Hey all, just got back from a trip to Japan and had a fantastic time checking out music bars across the country. Japan is probably the best place in the world for this kind of thing, so I thought I’d share my experiences for those of you who’d like to check some of these places out yourself and don’t know where to start. Also, bear in mind that I’m not sponsored by anyone to write this and don’t intend this thread to turn into a debate of cables or speaker placement like my last thread about listening bars. Of course, if you have any stories or reviews of your own to share here please do!
First up in my travels was AlNiCan Rhodes Bar in Azabujuban. It was the only audiophile bar near me open on the Sunday I landed, so I popped in at 6pm as soon as the doors opened, being keen to start listening right away. This place uses a JBL C37 Rhodes system tuned by Kenrick Sound, which sounded phenomenal, combined with a tube amp of some sort. I liked how the owner had the music playing very softly at opening time and progressively increased the volume as time went on. He spoke basic English and was polite enough to ask me about my favourite artists and what songs I’d like played. He even showed me the stack of records he’d picked up earlier that day from the local Disc Union – lots of Eagles and some Rolling Stones in there. Since I was in Japan after all, I asked him to play some Tatsuro Yamashita which he gladly did, being of fan of Tatsuro-san himself. It was just us in the bar for the next 2 hours or so which left me wondering if it was always this quiet. Maybe because it was a Sunday after all or the time being still quite early by Japanese standards. Eventually, some of the regulars made their way in and got into full swing conversation with the owner (in Japanese of course). At this point I was feeling kind of left out as I don’t speak Japanese, but this was quickly compensated for by chain smoking a pack of Peace cigarettes with the other regulars there. In terms of value for variety of drinks, this remained to be the best value bar I found during my trip. No table charge, very cheap (and good) beers. Highballs were like $5, pints of Suntory beer on tap for $6 or so in AUD equivalent, in addition to a huge selection of spirits from around the world. The neighbourhood it’s in is very nice too, with houses on hills and lots of chic restaurants – worth checking out for this alone, being a short walk from Mori Tower in Roppongi Hills.
More info: http://blog.kenricksound.com/2018/12/jblalnican-rhodes-bar.html
^ See video here to get a feel for the place.
The next day was the bar I was looking forward to the most before landing – Dogenzaka Rock in Shibuya. Located near the busy Shibuya crossing, this place provided some much-needed solace away from the big crowds and bright lights. The owner was not talkative at all and simply handed me a few pieces of paper and the music catalogue before taking my order. Nothing against his attitude though; it felt like this was just his personality. In terms of the system, it’s nothing too fancy – standard JBL 4310s, Audio-Technica turntable and a Denon DCD1650 CD player. Dogenzaka’s music selection, however, is vast and available for you to browse online before going there. In terms of variety of music available, this bar easily offered the most of it no matter what your taste or genre of choice is (as long as it’s not something too obscure). I made use of this diversity, selecting some Duran Duran, Foreigner, Marvin Gaye and ACDC, followed by The Prodigy, Notorious BIG, Moby and Linkin Park. The owner was clearly vibing to this, bobbing his head and snapping his fingers to the beat. I liked how he went to the effort of physically changing the vinyl and CDs, not relying on streaming or files stored on the computer for anything. I justified the high table charge (1000 yen) and relatively pricey drinks with this fact. It was a decent atmosphere, nice music selection and very central location. However, some Americans who came later that night were not as enthralled with the table charge and left immediately after finding out it exist. I also found it interesting how the other locals at this bar were much younger than the bar I visited the previous night, and how they didn’t select any music to play at all – leaving the song selection all up to me! I don’t know if I’ll be back here, but it was a good experience nonetheless and I’m glad I ticked it off my list.
After a long day of cycling through Karuizawa forest and exploring Nagano, we arrived at Back Drop in Nagano city – a Showa era café which functions as a bar at night with live music and wrestling on some days. The system consisted of a Luxman tube pre-amp circa 1970s, American Audio power amp, Luxman turntable and cabinet speakers of some sort. Look around and it’s immediately apparent the owner loves jazz, Godzilla and wrestling, not necessarily in that order. Strictly no streaming or electronic files played here, only LPs. Lots of Miles Davis, Takehiro Honda and Art Pepper were played throughout the night. Unfortunately, on the night we visited there were no live bands or wrestling scheduled. The food and drinks here are exceptionally good value; a plate of curry rice, bowl of miso soup and pint of Asahi cost less than 1000 yen. They don’t have much of a drink selection though as it is a café after all, so bear that in mind if that’s what you’re after. The owner spoke basic English and talked to us about his favourite jazz musicians, the time he got his Luxman tube amp as well as showing us around the upstairs live music and performance area. He sure must work long hours as this place hardly closes and is operated all by himself. For an old guy, he’s quite active online though and maintains a healthy following on social media. This place seems to be rated quite highly on Japanese review sites and I’d have to concur – the music selection was very good, owner was splendid to talk to, and décor was funky indeed.
Our trip to Kanazawa was capped by visiting West Coast coffee for a much-deserved drink after a day of exploring the Kenrokuen Gardens, fish market and Contemporary Art Museum. Despite the name, this place is a bar with a decent selection of spirits, desserts and beers, including some unique to Kanazawa. The highlight for me has got to be the massive Altec Lansing speakers mounted on the wall and the selection of more avantgarde and funky jazz tunes. There’s no streaming here, with music being played on turntable or via the relatively new Marantz CD60006 player. The sandwiches and cheesecake here are really great, although the beers were merely handed to us in a can instead of being on tap. The atmosphere was a far cry from other establishments I’d visited in Japan thus far, having a more Western feel to it, somewhat like the houses in Brooklyn, New York. I’d say this would be a nicer place to visit in the morning perhaps, to have some great drip coffee while enjoying the big roomy sounds of the Altec Lansing speakers around you.
In Kyoto, I wasn’t intending on visiting any listening bars, yet stumbled across one (literally, having been wasted off convenience store beers) at around midnight. This place is called Ansonia and is located near the popular Fushimi-Inari shrine. The bright neon signage inside, complemented by the sweet jazz tunes of the live band inside really caught my attention and drew me in. The owner used to live in America for a while, before returning to Japan as a salaryman, so spoke good English and was very helpful in recommending us non-touristy spots in Kyoto – even going to the lengths of hand drawing us a fairly detailed map. The live music here was the best in our trip, with lots of Ron Carter being played throughout the night, and the mille crepe was also unforgettably good. Great drink selection although many rare whiskeys you see are only for display. Apparently, some rich Chinese tourists get very excited by this fact and pay up to $800 for a shot of ‘display only’ whiskey to show off in front of others…clever marketing tactic now that I think about it.
If you’re into piano, a good bar to check out is King of Kings in Osaka. Located in the basement of a shopping complex, this place is essentially unchanged from the 70s, with the same furniture, décor and menus being used from back then. Funnily enough, out of all places, you’ll find the walls are themed with aboriginal art (or at least that’s what it looked like to me). The young lady who plays the piano here is exceptionally talented and was kind enough to show me her musical notes and her improv take on some classics. The cream sodas with ice cream are a must try here, as well as the Japanese whiskey. For cheap eats, the others store in the basement had the cheapest skewers and beers I’ve seen in Japan. Pints of Asahi on tap during happy hour for like $3 or so, works out even cheaper if you get it in a set with Osaka’s very own kushikatsu. Also, in the basement are great vinyl stores, making it convenient to do some tipsy shopping afterwards!
Ok, now for the best of the best – Bar Norainu in Akasaka Tokyo. Actually my first visit here was on my 3rd day in this Japan trip but I revisited for a special night towards the end of my trip as well. Enter the door and you feel like you’ve entered another world. The ambience is simply surreal: aesthetic décor, mamasan in full kimono, salarymen wearing top hats and suspenders, and the glistening Tokyo skyline in the background. The place isn’t very big, so felt cozy and like home, with tasteful choice of paintings and books available for reading too. Towering are the massive JBL 4343s tuned by Kenrick Sound, reflecting the light from a Triode tube amp and Chord Hugo TT DAC. Thankfully, one of the regular salarymen here spoke perfect English having worked overseas and through him I got to learn a lot about this place. Turns out the lady in the kimono owns this place, having been a geisha in the past. Now she hosts Geisha nights at the bar once a month, where you can see Geishas perform, drink and have a chat with them afterwards as well. All the bartenders here have day jobs as vocalists, pianists and actresses - they spoke basic English and were keen to chat with the gaijin here. They take song requests, provided they have it on CD or ripped to the PC (they do have quite a large selection though I found of jazz, blues, folk, opera and classics in particular). As an 80s j-pop lover they had a lot on offer for me too, with lots of Mariya Takeuchi and Yuki Saito played that night. Being trained vocalists and pianists, the bartenders will play the piano and sing the songs you request provided they know it already (they sang Junko Ohashi’s ‘Crazy About You’ to me upon request). Oh, and did I mention the toilet? It’s like the Waldorf Astoria of toilets, it’s so nice that I’d pay to sleep there. Also, worth mentioning is the superb level of service we got. Upon asking for my coat, they personally put it on for me, instead of just handing it over. Mamasan walked us out of the bar and to the elevator itself, bowing and thanking us for visiting all the way. On my second visit they walked me out to the entrance of the building complex, no joke! All in all, a fantastic experience…great drinks, best sound system I heard on my trip, nice people and most aesthetic bar I’ve been to.
More info: http://blog.kenricksound.com/2015/12/4343bsf.html
^ See video here starting at 11.30.
I've probably forgotten a few others but will write about them when they come to mind and if I have time. Hope you guys enjoyed the read and I'd be keen to hear your experiences as well, knowing many of you must've been to places like this in Japan before me. Peace ✌️