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A visual chronicle of Tokyo’s disappearing jazz bars (2016) (thevinylfactory.com)
97 points by benbreen 37 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 43 comments

I was a fan of Tokyo (and Kyoto and Osaka’s) “Old man bars” after stumbling into a few on my first few visits there. Having discovered Tokyo Jazz Joints on Instagram before my last visit, I used some of their writeups for inspiration on where to check out this time around.

While I have been both shouted and clapped out of a Japanese bar and told a bar was closed when it was clearly open (both immediately upon walking in, presumably because of my gaijin appearance), I’ve never had a negative experience in a jazz bar in Japan. If it’s your intent to quietly enjoy a drink and maybe some salty bar snacks, you will be treated with a low-key hospitality I’d describe as ‘genteel’ - it’s now a quality I look for in bars here in America because it is totally my speed.

They're really getting old, sadly. I've been to various old bars around Japan and the venerable Pit Inn jazz club in Shinjuku for a matinee gig. I must have been the youngest person in all of those places. It was always pleasant to chat with the proprietors and regulars about their history and practices (except the well-known silent one-armed bartender in Golden Gai). I guess other styles of bar are popular among younger people, including the more anonymous chain izakayas and wine bars.

One bar owner in Sasebo, Kyushu (JAZZ SPOT EASEL) said that, despite getting very few customers, he continues to open each evening because he "really doesn't want a patron to come and be disappointed to find this place closed". What a sentiment. He talked about how young people are leaving smaller cities for better opportunities, causing them to hollow out. After closing, he brought me to an amazing, tiny (5 or 6-seater), hidden 50-year-old bar in a cave-like bomb shelter run by an even older man, who had his own stories to share.

For these people, it's a passion that has become their daily life. An era is fading as they retire or pass on, without younger people to take up the mantles. As visitors, we'll get to experience it for a decade or two more at most, I think. Definitely worth experiencing if you travel Japan, easy to find with just Google Maps, and even better if you can speak some Japanese.

> After closing, he brought me to an amazing, tiny (5 or 6-seater), hidden 50-year-old bar in a cave-like bomb shelter run by an even older man

I think this part is fantantastic. Stay until closing and the proprietor will happily take you to go to some other place that is still open (not all of course, but it’s happened more than once), even 1 o’clock at night.

I don’t think these places are disappearing though, they’re just changing. The current generation just does not bond over jazz. I’m thinking of a small Star Wars themed bar that has a similar feel but has a decidedly young proprietor.

I visited some very similar places in Japan that had the same kind of set up (nice hi-fi, small and tidy bar meant for listening, extensive carefully curated music collections) that were different only in that they played different types of music, and they were full of young people.

I liked the concept of "old man bars" - tough a lot of UK pubs would fit that description, but not really a "spoons" pub

Oh, spoons. Where the whole family can come in to hang out with the town drunks all day.

Experienced this outside of York, more country side.

> to hang out with the town drunks all day

I hate spoons. It's the worst of the corporate world (race to the bottom, conformity, lies, undercutting family businesses) sold as "what the working-classes really want". It's the McDonalds of alcohol and tabloid-culture, with a Scrooge-like owner to match.

I would would say "old man pubs" and "flat-roof pubs" are fairly widely used categories for pubs.

Here's a thread on Reddit discussing the former in Edinburgh:


Ah I remember some of those when I was staying in the Balmorral for an extended period for work.

The bars may be disappearing but Jazz itself is alive and well in Japan. I heard it everywhere in Kyoto & Tokyo. I'm not sure why this is but it's a lot more pleasant than the top 40 stuff you hear playing everywhere in the US.

If you're into fusion jazz at all, two of the best bands of all time hail from Japan: Casiopea and T-square. Their influence is felt deeply in lots of 80s/90s Japanese PC and Video game soundtracks. The keyboardist for Casiopea also composed all of the station jingles for the subway in Japan, which all together make one song.

- https://youtu.be/S0Xm1PWb07o

- https://youtu.be/4DCWEJzsrJo

- https://youtu.be/wBD1_mrRUIk

Casiopea is totally wonderful. I learned about them when I got onto the young drummer Kanade Sato. Here she is backing up Mukaiya at a very young age on a wonderful Casiopea song https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2C3Nml8IBf0

And here she is at a much later age covering Megalith by T-Square https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-BvHJr5OjE

> The keyboardist for Casiopea also composed all of the station jingles for the subway in Japan

This is amazing! I had no idea this was the same person. I love Casiopea.

Yeah, check it out!


Whoa! This is awesome. Made me Google again (hadn't since my first trip to Japan) for any melodies I could find as a download to use as a ringtone/text tone (not that my phone is ever off vibrate mode).


One of my favourite (Japanese) Jazz/Post-Rock bands is Mouse on the Keys

- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=16g0M3lJvio

Japan has amazing jazz artists!

One of my favorite jazz playlist on Spotify is The Rhythm of Japan https://open.spotify.com/user/rowanaboat96/playlist/7ciqeUtO...

Also worth exploring the World Jazz playlist: https://open.spotify.com/user/1231409117/playlist/5lgPIUHnf1...

In Japan, jazz is sort of a/the default background music for many uses - shops, cafes, bars, lounges - especially when a cool, sophisticated, shibui air is desired. The actual scene of gig-goers and enthusiasts seems to be a small, older demographic, though.

I get laughed at for listening to jazz.

Jazz is great. They don't know what they are talking about.

As long as you like it, that's what matters, right?

Reminds me of stories from Haruki Murakami, which were laden with jazz references. He apparently worked at a jazz bar before writing his novels.

More than that, he owned a coffee shop/jazz bar.

Called Peter Cat and it was in Kokubunji (western Tokyo).

I could get lost in this world.

I lived in Japan for a couple of years. A Japanese friend treated me to a Jazz Bar a couple of times. It was long ago... I only remember requesting a Billie Holiday song, Stars Fell On Alabama, I think. It was the perfect antidote for the relentless energy of Tokyo’s public life.

Swing in Shibuya is a real treat. I stayed in an Airbnb in the same building and found it by accident. I sat in there all day ripping cigs, drinking highballs and listening to old school bangers. The guy who owns it, Suzuki-San tends the bar and picks the tracks. He also plays trombone in a jazz band. I probably shaved 3 years off my life in the course of three hours but I’d stop in here anytime I’m in Tokyo.

If you visit Tokyo / Yokohama, I can recommend Dolphy for some live Jazz. https://dolphy-jazzspot.com/

Smack in the middle of Nogecho, one of the coolest nightlife areas I’ve ever seen.

Just an update, please reserve if you want to go right now ... they just accept 15 visitors a night.

As a person who just returned from Tokyo and sometimes plays with traditional jazz bands, I’m going to say Tokyo has a great atmosphere and thirst for jazz but rarely did I ever hear anything comparable to New York or New Orleans. It’s not lack of talent, Japanese musicians are incredibly talented. I think it’s more a lack of exposure to jazz pre-1950 or outside of the lounge genre context. It’s even hard for some professional American musicians to get because of trad jazz’s distinct feel.

Throw on Basie’s “Jive at Five” or Ory’s “Savoy Blues” and you can get an idea of the genres (swing / nola jazz).

Japan's exposure to jazz extends well beyond the "lounge" setting.

It is home to some incredibly important participants in the free and avant-garde jazz scenes.

I would love to visit some of these if travel ever becomes possible again... Although, you know it always seems a little intimidating to wander as a stranger into a very specialized, private bar or restaurant in Japan, and if not speaking Japanese (but that's a different topic).

I came across an episode of "Japanology" on Youtube about cafes (which is a surprisingly interesting series produced by NHK -- each episode has a generally heart-warming or touching twist to the general theme it covers). And the ending is exactly about a jazz cafe that closed but was brought back for 2 weeks by its loyal fans some years later. I imagine some of the ones described here are in the same boat.


You miss so much of Japan w/o knowing Japanese. Good thing that it's pretty easy to pick up and the JLPT N5 - N1 is really a great standard to compare against and see where you land.

I lived in Tokyo for a year and passed JLPT N3 with a breeze.

Bars are private and intimate, if you know how to speak Japanese, a world really opens in front of you and you easily make friends. Especially if you enjoy Japanese music.

Try it! Especially w/ some of your favorite Japanese songs. You'll be surprised how quickly you'll pick it up!

>Good thing that it's pretty easy

I think you're underselling the difficulty a bit considering that Japanese is in the hardest class of languages as ranked by FSI [1]. Granted this probably includes literacy as well; if you only want to learn the spoken aspects it's probably not much harder than the category III languages.

[1] https://www.state.gov/foreign-language-training/

The spoken aspect is really easy, by European standards, but you need a ton of practice to re-learn the entire vocabulary from scratch - no hints, no guesses. That requires a lot of patient effort, for our modern attention-deficit-by-default sensibilites.

“it's pretty easy to pick up“ - “You'll be surprised how quickly you'll pick it“ - “passed JLPT N3 with a breeze.“

Good for you, but this doesn't quite match the experience of the average person trying to learn the language (like me) ;-)

I agree with the other responses to this comment. Many people who I know who passed N{1..5} say things like "It wasn't too bad", "It took me a few years"... I think a lot of people who have learned a second language to a high level of proficiency forget the struggle and difficulties.

I passed N1 many years ago and am now very fluent, but the difficultly of transitioning to "real life" Japanese, even after passing N2, was very real. It took me around 5 years to pass N2 (without living in Japan, just studying and practising with whoever I found find).

Even after passing N1, I still found it super tough to forge real friendships for quite some time after, since I would often struggle to say what I wanted to. I don't mean "haha, the weather is nice", but the actual interesting conversations you might want to have (for me this was mainly about software, for example).

This pace of progression is probably not unusual. Learning a language is hard.

To anyone else trying to learn Japanese who might be struggling, you can do it! I never experienced the "you'll pick it up", "it'll just click" moment - I just sucked for a long time, then progressively sucked less. I think the key is to accept you suck and put yourself out there anyway, and keep speaking and learning as much as you can. Oddly enough, I knew I was pretty fluent when people stop complementing or been impressed by your fluency.

To the first line your comment, though, I definitely agree - without knowing the local language in most countries (especially somewhere like Japan with a very low level of English literacy) it is difficult to really experience culture.

I'm not trying to disparage OP's experience and accomplishment, but just trying to give a counter PoV for casual HN readers on the subject.

As many sibling posts have already pointed out, passing JLPT is not trivial for many people. Also N3 level is (IMHO at best) intermediate[0] proficiency and still quite far from fluency. Here's an example of "random" Japanese grade schoolers solving JLPT N3 questions with ease.

That said, just like any subject, language acquisition talents vary from person to person, and no doubt OP is among the more gifted.

tl; dr: do not introduce yourself in Japanese with "waga na wa [name]"[2].

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese-Language_Proficiency_...

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8c_fgPh6eXo

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_P6gMZaqvPQ

I'd say the average 12-13 year old could comfortably pass N1; that said, the average 12-13 year old is fluent in Japanese. Not getting 100% of course... but you don't need 100% knowledge of a language to be fluent and communicate on an everyday basis.

With N3 you might be able to introduce yourself and have a very basic conversation. I think different people have very working definitions of fluency.

>You miss so much of Japan w/o knowing Japanese.

For what it's worth, I've been to Japan twice now for a total of one month of time, don't know any Japanese beyond your typical easy phrases/words, and got by fine with Google Translate. I also was able to make several friends, many of whom can't really speak much English (probably on the same level as my incredibly basic phrase/wordset of Japanese). Not only that, but once I made those friends they took me to places/restaurants that tourists wouldn't know of/go to and only locals would.

Of course on the other hand there were some areas where I would be by myself and it was clear that unless I could speak Japanese I wouldn't really be welcome- and that's alright too.

But my main point is that it is certainly possible to not know Japanese and still see quite a lot of Japan; I suppose it just takes some effort and outgoingness to try communicating with the locals.

I do think you get a specific "tourist curated" version of Japan traveling this way - not that that's necessarily a bad thing, nor is it unique to Japan, but having spent my fair share of time both as a non-Japanese-speaking one-month-at-a-time tourist and as someone who can now speak the language continuously and lives here permanently, the people I knew, activities I'm aware of and understanding of the place then and now are pretty different.

IME, Japanese elders are polite to a fault, so while I get pretty intimidated going to a new cafe (kissaten), I'm always treated very well. I once wandered into a yakitori joint and an english-speaking patron made my whole order for me when they realized I couldn't read the menu.

Golden Gai is another story, and I've heard about places in the deep countryside being a little more hostile, but those are exceptions.

If you know Golden Guy (Burning Man camp), this seems straight up the kind of thing that should be there. (I already posted it to the Golden Guy FB group).

And yea it's a takeoff on Golden Gai.

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