Japan is a great city for live music and jazz holds a special place. In fact, Japan has had a long love affair with jazz – nearly as long as the genre’s existed, with the first jazz scenes emerging in the early 1920s in Osaka and Kobe, just years after the Original Dixieland Jazz Band recorded the first jazz record, ‘Livery Stable Blues’ in 1917. Today, it is Tokyo that hosts Japan’s most thriving jazz scene.
Tokyo offers a few beautiful mega-clubs which bring in some of the best talents, both domestic and international. But the real jazz scene is often found down snaking backstreets, up or down a winding staircase and inside a hideaway joint where the whole bar is operated by one devoted jazz fanatic (you'll find lots of music venues like this in Koenji). It’s here where the local scene thrives, where a different mix of incredible jazz musicians can usually be found jamming together any night of the week.
We’ve selected some of the very best spots from across the spectrum – from bars so narrow you’ll have to squeeze around the bassist to get inside, to clubs the size of concert halls where chandeliers hang above elegant table settings. Each spot offers a passion for jazz that is palpable, and a music quality that is totally immersive.
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Tokyo's top jazz bars
While Salt and Peanuts is a bit of a trek from central Tokyo, it is definitely worth the trip. Opened in 1981, the place started as a conventional bar but gradually jazz took hold. Since it’s actually quite spacious for a jazz bar, you might be surprised to learn that it’s a one-man operation.
The owner Hisashi Nakano, though not a musician himself, is a fanatic jazz enthusiast and collector who was dismayed to realise how expensive it can be to see high-quality jazz in Tokyo – so he decided to take matters into his own hands. The music charge here is ¥1,500, which is much less than most places housing a grand piano and drum set. There’s also a ¥500 table charge (otoshi), which comes with all-you-can-eat nuts and dried fruit that you can select from the giant mason jars lining the bar. If you’re looking for cosy elegance and excellent music without breaking the bank, this is the place.
Although two major train lines cross at Kichijoji Station, making it super accessible to the centre of Tokyo, it’s far enough out that rent is significantly lower than most places around the Yamanote line. As a result, Kichijoji is home to tons of little cafés, boutiques, small businesses and, yes, plenty of live music. Some would estimate that Kichijoji has more jazz clubs per capita than any other neighbourhood in Tokyo. And any musician in Tokyo worth their salt has made an appearance at Sometime, arguably Kichijoji’s most famous basement jazz bar.
The stage at Sometime is set up at the centre of the room, with the musicians facing one another in a circle, and the audience members seated all around them, with some sections depressed into the floor and others raised above, creating a very unusual viewing experience. These days, Sometime is no longer a neighbourhood dive but a rather famous spot in its own right. This means the prices have crept up in the last couple of decades, but the musical talent has flourished. Still, the prices are way cheaper than you’ll find in most places boasting similar quality – with most shows hovering around the ¥2,000 mark.
If you’re looking to go the elegant route with your jazz experience, with a full-course dinner and excellent wine list, Cotton Club is a great choice. This venue is enormous, with a gorgeous dark wood interior sparkling under crystal chandeliers, and a food quality to match the décor. It’s also one of the most renowned clubs in Tokyo, so this is where you’ll find the big name acts, including a lot of talents from abroad.
Of course, all of this decadence comes at a price (reserved seats can go for ¥6,000 to ¥9,000 depending on the show), but if you’re looking to treat yourself to great music and a fine dinner, this is the perfect place.
Now we’re not one to play favourites, but ask any enthusiast in Tokyo where to find great jazz and they’re almost sure to mention the Pit Inn. This place has everything: the best musicians from across Japan and around the world; nice, long sets; comfy seating; and a great history.
The club celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2015 with much fanfare. Its continued success can be credited to its emphasis on music above all else. All the seats in the spacious basement bar face the stage, with minimal service and disruptions during the sets. Tickets are also quite reasonable compared to equally famous joints around town, with most evening shows posting a music charge of ¥3,000 to ¥4,000 (tickets in other top-shelf clubs often approach ¥10,000), a bargain for such a memorable night.
For a real hole-in-the-wall jazz joint, you can’t get more authentic than this. Manhattan has been around for over 30 years – one of the first jazz bars to appear in Asagaya, kick-starting its now flourishing jazz scene. These days, the neighbourhood has become such a jazz hub that it hosts a massive festival every year that’s celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2019.
Manhattan is definitely the tiniest bar on this list. The space is so confined that the stage is set up in front of the door, meaning you can’t enter after a set has already started without bringing the whole performance to a grinding halt. Check the sign outside the door for set times – generally two a night. If the cramped interior seems a bit intimidating, never fear: the owner Yasutaka Mochizuki (it’s a one-man operation) is immensely friendly, as are all of the talented musicians he brings around. The vibes are homey, the music is great, and you can get a jazz history lesson just by scanning all the postcards and photos papering the bar’s walls.
Ochanomizu is best known for its ‘guitar street’ – a long row of guitar shops jetting off from the JR station exit, selling every make and model on the market, used and new, and every kind of accessory or equipment you could imagine. But smack right in the middle of this street is the basement jazz bar Naru.
Like a lot of the joints on this list, Naru has a long legacy. In fact, Naru is gearing up to celebrate its 50th anniversary this year, having opened its doors for the first time in 1969. The bar’s owner is a sax player himself, so you can be sure the place takes its music seriously, with either two or three 45-minute jazz sets nearly every night. The music charge starts at ¥2,500, placing it about mid-level in terms of costliness.
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