Traveling within Japan is always a fun and enlightening experience for me. Sometimes it’s far too easy to get caught up in Tokyo/Kanto life, forgetting there is a whole other country out there with diverse food, dialects and landscapes. Thankfully there are also innumerable local jazz joints all around the country waiting for me to explore as well.
I was lucky to spend the 2015/16 winter break wandering around the Kansai region, spending time in Kobe, Osaka and Kyoto over a ten day period. In between family time, visiting sites and New Year activities, I was lucky to sneak out and do some jazz spot hunting at night.
In Kobe, Twitter friend @porkpiepres advised me to visit Jam Jam, a basement cafe/bar in the Motomachi neighborhood. I was quite surprised by how large the place is, easily 4 or 5 times as big as most jazz spots in the Tokyo area. Master Ikenoue-san and his wife run the joint, playing a mixture of classic jazz on vinyl with some periodic DJ nights as well. The sound was LOUD in the evening, and Ikenoue-san was spinning some very heavy Brazilian club jazz when I walked in at 8pm. Unexpected but very cool, it seems like one of the hipper joints in Kobe city.
We moved up to Osaka to spend a few nights and I was able to get down to the Namba area one evening to visit Jazz Bar Bird 56, a classic dark and dingy jazz bar open since 1972. The owner Nattori-san is super chatty and we had a very enjoyable talk for an hour while downing some beers together. Nattori-san never takes a day off, opening the bar daily at 6pm, putting on records, drinking, smoking and talking to the customers with humor and wit. He’s a star and zen-master, completely comfortable in the world he’s created.
After the New Year festivities I finally made a visit to Lush Life in Kyoto, a tiny jazz cafe right next to Demachiyanagi Station on the Keihan Railway line. It’s a very narrow space with seats at the counter, classic jazz vinyl hanging on the opposite wall. Mr. and Mrs. Chaki open almost daily, and also help organize yearly piano recitals at the nearby Kamigamo Shrine (in 2015 it was Abdullah Ibrahim, I was heartbroken that I could not get to that!) It was quite busy the day I visited so I didn’t have the chance to really talk to them but Lush Life is warm and welcoming, a great space to pop into for afternoon coffee before an enjoyable walk along the river back to central Kyoto.
My last jazz joint stop the night before returning home was Jazzmass K’s Case, a small bar on the second floor of a building just a few minutes walk from the main intersection of Kawaramachi (near Takashimaya Dept. Store) Ogata-san the owner speaks excellent English and within minutes we were deep into a conversation about his time in New York City, visiting the Village Vanguard and other clubs. K’s Case is a small square room with a piano and large bookshelf along one wall (filled with English language novels that Ogata-san loves to read). Ogata-san was a joy to chat with, and welcomes having foreign customers.
The most unique thing about Jazzmass K’s Case though is the presence of Miyako-san, ex-owner of the vegetarian Mikoan restaurant. She was injured in a fire at her old restaurant but it seems she comes to cook at the jazz bar a couple times a week, pure vegetarian cuisine for those who request it. Certainly someone I hope to speak with more on my next visit.
Domestic travel in Japan is wonderful for so many reasons; knowing there are hip jazz joints in almost every town makes it even better.