The Soundtrack to Tokyo’s Hidden Record Bars

From acid jazz and Mojitos to bebop and sake, a look at four of Tokyo’s most unique record bars, and the playlists that define them.

Don’t expect to stumble across Tokyo’s record bars just by wandering around; they’re camouflaged, scattered among the neon-drenched streets that are brimming with smoky yakitori stalls, karaoke and pachinko parlors and maze-like alleyways crowded with miniature four- or five-seat bars. It’s easy to get sidetracked, but those bold enough to explore off the beaten path are rewarded with a glimpse of a nightlife custom spanning multiple generations and a musical journey with some of the city’s most obsessive record collectors.

You can find record bars on upper floors of old office buildings, down long, dark corridors or in basement shopping arcades. They can be tiny and tucked away in places where you’d least expect to find them. An outgrowth of the jazz kissa, a type of cafe that originated in 1950s post-war Japan, where people could hear the latest imported records they otherwise wouldn’t have had access to, there’s a ramshackle, members-only feel to these places.

Although kissaten have declined in numbers, new generations continue to open spots that put a contemporary spin on the traditional formula. In a city of 38 million, these bars offer city dwellers a reprieve from the crowds, and a communal drinking experience akin to listening to a mix tape being made in real time. Acid jazz and sake; vintage house music mixed with fresh takes on local standbys like acai-infused highballs; nostalgic Shōwa-era music paired with perfectly executed Sidecars and Gin Fizzes, are a few of the niche concepts that show no vision is off limits in Tokyo’s extensive record bar landscape.

Baobab Record Bar Tokyo

Bar Baobab

Bar Baobab is a casual spot to lounge until the sun comes up in the hopping nightlife district of Shinjuku. The drink menu is a perfect complement to the vintage R&B and reggae, with 100 varieties of Caribbean rum and liquors from all over the African continent, as well as cocktails and snacks from those same places. Owner Shinji Ikuda DJs between mixing drinks, including the house Mojito. It’s a hideaway up a treacherously steep staircase, which Ikuda has decorated to match the feel of an African handicraft stall, with wooden masks and statues, musical instruments and woven tapestries. He hopes guests will find something they’d like to have in their own home here.

Total No. of Records: 3,000
Personal Favorite: Instant Village by Raphael Saadiq
Most Played: “Rock With You” by Michael Jackson

Dogenzaka Rock Record Bar Tokyo

Dogenzaka Rock

At Dogenzaka Rock, owner Yuji Ido specializes in Japanese and Western rock ‘n roll from Muddy Waters and Buddy Holly to the present day. The drink list is focused on Japanese whisky, American bourbon and single malt Scotch. Edison-style exposed light bulbs and dimly lit antique lamps with immaculate light wood shelving creates a minimal, sophisticated atmosphere. To request songs, Ido has a large alphabetized catalog to choose from and slips of paper for patrons to write down requests. He will follow up with a song in the same vein. It’s a call and response system where improvised playlists are created between guests and Ido.

Total No. of Records: 4,500 analog records, 6,000 CDs and 400 cassette tapes
Personal Favorite: Elvis Presley by Elvis Presley
Most Played: “Don’t Look Back In Anger” by Oasis

Paper Moon Record Bar Tokyo

Paper Moon

Opened in 1982, Paper Moon is one of the best spots in Tokyo for a traditional record bar experience that still hews closely to the original style of jazz kissa. Owner Kazuki Yamamoto has an astounding collection of jazz in every style, from Latin to bebop, alongside a large collection of records by local Japanese artists—a rarity in the city, as most jazz bars focus on Western music. Yamamoto is humble but incredibly knowledgeable and routinely encourages guests to rummage through his collection for something to suit their taste. Regulars’ personal shochu and whisky bottles are kept on shelves lining the walls, and handmade posters—from back when the tiny bar hosted live performances—take up the remaining space.

Total No. of Records: 5,000
Personal Favorite: Rahsaan Rahsaan by Roland Kirk
Most Played: “Young Man with a Horn” by Miles Davis

Akiru Sha Record Bar Tokyo

Ahiru Sha

Stacked against the typical cramped shoebox-sized bars in Tokyo, Ahiru Sha feels like a palace. With oversized leather chairs and a wide, sleek wood counter, guests can fully sink into their surroundings. Blending Shōwa-era tunes with current Japanese popular music, the sound is balanced. Behind the bar, wearing a customary white bartender’s coat, owner Shuhei Okamura follows traditional Japanese cocktail techniques. There’s no menu, but be sure to request a classic cocktail made with fresh Japanese citrus such as sudachi, yuzu or mishokan. While Ahiru Sha is a next-generation record bar, glimpses of the past are found in the details. Upon arrival, guests receive the traditional oshibori and otoshi (a hot towel and complimentary snacks) and the sound system is vintage (from the 1950s and ’60s), giving even newer music a nostalgic feel. As a hobby, Okamura regularly rotates components of his sound system, tweaking it until the sound is just right.

Total No. of Records: 2,500
Personal Favorite: Misslim by Yuri Arai
Most Played: “If I See You In My Dream” by Yoshida Minako

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Kelly Thomas is a digital marketing professional who moved from New York City to Tokyo in 2015 to study Japanese.