Most of Tokyo’s main business districts are inside or around the JR Yamanote Line, but Kichijoji is a notable exception, being a part of Tokyo that’s beyond the city’s 23 wards.
But being outside the loop has its benefits, and this town, within the Musashino city area, is renowned for its casual, laid-back atmosphere.
“Kichijoji is closer to the people in the community,” said Kazu Ohashi, 61, managing editor of Kichijoji Weekly, a community paper of 28 years’ standing. “When you go to Harajuku, for example, you have to wear your ‘Harajuku face’ to enjoy the place. But in Kichijoji, there’s no pressure to be anything but your self.”
Contributing to Kichijoji’s easygoing reputation is the fact that it is home to many musicians, artists and college professors — and boasts a well-known music scene that pulls in many like-minded visitors. Within a few minutes’ walk of its JR station alone, there are more than 10 “live houses” showcasing music of all kinds, every evening.
Perhaps foremost among these is Sometime, which has been known for its live jazz shows since 1975. Located in the Sunroad Shopping Mall on the north side of the station, Sometime serves up three shows nightly, along with food and drink. Its brick walls and antique collection give the place, which seats 80 people, a homey, nostalgic vibe. Unlike some clubs dominated by hardcore fans who tend to put off more casual jazz-lovers, Sometime makes a point of appealing to a wide audience.
“I want to provide jazz that everyone can appreciate . . . and that lets everyone have a good time,” said manager Yuko Une, 39, who adds that since she’s more a fan of rhythm and blues than jazz, she can be objective choosing the roster.
Four shows a night
Sometime was opened by the late Iori Noguchi, a local jazz-scene celebrity who was one of the key figures in fostering Kichijoji’s reputation as a “jazz town.” That image first started to develop in the 1960s, when Noguchi operated several jazz kissaten (coffee shops) at a time when going out to listen to recorded music was the norm.
Kozo Katsumi, 67, used to be one of Noguchi’s jazz-kissa competitors before he changed tack in 1974 and opened La Belle Epoque, a live chanson venue near the station’s South Exit. These days, customers can catch four shows a night, performed by three to four chansonniers including the Belle Epoque “madam” Toshiko Yamagishi.
From the moment you enter through La Belle Epoque’s stained-glass door, the dim lighting, red velvet curtains and leather sofa are nothing if not welcoming, while dolls, tasteful ornaments and pictures of chansonniers add color to the soft, warm atmosphere.
“I want to provide customers with a totally different world here so they can forget their ordinary lives,” Katsumi said.
He must be doing something right, because over the years La Belle Epoque has attracted famous lovers of chanson, such as Prince Tomohito of Mikasa and former Foreign Minister Masahiko Koumura, as well as many loyal fans, some of whom come from Kyushu and Hokkaido.
Though Kichijoji’s music scene may have its roots in the 1960s’ jazz kissa, today’s vibrant and diverse live-house culture also stems from the folk and blues movement that blossomed in the ’70s. Back then, Kichijoji was a mecca for the country’s singer-songwriters, largely thanks to Garando, a now-legendary live space that opened in 1970.
“I started Garando to secure a place where we musicians could create and perform our own music live,” said 55-year-old Masami Murase. A young guitarist at the time, Murase said he was fed up with the established ways of the entertainment world at that time, when musicians rarely played their own songs.
“Until Garando there was no concept of a ‘live house’ in Tokyo,” Murase recalled, adding that performances until then were limited to places like the amphitheater in Hibiya Park.
Murase chose Kichijoji because he liked the space he found there, and also the way the town was being developed. “Above all,” he said, “I sensed warmth and brightness from Musashino, and it fit well with my values, and I felt I could create ‘real music.’ “
In no time, Garando attracted both musicians and artists from other fields, eager to express themselves. Though Murase has continued his career as a bass guitarist, he closed Garando’s doors in 1985. By this time, though, Kichijoji already had several other live spaces that could support performers from across the music spectrum.
One of those is Mandala, a pioneering live space that opened in the wake of Garando in 1974. Every night, the cocoonlike space plays host to amateur musicians, singing songs of love and life.
In Kichijoji, Mandala has sister live houses Manda-la 2 and Star Pine’s Cafe, where performances are by a mix of amateur or professional artists. All the demos sent in are listened to by Hiroharu Fujisaki, 39, and his fellow producers.
“We’re not just renting spaces,” said Fujisaki, who has been with the Mandala group for 19 years. “We want to work with people who are inspired by our spaces.”
Fujisaki feels that the setting makes a difference. “At many live spaces in Shibuya or other major areas in Tokyo there is an impersonal, lonely feeling,” he said. “But here, I feel that this town’s relaxed, natural vibe influences what is created.”
Kichijoji, however, isn’t just about going to clubs. It also has a wider music-loving community that nurtures the musical potential of its children. One good example is the brass band at Musashino Municipal Daisan Elementary School. This past October, the 102-member group won the all-eastern Japan elementary school brass band competition at only their third attempt.
According to vice headmaster Rie Yamashita, the club’s 20-year existence is unusual for a public school, whose teachers tend to be transferred to different schools every few years. Ultimately though, Yamashita said, it is the students’ enthusiasm that really keeps it going: “Leaders of each instrument teach their juniors, and there are music professors among the parents who come to support them.”
Having taken to the fun of playing music, some alumni of the club formed jazz bands, and now they occasionally return to practice at their alma mater. What’s more, Yamashita reported with delight, some fathers have begun their own oyaji (old guy) band after being inspired by their children’s activities.
Commenting on the area’s vibrancy, Yamashita said, “Many people in Kichijoji have lots of appreciation for music and art.”
Certainly it is this atmosphere that helped give birth, 19 years ago, to the Kichijoji Music Festival, in which Murase was deeply involved. At the annual festival, scheduled for May 1 to 5 this year, both visiting and local musicians perform at numerous venues around Kichijoji.
“Music isn’t just for young people. There are music circles in this city where older members enjoy participating. It would be great if different generations interact more in this festival,” Murase said. “I believe this community has just the right soil for that to happen.”