The tourist boom in Japan shows no sign of ending, with the number of visitors only set to increase in the lead up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Whether for bulk shopping, temple visiting or sushi-counter hopping, Tokyo and surrounding neighborhoods have endless adventures just waiting to be discovered. This goes doubly for serious music fans, especially those looking to dive into the local jazz scene.
While central Tokyo has world-famous live clubs like the Blue Note Tokyo, Cotton Club and Body & Soul, a few short train rides outside the center can bring you to a number of spectacularly authentic and swinging jazz cafes, bars and live spaces. Although spoken English is limited at these spots, the owners are all extremely welcoming and appreciative of foreign customers making the effort to come by. Here are five locations a little off the beaten path, but ones that any music fan should make time for.
The Eigakan (“Movie Theater” in Japanese) is a tiny, intimate jazz cafe and bar that will appeal to both jazz and cinema lovers. In addition to an extensive jazz vinyl collection and top notch audio system, the owner has decorated the place with art-film posters, old 16-mm camera equipment and a fascinating series of Japanese film history photo books. He himself was involved in documentary film making in years past and the shop still holds occasional film showings.
The owner and his wife, and their pet cat, are very welcoming and are quick to offer more information on exploring the area around the shop. Opening hours vary but usually they are there from around 4 p.m., sometimes earlier on the weekends if there is a talk event or film showing. Eigakan is one of the more unique jazz spots in Japan and should not be missed.
5-33-19 Hakusan, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo 112-0001; www.jazzeigakan.com
Candy is the type of jazz spot that only exists in Japan. Located on a residential street in Chiba Prefecture, about a 40-minute train ride east of central Tokyo, its owner has created a temple to jazz. She has a collection of more than 5,000 albums behind the counter, and an audio system of such clarity that even very familiar albums sound entirely new. It’s a square room on the first floor of her house, with the entire left side of the room dominated by speakers and the Acoustic Grove System wooden columns that help diffuse the sound.
Despite being located in a suburb of Tokyo, Candy is a well-known spot for musicians visiting Japan, and hosts regular live performances by local and overseas performers, leaning toward the more experimental types of jazz, though not exclusively. Plan to make it a day trip visiting Candy and some of the sights around Chiba City.
3-10-12 Inagehigashi, Inage-ku, Chiba-shi, Chiba-ken, 263-0031; blog.livedoor.jp/jazzspotcandy
One of the best hidden jazz bars in town, located in the Kamata area of southern Tokyo far from the central tourist sites, this bar has been open since 1975 and is a small, square room on the third floor of an ancient building at the end of the wonderfully named Bourbon Road, a long street along the train tracks packed with small eateries and bars.
The vibe of Pithecanthropus Erectus is rustic, dark and 100 percent about the music, with the back wall of the room filled floor to ceiling with old, original jazz albums. The owner is a mellow but chatty host, having taken over from the original owner a few years ago. Pithecanthropus Erectus makes no effort to be anything but what it is; a jazz bar that still feels (and looks) like it is 1969. Make a night of it on Bourbon Road. Customers sensitive to cigarette smoke should be warned that the bar has very little ventilation.
7-61-8 Nishi-Kamata, Ota-ku, Tokyo 144-0051; www.kamata-enjin.com
For jazz fans willing to go on a real adventure, Nefertiti should be a top priority. Located in distant Kashiwa, about 45 minutes outside central Tokyo, Nefertiti is a very large cafe, bar and live space. The JBL speakers, Kenwood turntable and Onkyo Integra M508 amp will appeal to audiophiles, and the records on display will thrill serious collectors.
Although a newer shop than some others, Nefertiti regularly hosts live gigs by some of the best local jazz musicians. Make a day trip out there for lunch and then stay for a live set, and be sure to pick up one of the beautiful T-shirts they sell with a picture of Queen Nefertiti, as featured on the Cecil Taylor album cover.
1124-1 Masuo, Kashiwa-shi, Chiba-ken, 277-0033; www.nefertiti.jp
Yokohama is only 30 kilometers south of Tokyo but is its own city with a distinct history and lively jazz scene. One of the oldest consecutively run jazz spots in all of Japan is Downbeat, which has been at the same location in the lively Noge neighborhood since 1956. Semi-divided into a square space with tables facing the speakers and an L-shaped counter by the bar, Downbeat is dark, loud and beautiful. A proper cafe open from 4 p.m. but with plenty of alcohol for later visits, Downbeat captures the old rough- and-tumble port city history of Yokohama. Be sure to have a close look at the ceiling in the main space and at the large wall of vinyl facing the entrance.
The current owner is in his early 30s and after taking over Downbeat a few years ago, he vowed to keep the place as is to honor its history. The volume at Downbeat at the table seats makes conversation difficult, if not impossible, so sit at the counter if you’re with a companion.
2F, Miyamoto Bldg. 1-43 Hanasakicho, Naka-ku, Yokohama-shi, Kanagawa-ken, 231-0063; www.yokohama-downbeat.com
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5