Wi-Fi, Facebook and all that jazz

by James Catchpole

Special To The Japan Times

Fumito Fukuchi, owner and proprietor of Kissa Sakaiki jazz cafe in Tokyo’s central Yotsuya neighborhood, grins as he puts the finishing touches to an online schedule.

Up this month are some live performances, but also on the menu are calligraphy lessons, photography exhibitions, record-listening parties and conversation groups — activities that go beyond what you’d normally find at a jazz cafe.

“You have to broaden your appeal if you want your cafe to prosper in this day and age,” Fukuchi says.

The 41-year-old jazz lover says this broad range of activities aims to appeal to a customer base that includes music fans and artists of all types. Whereas in the past, major neighborhoods in Tokyo boasted half a dozen jazz cafes each, there has been a slow but steady decline in the number of such establishments since the 1990s. Japan is also facing a demographic crisis with its aging population, whose numbers constitute much of the jazz fanbase. The new activities at Kissa Sakaiki aren’t just an experiment in branching out — they’re a matter of survival.

“I was born in 1971 and never experienced the golden age of jazz cafes,” Fukuchi says. “But I’m trying to continue that tradition while also trying to transform it into something new.”

The original jazz cafes (jyazu kissa/kissaten in Japanese) that thrived in the 1960s and ’70s were places music fans would go in order to hear the latest jazz albums from here and abroad. Michael Molasky, a professor at Hitotsubashi University in western Tokyo and the author of “Jazz Cafe Culture in Post-War Japan” (which is available in Japanese), says the cafe served as a hub of sorts for younger fans eager to keep up with the dozens of new albums arriving from North America every month.

“The focus was on recorded — not live — music,” Molasky told The Japan Times via an e-mail. “The high-quality audio system, combined with a large collection of jazz records (often numbering in the thousands) served as the equivalent of a musical library in an era when the price of an imported jazz LP was far too expensive for a young fan to amass a personal collection.

“With the rising standard of living and the decrease in the cost of both records and audio systems, the jazz kissaten gradually lost its ‘rarity value.’ The advent of high-quality portable listening systems altered the way young people listened to recorded music, rendering a fixed listening space anachronistic. It’s therefore no surprise that the few remaining cafes are occupied mainly by older customers, with an average age somewhere around 50 or 55.”

Fukuchi stresses that it’s important for cafes to focus on new music as well as classics in order to stay relevant. He thinks one way to do this is by connecting with fans and musicians who are based overseas.

“I organize a regular listening party of some New York-based Japanese musicians where we catch up on their latest work as well as share information on current releases in the scene over there,” he says.

Not only does the event bring new sounds to customers, it also helps in wading through the sheer volume of material being released — something that even the most web-savvy fans sometimes can’t keep up with. This kind of record-listening party has its roots in the ’60s, when people gathered at cafes to hear the latest albums imported from the United States. The update also keeps Fukuchi’s cafe from becoming a vault of classic jazz and provides a social element, which is crucial in an era when you can easily hear most tracks on the Internet.

In addition to trying to keep old fans coming to jazz cafes, the businesses are also faced with the challenge of attracting new generations of customers. Jiken Miyazaki, owner of the Samurai jazz cafe and bar in Shinjuku, is one of the few older proprietors embracing social media as a way to bring in the young. He has started to use Facebook, Twitter and six Japanese portal sites to spread the word about his establishment.

Tokyo jazz cafes upgrade their style

With their loyal clientele getting older, and the younger generation having a plethora of ways to spend their spare time, the battle is on to attract new customers to Tokyo’s dwindling number of jazz cafes. Here are some of my favorites:

Cafe Beulmans: By day it’s a salon serving homemade cake, gourmet coffee and tea with baroque music. At night it’s all whiskeys and jazz albums. On slow nights, new owner Tsuyohide Yoshioka will even pull out extreme avant-garde jazz for more adventurous listeners. The cafe has an unofficial “no laptops” policy — an old-school move, but one Yoshioka hopes younger patrons will come to appreciate. 5-16 Seijo Gakuenmae, Setagaya-ku.

Gekko Sabou: Masao Harada has created a slick, modern space with an extensive gourmet coffee and tea menu, significantly more delicious than the average brew at a jazz cafe. The music ranges from experimental jazz to electronica, with an abundance of works from the ECM label. B1F EF Bldg., 3-5-2 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku; home.catv.ne.jp/ff/pendec.

Jazz Olympus: Very sleek space in Kanda with a superb sound system and great lunches. Free Wi-Fi, jazz magazines to browse and weekend record events for sellers and buyers. 3-24 Kanda-Ogawamachi, Chiyoda-ku; www7.plala.or.jp/jazz-olympus.

Kissa Sakaiki: An artists’ hangout with experimental live gigs, record-listening parties, and more. Take your shoes off as you enter and let Fumito Fukuchi introduce you to whoever is there. You’re guaranteed to meet people doing interesting work in a variety of fields. 2-4 Daikyocho, Shinjuku-ku. www.sakaiki.modalbeats.com.

Rompercicci: A new cafe that serves tasty lunches from 11 a.m. till 2 p.m. and is completely non-smoking. There’s free Wi-Fi, but there’s also a tall bookcase filled with jazz magazines and other music books in case you forgot your laptop. 1-30-6 Nakano, Nakano-ku, Tokyo. www.rompercicci.com.

Samurai: One of the last remaining establishments that recalls the “Shinjuku Underground” culture of the late 1960s. Pan-Asian religious decor, more than 2,000 “lucky cat” figurines, live improvized haiku readings. Possibly Tokyo’s most memorable jazz spot. 5F Mori Bldg., 3-35-5 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku. www.jazz-samura.seesaa.net. (J.C.)

“You have to look past just the hard-core jazz fans and try to appeal to a broader customer base,” says 61-year-old Miyazaki, who has owned Samurai for more than 30 years. “At Samurai I’ve got customers who come alone for a quiet drink while they work on their laptops or read a book, couples on a date, foreign and Japanese tourists who enjoy the ‘Shinjuku Underground’ nostalgia of my place. You can’t rely on the older jazz fans anymore if you want to stay open, you have to keep up with the changing environment.”

Miyazaki believes Samurai’s atmosphere can appeal to a variety of customers — but the challenge is getting them through the front door for the first time. Since joining Facebook and Twitter last year, he says he’s been invigorated by the possibilities. He has seen a slow but steady increase in contacts, both here and abroad, which has resulted in more exposure for his shop.

“I don’t understand cafe and bar owners my age who resist this new technology,” he says. “This is marketing in the current era, and they are stuck in a business model that is more than a generation out of date, relying only on hardcore jazz fans to come and drink regularly.”

Miyazaki says he wants his cafe to be a place where people who aren’t interested in jazz can also have a good time. And if they start to like jazz in the process — all the better.

“The most important thing is to have something unique about your establishment that people can instantly recall from their first visit,” he says.

Many older cafe owners have no settled plans on who will succeed them when they retire, and thus their spaces are likely to close. In fact, some of Tokyo’s most notable jazz cafes have had to shut down in just the past three years, including the city’s oldest — Masako in the Shimokitazawa neighborhood. However, cafes with the kind of up-to-date features that both Fukuchi and Miyazawa are aspiring to take their place. Perks at these new spots include free high-speed Wi-Fi, used-record exchanges, nonsmoking hours, breakfast dishes and expanded food menus that include homemade luxury cakes. And of course, the smaller-in-scale live shows continue to be a regular draw.

“My cafe has an extra room for small live shows and other events so I can try to keep the schedule as full as possible,” Fukuchi says. “Having the main room counter space lets me welcome customers from a variety of artistic fields, building an ever-growing network. People then come to each other’s events or even forge collaborative efforts at times. This is really crucial in order to keep the business — and the scene — vibrant.”