Release Date: Oct 2, 2015
Being a classical music fan in Showa-era Tokyo was no easy task. The post- war years in particular saw the price of vinyl records soar to heights unimaginable for the average Japanese; the luxury of playing recorded music in one’s household was largely the privilege of the wealthy upper classes, who embraced Japan’s increasing intake of the West’s consumerism and decadence.
Perhaps as a reaction to this imbalanced ratio of classical music lovers to the expensive record market, the ‘meikyoku kissaten’ phenomenon saw a quiet boom. Translating literally to ‘famous music café’, music kissatens were essentially small coffeehouses that housed top-shelf stereo systems and boasted large numbers of classical music records. Blurring the line between coffee shop and concert hall, the chairs in a music kissaten almost always face in the direction of the speakers, from which analog-warmth- laden orchestral concertos and piano sonatas flow sublimely throughout the day. One did not go to a music kissaten to engage in lively banter over coffee or tea with one’s friends; one went to experience the joy of listening to music.
As the 1960s came and went, vinyl record prices dropped, and so too did the number of music kissatens. Today, there are few still in business, but they all still retain the refinement and austerity left over from the rich history that brought them into being.
Here are a handful of the best.
True to its name, LION is king of the Tokyo music kissaten. The oldest of those remaining in the city, it opened in the first year of Showa, 1926, only to be destroyed by the firebombing of Tokyo in the waning days of World War II. By 1950, however, it had been completely rebuilt, with its enormous stereo system still intact.
LION is such a relic of fifties-era Tokyo that upon entering through its rickety wooden front door, one feels unstuck in time, where the presence of salarymen quietly working on their laptops seems conspicuously anachronistic to the café’s Showa-era velvet seating, creaky floorboards, and antique oddities in every corner of its two-floor seating area. As a white bust of Beethoven himself stares down at you from the front of the room, the symphonies that sound from the gigantic wooden wall speakers embrace you as you sit with your coffee – an atmosphere that is the embodiment of tranquility. Adhering to the unwritten music kissaten manifest, conversation inside the café is permitted if quiet but advised to be kept at a minimum: a visit to LION is best done alone.
Aside from their signature blend coffee, the menu at LION is made up of variations on basic café fare – tea, lemon squash, juices, soft drinks and hot chocolates. There are no shortages of cool drinks for the summer months, including their delicious iced coffee, milkshakes, and even a matcha float. Save for a small bowl of ice-cream, there’s no food on offer, so arrive with a full stomach.
As is the norm at music kissatens, customers can request specific music to play over the café’s speaker system. Bringing your own record or CD to play is also possible, if your choice happens to be missing from the café’s collection of over 5000 records. From 3 to 7pm, programmed ‘listening concerts’ are held, the listing of which can be found in their brochure.
The majority of Tokyo’s music kissatens lie along the Chuo Line, with the highest concentration located in the trendy Koenji/Asagaya area. The dainty Nelken is right at home nestled amongst the second-hand clothing stores and oddity shops of Koenji’s shopping district, and its floral frontage gives it an inticing sense of bygone-era charm.
Open since 1955, Nelken’s austere interior of water-colour paintings, renaissance-era statues and dividers fashioned from old burnt trees is overseen single-handedly by the ‘Madam’ Fumiko Suzuki, a pleasantly soft- spoken little old lady straight out of a children’s picture book.
Though the stereo system at Nelken is significantly less of a visually impressive feature than somewhere like LION, the sound of arias and orchestral suites tinged with the characteristic crackle of old vinyl records floating gently from the back of the room lends the café a calming intimacy, and helps assure its place in the Tokyo music kissaten idiom. Nelken’s gorgeously handwritten menu sports a few different types of coffee; aside from the standard homemade blend, also available to order are Colombian and Brazilian coffee types. Perhaps the aspect most unique to Nelken, however, is the inclusion of brandy into some of their drinks – brandy coffee and brandy tea are most certainly worth a try. Toast, biscuits, and other nibbles are also available to pair with your drink. Although Madam Suzuki doesn’t openly take requests for music, it is possible to bring along your own record to play over the café’s stereo system.
Renaissance’s history, like LION’s, is an inspiring one – the Nakano-based “Classic” music kissaten, opened in 1930, saw a 74-year lifespan come to its end in 2005 when it closed its doors. Two years later, however, the inheritor of Classic’s furniture and equipment opened a new café in the basement of a small Koenji building under the name Renaissance, and it ultimately became the successor of the much-adored Classic. Though the original 2-floor café would have been a marvel to behold, Renaissance is essentially a preserved time capsule of Classic’s former grace, with everything from the thick tomes bearing thousands of records to the leather seating still in a perfectly preserved state (if a little dust-covered). Renaissance has a mere three choices on its menu: coffee (blend), juice (orange), and tea, all at the price of 400 yen. Flexible with the change of the seasons, all three items can be served hot or cold – including the juice. Refills can be ordered for 200 yen.
Sitting in the café’s sunken central area, enveloped by the scent of decades-old antique furniture and oddities, one really gets the feel for the indescribable uniqueness of the music kissaten. The only illumination in the room comes from the amber lamps hung from the ceiling and lining the wooden balustrades, lending it an alluring steampunk ambience. With no windows looking out onto the world, Renaissance severs you from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo life, and sits you comfortably down with a cup of coffee and Dmitri Shostakovich’s preludes and fugues.
Down a beautiful little Asagaya side street that runs right alongside the Chuo Line is Café le Violon. Sharing many music kissaten-esque traits with Renaissance, it has a balustraded sunken central space directly in front of its centrepiece stereo system with a handful of red leather chairs, and a plethora of trinkets from eras old – small ceramic figures of men and women in period clothing, out-of-use gramophones, and shelves of old RCA Victor ‘Radio Tubes’, obsolete devices that were once used to power amplifiers.
Though comparatively new – Violon opened its doors in 1980 – the café’s stereo setup is refreshingly unusual: elongated gramophone bells and hexagonal speakers emerge from the austerely lit rear of the room. The large speakers and its amplifiers are the handiwork of the café’s ‘master’, Kenji Teramoto, who obtained most of the materials from a trip to France and Germany, and built the equipment himself.
Violon’s menu is another brief one: blend coffee, tea, milk, hot cocoa, orange juice and cola are all 350 yen, with iced options available; there are also small lunch meals available to order – though bringing in your own food seems not to be a problem – and homemade cheesecake.
With a divine upright piano also stationed in the café, live concerts are programmed almost every night, with the exception of its regular Tuesday holiday. Everything from guitar quartets to solo piano evenings are held at Violon, and in the intimate recesses of its quiet room they all promise to be wonderful experiences.
Mignon’s 5000-strong record collection is rivalled only by LION’s, and with all of them stacked neatly in shelves behind the counter that reach from floor to ceiling, it’s hard not to be impressed. Next to the 1960s-era cash register, large indexes catalogue the entire collection, openly encouraging requests from the café’s patrons. There is even a list of Chiyoko Fukuzawa’s – the former Madam, who retired in 2001 at age 91 – favourites; an eclectic hand-picked selection including ancient recordings of Bach cantatas, Rachmaninoff vocalises, and Brahms violin concertos. Built in 1961, Mignon could be considered to be the largest of Tokyo’s music kissatens – its wide expanse fits French-style wicker chairs, enormous Tannoy speakers, petite coffee tables and even a grand piano comfortably. Its second floor windows bathe light into the room, and the aura of the room brings to mind the chic Paris of the sixties.
The menu at Mignon also features the largest selection of items: blend coffee (though it need not be mentioned), is the first in the list of assorted hot drinks, including hot calpis, hot matcha milk, and a delectable apple tea; the iced drinks come in all flavours as well as ice cream floats (the author treated himself to a very delicious coffee ice cream float); and assorted alcohol is also up for grabs. The food ranges from cookies, cakes and other patisserie delights, to thick french toast with cheese and cinnamon options, and bar snacks.
Although the vibe is decidedly different to a dyed-in-the-wool music kissaten, Mignon sports its own French-style character, and it is more than worth spending an idle hour in the company of Debussy and a hot coffee. Like Violon, a range of live classical concerts are held a few times a month.
After gaining an impression of the characteristics that define the Japanese music kissaten – that is to say, largely modest, narrow rooms with intimate seating and low lighting – nothing can prepare oneself for the experience of descending from Shinjuku L’ambre’s demure first floor room to the wide open environs of its basement area. Decadent red-carpeted stairs lead down to a tiled seating area where booths of red velvet chairs face each other beneath an extravagant decor modelled to look like an Italian fresco; chandeliers hang from the ceiling and leafy plants are in abundance all around the room. Such a clash of European aesthetics in such an enclosed place is at the same time beautiful and surreal; a merging of cultures only Japan could conceive of.
Musically, L’ambre differs to its music kissaten cousins in that its stereo system is not considered a feature of the establishment, and instead the classical music that permeates the room is at a quieter volume, encouraging conversation amongst its customers. Indeed, the sound of conversation seems almost deafening at L’ambre, after becoming acclimatised to standard music kissaten fare.
Aside from its coffee – blend and American – L’ambre’s menu contains a few surprise delights: ‘coffee jelly’, a small glass of coffee-flavoured jelly with a scoop of ice-cream, banana juice, and fruit parfaits, to name a few. The café also caters for those after a light lunch, with rolls, pasta and other meals also available.
What L’ambre lacks in musical prowess it makes up for in spectacle; those looking to feel what it might have been like to be a coffee-drinking classical music-loving citizen of Tokyo in the 1950s need look no further.
-by Marty Hicks (pianist, composer)
-photography by Nik van der Giesen