On a recent trip to Japan, I had the intense pleasure of visiting several jazz kissaten (literally ‘coffee shop’) in Tokyo's Jimbocho area. These intimate, family-run bars, usually seating no more than 10 people, are built around the centrepiece of an imposing high-end sound system and the owner’s extensive record collection, largely jazz, swing and bebop from the 1950s to the 1970s.
A small group of men (let’s face it) sit there in a smoky reverie, toes tapping and heads nodding while the spirits pour freely. Talking is kept to a minimum and everyone is facing the speakers for an optimum listening position.
For a very reasonable ¥1,000 (€7.1) cover charge you’re instantly transported to a front row-seat for Bill Evans at the Village Vanguard in 1961; or the Modern Jazz Quartet at Monterey in 1963; or Pat Metheny, pretty much anywhere, at anytime. Presented with a crystal-clear sound: shimmering cymbals, pounding pianos and a double bass that you feel in your internal organs, it’s an experience that instantly makes every hi-fi you’ve previously heard sound like a kid’s toy.
The patrons can request an album if it’s in the collection and, if it’s not, with typical Japanese hospitality, the kissaten owner will happily suggest an alternative.
JBL speakers are a particular favourite in Japan – teamed up with a sizeable pair of amplifiers and a perfectly calibrated vintage turntable. These aren’t amplifiers you’d want to stub your toe on in the middle of the night; they’re colossal lumps of heavy metal that make the air move in ways you never imagined possible.
Japan’s deep love of jazz and high-end audiophile equipment soon gripped me. I returned to the UK inspired and ready to spend a punishing amount on pursuing the sound of my dreams. How was it that I had been paddling around in the shallow waters of consumer hi-fi? I needed valves, horns, a dedicated listening room and speakers that could be mistaken for a large cupboard.
Soon I was researching British boxy speakers, paired with American muscle for amplification and vinyl as thick as a McVities digestive biscuit. Beyond the speakers, amps, pre-amps, turntables, tone-arms, cartridges and cabling, I’d need a reinforced floor and a separately conditioned power circuit (a steady and clean 230v is a basic for good listening). My hearing grew so acute, I could hear my accountant having a panic attack from afar.
I’ve concluded that it’s cheaper to fly back to Tokyo for a few nights and enjoy the wall of vinyl back at ‘Big Boy’. Mine’s a glass of Hibiki and whatever Joe Pass you’ve got in the collection.
Paul Noble is a producer for Monocle 24.