With a rich network of sound-obsessed cafés, bars and small clubs, Aaron Coultate explains why Tokyo might be the best place in the world to listen to music.
SHeLTeR is the kind of place that gets audiophiles drooling. There's a Bozak mixer, high-end amps and giant, ornate-looking JBL speakers. For 27 years, Nojima has been on a quest to perfect SHeLTeR's acoustics. Rarely does a day go by when he doesn't tinker with his setup in some subtle way. Foam and cardboard tubing line the walls and ceiling, dampening the sound's reflection. DJs can use the record-cleaning fluid that Nojima's friends make. In front of the booth, four comfy chairs are positioned facing away from the DJ and towards the main speakers. This, Nojima tells me, is where the music sounds best.
Nojima started SHeLTeR for a very simple reason. Returning to Hachiōji after a time away, he noticed there weren't any venues in the area where friends could hang out, chat and listen to music. Though he's devoted countless hours to making SHeLTeR's sound impeccable, it feels like just as much effort has been spent on creating a nice atmosphere. There's a cosy, lived-in feeling to SHeLTeR, like being in someone's living room. Tonight the DJ is Chee Shimizu, one of Tokyo's most respected music heads. Early in the evening he sits at the bar with his wife, Kanako, another DJ with excellent taste, and some friends, before taking up a spot behind the decks and playing records like "Mercuric Dance" by Haruomi Hosono. Candles flicker and incense burns as people slowly descend the stairs.
Over the years Shimizu has developed a special relationship with SHeLTeR. "When I buy records, I bring them here and I can tell if they're any good or not," he says. About ten years back, Shimizu started a series of listening sessions called Tabiji, which means "journey" in Japanese. These low-key events have seen DJs like Prins Thomas, Basso, Lovefingers, Jonny Nash, Tako Reyenga and Abel Nagengast of Amsterdam's Red Light Records play music from the strangest corners of their collections. "The aim from the beginning was to play non-dance music, whether it's jazz, prog-rock, experimental and avant-garde," Shimizu says. "Nobody understood this kind of listening party at first, but we just continued doing it. Then a few years later, some younger DJs began to follow our lead, and they started similar parties at the other venues." Tabiji still happens at SHeLTeR, while other spots, like Forestlimit, a raw space at the bottom of a basement stairwell in Hatagaya, host listening parties of their own.
"The reason why we can do these experimental parties in Tokyo is that we have many nice small venues," Shimizu says. "I don't really get the chance to play in big clubs anymore, but I'm happy because I've been able to develop my own style as a DJ. And I think my style is suited to smaller spaces."
Although Shimizu's listening parties were probably the first of their kind to be held in this context—with DJs selecting or blending records using two turntables—the practice of listening to vinyl on a high fidelity soundsystem, often in a hushed atmosphere, has deeper roots in Japan. It can be traced back to the rise of jazz kissa (jazz cafés) and meikyoku kissa (classical music cafés) in the years following World War II, a time when imported records were prohibitively expensive. This meant that, for many people, the kissaten were the only places to hear good music from abroad. The focus at these cafés was on deep, concentrated listening.
Look hard enough and you'll find plenty of places in Tokyo where this spirit lingers. There's the Lion café, one of the city's remaining classical meikyoku kissa. Lion opened in 1926 and does two things—coffee and classical music—exceptionally well. It sits on a narrow street in Shibuya, one of Tokyo's busiest districts, where trucks drive around blasting out J-pop anthems and pachinko machines rattle through the night.
Stepping inside the Lion is like stepping back in time. Its interior has a kind of dignified grandeur: a chandelier hangs from the ceiling and a huge wooden soundsystem sits imposingly high, flanked on either side by two columns. Staff members play classical music on CD and vinyl, giving each selection a brief, whispered introduction. Chatting is discouraged, which leaves people free to read, write, doze or sit in silence, absorbing the music.
Tokyo is teeming with small, music-focused cafés, clubs and bars, tucked away in basements, back-alleys and high-rise buildings. A venue exists for just about every niche of music you can imagine. There's a bar in Shinjuku that only plays the music of Maki Asakawa, one of Japan's cherished purveyors of smoky jazz. (It's called Ura Mado, which means "Rear Window," and is named after one of her albums.) There's a place called Nightingale in Shinjuku's Golden Gai, a seven-seater bar that plays drone and experimental electronic music. There's also the Balearic Café, located on a quiet suburban street in Setagaya, where fans twirl slowly overhead, tropical plants hang from the ceiling, and the music policy is befitting of the café's name. There's Tengu Shokudo, a boozy hangout where the party never seems to stop. And then there are the pocket-sized nightclubs where you can go and hear house, disco and techno. Many of these places are hard to find, which only adds to their appeal.
"There's a real culture of small bars and drinking dens in Tokyo, with or without music as the focus," says the DJ and producer Jonny Nash, who lived in Japan for four years in the early 2000s, during which time he ran a party called Discossession alongside Chee Shimizu, Dr Nishimura and Zecky. "There's also a culture of good sound and audiophiles and hobbyists, and all of these things combine to form some great spots."
There are a few reasons why small music venues proliferate in Tokyo. Firstly, size matters. Before the recent changes to Japan's controversial fueiho laws, nightclubs needed to be licensed as fuzoku establishments, which required a floor space of at least 66 square meters. But operating with this license brought with it a bigger risk of running into trouble with the police, so many operators took the easier route of getting licensed as a bar with a smaller floor space. A smaller space usually means smaller profits, but the result, says Takahiro Saito, a lawyer who has long campaigned against the fueiho laws, is a city "blessed with many unique venues that are not in it for the money but for the love of the culture."
It's wrong to say all of the audiophile venues in Tokyo have impeccable soundsystems. But one unifying factor, says Terre Thaemlitz, AKA DJ Sprinkles, who has been living in Japan for 16 years, is a shared obsession with sound. "All of these little spaces I have played in, none of their soundsystems have what I would consider a stable and consistent near-perfect quality of sound," says Thaemlitz. "For me, the appeal is in their flexibility to try to deal with sonic inconsistencies. This is partly a technical flexibility, but more so a personal flexibility of the people managing the soundsystems. They know their systems are quirky, and they know their flaws, and they actually enjoy talking about those things in a kind of playful and nerdy way. Compare this to larger clubs, where the sound engineers are generally not the same people who built or installed the soundsystem. During sound checks, their attitude is usually more about not fessing up to their system's weaknesses, and not wanting to alter the balance of their systems during a sound check. The attitude is totally different. The small venues can talk about it with a smile, and maybe troubleshoot things together. The big venues are more likely to get annoyed and just want to get through the night."
Oath, Bonobo and Koara are three of Tokyo's best small venues that specialise in electronic music. Oath is a popular haunt for touring international DJs. In the warmer months the crowd often spills outside, where the music is still audible, to smoke and chat. Inside it has a padded red ceiling, stone walls and velvet curtains that are drawn once daylight approaches. All drinks are 500 yen (just over €4), making it an appealing option for locals and tourists on a budget.
Koara sits at the bottom of a tiled stairway on a quiet street in Shibuya's Jinnan area. There's a bar with concrete walls and dim lighting that leads into a darkened dance floor. It's equipped with a Urei mixer, McIntosh amps and EAW speakers that reach towards the ceiling. On the night I visited, a crew of local DJs were playing house and techno until 5 AM. The sound was booming yet crisp. A few people milled about on the dance floor, while others sat at the bar smoking and sipping whiskey.
Bonobo is located in a 55-year-old building—old by Tokyo standards. The dance floor can fit 50 or 60 people at a stretch. Its curved white walls, now stained a yellowish brown after years of cigarette smoke, give the feeling of being inside a cave. Behind the DJ booth stand a pair of towering Altec speakers that look out over the dance floor like two solemn security guards. There's only one window, and it's tiny, like a porthole in a ship. "Most clubs have black walls in a square room," says Bonobo's owner, Koichi Sei. "I wanted lots of curves and white walls. I wanted something different."
Earlier this year I caught DJ Sprinkles at Bonobo. It felt like a privilege to see Thaemlitz play in such an intimate environment. Her deep, evocative and heartfelt house tunes created a wonderful atmosphere on the dance floor. That night, Sei wasn't just keeping an ear tuned to the sound—he was carefully adjusting the air conditioning and the lights as well. Bonobo was packed when I arrived, and it stayed that way into the early hours. At one point during the night I spotted Sei and he walked over. "Too small," he said with a smile, gesturing towards the dance floor before disappearing into the crowd.
Sei, who opened Bonobo around 12 years ago, is a friendly man who's prone to letting out bursts of laughter after finishing a sentence. He lived in New York from 1989 through 1999, and later in that period he was a regular at The Loft. He says David Mancuso's party was his main inspiration for opening a venue of his own when he returned to Japan. The former owner of the space that houses Bonobo was a speaker builder who had constructed a soundproof area. "He was getting old, and looking for someone to do something with the space, so I stepped in," Sei says. "I didn't know much about audio at the time, but I remember how the music sounded at The Loft, and I wanted something as special as that. And as time went on, I really started getting into the sound quality side of things."
A fire at Bonobo six years ago left Sei with some insurance money. He put it towards opening a small restaurant and a chill-out space on the building's first floor. "I want to recreate the feeling of a house party," Sei says. "In Tokyo we don't have space to have house parties in our actual homes, because they are so small. So Bonobo exists as a place where we can create that house party atmosphere." The music is generally geared towards house and techno, though Sei tells me a four-piece jazz band recently squeezed in for a live show, and there are also occasional performances by noise and hardcore bands.
Sei says his focus is on quality sound, not volume. "This way people can keep partying," he says. "But for this to work, for people to want to stay, the soundsystem needs to be high quality, so we can talk, we can dance, but get no complaints from the neighbours."
Thaemlitz says many small venues in Tokyo operate with their bass bins turned off for much of the night. This kind of situation is the legacy of the fueiho laws. "When the police come around, it is typical to turn the bass down so that the sound is not so danceable and thumping," says Thaemlitz, who has written extensively about the fueiho laws. "I think a lot of people didn't even notice. The spaces are small enough that things still sound OK. But the soundsystems are not running as they were designed. And this is in part due to fueiho restrictions on dancing, and not wanting to cause noise that might make the cops want to come in and check for dancing. But the main impact has to be the venue owners and staff working under the constant threat of legal problems. It's a horrible stress, and really not healthy."
The changes to the fueiho laws decriminalized certain grey areas of the country's club scene, but what this means for Tokyo's small bars and music cafés remains unclear. A café that plays classical music, like the Lion, does not require a special license, as it falls under the category of venues that offer music for patrons to appreciate and enjoy. In legal terms, the line is drawn when a venue expects patrons to "actively seek pleasure"—such as through the act of dancing—which requires the venue to be licensed.
"That line is very blurry," says the lawyer Takahiro Saito. "A bar with a nice soundsystem can fall under either category, and the new law still doesn't make that line very clear." As Takahiro explains, the concept of "actively seeking pleasure" is ambiguous. The result is that many small venues remain in legal limbo. "The venues that were actively rallying for a revision of the law were mainly big venues, so in turn the revision doesn't necessarily take into consideration what's best for the small venues," says Takahiro. "What sort of aftereffects the law revision will have on the small venues will depend on whether or not the small venues will take action and actively shape the scene."
One man who's fallen foul of fueiho is Masaaki Ariizumi, who currently manages DJ Bar Bridge, a venue with a beautiful Rey Audio soundsystem and a tenth-floor view of the famous Shibuya crossing. Ariizumi has been involved with Tokyo's nightlife for more than 30 years. In 1986, when he was the manager at a spot called P. Picasso in Nishiazabu, he was arrested and spent 20 days in prison after his venue was seen to have people dancing illegally. In 2000 he was working at another spot, Aoyama Mix, when a similar incident occurred. This time the outcome was even more bizarre. "I took a day off when the venue was raided by the police, so my colleague got kept in custody for 20 days," Ariizumi explains. "I visited the police station everyday asking them to get me in there instead of him as I was the manager, but they never listened to me."
Ariizumi isn't bitter about these experiences, but he does welcome the recent changes. "I'm glad that Japan has finally become a country where people can dance without being frightened," he tells me. He says that small venues are "still waiting to see how it goes" as far as the changes are concerned, but he feels that, generally, "we're at lower risk of getting arrested than it used to be. So we can open our doors freely now."
Despite the various pressures of running a small venue in Tokyo, there are some that seem to exist outside the realm of daily life, in a kind of temporal vacuum. Take JBS, housed on the second floor of a nondescript building in Shibuya. Here, bottles of Old Grand-Dad, Old Crow and other whiskeys and bourbons line the wooden walls along with 10,000-plus records. The owner of JBS, Kobayashi Kazuhiro, quit his day job as a salaryman to open a jazz bar, a story that could be lifted straight from a Murakami novel.
On the night I visited JBS, I watched Kazuhiro in action. In between serving drinks to ten or so customers, he purposefully strode from behind the bar to some other part of the room to pick out a record to play. First it was Reuben Wilson's 1972 LP, The Sweet Life, and then the James Brown album Hell. He would select an LP, return to his station, put a record on and then stare intently at the Altec speakers before gently tweaking the volume. He placed the album sleeve under a light on a corner of the bar so everyone could see what was playing.
Nightingale bears few sonic similarities to JBS, but going there is just as absorbing. Even by Tokyo standards, Nightingale is tricky to find. It's tucked away in Golden-Gai, a warren of dive bars that seat only a handful of people each. Those looking for clues might spot the Oneohtrix Point Never sticker plastered on the wall outside the door. Inside it's tiny, with seven seats, a couch, a piano, a bar, JBL speakers and McIntosh amps. Every inch of Nightingale's walls and ceiling is worth inspecting and re-inspecting—the toy crocodiles perched on one wall, the livestock skulls and bones, the fake neon flowers. Behind the bar, moody films from the 1920s play silently on a small TV. On the night I visited, the music was impeccably weird, from Co La's No No album on Software to the harsh brilliance of 83-85 by Mika Vainio's Gagarin Kombinaatti project.
One of the few spots that rivals Nightingale's eccentric interior is Grassroots. It's located near Higashi Koenji on the first floor of a quiet backstreet, behind an unmarked door. Tiny holes in a corkboard behind the bar shine like a galaxy when sun pokes through. Stickers fill every available space on the doors and the speakers. The DJ booth is obscured behind trees and bamboo, while a big wooden log serves as a chair on the fringe of the dance floor. On the night I visited Grassroots, the DJs were playing 1930s love songs that crackled warmly through the JBL speakers. Lights quietly pulsated through the tree roots, giving the DJ booth the appearance of an enchanted garden.
Many Japanese DJs love Grassroots. Gonno, a Japanese producer and DJ whose catalogue spans disco, house and techno, says it's one of his most cherished small venues in Tokyo, along with Oath, Bonobo and Tunnel. "I like these spots because they attract people who love music and dancing, and there's not so much hype," he says. "Sometimes I play banging techno at a small venue if the crowd and the atmosphere needs it. But I'll often take advantage of being able to play stuff that I can rarely play at bigger clubs. I can play more freaky things like jazz, funk, post-classical or anything that's slow—not typical club music. That's a big part of the appeal of spaces like Grassroots."
Grassroots has been the scene of some memorable sets from DJ Nobu, a selector who's currently associated with deep, hypnotic techno, but has plenty of other sounds in his locker. Some of these parties have lasted 20 hours or more. "I played at Grassroots for their birthday party two years ago—it started on the Saturday night and I finished around 8 PM on the following day," he tells me. "When I play there I never play one specific genre, I'll play whatever. The thing I like about Grassroots, and smaller venues in general, is that they create this dense atmosphere, because the distance between the DJ and the crowd is so close."
Toshiyuki Suzuki, known locally as Q san, has been running Grassroots for 19 years. (He also helped run a reggae bar in the same space for six years before opening Grassroots.) He tells me that jazz sounds best on Grassroots' soundsystem, a combination of JBL speakers, a handmade amp a one-of-a-kind super tweeter. "It was more fun before we had the internet," Suzuki says. He recalls a time when DJ Hikaru, a former resident at Grassroots, would play five or six-hour sets regularly on weeknights, and people would stop by to have a listen. "The whole idea was that it's not a party, it's just a normal evening." Suzuki says Grassroots doesn't have a particularly young clientele—Japan's aging population is a lingering issue for its party scene—but he says the people who do come "can enjoy a cosy space that's like a home."
Like a home. The idea of creating a homely environment is as important to Tokyo's audiophile venues as any obsession with sound. They fill different holes in people's lives, whether it's a need for solitude or for socialising. That feeling of warmth was there when I first entered SHeLTeR, and it's there in spots like Grassroots, and also Orbit, a venue in Sangen-jaya where guests take off their shoes before entering. On the night I stopped by, the DJs and some of their friends were sitting around a two-burner hot plate. (I was treated to a bowl of nabe.) Paintings of polar bears and parrots and giraffes and zebras adorned the walls. Orbit used to be more of a club, with a darkened dance floor and the like, but around 2008 it set about creating a more intimate environment. They do have dance parties, but nowadays the music is mostly downtempo in nature, be it ambient, reggae or hip-hop.
At Bridge, Ariizumi says he was taken in by the concept of the "Third Place," a term used by American sociologist Ray Oldenburg loosely defined as somewhere for people to relax and mingle in between their time at work and home. "As civilization has advanced, going to work and back home has become our routine as humans," Ariizumi says. "The third place is not quite home, and it's not work, but a community where everyone can be welcomed and relax, with a nice atmosphere. I heard about the term 'third place' for the first time just when we opened Bridge, and I remember thinking, 'This is exactly what I want to create.' That's what I want to do, create a third space. People can come here and talk about their jobs or their love life, or they can come here and dance. It's a place between work and home. People need that."
Nojima, the founder of SHeLTeR, says his main aim is to offer an escape from the grind of life in Tokyo. He boils down SHeLTeR's purpose to core human needs. "The feeling I want to create is one of total freedom, for DJs and the people who visit, to chat, to listen, to hang out," he says. "I wanted to have a space where people can get away from stress, from tiring days, to take it easy and relax. Those are ordinary, but important, things in our lives."
1-38-19 Miyasaka, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo 156-0051
2-23-4, Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, 150-0001
DJ Bar Bridge
Park Side Kyoudou Bldg.10F, 1-25-6 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku, 150-0002
DJ Bar Tengu Shokudo
KT Sangen-jaya 3F, 5-15-11 Taishido, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo, 154-0004
102 Hatagaya Koda Bldg B1F, 2-8-15 Hatagaya, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, 151-0072
1-6-12 Koenji Minami, Suginami-ku, Tokyo, 166-0003
Koritsu Bldg B1F, 1-13-15 Jinnan, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, 150-0041
2-19-13 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, 150-0043
Aoyama Bldg 1F, 4-5-9 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, 150-0002
B1F 5-28-9 Taishido, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo, 154-0004
NK Bldg B1F, 1-1 Yokamachi, Hachioji-shi, Tokyo, 192-0071
1-1-7 Kabuki-cho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo, 160-0021