Food & Drink | KNOWING KISSATEN

Tokyo's classical music cafes are time capsules for audiophiles

by James Hadfield

In this age of musical abundance, it’s hard to fathom that an LP once cost the equivalent of a few days’ wages in Japan. In the 1950s, audiophiles who couldn’t afford to buy their own music did their listening at coffee shops known as meikyoku kissaten (“musical masterpiece cafes”), which boasted high-end audio gear and extensive libraries of classical or jazz records.

Though they outlived their usefulness long before the arrival of YouTube and Spotify, a handful of these kissaten have endured. Their anachronism is part of the charm: They conjure an atmosphere of reverence that’s more befitting of a church than a coffee shop. At a few of them, you’ll get shushed if you try to have a conversation; it’s better to bring a book, sit back, and forget the bustle of the outside world for a few hours.

Though Tokyo’s most famous meikyoku kissaten is undoubtedly Lion, in Shibuya, some of the best examples can be found along the JR Chuo Line. For decades, the go-to place was Classic, a dilapidated cafe in Nakano that was known for its wonky floors and eccentric panoply of antiques. Its owner, a painter named Shichiro Misaku, opened Classic in 1945 after his previous kissaten in neighboring Koenji, Renaissance, was destroyed by wartime bombing.

Misaku passed away in 1989, and Classic soldiered on for another 16 years before finally closing in 2005. At which point something unusual happened: A pair of the cafe’s former staff resurrected it in Koenji, complete with the original furnishings. In a neat twist, they named the new place Renaissance.

The split-level basement space has been open since 2007, yet evokes the aura of being far older. It teems with a bewitching assortment of decorative clutter: lamps, paintings, Grecian busts, a reel-to-reel projector and a dozen-odd clocks, none of them working. As was the policy at Classic, customers get a choice of just three drinks — coffee, tea or juice — and can write their musical requests on a blackboard.

You can find another shrine to Classic one stop further along the Chuo Line, at Asagaya’s Violon. Owner Kenji Teramoto befriended Misaku when he first moved to Tokyo as a young man in the late ’70s, but since Classic only employed women, he ended up opening his own place instead.

He modeled the interior on Vienna’s Musikverein and London’s Wigmore Hall; squint hard enough and you can just about see the resemblance. While Violon plays records during the daytime, over a speaker system that Teramoto built himself, it also hosts live recitals each evening. Order coffee, and the staff will offer to spike it with a few drops of brandy.

The walls are adorned with Misaku’s art, which he painted in a studio on the floor above Classic. Teramoto diligently preserved his old mentor’s work, and is coordinating a joint exhibition in April to mark the 110th anniversary of his birth. The show will be split between Violon, Renaissance and Denen, a 60-year-old Kokubunji cafe that also had strong ties with Classic. It’s a touching tribute. The old master may be gone, but the music carries on.

Renaissance: B1F, 2-48-11 Koenji-minami, Suginami-ku; Violon: 2-9-5 Asagaya-kita, Suginami-ku; Denen: 2-8-7 Honcho, Kokubunji-shi, Tokyo