SHIBUI is Japanese youth-speak for things that are at once cool, funky and traditional. And these days, few things are as shibui as Koenji, a neighborhood on Tokyo’s west side, considered the birthplace of Japanese punk rock.
In recent years, this low-rise area of traditional izakaya bars and narrow alleys has spawned a new music scene that knits together every musical style imaginable — American roots, Showa Era jazz and even enka, the sentimental pop music of postwar Japan — in a way that is distinctly Japanese. It’s a laboratory for musicians honing their own creative voices, independent of the slickly produced pop standards that dominate the Tokyo club scene.
On most nights, under the glow of neon lights and air thick with meaty smoke billowing from yakitori joints, the atmosphere is electric. And acoustic as well: a lot of 20-somethings seem to be carrying guitars. To hear this new sound, duck into the myriad watering holes honeycombed near the Koenji station, a stop along the Chuo line, running into the heart of Tokyo.
For a crash course on shibui, head to Moon Stomp (Koenji Kita 2-22-6; 81-3-3310-6996; www.bighitcompany.com/moonstomp), a basement club jammed next to a reggae bar. Cluttered with musical instruments, it’s the kind of place where you have to wait for the band to take a break before you can cross the stage to use the bathroom.
On a recent Friday night, an intergenerational crowd gathered to hear Kaurismaki, a gypsy-jazz-tango ensemble named for a Finnish filmmaker, and Merry Chan, who plays Japanized Latin and calypso. The fashion was as eclectic as the music: cloche hats and pearls for the girls, clown-size boots and skintight jeans for the guys.
“I wanted to create a space where musicians could jam and socialize without having to pay, as they do in Shinjuku and Shibuya,” said the manager of Moon Stomp, Yasuhiro Shimazaki, referring to central Tokyo’s commercial music districts.
Across the street, Penguin House (Koenji Kita 3-24-8; 81-3-3330-6294; www3.plala.or.jp/FREEDOM/PENGUIN.htm) is a wood-paneled bar that feels like a suburban rec room. Opened three decades ago — and seemingly not redecorated since — it remains one of Tokyo’s top indie clubs showcasing experimental bands nightly, leaning heavily toward noise and goth. As in most music clubs in Tokyo, the audience listens respectfully in counterpoint to the often frenzied activity onstage.
Those looking to dance make their way to Club Roots (Koenji Kita 3-22-3; 81-3-3330-0447; www.muribushi.jp), a cozy and modern club with an Okinawan feel — laid-back and with a drink list highlighting different types of awamori, the favorite liquor from Okinawa, the province in southern Japan. On weeknights, the rock music goes past 5 a.m., when the trains to central Tokyo begin to run again.
Club Roots is the latest venture from the owners of Dachibin (Koenji Kita 3-2-13; 81-3-3337-1352; www.dachibin.com), a hip Okinawan restaurant where the waiters are often musicians, looking to earn sake money between gigs. As one waiter explained during a recent visit, “In Koenji, everybody plays something.”