Kobe is a port city known in Japan for its jazz culture, among other things. It’s even sometimes called “ jazz town”, and not “beef town” as you might have imagined.
Why? The origin goes back to 1920s when Japanese musicians working on the cruise ships on trans-Pacific routes encountered jazz on the West Coast of the US and brought back sheet music and instruments to Japan. It is said that the first professional jazz band was formed in Kobe in 1923 and they did the first gig at a hotel in the city.
After WWII, jazz clubs became so popular in the Kitano-cho district where many foreign merchants and diplomats settled. “Kobe Jazz Street”, an annual citywide live event has been attracting thousands of people every year since it was first held in 1981.
If you’re in Kobe in October for the event, going out on the streets and visiting clubs and bars one after the other to enjoy live performances is a good idea. Another thing you can do to feel the vibe that I suggest is to visit a “jazz kissa” in the city.
Jazz kissas are coffee shops dedicated to playing jazz records (and sometimes CDs) all day long. You can’t expect live music at jazz kissas. Still, many jazz enthusiasts visit their favorite jazz kissa and sit there for hours for music rather than the coffee. Jazz kissas thrived from 60s to the early 70s in Japan, when a lot of people could not afford expensive imported vinyls. The culture of jazz kissas is unique. It has history. And the best way to find out is to go visit one. Here are three recommended venues in the jazz town of Japan.
1. Sabou Voice
Voice is located on the 2nd floor of a building filled with small retail stores in the center of the Sannomiya downtown area. You might start feeling as if you are walking down a street in Akihabara as the majority of stores sell things like anime goods and model railways. Right next to a crane game shop, you’ll find Voice.
Opening the door, I was welcomed by a delightful coffee aroma, a soothing jazz rhythm, and a warm smile from the owner. “Oh,” I thought. “He didn’t give me a withering look.” As a jazz kissa beginner myself, I thought they would be more intimidating places to hang out. The image of a stereotypical jazz kissa is a dark room with a curmudgeonly owner who would silence any talkative customers with a single glare. Maybe I was wrong.
“Well, it’s just a coffee shop after all…” Murata-san, the owner of Voice said. “They started to call us jazz kissa just because our vinyl collection got bigger and bigger,” he humbly continued. From about 6000 records sorted by labels and sitting on the shelf, the staff picks one up and puts it on the player one after another, very systematically. No random picks. They go through the collection so that customers can enjoy all kinds of timeless jazz albums if they visit Voice regularly.
Murata-san also focuses on the hi-fi audio system and said: “The quality of sound reproduction, is the key when you buy and build an audio system. Speakers are ALTEC model 604B, not JBL. This is a 300B single-ended power amplifier. The preamp is LIVE1 by a Japanese manufacturer, Sound Parts. And we use a Thorens TD-126 MKIII turntable.” Um…Ok. The owner started to show off his geeky side, I guess.
Whether you speak the language of audiophiles or not, sitting in front of big speakers, sipping coffee, and taking a closer look at the record needle as it gets into the groove is one of the most relaxing experiences you could possibly get at a coffee shop.
Voice’s atmosphere and sound is so welcoming that a discerning jazz aficionado, a tourist who stops by to taste some Kansai specialty “mix juice” and a young student who wants to introduce his friend to good music, feel equally reluctant to get up and leave.
2. Jazz Kissa Jamjam
If you want to try a more traditional style of jazz kissa, Jamjam is your place. What is more traditional? Loud, apparently. Located in the basement of a building just a few minutes walk from Motomachi station, the echoing trumpet sound will get you excited even before you take your first step down the stairs.
On the other side of the door decorated with a vinyl, there’s a huge space. So spacious, I almost forgot I was in the basement. And the sound through the analog audio system is so loud that it makes sense the space is split into two areas; seats for quiet listeners right in front of the speakers and seats for groups of people who want to have conversations along with the music further away. There are many ways to enjoy the afternoon or the evening at Jamjam.
Though it is loud in the sense of decibels, the experience is very different from what you get dancing in a club for hours. For some reason, your ears won’t hurt. The sound of the trumpet, the piano, and the bass are so real, warm, crisp, and dynamic. It just feels refreshing. Plus, they bake amazing chiffon cakes.
The owner of Jamjam, Ikenoue-san creates an environment where you can position yourself close to the big speakers and feel the jazz rhythm and the vibration of the sound. “I always discover something new when listening to records I’ve listened to many many times. That’s the power of playing records at full volume,” he says.
In fact, I could even hear the sound of a quick intake of breath by a saxophone player which made me picture the group of musicians gathered for the recording a few decades ago.
Ikenoue-san told me it is not uncommon for a hamburger chain and even a gyoza shop to choose jazz as a restaurant’s background music these days. He says, “It’s cool because I love jazz.” But he wants to provide a unique space to those who are willing to find a hidden gem on a back street: “When you find it, it will be interesting.” I assure you an interesting world will indeed be waiting for you in that basement.
3. Mokuba’s Tavern
Konishi-san, the owner of Mokuba’s Tavern also expresses how fun it is to step outside of your comfort zone, find your new favorite spot, and invest in your personal luxury: “If it turns out to be a poor experience, that’s fine. Now you know it and you can just knock on another door.”
As the name suggests, this is a neighboring hang where you can dine with friends and have drinks. I visited Mokuba in the afternoon of a weekday and it was packed with Kobe locals who love teatime probably more than the Queen does. Mokuba’s cakes are really good and you might even forget that you came here for the jazz.
Though it has relocated a few times, Konishi-san’s Mokuba has been in business in Kobe for a long time. He remembers the time when the demand for jazz kissa was so strong and jazz kissas competed to have larger and larger record collections with their own unique flavors. “But we’re not living in the same era anymore,” he admits.
Konishi-san doesn’t mourn for the past, however. He simply keeps playing what he believes to be good music at Mokuba’s Tavern which proudly states on its flag that it’s been providing the city with jazz since 1977.
If you sit facing Tor Road, one of the trendiest streets in Kobe, you can enjoy watching women walking up the hill with high heels, a family pushing a pet stroller with a toy poodle in it, and people go in and out of the best known deli in the city. While inside Mokuba, you’ll hear comforting jazz playing behind the chatter of the customers. Now, this is priceless.
It may be an exaggeration to describe trying new cafes as a way to broaden your horizon. But, I think trying new jazz kissas definitely makes you notice at least one thing; it is exciting to actively look for a new way of doing things, even if it’s to passively consume the content other people choose. Kobe has a variety of options. Come and find out for yourself.
JAZZ TOWN KOBE
Address／Center Plaza Nishi-kan 2F 2-11 Sannomiya-cho, Chuo-ku, Kobe-shi, Hyogo
Nearest Stations／JR Sannomiya, Hankyu Kobe Sannomiya, Hanshin Kobe Sannomiya
Jazz Kissa jamjam
Address／B1 New Moto Bldg. 1-7-2 Motomachi-dori, Chuo-ku, Kobe-shi, Hyogo
Nearest Stations／JR Motomachi, Hanshin Motomachi, Kobe City Subway Kyukyoyuchi-Daimarumae
Closed／Every first and third Mondays of the month
Address／1F The Bega Tor Road 3-12-14 Kitanagasa-dori, Chuo-ku, Kobe-shi, Hyogo
Nearest Stations／JR Motomachi, Hanshin Motomachi, Hankyu Kobe Sannomiya
Photographs & Text by Madoka Hori
Madoka Hori / Photo-writer Entrepreneurial translator/writer living in Hyogo. As a licensed English tour guide, she occasionally takes tourists to beautiful destinations such as Kobe, Himeji, Okayama, Kyoto, and Osaka and her clients have never got lost so far. On Setouchi Finder, as one of the original team members, she enjoys taking photos and sharing her favorite hidden gems. Private Photo Blog http://riderv328.tumblr.com Twitter https://twitter.com/Riderv328
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