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In one of those curious, unexpected side effects of globalization and imperialism, Japan has become home to some of the most thriving jazz communities in the entire world. Originally an import from American troops in the early 20th century, the genre took hold in the form of record stores, live music venues, and jazu kissas — cafes where aficionados gathered to sip coffee and listen to vinyls. These jazz sanctuaries have somewhat dwindled in recent years, but you can still find some great spots around the country. Here are the best places for finding Japanese Jazz.
Many cities jostle for the status as the home of the jazz scene in the Land of the Rising Sun, and Osaka is a very legitimate candidate. The first jazz cafe opened in 1933, so it certainly checks off the historical box, and throughout the century the city saw dance halls repurposed into venues used exclusively for jazz music.
Chuwa Dixie Building
Although the Chuwa Dixie Building is not exclusively reserved for jazz music, it deserves to be included in every guide regarding Osaka’s music scene. The five story building boasts a different music bar on each floor, and the genres range from jazz on top (Jazz Bar Top Rank) to rock and bossa nova.
Once you get past the ~$22 cover, it becomes clear why Rug Time is one of the most desireable clubs in the city. Rug Time is a lively, fun spot that’s usually filled with a younger crowd. The schedule alternates between touring acts, open mic nights, and a house band that usually welcomes eager musicians onstage.
While the bar and cocktail menu are genuinely impressive, Comodo bar has more of a studious, high school band room vibe. The people who frequent Comodo bar are top-notch musicians that are passionate about how japanese culture is carrying on the jazz tradition. Feel free to come for dinner as well.
Yokohama’s relationship with jazz music began back in the 1920s when the genre was roaring in the United States. Ocean liners would bring passengers from around the world to Yokohama’s port, many of them stuck around, and the genre was welcomed with open arms. While the city’s scene still has very western roots, it has also given jazz its own unique Japanese and Yokohaman twists.
Windjammer is the oldest jazz club in Yokohama, so definitely make your way here for a walk down memory lane. Traditionally, a windjammer was a kind of large merchant sailing ship in the 19th and 20th centuries, which will make sense once you walk through the doors. The entire interior feels like the inside of a crammed, low-ceiling, windowless war ship. Which, come to think of it, isn’t far from an underground jazz club anyways.
Opening relatively recently in 2002, Motion Blue Yokohama is located in the Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse, which is a famous tourist spot in the city. It has a swanky interior, a great food menu, and it’s affiliated with Tokyo’s illustrious Blue Note.
Stretching way back to 1958, the Down Beat is as vintage as they come in Yokohama. The walls are covered in old newspaper clippings, jazz records, posters of famous musicians like Charles Mingus and Miles Davis, as well as Japanese jazz musicians like Terumasa Hino and Sadao Watanabe.
Located in an area of somewhat dingy sidestreets between the neighborhoods of Kannai and Noge, Jazz Spot ADLIB is a kind of working man’s, off-the-beaten-path jazz club that specializes in live jam sessions. Check the website to be sure, but they often hold open mic nights where you can bring your own instrument and make some noise with others.
While the Japanese jazz scene may have originated in the cities of Osaka or Yokohama, Tokyo is the genre’s modern home. There are tons of top-notch jazz clubs throughout the city, frankly enough to warrant its own article. Besides these live music venues below, the city is still full of traditional jazz cafes where you can sip a drink while listening to records in a social setting.
There’s no talk of jazz in Tokyo without mentioning the world famous Blue Note. Founded by two American women back in 1988, the super high-end venue seats about 300 people, and it’s hosted huge household names like Roberta Flack, Dr. John, and Maceo Parker.
Cotton Club is one of the most decked-out clubs in the city. The vibe here is akin to a high-end theater with its mahogany curtains, natural rock walls, and an impressive stage light setup. It’s widely known as one of the best nightlife spots in the city, so you may be bumping shoulders with some of the bigger jazz names.
Apollo is an intimate spot just west of the famed Shibuya district (which is part of Japanese Graffiti: Tokyo’s Best Areas for Street Art. Here you’ll find both local and international acts performing almost every night of the week. The room is donned with beautiful vintage instruments hanging on the wall, and owner Miura San is been supporting the scene since long before anyone can remember. And if you’re looking to try out your own chops, there’s a jam session every Sunday.
Shinuku’s Pit Inn is one of the larger venues in the city when it comes to jazz. While the environment here isn’t as intimate as many others, the acts are usually bigger. Find everything from modern jazz to dance music and American jazz here at the Pitt Inn.
Kyoto is the the old world capital of Japan, so it’s more of an expert on ancient temples, geishas, and traditional tea houses than jazz music. That said, the city is home to a few important spots that are worthy of a stop for jazz enthusiasts. Also, for a place to stay in the city, here are the 8 Best Places to Stay in Japan on a Budget: Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka.
Like kyoto itself, Le Club Jazz is proudly Japanese. The website is only in Japanese, the visiting artists are almost always Japanese, and the food is amazingly Japanese — which by the way, Japan definitely makes it on our list of Culinary Travel: Countries With the Best Food. The entrance is a little tricky around the back and upstairs, but once you find it you’ll be rewarded with a cool local vibe.
Located just south of the University of Kyoto, Zac Baran is a veteran of the city’s live music scene. Here you’ll find students, university staff, doctors and nurses from the school’s hospital, and people from all walks of life. Legend has it that this basement bar was a gathering spot for the Japanese Red Army during the 70’s and 80’s, so it has that kind of speakeasy under-the-radar vibe. Drinks are very budget friendly.
Kobe is another important hub for jazz music in Japan. Legend has it that the first Japanese jazz band was formed at this southern port town back in 1923, but the jury is still out on that one. What is true is that Louis Armstrong visited Kobe twice with his orchestra back in the day, and today it hosts the internationally-renowned Kobe Jazz Street, which is a festival each fall.
Sone is your best bet for finding jazz music in the city of Kobe. It opened some 40 years ago and hosts nightly jazz to this day. Many people visit for the food, and the brunch menu (and crowds) rival that of any hipster joint in North America.
Although Yorozuya is located in a basement, it’s a spacious spot with al old-world charm and tends to be quieter than many of the other venues on this list. Live music isn’t a focus here, so visit with friends or a date to chat over drinks and some excellent jazz records playing in the background.