Walking underneath the Chuou Line’s Okubo rail station, I guess left and find myself involuntarily walking up to a bundled bunch of miniature pine trees potted outside a small building that seems to have been packed into the neighborhood as though an afterthought. Where all else is somehow modern and driven by the efficiency of contemporary architectural needs, an old house remains tucked between block monsters. This house is lined and contoured by old wood and the large windows beg you to look in closer as the glare from the sun obstructs vision into the interior.
Every once in a while, waltzing through Tokyo, you encounter houses that have survived the ages. Merely stepping in front of one makes you audience to a distinct atmosphere. You feel you’re in a world between worlds. In fact, several days into random meanderings in Tokyo and the writing style of Murakami Haruki just makes too much sense. All is normal and then, inexplicably and abruptly, you’re caught in some sort of superimposed wonderland; either that – or you’ve exited the superimposed wonderland. The displacement into or out of anomaly is felt everyday.
This particular little world I had encountered was Tsune, a relic of Japan’s true coffee scene. Flannel cloth drip and paper filter pour overs reign here in a city largely ruled by the variegated extraction methods of coffee which compose the espresso drinks we’ve all come to know and cravingly obey.
However, I didn’t know that before I walked in. All I saw was woodwork, funny little plants in an otherwise lifeless alley, and that vague curiosity which hangs behind our own reflection in windows. I read the sign, “喫茶店” and figured it was worth a shot.
Walking in the doors I was greeted by the tiniest cafe I’d seen since South Spain where all things “Intimate” are ubiquitous. An older gentleman, hair wrapped back wearing a tie-vest-new-balance-tennis-shoes uniform welcomed me in and offered me a seat.
Everything was dark wood, antique. Ancient pendulum clocks, the wackiest old fashioned coffee bean hand grinders, black and white prints from impossibly old newspapers. The table at which I sat was like a glass bottom boat, except beneath the glass of the table and between the rectangular wooden borders was a centimeter thick of variously roasted coffee beans. A beautiful aleatoric arrangement of bean colour sat beneath the table glass, observant. An upside down crystal flower whose inverted petals were cuff-linked by little black hearts was apparently also that which illuminates the table during night hours. The ash tray on the table was a hemisphere of dark groovy wood well polished and adorned in the center by green glazed ceramic mosaic tiles forming a leaf. Said hemisphere was supported on three legs, tilted – asymmetrical balance candy for the eyes in a space where so many pendulums convey reality’s standard configuration.
The actual coffee bar was left from the table, opposite the windows and in the heart of the tiny shop. I say actual, because this is the first bar counter I’ve ever seen to actually utilize coffee beans structurally. As you sit on the red brick built, cushion topped stools facing the man behind the counter all the ceremony of preparing the coffee is witheld from vision by a shield of coffee beans held up by a thin layer of glass, much like the glass covered coffee bean pool that fills the table tops.
Behind this coffee bean veil the back wall is covered with containers of various coffees from around the world and a few house made blends. I looked through the menu and decided to order his house blend of Ethiopian coffees. As I waited for my coffee to arrive I took a quiet moment to enjoy the sound of Romantic Era western classical music (18th, 19th century). A sign on the wall says, “No phone, No computer.”
I finally found it. That place I never knew I always wanted to visit someday. There it was on some back alley of Okubo in Shinjuku City, Tokyo.
Then the coffee came. Finally: flavor, texture, temperature. Served in old china wear, to boot. Who knew the first good cup of coffee I’d have would be carefully prepared in this random shop away from everything.
We talked a little bit, and eventually got to coffee talk. The guy knows his shit. I took note of the shops name, and filed it away in my brain as one of those little gems that one can only find going nowhere – looking for nothing. Everytime I go back to Tsune, it peculiarity, quality, and meticulous yet natural individuality continue to charm me.
Little, ancient coffee shops like this litter the city under the radar. No one knows where they are. At least, they’re not on the internet. Their quality varies: some ok, some not so good, some excellent. Tsune is one of those excellent establishments.
Something unique to Japan are Jazz Kissaten. Jazz Kissaten are cafe bars devoted to all things Jazz. Some establishments are meant for listening only, boasting handmade analog stereo systems that can appropriately replicate dynamics as captured on vinyl. After nearly a month in Japan without hearing interesting music and hardly any exposure to art, I found myself craving quality music in a quality space whilst imbibing some aged whisky.
My first true weekend in Japan, which came after two weeks of training followed by 7 straight days of work, I journeyed to the Avant Garde Jazz mecca of Jazz Kissaten in Tokyo – “Nacissus.” This jazz cafe bar is nestled in an extraordinarily odd location.
Deep in the heart of Tokyo’s red light district, Kabukicho (That’s right, Kabuki-cho used to be the Kabuki Theater town), one may brave the shitty neon lights, the myriad vending-beggars and club ringers, the drunk clients, and modestly hidden porn shops. In all of that loud mess of entertainment industry doing it’s finest, a little stairway will lead you to the Jazz Kissaten cafe bar called Narcissus.
Much like Tsune, entering the cafe bar from the obnoxious street made me feel like I had accidentally entered a non-sequitor, or mistakenly entered some alternate city in some unreal time.
Narcissus, on the left are three small two top tables nestled among white and yellow flowers arranged next to the wooden shutters that melt into the grounding light coffee colored walls void of distraction. In front of me was a wall of vinyl and two beautiful handmade LP players. Just to the right, a long thin bar space where a little old lady sat. I had interrupted the sound space just enough for her to notice me. She seemed surprised. I was surprised. Where the fuck was I? Above the little old lady were 4 immaculate wooden Goodman audio speakers handmade in England quite a long time ago. From the Goodman’s I absorbed a fresh dose of quality music on quality speakers in an oddly soundproof bar (especially considering the noise of the Red Light District just outside).
I sat down, ordered some whisky and started chatting with the owner, Yuko-san. Strangely, she turned off the music mid-introduction. “She didn’t have to,” I found myself thinking, “in fact I’d rather she left it on! I came all the way here just to hear it, after all.” However, she had a plan up her sleeve.
Yuko-san and I chatted a long time, about who we were, exchanging life histories and talking about the avant garde mediums of film and music. This was simply part of her service for, if someone comes all the way to her bar, she might as well offer to play music suited to their personality, likes and dislikes, experience and inexperience.
“Do you like Derek Bailey?”, Yuko-san asked.
“Yeah! It’s too bad we lost him, being such a forerunner of the improvised music scene.” I replied.
“Would you like to listen? I’ve some of his albums here. How about a Derek Bailey album recorded here, in Japan?”, she inquired with a smile.
“Absolutely.” Then, Yuko-san went straight to her collection and pulled out the very album for me. We listened in silence to the first side of the album titled, “New sights, Old sounds.” Once it was over, we agreed that it was quite beautiful indeed and broke the silence with a few minutes of chatting about the recording. As I started complimenting her sound system she put on another record. The first few notes were unmistakable, at least, for a classical guitar player. Hundreds of artists have recorded versions of Rodrigo’s Adagio from the “Concierto de Aranjuez”. My admittedly goofy shaped elf-like ears perked up. This was Jim Hall’s (jazz guitarist) version from the album CONCIERTO. The line up on Jim Hall’s Concierto album is absolutely stellar, and Yuko-san knew it. In fact as the goosebumps of the tracks initial beauty settled down she started going on a rant about the various musicians on the album. She started snap dancing to the groove on her stool behind the counter. It was very clear that this woman knew jazz inside and outside as befits a jazz connoisseur. Connoisseurs and players differ in remarkable ways. One thing I’ve noticed, generally, is that the more names someone knows, the less jazz they can actually play. It’s just a natural relationship. Sometimes people claim to play jazz, and then fret over what names you know compared to what they know. It becomes a petty pokemon like bore. Then you realize that self proclaimed musician isn’t really a jazzer, they’re a connoisseur. Thankfully, a rare breed of connoisseurs admit themselves to be just that, and they enjoy the hell out of music made by other people. Yuko-san seems to be one of those whose encyclopedic knowledge is only outshone by her unbridled enthusiasm for the art form.
After a long bout of chatting I paid up and left. She seemed rather worried about me walking alone through Kabukicho at night, but realistically walking around in Kabukicho is safer than the majority of cities in this world.
From Narcissus, I went on to another pilgrimage spot – Bar Samurai. Despite it’s hokey name, this Jazz Kissaten is rather legendary. The listening environment here is secondary to conversation, be it a date or just a chance to smooth over business with one of your clients. Or, maybe you just like to hear good jazz, eat and drink tasty things, and oggle the unfathomable amount of Japanese Lucky Cats (招き猫: Maneki-Neko) adorning the walls, ceiling, cracks, nooks, and wherehaveyous. The bar is absolutely covered with the cats. If not a Lucky Cat, sometimes it’s a trance inspiring Buddha lamp, or the Tibetan flags weaving around the air, or maybe the foot tall statues of deities, or perhaps the hanging scrolls of calligraphy, or perhaps the Jazz LP covers that all – perhaps- serendipitously involve a cat on their face. It’s a visual marvel. I’ve only been in one bar like it, “Begin the Beguine” in Madrid. Even then, however, Samurai is plenty distinct. The jazz they play here is modern and contemporary jazz but not so crazy or eccentric as the music played in Yuko-san’s bar, Narcissus. Due to the rich novelty of the environment, the music, the food, and the drinks offered – anyone (Jazz afficionado or not) can enjoy this space.
Now don’t get me wrong, I haven’t just dug on old hippy sites in Japan. During my wanderings I’ve come across a cafe-bar-stationery-stencil-art-use-the-tools-and-paper-whenever-you-want-membership place called Bunbougu cafe （文房具カフェ）For all pen, pencil, crayon, pastel, stationery, journal, and lovers of the like – this place is pretty damn cool. One can pay a membership so that, anytime they should choose to hop in for a cafe, glass of wine, or meal they can simply use the stores reserve of craft materials to make things. Examples of patrons’ art are showcased all around the store, and their collective talent is markedly professional.
A swanky restaurant-bar-cafe called Ikiba in Jingumae caught my eye as I walked past its hanging garden entrance. The actual restaurant has several tables outside in the wonderful urban garden which hosts a tree house (yes, a tree house). Not only do they have a tree house outside, but there appeared to be some sort of trailer unhitched out back. I didn’t verify if that had seating, too, because I was too mesmerized by what I couldn’t see upstairs. I took a peak.
For some reason, there was a small library up there, with two large tables which (I later learned from the staff) can be reserved for large parties, such as the one being held there tonight. I sat in one of the three distinct indoor areas. There’s a traditional bar from which I ordered a glass of Hibiki 12 blended whisky from Suntory. While I sipped on this deliciously blended fermented homage to mashed barley, I noticed a stand for elegant pipes and cigars. Looks like this place lights up at night, and the ashtray presence was noted. The bartender himself was preparing a pipe for himself before I ordered a whisky. To my right, with an entirely different feel, was a home style kitchen with a counter at which the guests would sit. The Aoyama farmers market, which I still haven’t visited, is supposedly what fuels the fire at this restaurant-bar-cafe-library-tree-house collage of a service establishment. Speaking of fire, there’s a bunch of wood chopped up outside which leads me to believe that something wickedly scrumptious this way comes once they start up the oven.
Places like Ikiba are hidden around every corner of Jingumae in the Harajuku/Ometesando neighborhood. While I certainly can enjoy establishments of Ikiba’s order – the occassion has to come once in a rare while or my bank account might start selling itself on the street to a new account holder and I might go to jail.
To avoid such atrocities, I’ve been searching out good digs in my neighborhood of Shinjuku. Where do I live? I’m currently housed near the Shinokubo train station in the little town of Hyakunin-cho. Famous for its Korean restaurants, Korean Pop culture, and Korean cosmetics – it’s no surprise that Hyakunin-cho is commonly known here as, Korean Town. The neat thing about Korean Town is that not only Korean people live and work here (Korean Grocerey Stores!) but a whole host of other minorities live in Hyakunin-cho. Chinese, Thai, and Korean make up the vast majority of the people, but – just to give you an idea – 15 meters from my door is a Mosque, a Nepalese Momo restaurant, two Halal Grocerey stores, and Indonesian restaurant, a killer Kebab stand, a K-Pop Dance studio, 3 music stores (one’s strictly a violin shop), and just a little further in the opposite direction I can walk to a traditional ceramics store or the Spanish Casa Artista a block away. Japanese people I meet tend to say, “Eh? But there are Chinese Gangsters there!! It’s dangerous!”.
This is Japan, honey. Korean Town, as a “dangerous” neighborhood, makes the Madison look like the Arkham City insane asylum from the Batman. Since it’s Japan, everyone is ultra-considerate, efficient, organized, and impeccably observant of following rules of basic courtesy. Just like every other neighborhood of Tokyo that I’ve seen so far, I haven’t encountered anything or anyone who’d make me feel in danger or inconvenienced by their socially uncouth ways; even in Kabukicho, the “sketchiest” neighborhood in Shinjuku.
Does crime or illegal activity happen in Kabukicho? Yes, it does. Will you be involved? Not unless your really, really gullible and or drunk off your hot toddy’s.
Beyond opportunities to indulge in some non-Japanese culture, Hyakunin-cho has what every other neighborhood in Tokyo has. The ubiquitous Pachinko gambling-for-teddy-bears-which-you’ll-later-trade-in-at-the-black-market parlors, the nation wide Japanese fast food chains, the Mickey D’s, the phone companies, the “snack bars”, the Izakayas (think: Traditional Japanese Tapas Bar), the enormous Karaoke buildings, the funky wall murals, the flower shops, the antique shops, the shopping centers, and obligatory hidden/not-so-hidden alley with cheap food from seemingly Lilliputian made Ma and Pa shops: all staples of any town in Tokyo.
What’s more, is there’s a place called Art Space Bar Buena. What is it? Just what it says it is: an art space, and a bar. I went there, seduced by what seemed to be a cheap cover charge which said, “1500 yen, plus one drink.” Silly me thought that might mean 1500 yen for entrance which includes one drink. Nope
1500 to get in, then buy a drink. That’s not so bad, really – because some things like tea and coffee are pretty damn cheap – but at 8 o’clock after a long day of work I’m not in the mood for coffee or tea. I need whisky. Bourbon. Scotch. Whatever, just definitely not the insanely overpriced beers by tap or bottle. (Japan’s taxes on beer are steep, best to avoid it unless you know you’re in an establishment with top notch beer. On the other hand, whiskys and imported Scotch in particular is surprisingly cheap.)
So, I walked to Art Space Bar Buena which happens to be located in an alley with cheap eats from those classic, Ma an’ Pa, Hole in the Wall, Six Barstool Counter seating Japanese food restaurants. At the end of the alley is my favorite coffee spot. Coincidence? I think not. It’s also on the way walking from Shinokubo to the highest volume train station in Japan: Shinjuku Eki. So, this little alley gets a lot of traffic and it’s the nearest corner of Korea Town towards the most central part of Shinjuku City.
Upon entrance, I open the door to a room of silent sitters spectating an improvised electric guitar solo. The bartender whispered, “Cover please” and I gave him the money. Then he motioned to the drink menu and I choose Macallan 12yr. “Please give me the extra money for the drink,” smiled the bartender, ever so nicely. “Horseradish,” I thought, “total Horseradish.” I forked up the extra change, and stood in the back of the limited space available. After the meditative guitar set, I took a seat on a stool at the front. While the next group set up, a DJ juiced beats through a rather impressive house PA system. Like every other bar or indoor establishment in the area, everyone but me started to pull out their cigs for a smoke break. It’s prohibited to smoke on the street, afterall – so everyone took advantage of this rare opportunity to be indoors, warm, and smoking. Being a typical artsy hipster crowd, everyone had affectatiously cheap clothes and expensive smelling tobacco.
The next group began. From a large suitcase opened up a live wired city of electronics which the artist manipulated manually, in analog precision, painting the space with various sound textures layered upon each other in sensitively dynamic adjustments and variations to density. Nothing like a solid sound sculpture performance. However, the music was really accompanying a contemporary dancer. She showed all the right signs of arduous study and distinct individuality concocted outside of academia. To be honest, it was all rather nostalgic calling back memories of performing improvised free music with contemporary dancers in the United States. Their performance was physically challenging, emotionally provocative, and a healthy mixture of narrative lines broken bit by bit with total abstraction. It was rather enjoyable.
From here on out, I’m gonna have to watch my money – because everything not a convenience store in this crazy Metropolis of Metropolises is oppressively expensive. Even so, I’m a month in to this journey and I’ve got a good idea of what I’m off to explore next. Beyond the Jazz Kissatens, Live Houses, Art Spaces, tiny ramen shops, odd art exhibits, and random shrines every neighborhood and city has its own distinct peculiarities, oddities, and exclusive treasures.
What really has my curiosity now, is getting to know the people; and if Spain taught me anything, that’s where the heart of travelling is.
P.S. – Sorry this post took so long to put up! I was crazy busy training two weeks for my job when I got here, hanging out with the cool cats from my training group, spending a quality friend time with SJ and Pulp-Extra, and simply starting working. However, I should have posts up with more frequency revealing more interesting tidbits, adventures and facts of Tokyo life. There’s so much that happened, I can’t possibly get to it in one post. Therefore, all the above mentioned unexplained experiences will appear appropriately interwoven through my following posts. Thanks for reading!