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November 26 – December 2, 2022  |  No. 427
November 26 – December 2, 2022  |  No. 427
November 26 – December 2, 2022  |  No. 427
It’s hard not to make a big entrance at Lion, one of Tokyo’s oldest listening bars. The room is dim and the furniture creaky. After finding a seat and trying (but failing) to find a suitable resting position for my size 13 feet under the table, I notice another spot in a better position and with more leg room. So, I move again, all the while conscious that I’m polluting the sonic environment with the sound of scraping chairs.
Music lovers have long flocked to this tiny bar, established in 1926, to hear the latest recordings on the city’s finest stereo, all for the price of a cup of tea – or in my case an iced lemon squash. While global audiences can access millions of songs on hand-held personal devices, here young couples, middle-aged office workers and solo souls are, like me, looking for something away from the algorithm. Less control, more surprise, maybe a moment of repose from the bustle outside in Shibuya, the commercial hub of Japan’s capital. Each selection is formally introduced by the librarian-DJ, who specialises in classical music, her whispered tones in keeping with the reverential ambience. The altar-like stage is dominated by a custom-built, three-metre-high Pioneer speaker system, flanked by thousands of vinyl albums and CDs.
I’m in Japan as one of the first wave of foreigners to venture back to the country since it reopened to independent travellers in October, following two years of pandemic border controls. With the yen hovering near a 32-year-low after a huge Covid-19 hit, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is hoping tourism will fuel the country’s economic resurgence.
While some anxiety around Japan’s new normal is obvious – masks are worn indoors and, although not required by law, are still prevalent in most public outdoor areas – I find it easier than I expect to adjust back to masks-most-of-the-time, especially as everyone else is doing it too. Behind the N95s, the city is welcoming and ready to roll. As a musician and visual artist, I want to do my bit for the cultural sector. My goals are simply to listen, look, shop, drink and eat. And wander.
Tokyo’s scale is daunting – imagine a single city containing half the entire population of Australia. That it works as efficiently as it does is a wonder; that it retains a level of personal connection among the chaos is a miracle. This is in some part due to omotenashi, a deep-rooted culture of heartfelt and transparent hospitality that has evolved from the sado, or tea ceremony. So, while you can get lost in the sea of humanity as it surges across Shibuya or pulses in crowded subway carriages, you feel the warmth of personal connection upon reaching your destination – whether that’s a restaurant with room for only a handful of guests or an intimate DJ bar with an exquisite sound system.
I came to explore Tokyo’s listening bars – small bars and cafes that prioritise a quality, often analog, music-listening experience for audiophiles as an antidote to the noisy city. The concept of these bars has evolved from the meikyoku kissa – loosely translated as “masterpiece cafe” – classical music and jazz cafes that thrived in Tokyo after World War II, when records, and the equipment to play them, were prohibitively expensive. Only a handful of those original places remain but the concept has survived and gradually expanded to a variety of listening environments, from hushed to head-bobbingly boisterous (such as Shibuya’s DJ Bar Bridge). In addition to all flavours of jazz and classical music, you can explore funk, R&B, pop, soul, rock and folk music.
Tokyo music company Martha Records runs three small listening bars that have developed the concept while retaining great reverence for the sonic. Active listening is encouraged, so any sound not coming from the vintage analog sound equipment is kept to a minimum. While some online reviewers found the service rude – Bar Martha bans photos and loud talking, and the bartenders will chastise punters if they transgress – respect is reciprocated when shown by the guest.
Bar owner Wataru Fukuyama has no interest in social media and is oblivious to online comments. When I arrive at Bar Martha with a friend and carrying my afternoon’s vinyl shopping under my arm, the barman is keen to examine my spoils and nods approvingly when he sees Nico’s 1974 album The End…, and that I’d been to Flash Disc Ranch (established in 1982) in Kitazawa, one of his favourite second-hand vinyl shops. I am observing a layer of Tokyo’s cultural infrastructure in action. With the barman as our guide, I opt for a smoky local whisky from the leather-bound bar menu, which lists hundreds of variations, and settle in for quiet conversation, people-watching and an eclectic musical ride, fortified by a delicious range of help-yourself bar snacks in Mason jars.
Two days later, my visit to Martha’s sister venue, Bar Track, is a solo affair. Others are alone too – there’s a long tradition of dining alone in Japan – so it doesn’t feel weird. I have plenty of time and attention for the music selections and to dream about setting up my own listening bar one day, back in Melbourne. Between recognisable tracks are some I don’t know, most likely local Japanese artists or jazz records. I enter the venue to the raw Chicago blues of Junior Walker and am then transported via Brian Eno, Prefab Sprout and Kool & the Gang, ending up with Nick Drake, James Brown and Joni Mitchell. Yet somehow it all makes sense. I dive into the bar’s small library and learn how, via Jürgen Vollmer’s book The Beatles in Hamburg, the Fab Four got their mop-top haircuts – he says they simply copied his. I note the essential qualities of the ideal listening bar: sound, atmosphere, comfortable seats and service – this last one being the most important of all.
Tokyo’s small restaurants were also hit hard by the travel bans. Masayuki Sano from Kappo Sanoya in Shibuya tells me he lost all his tourist bookings overnight and, like many Melbourne restaurateurs, pivoted to pre-packaged home deliveries to survive. He is happy to have his restaurant once again buzzing at capacity – eight people – and on this night my table of three is next to a Japanese family and a jet-lagged English/French couple. The Kappo-style service entails a multicourse chef’s selection, and Sanoya also features sake pairings for each course that reflect the seasonal delicacies of autumn.
There seem to be many very small proprietor-run restaurants and bars such as Kappo Sanoya in Tokyo – places where you are served by the owner, who is both hands-on and knowledgeable. Whisky highballs and local beers wash down the delicious kushikatsu (deep-fried skewered meat and veggies), okonomiyaki (savoury pancake from Osaka) and oden (one-pot soupy dishes) in Shibuya City’s Ebisu Yokocho – an enclosed food alley comprising 20 tiny food stalls, where each proprietor noisily competes for your business.
My trip isn’t all about tiny eating houses and bars, however. Towards the end, my quest for shared solitude in this city takes me to the Yayoi Kusama Museum in Shinjuku City. Ushered into a small, darkened room livid with polka dots, I’m immediately overwhelmed by Kusama’s cosmic vision. It’s layers of sound and vibrant colour: as her simple sung melody rises above the white noise of the city, time stops and an inner universe opens. Then a rap on the door indicates my solo audience with the artwork is over.
My one-minute epiphany in Kusama’s I’m Here, but Nothing 2000/2022 installation is part of a new exhibition, EVERY DAY I PRAY FOR LOVE, which is running through to late February next year. Somehow this moment both posed and answered the question, “How is it that one can find both solitude and intimacy in the world’s biggest city?”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 26, 2022 as “Far away, so close”.
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Daniel Jumpertz is an artist, musician and the founder of Feral Media record label.
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November 26 – December 2, 2022  |  No. 427
November 26 – December 2, 2022 Edition No. 427
Exclusive: Robo-debt ‘insights’ to shape NDIS compliance Rick Morton
Industrial reforms: The David Pocock interview Mike Seccombe
Ukraine’s next pitch to the world Karen Middleton
In the aftermath of the floods Edward Cavanough
SEA’s electric vehicles v the state Kurt Johnson
Scores dead, thousands evacuated after Java quake Jonathan Pearlman
The story of Daniel Andrews Martin McKenzie-Murray
A wild ride in the red chamber Paul Bongiorno
John Howard’s anti-Voice strategy John Hewson
Letters & Editorial
Jon Kudelka cartoon, November 26, 2022
Mining new depths
‘Interesting’ times
Artist Lisa Reihana Tristen Harwood
The Menu Christos Tsiolkas
Sun Songs & Cycles Gail Priest
First Casualty Yen-Rong Wong
S. Shakthidharan Neha Kale
Creaking hallways Jessie Cole
Chokepoint Capitalism Jeff Sparrow
Tell Me Again Ben Abbatangelo
Song of the Sun God Vyshnavee Wijekumar
Coq au vin Annie Smithers
Sounding out Tokyo’s underground Daniel Jumpertz
What’s next for the Climate Change Authority? Polly Hemming
The machinations of Qatar’s World Cup Martin McKenzie-Murray
The Cryptic
Cryptic Crossword No. 427 Liam Runnalls
The Quiz
What is the first name of Bill Gates’s philanthropist ex-wife? Cindy MacDonald
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