Though Tokyo is often praised for its hole-in-the-wall jazz joints and live music venues that span the gamut from indie intimate to multi-storey clubs, a lesser known gem of the city is its plethora of music bars. A music bar or music cafe can have a bit of a broad definition, but is generally distinguished as a place without live music – outfitted instead with a well-stocked record library and usually an audiophile proprietor who really knows their stuff. At these more subdued bars you can enjoy some of the best record collections in the world, drink in a carefully curated selection of music, along with a nice stiff tipple.
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Let the music play
With over 11,000 records lining the wall cabinets, this little music bar is truly all about the music. The name itself bespeaks its no frills music-centric approach, with 'JBS' standing for jazz, blues and soul. The owner Kobayashi has a profound appreciation and encyclopedic knowledge of the bar's eponymous music genres. And even if his reserved demeanor doesn't seem to invite much chit-chat, Kobayashi is clearly keen to share his love of music with others – carefully selecting each record and then displaying the album jacket so his patrons can follow along with what's playing.
JBS really is the perfect example of the classic music bar: a place for contemplative music appreciation over a good drink where a veritable library of records is all within reach and expertly curated for your enjoyment.
A cosmopolitan spot where you can enjoy music, food and alcohol from around the world, including the Caribbean, Africa, as well as Central and South America. World Kitchen Baobab is almost considered a sacred place by world music fans; it’s full of precious records and miscellaneous goods collected by the owner on his travels. Live events are also held here from time to time, offering performances by excellent Japanese musicians playing everything from Latin music to reggae to styles from Africa, Brazil and more. On occasion, World Kitchen Baobab also feature overseas artists.
Established 40 years ago, the aptly named Grandfather’s started out with a playlist style that was uncommon at the time, blending together rock LPs one song at a time. Today, the tunes are a selection of popular music (mainly AOR and funk and soul) from the ’70s, when vinyl records were mainstream. However, the owner is constantly on the lookout for new music and if a modern artist wins his favour they’ll get some ‘airtime’ too. (We recently heard him spin a few tracks by Joss Stone and Rumer.) After all these years, the interior is still well maintained, giving off a rich ambience that’s appropriate for such a venerable bar and that lends an extra level of charm to the music.
Located in the music district of Shimokitazawa, this bar quietly opens its doors every evening from 9pm. When you walk inside, you’ll no doubt be overwhelmed by the staggering number of records lining the walls – there are 15,000 in total, featuring a wide range of music from ’60s soul to rare groove, and modern funk to disco. Little Soul Cafe is well-known for attracting overseas artists and record buyers, and the staff do their best to accommodate any enthusiastic music requests. First-timers are welcomed by the bar’s homely vibe, and music experts will never leave disappointed.
Opened in 1969, B.Y.G boasts three dimly lit floors connected by a spiral staircase while the wood-panneled walls are covered in music posters, framed artist photos and customer-drawn graffiti. Stacked up behind the register area at the front entrance are piles upon piles of CDs and records. When the bar first opened it was primarily a live music venue, but these days the ground floor is exclusively a music cafe, with occasional live music performances limited to the second and basement floors.
Positioned on every table on the main floor are slips of paper and stubby pencils where you can write down song requests and hand them in to your wait staff. Be warned though that the focus here is rock and jazz, so you'll almost certainly be given a look of disdain if you request Taylor Swift, followed by the assurance that they don't have that stuff here. But any classic rock request you can think of will be gladly accepted and is surely somewhere in their stockpiles.
Owned by DJ Tomoaki Nakamura, this bar features everything from jazz to Brazilian music, along with a great selection of wine. The owner's aim was to create a place where you'd be able to listen to both new faves and golden oldies that both feel just as relevant. On certain nights you'll find local spinner Calm behind the decks. Order an Espresso Cooler, made with coffee beans from Nakamura's native Hiroshima, sit back, relax to the eclectic tunes and browse the myriad of records – if you find an album that tickles your fancy, good news: you'll be able to buy it on the spot.
There aren’t many good reasons to get off the Keio line at sleepy Tsutsujigaoka Station, but this shrine to secondhand records and craft beer is one of them. Boasting a selection that covers jazz, world music, classic rock and most genres in between, Garageville has vinyl for every taste and generation. This dedication to diversity is also reflected in the beer lineup: you can choose from about 20 kinds of craft brews from Europe and Asia, in addition to several rarities from minor Japanese breweries. And we’d be remiss not to mention the shop’s super-comfy sofas, which are perfect for relaxing on while taking in smooth tunes with a beer in hand.
There’s a church-like air of reverence at this sleepy shrine to classical music. A pamphlet listing stereophonic offerings is laid out before the customer, seating is in pew-style rows facing an enormous pair of speakers, and conversations are discouraged. If you must talk, then do so in whispers. The imposing grey building is an unexpected period piece amid the gaudy love hotels of Dogenzaka.
Opened in March 2015 by the energetic music media company Spincoaster, this bar combines high resolution and analogue sound systems for a unique vibe. The playlists are prepared by Spincoaster curators, covering a wide range of genres and eras in high quality audio. It’s recently become popular for private get-togethers, anime song-listening sessions, and explosively loud screenings of live concert streams.
Situated in the massive, eco-conscious Tokyo mall Yoyogi Village – which also houses an organic Italian restaurant, coffeeshop and art gallery – this music bar is the pet project of the complex's overseer, Takeshi Kobayashi, a musician and industry legend best known for producing the massively popular Japanese rock band Mr. Children. DJ producer Shinichi Osawa also co-runs the music bar space with Kobayashi.
It's outfitted like a real underground speakeasy, with exposed brick walls, leather couches and shelves upon shelves of vinyl and liquor. The focus here is jazz and soul and the record library boasts 3,000 pieces of vinyl. The sound system is another point of pride, with Tannoy speakers imported from England and a Linn record player the duo picked up in Scotland.
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