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Blog // Thoughts // Travel
December 16, 2019

Jazz Kissa – Japan’s Jazz Cafes

Remembering a busy afternoon shopping in Tokyo and being introduced to the phenomenon of Jazz Kissa.

There I was in the middle of Tokyo on a busy Saturday afternoon. At one end of the street was Omotesando; one of those tree-lined boulevards, where the pedestrians are sometimes better dressed than the mannequins in the windows of the luxury stores. At the other need was Harajuku, the famous youth-centric fashion capital and increasingly one of the busiest tourist hotposts in the whole of Tokyo.

I was in the middle, feeling overwhelmed and in need of a break.

Tokyo is a huge city and it’s easy to reach that point where it feels like too much. A trip to do a little exploring and window-shopping turns into a vast consumer adventure. It’s not just the number of people, or the number of shops, but the concentration of both.

Like the long queue outside some hot new eatery. On this particular day it was snaking outside a pancake place. Of course, there’s hundreds of places where you can buy pancakes in Tokyo. But on this sunny Saturday, the place to get them, thick and fluffy, and several inches high like risen souffles, was here.

And the shops, often tiny, engulf your senses one after the after. Whether it’s the sticker store, which as the name implies sells nothing but stickers, of all sorts, from the fun to the obscene. Or the secondhand clothing store, which, you realise as you enter, caters to one very specific kind of aesthetic, which in this case was best described as mid-80s skateboarder.

A clapboard sign by the side of the narrow road caught my attention. Jazz Cafe. Either of those, jazz or coffee, would provide respite from the afternoon’s overwhelming consumerist experience. But both together could be perfect.

The cafe itself was small. On the third floor, after walking up a narrow metal staircase. There were maybe 12 soft leather seats. Mostly in pairs, with low polished wood tables, like something out of a mid-century office. No coffee machine in sight but I could see the sound system, a huge thing, with a vintage McIntosh 275 tube amplifier, giant JBL speakers, loads of other equipment, and a vast collection of CDs and vinyl.

A quick calculation; between the cost of the HiFi system and the music collection there was at least six figures of someone’s love of listening to jazz sitting right in front of me.

Maybe that explained the one table at the back, with the reserved sign, cigar paraphernalia, and a few jazz magazines. Perhaps the owner sat there, with friends, when a combination of jazz and coffee was needed?

The gig was simple: order some coffee from the barista in a little room around the corner, then pick some music. The barista brewed your drink, put on the music, then discreetly drew closed a little red curtain between you and the coffee kitchen, so you could enjoy your drink and the sounds from the incredibly expensive jukebox.

Free to concentrate on the music.
Into the private world of your own imagination. A world away from the crowds just outside and down those metal stairs.

It turns out this was a Jazz Kissa, and they are a thing in Japan. Kissa is short for kissaten, the old-style cafes popular in Japan for much of the 20th century, before the advent of coffee chains and cool new third-wave cafes with their bright, clean aesthetic.

Kissaten tend to be local places, usually unchanged for long enough to acquire their own retro vibe, often with a welcoming stack of books and magazines for patrons to enjoy while they relax. Jazz Kissa are simply this but with jazz music on offer.

There’s even an Instagram account celebrating Jazz Kissa.

Jazz Kissa are a quintessentially Japanese phenomenon. Not the Japan of lazy ‘weird Japan’ news stories. But the Japan of following your passion all the way to the edges, to the point where it veers sharply away from rationality.

Because in a world of pure economics, Jazz Kissa don’t really make sense. It’s a terrible business model. No one is getting rich running a Jazz Kissa. But if you love jazz, coffee, and enjoying both at the same time, it makes complete sense. It isn’t anti-consumerist, it exists in a different space altogether, something beyond consumerism.

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