Kiyoshi Maejima was 14 when he first picked up a guitar. Soon he was playing hooky from his judo class to sneak off and practice the jazz riffs that his big brother had shown him. A few years later, he was heading up to Tokyo from Shizuoka to attend music school.

Customers at Flo Flo

After three years of chord progressions and arrangements, he traveled to Okinawa for a three-month vacation and ended up staying three years. “The bands in Tokyo at that time seemed cold and soulless, but I was blown away by the power of the rock I heard being played in Okinawa,” he recalls.

By the time he returned to Tokyo, he was ready to earn his living as a session musician. With the money he eventually made from his new job, he was able to start traveling overseas. He frequently visited America and Europe for a month or more at a time and often joined the famous Blues and Jazz Sessions in London in the ’60s. As his appreciation and understanding of music deepened, he started to lose his appetite for his rent-paying commercial gigs. He wanted to focus on his own style. His solution was to open a bar.

And so it was that Maejima-san became perhaps better known as “master.” Flo Flo (2626), as his bar is called, is his permanent gig. It is also one of my favorite little bars in Tokyo.

Barmaster Kiyoshi Maejima (left) jamming

For a start, there is no front door. One must sidle between buildings to reach the entrance in back. Inside is a dark, red-on-black room flanked by a bar on one side and benches and low tables on the other. A row of guitars (various Stratocasters and a Les Paul) hang next to a biwa at the far end. But his shamisen and shansin are more carefully tucked away, along with his latest love — a 25-string sarod from India. All of the musical influences that he absorbed during his travels are given fair play at Flo Flo.

Hanging out at the bar — a grand tradition

But be warned — master is both minstrel and maitre d’. When the inspiration strikes, he will start jamming on one of his toys, at which point you are expected to politely wait for a drink. Many of his customers are musicians — especially bass players who lend the rhythm to his riffs. Most nights you’ll find a couple of scruffy jeans-clad lads huddled in conversation at the bar. That is how my last visit began, when suddenly 10 people walked in and a party let loose. Master was doing his best to jockey drinks to customers and CDs into the stereo.

But out of the madness came a gem: Caroline, a young Irish lass with the perfect lilt for a Gaelic tune. Once the throng had settled (just before dawn), master fetched his sarod and we were treated to a unique, haunting set. For a taste, you can buy Maejima-san’s self-produced CD, “Alone.”

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.