Volontaire is a soothing retreat for jazz lovers that has stood its ground for the last three decades in Harajuku — a neighborhood where bars change like the season’s fashions. In Yuri Sakanoue’s 27 years behind the counter, she has seen them all come and go. Unmoved, she has steadfastly maintained her hideaway from the mundane and the frivolous.
The counter needs a new coat of paint, but otherwise both Yuri and her bar seem untouched by time. She is petite, attractive and an age that you can only guess at by adding adulthood to the length of time Volontaire has been open.
“Between Meiji-dori and Aoyama-dori, Omotesando is booming like a mini-bubble, there are so many fancy stores and boutiques,” she says. “But on this side — from Meiji-dori up to Harajuku Station — it is still relatively young and funky.”
Some changes are as inevitable as night turning to day — like mama’s decision, 11 years ago, to extend Volontaire’s business hours to include the afternoon. For this she recruited Satoshi, her youngest brother, whom she somehow managed to convince to leave his job as new-media editor at the Nikkei Shimbun, where he had worked for 10 years. Now, with his dark-gray hair pulled back in a ponytail, he serves coffee, cake and sandwiches along with a tasty slice of jazz from midday till 6 p.m.
“The jazz kissa used to be an institution in Japanese alternative culture,” Yuri says, “but most have closed over the years. I wanted to do my bit to continue the tradition.”
That made me smile, as I realized that the only change that Yuri has made in the last 27 years was in an attempt to reverse change.
On my first visit to Volontaire, the bar had been virtually empty. Only one customer besides myself had sat at the bar all night, but, then, it was raining and mid-week. On my next visit my mission was clear (and urgent): I needed photos of people — customers enjoying themselves. So, when 9 p.m. rolled around on that second visit and there was still no sign of life, I decided to take matters into my own hands and call a friend. Of course, as soon as I hung up the phone a group of salaried workers walked through the door.
The bar comfortably seats a dozen. So when more people started walking in Yuri and I were both worried that there would be no room for my friend’s group of five. If anyone could read the stars and predict good and bad nights in the bar industry, they would make a fortune.
Mama’s solution to our dilemma was simple: I was recruited to help her behind the bar. In just two visits to Volontaire, I had been adopted into the family. And it felt good.
Of course, I know my way around a bar, though I am definitely most comfortable on the bar-fly side. Volontaire is tiny and that night Yuri and I found ourselves doing a kind of slow-motion tango behind the bar so as not to trip each other up. Things weren’t made any easier by the fact that the building in which Volontaire occupies the second floor is on a narrow wedge-shaped corner, with the entrance at the thin end. The line of the bar inside follows the line of the building and street, gradually widening like a funnel the further in you go.
Each nanometer is precious — and yet for the first few years of operation, mama only had use of the front half of the wedge. A wall down the middle divided the space into two separate bars, each with its own entrance. With the wall now gone, the second entrance is used for storage, but finding room for everything (while maintaining the ambience) remains a challenge.
In addition to all the bottles and bits and pieces needed for making drinks, mama also cooks up a little something each evening to serve to her customers (in part compensating for the somewhat extravagant seating charge of 2,000 yen at night). A humble single gas-ring is all she has to work with because the bulk of the space behind the bar is devoted to mama’s most important asset: her incredible collection of jazz vinyl. Though she sold half of them a few years ago, more than 2,000 remain.
She prefers the silkier side of jazz — early classics by Sinatra, Sonny Clark (over Sonny Rollins) and songstresses like Peggy Lee and Rosemary Clooney, to mention just a few of the artists I’ve heard her spin. Her stated preference is for Dixieland, swing and modern jazz vocalists.
Mama is also very much into her sound system. In fact, she watched over me like a hawk to make sure that I didn’t make any mistakes while jotting down the brands and model numbers of each component. Here’s the lowdown: the amp is an original ’60s issue JBL (660 Pre+Main); the turntable is Swedish (401 Garrard); the cartridges are Danish (Ortofon Long-arm); and the speakers are also by JBL (LE-8T Full-range, meaning one combined woofer-tweeter in each box).
In fact, Yuri is so into creating an authentic sound that every other month she hosts a special 78-rpm analog-a-holics night, for which the turntable cartridges are diligently changed to mono (also Ortofon).
“All of my equipment is vintage, which gives the records an appropriate vintage sound. That is the most important thing for me — the quality of the sound,” says mama, with the utmost sincerity.
You can see for yourself that she means it. Compared to compact discs, records are unwieldy and require care. Yet somehow she manages to juggle mixing drinks with cooking and serving while also loading these cumbersome yet delicate vinyl platters onto the turntable — all without mishap.
On the night that mama kindly volunteered my services behind the bar, the space felt even more constricted — not just because there were two us. That week, a friend had given her an enormous bunch of double-cherry blossom (yaezakura) boughs, which sat in a vase on top of the bar. The arrangement was so big that I couldn’t help wondering what was left of the tree. Beautiful clusters of orangey-pink flowers towered over us, adding warmth and color to the room. The cherry’s tendrils were so far reaching that extra finesse was required to dodge a bud in the eye while delivering drinks. Most of Volontaire’s drinkers subscribe to “bottle keep” — that uniquely Japanese system where a customer buys a whole bottle and what they don’t finish drinking in one visit is kept for the next. In fact, this is such a standard practice at Volontaire that mama doesn’t bother printing a drinks menu. Instead, shiny rows of Maker’s Mark bourbon — the recommended house tipple (at 15,000 yen a bottle) — line the shelves behind the bar. She also maintains a descent selection of single malts (available by the shot) — starting with a Laphroaig (1,200 yen a shot) and finishing with an 18-year-old Macallan (1,600 yen a shot). A standard range of other spirits is also available, as are small bottles of Kirin and Ebisu beer.
Around midnight, after the salaried workers left, I was able to return to the safety of a bar stool. I had so thoroughly enjoyed my night behind the counter at Volontaire, I didn’t think, then, that I’d had so much to drink. I only remember — perhaps selectively — making them for other people. But the way I felt in the morning told me otherwise. One thing is for sure — I’ll never drink bourbon again . . .