I bought a copy of Faulkner’s Light in August and went to the noisiest jazz café I could think of, reading my new book while listening to Ornette Coleman and Bud Powell and drinking hot, thick, foul-tasting coffee.” Much has changed in Tokyo since the late 1960s, when this scene from Haruki Murakami’s coming-of-age novel Norwegian Wood takes place. The coffee’s gotten a lot better, for starters. But jazz— seriously good jazz—remains the soundtrack of the city. You’ll hear it in shops, restaurants, hotels, airports, doctors’ offices. Even the most mundane activity has a walking bass line.
“It is really the only country that has this obsession with the music,” says James Catchpole, a Brooklyn-born transplant who hosts the popular OK Jazz podcast from his house in Yokohama. Last year he set out to visit and, with a partner, photograph each of the 175 “jazz joints” in the Tokyo metropolitan area. By this he means not just live-music clubs but also jazz cafés (where one drinks coffee while listening to rare vinyl, often in reverential silence) and jazz bars (same idea but with more booze). These places tend to have a few things in common: They’re small, hard to find, stocked with thousands of records, and tricked out with top-quality vintage amps. Some, like Intro bar in Shinjuku, host jam sessions as well. And no matter how much you know about jazz, the owner knows more. Jazz was born in the U.S., but Japan perfected the appreciation of it.
The country first went jazz mad along with the rest of the world, in the ’20s and ’30s, but the music was eventually banned by the thought police, who associated it with decadent Western mores. As soon as World War II ended, the black market swarmed with records, and people opened—or reopened—bars and cafés in which to listen to them freely again. “Japan was still recovering from the war,” Catchpole says. “People couldn’t afford records, let alone audio equipment,” so they gathered in these places to hear the latest Miles or Coltrane.
There are fewer of these joints than there once were, and the (mostly male) clientele is aging, like Japan in general. Some establishments have adapted by offering such inducements as free Wi-Fi, better food, loosened silence policies, and smoking restrictions. This may come as a disappointment to those searching for the smoky, noirish mood of the prototypical jazz bar, but there are plenty of those left.
“If you were to ask someone, ‘What’s your image of a Japanese jazz bar?’” says Catchpole, “I could take them to 20 places that would match it perfectly. But the cool thing is I could take them to places that would be completely different.”
Read on for Catchpole's top places to experience the scene in Tokyo.
Jazz & Bar Kiri is a sophisticated basement jazz bar near the heart of Ginza. There are more than 200 bottles of whisky, scotch, and bourbon behind the counter, and the owner, Naito-san, keeps the volume at the perfect level: not so deafening as to destroy conversation. Masuya Bldg. B1F, 2-3-6 Yurakucho, Chiyoda-ku; 81-3/3575-0315; jazzbar-kiri.holy.jp.
As a haven for both jazz fans and cinema buffs, Eigakan is one of the more unique jazz spots in Japan. (Eigakan translates to “movie theater” in Japanese). There are old art film posters, photo books from the Japanese film industry, and some vintage old camera equipment spread around the bar alongside the jazz albums and magazines. Owner Yoshida-san and his wife are happy to show you everything in the bar, though English is minimal. Hakusan 5-33-19, Bunkyo-Ku; 81-3/3811-8932.
The Old Blind Cat has a spot in Tokyo’s jazz and literary history: it was here that world-famous author Haruki Murakami first worked as a part-timer. Located in a space two floors below ground in a building right across from Shinjuku Station and decorated with one long counter and some railroad car seats set against another wall, the OBC is a slice of post-war Tokyo. Be forewarned, it can feel claustrophobic and too smoky for some. 3-26-2 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku; 81-3/3354-9354.
Lady Jane combines both sophistication and adventure, making it a great pit stop amidst the lively and trendy streets of Shimo-Kitazawa. Most nights it functions as a quiet bar with low lighting, sharply dressed staff, and classic jazz playing on the audio system. Weekends feature live shows, often with less mainstream performers. 5-31-14 Daizawa, Setagaya-Ku; 81-3/3412-3947; bigtory.jp.
Pres is a sophisticated, atmospheric oasis among the chaos of Shibuya. Sit at the basement jazz bar’s U-shaped counter under the gaze of some gorgeous wall murals of jazz greats (including Lester ‘Prez’ Young’ himself) while the bartenders make immaculate drinks. It’s the perfect spot for either pre- or post-dinner drinks. Shin Iwasaki Bldg B1, Utagawacho 30-4, Shibuya-Ku; 81-3/3463-2848; jazzbarpres2848.on.omisenomikata.jp.
Eagle opened in Yotsuya in 1967 and has maintained its pure jazz-café atmosphere. A strict “no talking” policy is enforced during the afternoon, as listening to vinyl on the outstanding sound system is the point. At night things relax a bit: Alcohol is served and talking is permitted. 1-8 Yotsuya, Shinjuku-ku; 81-3/3357-9857; jazz-eagle.com.
Mary Jane is an old style jazz kissaten (café) located right across from Shibuya Station. It carries on the tradition of quiet, atmospheric afternoons spent sipping coffee or tea while listening to jazz over a crystal clear sound system. There are always new CDs and plenty of current jazz gig flyers to look at. Sakuragaokacho 23, Fuji Shoji Bldg 2F; 81-3/3461-3381; maryjane.cocolog-nifty.com.
As the oldest remaining jazz spot in the city, Down Beat captures the spirit of old port-side Yokohama (it’s been opened since 1956). It’s a place for serious jazz listening at high volume, nursing a few drinks, and soaking in the gritty late-night atmosphere. It’s located right near the entrance to the lively Noge neighborhood, which is filled with small drinking dens and eateries. Miyamoto Bldg, 2F 1-43 Hanasakicho, Naka-Ku, Yokohama-Shi; 81-45/241-6167; yokohama-downbeat.com.
Milestone is the perfect jazz cafe for a leisurely afternoon of drinks, music, and leafing through the large library of Japanese jazz books and magazines—they take up one whole wall of the place. Even if you can’t read Japanese, it’s a joy to look through it all while enjoying music on their pristine sound system. Igari Bldg., 1-23-9 Takadanobaba, Shinjuku-Ku; 81-3/3200-4513; jazz-milestone.net.
The Pit Inn in Shinjuku is often called the Village Vanguard of Japan—an apt comparison, as its legacy, quality, and ambience are worthy of the New York jazz temple. Live music most afternoons and every evening. Accord Bldg. B1F, 2-12-4 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku; 81-3/3354-2024; pit-inn.com.
Run by the widow of legendary drummer Motohiko Hino (brother of trumpeter Terumasa), Alfie is one of Tokyo’s finest small jazz clubs. The atmosphere is quiet but never intimidating, and the music always high quality. Alfie is one of the few clubs that stays open after the last set finishes so it’s always a good choice for a nightcap. Hama Roppongi Bldg 5F, 6-2-35 Roppongi, Minato-Ku; homepage1.nifty.com.
Naru is beloved as much for the quality of its performers as it is for the excellence of its international cuisine. There is live music every night of the week with occasional afternoon sets on the weekends. Open for lunch daily at 11:30 a.m., live music starts at 7:30 p.m. There is a sister branch of Naru near JR Yoyogi Station, which is just as good as the original. 2 Chome−1−10, Kanda Surugadai, Chiyoda-ku; 81-3/3291-2321; jazz-naru.com.
Body & Soul is one of Tokyo’s must visit jazz spots for both visiting aficionados and musicians alike. Run by Kyoko Seki for over 40 years, B&S has nightly music, mostly straight-ahead jazz, from among the best musicians in Japan. An added bonus: for most shows, the cover charge is for both sets, which not always the case in other big clubs.6-13-9 Minamiaoyama, Minato; 81-3/5466-3348; bodyandsoul.co.jp.