Although the vast Tokyo Metro Area includes hundreds of jazz spots of all shapes, sizes and styles, there are really only a handful of historic joints left and even those are being transformed, or worse, closed down for good.
Masako in Shimo-Kitazawa was open from 1953-2009 in a cozy spot right around the corner from the main station exit, but redevelopment of the area led to its sad closing. It was reborn in 2020 though, still in Shimo-Kitazawa in a small second floor space still near the busy and over built station front, maintaining the spirit of the original with its vast record collection and oil paintings of jazz greats. Masako is now run by the always warm and welcoming Moeko-san (also a member of superstar group Minyo Crusaders), and is open from 12-10pm daily except Thursdays. Shimo-Kita has become increasingly crowded and more mainstream due to over-development, but Masako remains an oasis of jazz calm and is a must visit for fans of the old ‘jazz kissaten’ style.
Over in the east side of town in the Nipporo/Yanaka neighborhood, Modern Jazz Charmant is now Tokyo’s oldest continuously run jazz spot in the same location, since 1955. (I’m not counting Umi in distant Asaka City, Saitama as though it first opened in 1952, it’s moved once and is now in a renovated house, though ownership is now with the son of the original owner). Charmant is remarkable for so many reasons, not least of which is the rickety state of the small two story building it’s in. A real estate company has bought the property now (as the land owner needs to finance his divorce..!) and have told Charmant they are being evicted..and here is where it gets complicated.
Japanese property law is simultaneously extremely complicated but also fairly basic at the same time; while the new land owners own the land, they don’t necessarily own the building that’s on it and the tenant therefore has a right to stay, unless they accept the negotiated offer. This process, in a country where very few people if any would take a case to the courts for a speedy decision, can drag out for a very long period of time. (Minton House in Yokohama for example has fought off eviction for more than 1.5 years now).
Charmant’s owner, the extremely gregarious Dr. Ishikoka, told me he could be gone soon or maybe not for many more months, then adding in very dramatic English ‘It’s a very Japanese situation!’ Those who live in Japan will understand this immediately; ‘It’s in the grey zone’. There is also some sort plan for a new version of Charmant called ‘Players R Bar’ to open nearby once the original is gone, but these details remain hazy as well; will get that full scoop on my next visit. For now though, get to Charmant while you still can, it’s a treasure of Tokyo jazz history.
The intimate neighborhood joint Miles sadly lost it’s owner, the kindly old Ms. Motoyama, in 2020. She had been ill for awhile and there was a time when Miles seemed to be shut, though not fully closed down. Now though opening hours have resumed, with Motoyama-san’s son and some regular customers sharing the duties, running the joint on Mon, Thur, Fri and Saturdays from 6-11pm. This is actually common in Japan among a lot of the jazz spots when the owner passes way; regular customers will chip in to do what they can to keep the place open, further evidence of the beautiful community vibe that exists in this world. I haven’t been able to get to Miles recently but will do so soon to confirm if they’ll continue with these opening hours. Miles is another joint in a VERY old building so it’s certainly at risk of being closed and the structure torn down.
And lastly, Japan’s oldest jazz joint Chigusa has shut its doors for a complete renovation and renewal project. The original Chigusa opened in 1933 in the rough and tumble port-side streets of Noge in Yokohama. Owner Yoshida-san for decades ran the place and was a well-known figure in the Japanese jazz world, before his death in 1994 at age 81. The original Chigusa space was forced to close soon after, but then quickly reopened just down the street in a similarly small and run-down building, this time run by a collective of supporters.
Chigusa has since then retained it’s classic jazz kissaten style (minus the smoking) by taking requests from a huge notebook/menu of albums that is offered to you as soon as you sit down and even hosts some live gigs and talk sessions on weekends. Unfortunately, for reasons that are still a little bit unclear, the collective have decided to tear down and rebuild the building, this time with the first floor a ‘re-creation’ of the original Chigusa space as a ‘cafe & museum’, and the 2nd floor as a performance/gallery space. I certainly support the preservation efforts though feel Chigusa in its current form is already like a living museum; as always, there must be some hidden financial reasons for this decision.
I’ll have fully updated profiles for all four these spots very soon; hopefully all will remain with us in one way or another to keep the spirit of Showa-era Jazz in Japan alive.