Jazz Kissa Culture Goes Global: Exit to Vintage Street


Today’s mail call brought with it a wonderful surprise: the long-awaited delivery of Jazz Kissa 2014 Vol. 1, featuring 140 pages of beautiful images of old-school Japanese jazz bars and coffee shops, photographed by Katsumasa Kusunose and published magazine-style by Jazz City in Nagoya.

Anyone who knows me or follows me on Instagram knows I love – as in L-O-V-E – everything about and connected with Jazz Kissa (aka Japanese Jazz Coffee Shops or Jazz Bars).

My first casual brushes with jazz were at a popular jazz bar in Sapporo called Jamaica in the early ‘90s, listening to Ryo Fukui play live on Wednesday nights. Little did I know then how hard I would fall three decades later for the Kissa concept, first via the @jazz_kissa account on Instagram, and then through visits to several bars and cafes in Tokyo, Fukuoka and Sapporo on a trip to Japan in the spring of 2019.

Jazz Kissa 2014 Vol. 1
Jazz Kissa 2014 Vol. 1: Keeping my frustration in check.

The neverending black hole of the Pandemic means a planned return trip for more Kissa experiences has been put on hold, but Jazz Kissa 2014 and other Jazz City magazines are welcome opportunities to vicariously soak in the vibes of some iconic venues and keep my growing frustration in check.

I’m not the only one who’s been bitten by the Jazz Kissa bug. I’m noticing interest all over. There’s huge excitement within the Instagram jazz community whenever a new magazine is about to be published, and a wave of posts as deliveries occur.

In Sheep's Clothing HiFi
In Sheep’s Clothing hifiJazz Kissa culture going global (picture from Instagram).

Jazz and Hi-Fi listening bars are popping up outside Japan, too. Friends in London speak glowingly of some amazing bars there, with outrageous high-end systems, amazing music and captivating ambience. In North America, bars inspired by Jazz Kissa are also starting to appear. Two that I follow are In Sheep’s Clothing hifi in Los Angeles and ESP HiFi in Denver.

In Sheep’s Clothing hifi opened in 2017 as a respite from fast-paced lives and as a place to connect via deep listening experiences. The pandemic hit just as they were hitting their stride, and they were forced to close in 2020. ESP HiFi opened just a few months ago as vaccinations become more prevalent, and life returned to some semblance of normality.

ESP HiFi: Denver’s First HiFi Listening Bar (photo from www.5280.com)

Both In Sheep’s Clothing and ESP are places I’d love to experience, and I hope to get the chance one day. I’d also be overjoyed to have a similar concept take hold here in Calgary. I can’t help but think though that these Global Kissa establishments lose something in the translation and can’t recreate the organic intimacy and history of the real thing. For that your only option is to go to the source.

Imagine if you will…

My wife and I are visiting Fukuoka and walking along a narrow side street in the Tenjin area. It’s late morning. We could use a coffee, or perhaps even a light lunch. To our left, we see a sign in front of the door of an old, nondescript, two-story building. “Modern Jazz & Coffee JAB” says the sign. “Jazz & Coffee JAB” says the red awning above, almost covering the building’s second floor. The sign is out, and the steel roll shutters are up, so JAB must be open for business. We open the door and step inside.

JAB Exterior
JAB Exterior: Behind door number one is a jazz pleasure zone.

On entering, the first thing we see immediately inside the door, in an alcove to the left, is two huge JBL speakers. Close to four feet high and three wide. Huge woofers and full-width horn diffusers. 4560s from the ‘70s. The sounds of Ella Fitzgerald waft from those speakers, not too loud, but delivered with authority. A great welcome.

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Beyond the speaker alcove, the door to the washroom, and beyond that another alcove with a table and seating for six; three on each side. A magazine rack separates the alcove from the main space, and in back of the alcove next to the table a bookshelf with rows and rows of novels, jazz books, and manga; the bounty of reading material a sign that customers are welcome to settle in, relax, and make themselves at home.

JBL 4560s
Down the Left: Huge JBL 4560s, alcove in back, and all the reading materials you could wish for.

To the right of the entrance, along the front wall, a row of three tables with seating for three, four and seven. Two middle-aged Salary Men (company office workers) sit at the three-top, and four more at the seven. All enjoy cigarettes and coffee – smoking is allowed but cell phones aren’t. Both groups discuss business in hushed tones. There is a window with mesh shutters pulled firmly down; ambient light enters, but passersby can’t see in, and customers are protected from the hustle and bustle of the modern world outside.

Ella Now Playing
Now Playing: Ella, and one of many reminders that mobile phone use is prohibited.

Separating the main floor area from the master’s (proprietor’s) domain is a low, L-shaped bar counter with stools, all empty for now. On the rear wall behind the bar, shelves containing audio equipment and records. 1975 Luxman PD-131 turntable, Zaika tube pre- and power-amplifiers, and other ‘80s pieces (back-up amp, CD player, tuner). Nothing blingy but producing wonderful sound vibes.

Audio Shelf
Audio Shelf: Luxman, Zaika tubes and assorted other equipment.

Still behind the bar, to the right, shelves with shochu and sake, whisky and other spirits, glasses, coffee cups, and other supplies. A shelf of records across the top. A small fridge with cold beer. Behind this wall, hidden by a long noren (Japanese curtain) covering the entrance, a small kitchen space. And between the kitchen and front seating area, a wall of records from floor to ceiling (picture a 5 x 5 IKEA Kallax, but sturdy, solid hardwood), a massive air conditioning unit, and another 2 x 5 ceiling-height unit with more records.

Records Galore
Records Galore: A wall of records, and more stashed in every nook and cranny.

There are records – all jazz – literally everywhere, both in the main shelving units, and in every spare nook and cranny.

Lighting is dim. Air mildly smoky. Mood nostalgic. It could easily be 1969, which is when this shop first opened. All that has changed since then (seemingly) is the pristine wooden bar- and table-tops, and some of the audio equipment. The current owner – in his 70s and a customer in student days and through his early career – has been in charge since 2000 when the first owner passed. He changed careers and dedicated himself to preserving the spirit of JAB and playing jazz classics for as long as he is able.

Back Alcove View
Back Alcove View: Whiling away the hours in style.

We choose the rear alcove. There’s nobody there, and we can escape the main brunt of the cigarette smoke enveloping the two groups up front. We order two drip coffees (¥400 each) and settle in. My wife grabs a magazine and begins browsing. I soak in the atmosphere, drinking in everything with my eyes and ears. The coffee when it comes is delicious. We sit sipping and relaxing, each in our own way. The Ella album ends and is replaced with a Duke Ellington big band recording.

Even in the back corner, the sound in this space is wonderful. One might wonder about having two huge speakers so close together in a corner, but since bass is non-directional and most of the music played was recorded (or pressed) in mono, positioning doesn’t really matter. Bass goes low, with lovely texture. The horns produce beautiful, crisp detail. Sound overall is wonderfully organic, and what I long to reproduce in my home system someday. Sonic goals.

Big JBLs
Big JBLs: Filling the space with beautiful sound.

Noon comes and seats begin to fill with customers stopping in for lunch. The fare is simple, home-style Japanese, like omu-rice (rice wrapped in an omelet), yaki-soba (fried soba noodles with simple sauce and toppings), meat sauce pasta, and curry-rice (an unsung Japanese delicacy). We decide to order lunch; I choose the curry (¥600) and my wife the pasta (also ¥600). We’re on holiday, so I order my favourite Japanese beer, Yebisu (¥700). All super reasonable, even after 7:00 pm when all prices go up by ¥100. As with the coffee, the food is hearty and tasty; we savour it slowly while watching the lunch crowd enjoying their meals and relaxing before heading back to their offices.

Japanese Curry and Rice
Lunch: A simple dish of Japanese curry and rice. Delicious.

By 1:00 JAB is almost empty again. We linger a little longer. An early Art Farmer album is now spinning and accompanies the last of my beer. One other customer remains – a university student in his early 20s. He studies silently and will likely pass the afternoon here while others come and go quietly. Perhaps the next Master?

We have places to go and things to do, so pay our bill and rejoin the world. Our time slip ends, but the relaxed calm remains and sustains as we go about our day. 

And so back to the reality…

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The Japanese are known to be some of the busiest, hard-working, singularly focused people, living in one of the densest, noisiest, pressure-filled environments on the planet. Yet somehow they have a penchant for escapism and knack for escaping. Gaming, massage, karaoke, onsen (hot spring baths and resorts), seasonal rituals like hanami (cherry blossom viewing), regional festivals, golf, personal audio, and jazz kissa (jazz coffee shops and bars) all provide distance and relief from multiple stressors like crowds, work, school, cramped living space and commuting.

Onsen bath
Escape: An onsen bath sooths and relaxes.

Not all jazz kissa are like JAB. Some are noisier and less strict about customer chit chat and general boisterousness. Others are draconian in their disapproval of any sound that disturbs musical purity and enjoyment. Some are spacious, modern venues hosting DJs and live bands in addition to spinning records, while others are ramshackled holes in the wall with seating for only a few. Some feature the highest of high-end audio systems – McIntosh, Mark Levinson, early Luxman, Thorens and Garrard – while others cobble together systems of unknown heritage. The more popular kissa have been frequented by jazz notables over the years, and are akin to museums, with signed photos and memorabilia everywhere. All different, but unified by a love of and appreciation for jazz by owners and patrons alike.

Poster at Jazz Café Bossa in Sapporo
Jazz Memorabilia: Poster at Jazz Café Bossa in Sapporo.

As mentioned already, I love that Jazz Kissa awareness is growing and that there’s interest in creating inviting spaces for deep listening to jazz (and other types of music) outside Japan, even if the Western equivalent is bound to be bigger, newer, cleaner and noisier than the original.

The Vinyl Backed Bar at ESP HiFI
The vinyl-backed bar at ESP HiFi: Photo by Alayna Alvarez at Axios Denver.

I long for something like this close to home, be it a traditional Jazz Kissa or modern facsimile. Of course, I can sequester myself in my basement listening room, close my eyes and achieve something resembling a Kissa vibe (I wouldn’t give that up for the world), but there’s something magical about listening to jazz in the commune of others, in a space ripe with atmosphere and ambience, where control of the records that spin is surrendered to a playlist of someone else’s choosing.

I can’t wait to see what happens with the spread of Jazz Kissa culture globally, and over time look forward to jazz bar adventures closer and closer to home. But that won’t stop me heading back to Japan from time to time for a taste of the real thing.

JBL Loudspeakers
One More for the Road: Those JBLs made a lasting impression.

For more of the jazz kissa vibe, check out the following Instagram accounts: @jazz_kissa@eagle_jazz@tokyojazzjoints and @audiokafe_gafu. And if you have suggestions for other kissa accounts to follow, message me at @audioloveyyc.

Related reading: Japanese Jazz Kissa and the Art of the Piano Trio


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