in west Tokyo. It was opened early in 2016 by the husband & wife team of Andhika from Indonesia, and Kumi from Japan, two welcoming hosts who are happy to talk music and more with the customers.
The shop is warm and funky with a counter bar facing a small kitchen on the right side, some racks with used vinyl on sale along the opposite wall. One part of the wall space in the center is used for various small exhibitions, and on the left side of the room by the window are DJ decks and a space for live performances. It sounds like it would be too busy and cluttered but it’s all laid out so you don’t feel boxed in at all, with the large window letting in plenty of natural light.
Andhika and Kumi are making an effort to put on a variety of events in SUB Store including live music (jazzy and otherwise), DJ nights and film showings, in addition to opening for lunch (look for the very good Indonesian dishes on the menu) and afternoon cafe time. The music is a mix of jazz and contemporary grooves, though you’re likely to hear a lot of genres from their collection of records and CDs. Andhika told me they even hosted Indonesian jazz guitarist Tesla Manaf for a show during his recent tour of Japan. They’re happy to host any kind of evening though so feel free to ask them about setting up any event you’d like to do. SUB Store is a very welcome new spot for music and art fans in Tokyo.
Herbie is the kind of jazz bar you stumble upon randomly on the way home some night and end up staying in for three hours. Located in unfashionable Machida (about 25mins south west of Shinjuku on the express Odakyu Line), it’s a tiny basement bar that seats 20 people max, though it’s rarely that full. The room is a small rectangle with a mix of counter seats and 4-seat tables, but is more suited for quiet drinks & jazz time rather than a noisy get-together.
Owner Fukuoka-san is a cool cat with a taste for whiskey; there are 75 different brands of whiskey, bourbon and rye behind the bar. The music is anything from classic jazz from the 50s up to current releases; last time there I heard some 1990s fusion back to back with Horace Silver. Although you wouldn’t think it, Herbie does host the occasional live gig; check the website for the schedule. It’s a fairly dark room and may be slightly claustrophobic for some, but it’s pretty much a perfect neighborhood jazz bar to hit after dinner or for a late night-cap. Look for a picture of Herbie on the wall near the door, otherwise it’s mainly Miles on the walls.
More pics of Herbie here at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
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.
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.
Birdland is a beautifully decorated cafe and bar located in the north-east part of Tokyo, just a short skip from Kita-Senju station. This is an old, working-class neighborhood that is showing signs of some gentrification with new wine bars and cafes, but Birdland evokes an older era despite being open only since 1989.
The owner Morikawa-san is an incredibly friendly guy; he let us stay in the place between 6 and 7pm, usually his break time as he prepares for the evening ‘bar’ session, and chatted the whole time with us as we took pictures and drank some beers. The feel of the place is almost European, and that extends to the excellent selection of whiskey and draft beer (Guinness & Belgian Vedette, very rare in a jazz bar). There are also a good two dozen jazz portaits hanging on the wall along the right side, be sure to look at some of the smaller ones as you’ll find some real surprises.
Birdland has live music about two or three times a week, usually musicians that are friends of Morikawa-san but also some occasional foreign guests. Straight ahead modern jazz, nothing too free and thankfully not too many vocalists. The ￥3000 music charge covers the whole evening. During cafe and bar time there’s an extensive collection of vinyl behind the bar that Morikawa-san plays from; Grant Green’s ‘Matador’ was on when we entered.
Every jazz spot has its own unique feel and Birdland is no exception. You’ll feel instantly welcome there as you settle in for a leisurely coffee of beer, and with the large windows offering plenty of natural light, it’s the perfect spot for people put off by some of the more subterranean jazz joints around town. Photos of Birdland here at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
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.
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.
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.
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
The Eigakan (映画館 “Movie Theater) is a jazz cafe for both jazz lovers and cinephiles. Owner Yoshida-san has worked in the film world for several decades and made several documentaries. He has filled the Eigakan with vintage European film posters from the 60s and hundreds of old film journals and magazines. (Be sure to ask him to show you the three-volume photo book by Takase Susumu, the pics of old movie palaces around Japan in the 50s & 60s were amazing.)
Yoshida-san opened the place “sometime in the late 70s” (he couldn’t remember the exact date) and said the name comes from when he and some film friends first found the space for a showing of Imamura Shohei’s film “Pigs and Battleships”. It slowly transformed into a jazz cafe and now has only the rare film showing.. I’m tempted to ask him to pull down some of the dusty 16mm film cans he has on the shelves to get some film events started again..
Yoshida-san is a huge Thelonious Monk and Eric Dolphy fan and also features a lot of rare Eastern European jazz records in the cafe. He’s very chatty when the place is not busy and will be happy to talk jazz, films and art with you. On my last visit he pulled out a map of the neighborhood to show me two more jazz spots I had not heard of..guys with the warm heart of Yoshida-san really do make the world a better place. Viva Eigakan. Photos of Eigakan over at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
Open from 1600 most days.
Paper Moon (ぺーぱーむーん) is a 15 seat L-shaped counter bar opened and run by the friendly Yamamoto-san since 1982..and except for the cds scattered around the place the decor or furniture doesn’t seem to have changed since ’82. And that’s a good thing, I like my jazz bars to have soul and to feel lived in.
Yamamoto-san plays a wide range of music here, from free to Latin to local Japanese musicians. The beer was cold and you can bottle-keep if you want to be a regular. The window was open and the lights were kept fairly low, just a perfect spot for night-time drinking and jazz listening. Paper Moon is classic, one of my favorite places in town, and no table charge makes it just about perfect. Warning: not for people who are put off by a bit of dust.
Photos of Paper Moon over at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
Meg is a small cafe/club in Kichijoji, western Tokyo that is a vibrant part of the local scene. There’s live music almost every night of the week, plus jazz album/cd trading sessions, vocalist jam session nights, and workshops given by owner Terashima Yasukuni. Terashima-san has written several books on jazz in Japan, which you can buy at Meg. He also puts out a yearly compilation CD “YT Presents Jazz Bar…” which is worth a listen.
What you notice immediately when going into Meg are the huge red speakers that dominate the back wall. I’m not an audiophile, so have no idea if the shape makes any difference or is just for style, but the sound in Meg is awesome. You rarely hear such crisp, clean sound like this anywhere in Tokyo.
Meg is a classic jazz kissaten in a great area for music wandering. I highly recommend spending an hour or two there some afternoon before exploring the Kichijoji nightlife. Photos of Meg are over at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
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.
SOMETIME Kichijoji (they use all caps..) opened in 1975 and still packs people in every night of the week. As the name says it’s in Kichijoji, an area in Western Tokyo that has long been known for being a jazz ‘town’, though there are fewer joints now than there were in the golden days of the 60s and 70s.
SOMETIME though is without a doubt the center of the Kichijoji jazz community, a great place to dive into the local scene. There are usually different Japanese musicians playing every night, all genres featured. The official name ‘Piano Hall SOMETIME’ refers more to the look of the place rather than about the music. The big black grand piano does dominate the center of the room (there is no stage), but it’s not at all a ‘piano bar’. Customers sit at the counter around the open-space, or look down on the musicians from seats in the loft.
There’s a real speakeasy feel to the place when it’s full and the musicians are out on the floor tearing it up. Even better for the poorer/cheaper jazz fan is the live charge. Gigs can be as cheap as ￥1600, and that covers you for all the sets in the evening (unlike many big-name chain clubs.) SOMETIME is a great place to kick off a night in Kichijoji, and I’d recommend the Sunday afternoon lunch sessions or even just cafe time as well. Photos of SOMETIME over at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
Chigusa is the the gold standard of jazz cafes in Japan. It was first opened in 1933 in the rough, portside streets of Noge in Yokohama by Mamoru Yoshida (1913-1994). The history of Chigusa is a long and fascinating one, you can read about in English in this Japan Times article, or in Japanese on the home page.
The current Chigusa is a small, square room with all seats facing the enormous speakers set in front of the back wall. There are hand drawn portraits and photos on the walls from Yoshida-san’s personal collection, and a small gallery space exhibiting more from through the years. The music in Chigusa ranges from old-time swing to modern, experimental jazz, almost all on vinyl. They welcome requests as well so have a long look at the record ‘menu’ they offer and write down what you’d like to hear. The volume is crisp and loud; don’t come to Chigusa to have a lengthy conversation, this is a place to listen to great music. We’re lucky to still have it with us. Photos of Chigusa at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
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.
Bitches Brew is yet another only-in-Japan kind of place. It’s a tiny sqaure room on the second floor of a building in the fairly residential area of Hakuraku, north Yokohama. There is live music every night, but as there is no stage, the lack of space means the audience is an active part of the gig. You are literally right next to the musicians as they play.
BB was opened 10 years ago by the chatty & friendly Seiichi Sugita. Sugita-san had a long career as a photo-journalist, shooting some of the biggest jazz names at festivals in the US and Europe. He’s also quite the audiophile and has a vacuum-tube system in the place for music in between live sets. (Audiophiles can read about all his equipment up on his homepage.)
Sigita-san takes pride in putting on live shows every night with musicians who make the trek down from Tokyo just to perform there. I was stunned to hear that free-jazz legend Akira Sakata plays there regularly; imagine the power of hearing someone like him in such a small room. Bitches Brew is place for real music heads, and it’s well worth the trip to Hakuraku to check out a show there. Photos of Bitches Brew over at Tokyo Jazz Joints
Jazz Spot Candy is a gem, one of the finest jazz joints in the entire Tokyo metro area. It opened in 1976, then moved to its current location in 2002 and has been run since the beginning by the ebullient and kind Hayashi-san.
It’s a small room but does not feel as claustrophobic as many other jazz spots due to its high ceiling and natural light. There are a few tables and some bar counter seats, with the right wall dominated by Hayashi-san’s impressive and varied collection of vinyl. She’s happy to take requests and talk about the music or anything else; within minutes of being there we were trading stories about how we first came to love this music. (For Hayashi-san, it was working in an electronics store as a teenager and hearing John Coltrane play on the radios and stereos.)
The left wall of the room acts as a ‘stage’ for weekend live shows, usually featuring more experimental/improvisational groups. Hayashi-san has good connections with both American and European musicians (the late, great Billy Bang was a regular visitor), as well as local ‘free jazz’ players. Cafe and bar time though you’ll hear any and all genres; during my visit Hayashi-san played B.B. King & Diane Schur, Jack DeJohnette, then some heavy Norwegian improv group.
I was so happy to finally find Jazz Spot Candy, it’s now firmly in my Top Ten Jazz Joint ranking. See good pics of Candy here at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
Little John is a well known jazz bar/tiny club in the Yokohama scene, yet its erratic opening hours can make it tough to visit. It’s a small rectangular room with about 15 seats and a back wall ‘stage’, another 6 or so seats at the back counter bar. There’s live music often but not nightly so you can drop by for a drink after 7 most days. It also takes part in most of the local Yokohama-based jazz events/weekends based on the posters hung around the room.
Even after finally entering the joint for the first time (for a gig as part of the 2015 Yokohama Jazz Promenade) Little John remains a bit of a mystery. Master Furukawa-san is friendly and chatty, but not the actual owner. He didn’t really share the whole story with me but from what I gathered the owner is kind of ill and doesn’t come by much, leaving it in the hands of Furukawa-san. He assured me he’s there daily at 7 but several times I’ve been by and they were closed..the story seems incomplete, I’ll keep investigating.
Regardless, Little John has that dark, divey old school jazz bar feel to it that many customers will enjoy, a place to run into to escape from a cold rainy night. You can easily make a night of it in Yoshida-cho visiting Little John, Jazz Ad-lib, Rock Bar Sid and some of the other music bars along those back streets.
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.
Sugar Shack Soul Brothers Bar in Kawasaki is the real deal, a place where soul music fans can sit for hours with drinks and groovy tunes. Owner Ishikawa-san had the bar in Yokohama for over 18 years then moved to Kawasaki in 2009. He’s been involved in the local music scene for years and takes pride in having hosted many visiting US soul acts over the years.
The bar is sleek and cool with a big window, and two well placed video screens to show what’s playing. Ishikawa-san and his staff were quick to chat with me about all kinds of music, making it an instantly warm vibe. Lots of classic 70s & 80s soul vinyl with some groovy jazz thrown in too; I loved it. Bonus points for the bonsai plants by the window.
Kawasaki may not have the best reputation but there are certainly some good music bars scattered around, and Sugar Shack is near the top of that list.
Jazz SPOT 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.
Samurai is located in the building that used to house the Shinjuku Pit-Inn before they moved to their current location. When you enter to the left off the elevator you immediately are taken into another era, face to face with a 5-foot manneke-neko (招き猫`lucky cat figurine`). These cat figurines are omnipresent at the entrance to Japanese eateries and shops, beckoning in customers with a raised paw. Inside the Samurai are more than 2500 of these lucky cat figurines spread throughout the interior, hanging from the walls, piled in cabinets, in paintings and in photos. Some frowning, some scowling, some with a serene smile..it’s an awesome site. Hanging on the walls are scrolls of haiku calligraphy, left wing underground theater posters plus some seemingly right-wing nationalist Japanese propoganda..a bewildering mix that adds to the mysterious atmosphere.
In between the cats and the scrolls there are signed album sleeves on the wall, from owner Miyazaki-san`s time in New York in the 1970’s. The music reflects Miyazaki-san’s maverick character; in one visit I heard John Zorn, James Carter, Count Basie, Abdullah Ibrahim and Big John Patton..quite a mix of styles in one sitting, and all glorious. Dark, quiet, extremely peaceful..with the cats making it just a tiny bit unsettling,the Samurai is a place that lends itself to contemplation.
Miyazaki-san is usually there early on Saturday afternoons for “cafe time” but call first. And be sure to look for the postcard on the front door, it will explain the origin of the name “Samurai”..and it’s not what you think..
Tokyo Jazz Joint photos of Samurai can be seen here.
This is 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
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.
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.
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.
Absolute Blue is a new club opened in Feb 2015 by Ayumi Hoshikawa, previously a club owner in New York City. Hoshikawa-san has brought a NYC sensibility to her new venue (see the website) including not only nightly live performances but workshops and jam sessions as well.
Ex-Brand New Heavies vocalist N’Dea Davenport does Sunday afternoon vocal lessons, local bassist Derek Short hosts twice monthly jam nights and well known bassist Kenji Hino does bass lessons and also performs regularly in a duo with Takashi Sugawa.
Hoshikawa-san speaks excellent English and is making a real strong effort to make her club a spot for both Japanese and visiting foreign musicians to gather and perform. It’s a basement space quite far underground but looks sleek, with all seats close to the stage. I’m hoping she can keep it going as Absolute Blue is a welcome new addition to the live jazz scene.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Rompercicci is a fairly new jazz cafe/bar just a short ten-minute walk from Nakano Station. It’s a bright, warm space with superb speakers and an extensive vinyl collection covering all genres. Looks like some nice cakes available for afternoon coffee/tea time plus wine, whisky and beer for night time drinking. It’d be nice to have an addition to the Tokyo jazz cafe scene rather than the usual subtraction as more and more places close down No smoking joint, which will appeal to a lot of people. Video below.
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!
Ad-Lib is an old club in Yoshida-cho, a block of dingy streets between Kannai and Noge in Yokohama. Live music nightly with Saturday afternoon cafe/record listening time. It’s a no-frills jazz & whiskey joint, down to earth and authentic.
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 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)
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.
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!’
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.
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.
Tam’s Bar is a tiny basement bar that seats no more than ten people at a time. As the sign brightly states, it opened in 1984 and features Jazz and Soul. I was a bit surprised to walk in and not see the usual one-thousand or so albums packed into a shelf behind the bar, instead there were just a couple dozen CDs and an MP3 player. The charming and chatty owner Oikawa-san informed me that she used to have a big vinyl collection but due to space issues, she converted to CDs several years back. This was not so encouraging but when the next random tune came up and I heard the first notes of ‘In A Silent Way’ by Miles Davis, my faith was restored.
Tam’s seems like a very ‘regular’s only/mostly’ joint but Oikawa-san was so friendly and welcoming that I won’t hesitate to drop by again when in the neighborhood. ￥1000 sit-down charge plus the usual beer and whiskey prices. Oikawa-san didn’t have any business cards left when I visited and said she ‘gave up halfway’ making a homepage. I’ll get the phone number and complete address during my next visit!
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.
Montgomery Land opened up a couple of years ago just a short walk from Ikebukuro Station. It’s a standard issue narrow, basement bar with an incredible sound system. Master Iwasaki Yoshitsugu and his wife Kimiko-san run the place and are warm, chatty hosts. Within minutes of sitting down we were immersed in conversation about music and the Tokyo scene.
Iwasaki-san has a good collection covering all genres, with a lot of hard-bop records (and of course, a lot of Wes Montgomery albums.) Although it’s a small place they host semi-regular live events at very reasonable prices, usually 2000-2500 yen. Ikebukuro has a surprising number of nice jazz joints and Montgomery Land is another great addition to the list.
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.
Jikan Ryokou (the sign is in Japanese 時間旅行, it means “Time Travel”) is simply wonderful. It’s a tiny 12-seat joint in the back streets of Nakano, an area full of small drinking dens. The owner Asai-san is in her late 50s and opened the place about twenty years ago..she was being coy about dates and her age as bar mama-sans often are.
As you can see from the video below, the walls are covered in classic rock album covers as well as jazz records. In one night there I heard John Coltrane, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Cannonball Adderly and as I was leaving late at night I think she was pulling out some Mozart. So it’s not exclusively a jazz spot but most music geeks I know would have no problem with any record in her huge collection.
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.
Jazz House Five Star Records is a unique little place in the Noge neighborhood, next to Sakuragicho station in Yokohama. This is an area that still has some of the rough and tumble vibe of old Yokohama, a place packed with small drinking dens and several jazz bars. I cam across FSR by chance while wandering around Noge one Saturday afternoon.
FSR is an independent record label run by Mitsukoshi Yoshie-san, a 50ish lady who speaks a mile a minute and knows the entire history of jazz in Yokohama. Before I could finish my coffee I had pages of notes with details about the area and all the bar owners, as well as the “Yokohama Jazz Association” (横浜ジャズ協会) that puts on various events around town.
The small building has a studio up top where brothers Pat and Joe La Barbera and have recently recorded CDs while in Japan (Mitsukoshi-san kindly gave me free copies, they’re great.) The first floor bar/cafe seats about 12 people and there’s room for monthly live events alongside occasional CD release parties. There’s the usual coffee and tea plus alcohol, and a book shelf with magazines and jazz guides customers can flip through while drinking.
FSR should be one of your first stops on a Yokohama jazz night; the community is lucky to have Mitsukoshi-san around to keep things vibrant.
Jazz Live Bar Independence is another great joint located in the surprisingly hip neighborhood of West Ikebukuro. It’s a really narrow bar with a stage at the back, live music every night with a mix of pros and amateurs.
Independence has been open for 10 years and is now a mainstay of the Ikebukuro scene. Highly recommended.
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.
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.
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.
Kenny’s Bar is by far the hippest place in not-so-hip Ikebukuro. It’s a small, dark joint with superb speakers and occasional live gigs. Many bonus points for the super-cool Mingus and Coltrane posters up in there, and for Kenny (Katakura-san) himself being so welcoming. Lots of hard-bop classics on the stereo and good chat sitting at the bar. One of my favorite places in town for a beer and some good music.
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
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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..
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..
Yoidore Hakushaku (よいどれ伯爵-the name translates as “The Drunken Earl or The Drunken Count”, take your pick. Locals just call it “Yoidore”) is classic old basement joint in jazzy Kannai, Yokohama. It’s got a very vintage sense of style..I was reminded of my old neighbor Mrs. Bodenheimer’s s apartment in Brooklyn, which will make sense to some of you..Soft sofas around the room along side a bar, with the musicians up against the back wall. Owner Sato-san is usually behind the bar and up for a chat between sets, keeping the vibe very friendly (not always the case in live venues..)
It’s vocal groups almost every night at Yoidore; don’t go here expecting to hear any Pharoah Sanders covers. It’s great value for the usual 3000 yen entry as there are three sets nightly from 7:30. 10 bonus points for serving Guinness!