Tokyo’s jazz kissa survive
Located in the Suginami ward, Kissa Seikatsu is one of Tokyo’s many jazz cafes. (Brad Cohen)
Tokyo’s Kissa Seikatsu cafe may be only a three-minute walk from the Higashi Koenji subway station in the Suginami ward, but the tiny coffee shop is a world away from the city’s bustling chaos. Along one wall of the 12-seat cafe, piles of freshly imported coffee beans from Ethiopia, Guatemala and Indonesia stood next to stacks of decades-old US records, and the trumpets of jazz musicians Chet Baker and Miles Davis resonated from a vinyl turntable.
Kissa Seikatsu is one of Tokyo’s many jazz kissa (cafes), where locals sit for hours listening to record collections that can number in the thousands. According to professor Mike Molasky, author of the book Post War Jazz Culture in Japan, these cafes thrived between the 1950s and 1970s, when the Japanese discovered the genre through the scores of French New Wave films and a series of influential live performances by the band Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in 1961.
A dearth of quality performances and jazz radio stations, plus the exorbitant expense of audio equipment and imported records, made Tokyo’s jazz cafes a necessity for music enthusiasts, many of whom became almost singularly obsessed with the genre. To this day, these kissa are still more like vinyl audio museums than places to grab a coffee.
At its peak, Japan had more than 600 such cafes, mostly in Tokyo and Kyoto. But today, thanks to an aging population and the accessibility of digital music, there has been a gradual decline in the number of Japanese jazz kissa, and the musical genre has found new life in live venues and bars throughout Tokyo.
“The few remaining [cafes] cater largely to customers who enjoyed these listening rooms in their heyday and are therefore attracted as much to them for nostalgic reasons as anything else,” Molasky said. “Although with collections of classic jazz LPs often numbering in the thousands, they do serve as repositories of rare recordings.”
Even with the decline in cafes, Tokyo’s knowledgeable owners and their expansive collections continue to make the city’s jazz scene as good as any in the world, said Brooklyn transplant James Catchpole, editor of the Tokyo Jazz Site, a guide to specialist cafes and clubs around the city. And as some of Tokyo’s most famous jazz kissa shut their doors, new cafes have opened, attracting a younger clientele with free wi-fi, a social, lounge-like environment and events where popular DJs play crossover jazz sets prior to live performances.
Kissa Sakaiki, located in the Shinjuku district, pays homage to the past by requiring visitors to remove their shoes upon entrance and displaying a wooden chest filled with a vast collection of vintage matchbooks from old jazz kissa along the back wall. But the cafe also has a modern aesthetic, and attracts a college-aged crowd with experimental jazz records pumping from the speakers, live performances, art exhibitions and record parties, where people bring their own vinyl collection and discuss music.
The Shinjuku district is also home to some of the oldest surviving jazz kissa, including what many believe is the premier jazz club in the city, the Pit Inn, which hosts top Japanese and international acts every night and amateur performers every day. Here, as in many of the original cafes, the staple crowd of older men now mingles with new jazz fans as the genre spreads to a younger generation. But unlike some other kissa, where the music takes a backseat to socialising or doing business, this smoky Tokyo institution brings in a crowd of serious listeners, and every chair in the cafe is set up facing the stage.
The original Shinjuku location of the Pit Inn is now Samurai, a bar run by a present day shaman that Catchpole said is the “most unique and wonderful jazz establishment” he has ever visited. A 1.5m manneke-neko, (lucky cat figurine) greets you at the door, setting the tone for this dark, pensive and somewhat eerie establishment, in which about 2,500 other figurines inhabit nearly every bit of free space on the walls, cabinets and bar. Whatever wall space is not taken up by cats is festooned with haiku, calligraphy and autographed album sleeves from New York jazz artists -- the eclectic record collection matches the idiosyncratic decor.
Another older Shinjuku gem is Jazz Pub Michaux, a bar whose white-bearded, kimono-and-Mongolian-cap-wearing 76-year-old owner has 4,500 records of hard-bop and soul-jazz, including a large collection of rare vinyl by artists like Baby Face Willette and Groove Holmes. In the neighbouring Shibuya ward, JBS (Jazz, Blues, Soul) is more of a museum than a cafe, with possibly Tokyo’s largest collection of records. The floor-to-ceiling wood venue may be sparsely decorated and the coffee is nothing to rave about, but the collection of more than 10,000 records — stuffed in a seemingly endless number of shelves — is jaw dropping.