I’ve been back in Tokyo for the last couple of weeks and was finally able to check out Meikyoku Kissa Lion, an ancient cafe lurking in the shady back streets of Shibuya’s love hotels district. The Lion, which was first opened in 1926, is what’s known as a classical music cafe — something that used to be fairly common in Japan back in the Showa era but is now borderline extinct. These are places where the music takes center stage — so that means a serious record collection, gigantic speakers, a minimalist menu, and absolutely no talking. It’s a strange sight to behold. Men and women of all different ages sipping drip coffee in silence while sitting in dusty velvet train seats facing a huge set of speakers cranking out Beethoven. Not having your cell-phone on vibrate could result in deep shame if not instant ejection and eternal damnation.
There are also jazz and rock equivalents. The “jazz kissa”, where people who are similarly banned from speaking sit around listening to the owner’s selections on the hi-fi, is supposedly unique to Japan. At least that’s what Masahiro Goto, the “master” of the revered jazz kissa Eagle and author of several books on Japanese jazz culture told me recently. While jazz is obviously a Western import, as is cafe culture in general, Goto claims the phenomenon of sitting in silence to listen to records together is uniquely Japanese. It makes sense if you think about how densely populated Tokyo is and how that limits how loudly you can listen to music at home, or even how much music you could acquire in the first place given there’s such little space. It’s also a natural manifestation of Japanese attitudes towards privacy and personal space within a deeply group-oriented society.
Perhaps for the same reasons I prefer watching movies in the theater with strangers than in my own distraction-filled living room, I’m attracted to places like Lion and Eagle where I know I can really immerse myself in a private experience while still taking part in something inherently social. There aren’t enough spaces like that in today’s world. Everyone is in their own little iPod-climatised bubble and there are fewer and fewer opportunities to connect with people in meatspace through a shared non-verbal experience. There’s also something really great about being told to turn off your gadgets and shut the hell up. It occurred to me while looking over the list of restrictions outlined on a sign outside of the Lion’s door, that having to follow rules can be a beautiful thing. As social mores around civility and decorum are increasingly dismissed as stuffy and antiquated, it’s oddly refreshing to be given a clear set of expectations up-front.