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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.