Like many of the proprietors of Tokyo’s mini-live houses, Mashimo Mitsuo’s first passion was music. Though these days he will deny any skill with a soprano sax, his regular customers wink and tell me otherwise. Of course, Mashi (as everyone calls him) doesn’t deny having been the sound engineer at the Blue Note Tokyo for a decade before leaving five years ago to open Rakuya, a cozy little jazz izakaya in Naka-Meguro.

The Rakuya staff
— Jude Brand photos

Rakuya, as the name suggests, is a very relaxed, homey sort of place — an atmosphere that is amiably underscored by the presence of Q-chan, Mashi’s playful little kitten. Q-chan is left unattended to leap onto laps and purr in the loving embrace of all its targets.

Of his Blue Note days, Mashi says, “It was wonderful being able to work with world-class musicians.” But the acts who perform at Rakuya are more like his family.

Mashimo Mitsuo (Mashi for short)

Take Bombar, for instance, a jazz vocalist who wandered in late one night in a charming state of alcoholic disarray to belt out a tune on her way home. But artists usually appear by appointment, nightly at 7 and 9, and Bombar will have her turn with a small jazz unit on Aug. 20. One of her artist friends will also drop by to paint while she sings. And Maejima-san, the master from Flo Flo, whom I introduced in this column a few weeks ago, will be playing blues and slide guitar and sarod (or whatever else he fancies) on Aug. 18.

On my last visit, Suco de Laranja, a Japanese three-piece (vocals, guitar and bass), was readying to play a Brazilian set. The house was packed. Even the staff were amazed at the head count — 43 people. Rakuya is one medium-size room, from which one must mentally subtract the band area and bar, which only leaves table seating for 20 or so. But everyone was a friend of the band so we nudged and coaxed each other until we all managed to fit. Even at times like these, Q-chan is left to prowl and leap and purr . . .

The endearing Q-chan

Keiko’s vocals were perfect — a gifted singer for whom every song fitted like a glove. Though the band is billed as Brazilian, they came across more as soft rock; for example, they included covers of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” (one of my all-time favorite songs) and Cindy Lauper’s “Time After Time.” One of Keiko’s friends joined on guest vocals and flute for one tune, and group leader Sasaki, better known as “George,” played some of his original compositions. After the performance, Watanabe, the bass player, shrugged and said, “Hey, they even make me play guitar sometimes” — a very Rakuya attitude.

But after the guitars and music stands have been packed away, Rakuya slips into bar time. And that’s when it truly shines (or so says this barfly). A steady flow of regular neighborhood drinkers wander in to indulge in a drink or two and a chat before hitting the sack.

All in all, Rakuya is an inspiring little venue that nurtures the need for Tokyo’s lesser-known but surprisingly skilled fringe-dwelling jazz musicians to express themselves, while inadvertently providing Naka-Meguro with a soulful, late-night drinking spot (at least on the weekend).

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.