Thursday, May. 13, 2010

Way of the Samurai

Best for Cerebral Jazz

Who are the coolest cats in Japan's cool-gray jazz-loving capital? They're the 5,000-plus maneki neko, those good-luck statuettes of grinning felines endlessly waving mechanical paws, crammed into the ultra-kitsch lair of Tokyo's Café Samurai (81-3-3341-0383). This one-man museum of Japanese camp is among the coziest and most colorful of the country's remaining jazz kissaten (or kissa for short, but not for smooching). These are cafés that back in the 1950s provided a poverty-stricken, America-embracing populace with places to learn about and hear the best imported music on fine sound systems not yet available to all — and all for the price of a single cup of java. Such meditative lairs often evolved into personal shrines for worshipping jazzy sounds — as in the case of the cavelike Samurai, laden with prayer flags, Buddhist scrolls and various other amulets by its longtime long-haired proprietor, Jiken Miyazaki.

Like most jazz kissa creators, Miyazaki boasts a vast collection of LPs, some of which are tacked up on a "memorial wall" whenever some sax or keyboard legend passes into history. And there are plenty of specialty cocktails to aid the kind of concentrated listening Miyazaki hopes will lead to his clientele "thinking deeply about their lives." Here, jazz lives through its recordings — and is honored in respectful quiet — more than in any live showcase. But what makes a standout of the Samurai (not to be confused with recent faddish bars where staff dress in warrior drag) is its central location on a busy Shinjuku corner — presuming one can actually find the stairs that lead to the second floor, its excessive décor and those legions of happy cats swinging in apt syncopation.