Jazz in Shinjuku: hitting the right note

By special guest blogger:  Oliver Trapnell

Shinjuku is home to a grand number of cafes, bars and clubs that cater to the variety of lifestyles that exist in Tokyo. No matter where you come from, you will find something that suits your tastes in this bustling Tokyo ward. On this occasion, I’ve gone hunting for the best jazz-themed establishments.

Although there are many places in Shinjuku to ‘wet your whistle’, I wanted to find a quiet spot to enjoy a good coffee and groove to a beat. Optimistic that I would find what I was looking for, I set out for a café and bar called ‘D U G’ (B1F, 3-15-12 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku). At the top of the entry stairs, I was greeted by a smooth sound emanating from below as well as the many posters and LP covers that hung proudly on the walls of the stairwell.

Upon descending the staircase I was immediately struck with a sense of nostalgia, recognising the ‘pub’ aesthetic that I had known growing up in England. Dark brick walls and dim lighting provided me with an atmospheric experience and vibes reminiscent of lounges popularised in the 1930s and 40s (before my time, of course!). Meanwhile the pristine bar and rustic wooden furnishings accurately re-created the impression of a rural British pub where one can have a friendly discussion with the barkeep and spend time in good company. Above the bar were arrayed a tantalising selection of Scotch whiskeys that gave me the impression D U G provided a safe haven for jazz lovers to enjoy a quick drink after work, whilst escaping the noise of the city above.


LP covers line the walls of the staircase as you enter D U G.

With my much-needed coffee on the table in front of me, I sat back to enjoy the selection playing softly in the background. It included the jamming saxophone skills of Bill Holman in “Jive for Five” – a fast-paced drum beat combined with Holman’s upswinging saxophone. I also identified the delicate finger-work of Hampton Hawes on piano in “Walking around the Town” – a slow, melodic piano piece accompanied by smooth vocals. However, there were many other great songs that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

I was also impressed by the wide selection of jazz magazines available in both English and Japanese, which I will peruse on a future visit, when I have more time.

A short train ride away in Yotsuya, in the south-east corner of the Shinjuku Ward, I stumbled across a truly phenomenal café. Similar to D U G, ‘いーぐる’ (‘Eagle’, 1- 1-8 Yotsuya, Shinjuku-ku) sits in an unassuming alcove off the main street, only standing out due to a familiar stairwell of jazz-related posters and album covers. What makes this quaint café unique is its strict “no talking” policy.  These people put absolute emphasis on appreciation of the music. A complete contrast to D U G, this well-lit café offered a modern, art-focused space, with a state-of-the-art booth made specially for playing LPs. The ordered presentation of the decor in concert with the smooth harmony of the music aided in blending two experiences together, imbuing me with a sense of sophistication. Judging from the expressions of the other customers, they shared my feelings.

The ambient jazz and the silence of the customers created an atmosphere perfectly designed for the ultimate sound experience, a place where one can quietly read, enjoy a meal or gently bob along to the music.  Eagle gave me a taste of its wide musical selection by serenading me with the upbeat trumpeting of Miles Davis in “Prince of Darkness” and the diametrically opposed downbeat saxophone of Michael Brecker in “Midnight Voyage”. With the variety of tracks available, it would be easy to lose track of time and spend hours getting lost in the magic of it all.


Many customers had their eyes closed, in order to lose themselves in the sound.  Others were following the rhythm, tapping a finger or two against their table. One patron was conducting; brass on pitch and drums on tempo, he gently waved his hand back and forth in front of him: ….5…6…7…8. He saw the musicians so vividly that he didn’t even notice the approaching waitress, and seemed somewhat startled when he opened his eyes to discover a new beverage on the table in front of him.

I finished my day feeling I had found jazz places that really hit the right note!  I’ll be back for sure!

© 2018 Jigsaw-japan.com and Oliver Trapnell
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