Nelken: kissaten with old-world charm in Koenji

Tuesday, October 6th, 2015

nelken table

For sixty years, with charm and grace, Fumiko Suzuki has been serving “classics,” “coffee,” and “paintings”  in her restful kissaten, Nelken, in Koenji.

“Nelken” is the German word for the carnation flowers, fresh sprigs of which fill a vase on each plain wooden table. They are her favorite flower, explains Madame Suzuki, who looks nowhere near her 80s. She is carefully coiffured, stylishly dressed and wearing a simple pearl necklace. She smiles shyly, and politely thanks me in Japanese for speaking Japanese to her.

nelken interior 3Then she apologizes for being sold out of cake today, but she has some nice cookies to go with coffee.

Her “classics” are composers such as Brahms, Chopin, or Dvorak. A vinyl LP version of Mr. Brahm’s fine Hungarian Dances is playing, with crackles and pops, through the wall-mounted speakers.

Her coffee is single bean selections such as Kilimanjaro, Brazil, or Colombia—each ¥650 the cup. Or the house blend  or a “brandy” coffee (¥500). Of course, teas such as Russian Tea (¥530) or Royal Milk Tea (¥580) can be ordered. In the evening, states the menu, cocktails such as “Nelken Fizz,” (¥680) or “Mizuwari” (¥900) are available.

The “paintings,” heavy gold-framed oil paintings of landscapes, fruit, dancers, vistas, and of course, carnations hang on every open wall space. Each crushed red velvet upholstered chair has a carefully ironed white lace doily across its back. The red velvet curtains are drawn aside to allow a milky blue light to filter through the pebbled glass panes.

Dark wooden posts, cherry wood, I believe, are positioned like rustic fences, creating a separate space for the ten small tables. A life-sized female nude sculpture stands next to one table. Sadly, over the years, she has lost one of her hands.

Nelken & Fumiko 3A small brick-bordered path winds the few meters toward the counter at the rear where Madame Suzuki prepares her coffees and teas. The high counter is so filled with CDs, magazines, and coffee paraphernalia that Madame Suzuki must keep the liftable countertop flap down. This means she must duck under it many times a day to get behind the counter or out again. This she does with considerable aplomb and verve.

Nelken is often filled. Young women, old men, couples, or a harried person who wants to relax and browse through a magazine while sipping coffee.

Nelken is a remnant of a Tokyo gone by, but which still hangs on in little kissatens throughout the city.

After the Brahms, Nelken was filled with the joyful, yet gentle longing of Claudio Arrau’s interpretation of Schumann’s Kinderszenen — the 7th piece, “Traumerei,” that Madame Suzuki had selected. The next day, I sought out my own copy of that CD so that I could keep some of the quiet calmness of Nelken with me whenever I heard it.

Nelken: Koenji 3-56-7, Suginami Ward

Tel: 03.3311.2637, Open everyday.

To Get to Nelken, exit Koenji Station from the South Exit and bear right along the station until you find the PAL shopping street. It is quite famous with a large PAL sign above it. Walk down the PAL shopping street for a few minutes until you get to Jeans Shop Nakaiya on your left. Turn right at the jeans shop and walk down that narrow road until you find a shrine, Chosenji. Just in front of the temple, nestled among greenery, is Nelken.

Meikyoku Kissa Lion: coffee and classical music since 1926

Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013

Lion interior beethoven

Half a century ago, the hilltop at the summit of Dogenzaka in Shibuya was a family-oriented neighborhood with green grocers, a bowling alley, and restaurants. Several decades before that, the classical music coffee house, Lion, staked its claim as king of that hill.

Lion exteriorNowadays, surrounded by an array of love hotels and sex clubs, Lion is still there as solid as a cathedral with its grey plaster and stonework impervious to the indignities of time.

Inside the Lion it’s as quiet as a church. The pale milky sunlight seeps in through glazed windows. The dark wood Doric columns support Moorish arches in what must have been an architectural delight during the roaring twenties.

The wooden chairs have seat cushions of very faded red plush. The chair backs are protected by pressed white coverlets. These chairs are neatly arranged into rows like church pews facing the front, the soaring altar of  the massive “3D Sound System” speakers mounted high in the tabernacle and illuminated by electric candelabra and a scintillating crystal chandelier.Lion interior 2

Holding out 87 years so far, Lion has become a metaphor realized, a bastion for the religion of music and a refuge from the sordid world outside.

Patrons enter Lion with reverence, respect, and hope for solace and salvation. Their saviors are Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart, Brahms, Bruckner, Schumann, Fauré, Mendelssohn, Scriabin, Mussorgsky, and Rachmaninov.

At least they were for the March series of LP concerts held everyday at 3pm and 7pm. April will feature a new line up of musical messiahs.

Anytime in between those two concerts, worshipers can make musical requests to the staff. These requests, and the concert line up as well, are announced in soft whispered tones by an acolyte as he fits the needle into the groove. If one whispers too loudly, you are kindly asked by the staff to speak more quietly.

Lion coffee closeupCoffee, of course, is the sacrament here—blend kohi (500 yen), or milk (500 yen), or milk coffee (520 yen) or milk egg (670 yen), whatever that is.

No food is served, and no food is allowed. A Bach fugue, a Mozart concerto, a Beethoven sonata, a Chopin nocturne or a Fauré requiem are the nourishment here.

Meikyoku kissa translates to “great song” coffee shop. And with the thousands of vinyl LPs and CDs organized on sturdy shelves, any great song request can most likely be granted. No one seems to mind the scratches and hiss that accompany the vinyl selections.

Lion interior backdoorOn the monthly LP concert program, Lion proudly proclaims that it is air-conditioned—a certain draw back in the day. It also states that the American music magazine “Audio” wrote up the 3D Sound System in 1959.

Any music lover, or lover of Tokyo, ought to make the pilgrimage to the top of the hill on the Dogenzaka slope. Be sure to check out the second floor gallery seating. Notice the framed icons hanging on the dark walls—paintings of Bach or Beethoven and other composers shadowed with the patina of decades.

Check out the restroom. And as you make your way there in the dim light, pause for a timeless moment at the foyer of the back entrance.

Lion:  2-19-13 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku. Tel: 03.3461.6858. Open daily 11a.m. to 10:30p.m.

Violon: Café et Musique. Classic kissaten on Asagaya backstreet

Friday, March 15th, 2013

Violon interior 1

Violon is a classic. Customers come here for classical music and coffee. That’s all Violon provides and that’s all the customers need.

Violon interior tubesAll seats face the massive array of speakers and horns that are built into a special pit that extends down below the floor. The ceiling behind the speakers gently arches forward for a better acoustic.

Music lovers come to Violon mostly solo to read, to sleep, or to make a request and listen to a vinyl LP. But the small tables also accommodate duos, trios, or even a quartet.

The place serves coffee, tea, milk, hot chocolate, orange juice or cola. All are the same price—350 yen.

But when the coffee arrives, you are offered the option of brandy in your brew. Should you accept, the young lady deftly shakes a small vial about six times over your cup sending in perhaps a teaspoon of the distilled grape into your coffee. It‘s not enough alcohol to give you a buzz, but if the music doesn’t mellow your mood, the brandy will.

Customers are known to nod off, head against the wall in slumber, while their coffee slowly cools.

Violon coffee 1Others sit, head in hands, staring at the speakers lost in reverie. Some have carved messages into the worn wooden tabletops.

The six tiny tables in the center are in a sort of orchestra pit planked with wood and one gets the feeling of sitting in the hold of an old sailing ship.

Thousands of vinyl LPs are stacked into shelfs. You can write up a request on the chalkboard near the miniscule kitchen should you prefer to listen to anything from Mussorgsky, Brahms, Dvorak, Chopin, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Vivaldi, or any other composer, including of course, the master, J. S. Bach.

When I arrived, a symphony that I couldn’t place was playing. A few moments later a trio of young people entered and ordered tea with one young man remarking, “Ah, Schumann’s ‘Spring Symphony’.” I climbed the three steps up to the register to check. He was right.

Violon loveThe sound system runs on vacuum tubes—RCA UY-227 Radiotron Amplifier Tubes—seemingly from the 1950s. The owner has laid in a large stock of these irreplaceable components.

Violon seems to host a live classical music concert almost every night, including solo pianists, string quartets, and even a theremin performer. Details are provided on the website.

Violon: Asagaya Kita 2-9-5. Tel: 03-3336-6414, Open 12pm to 11pm. LP Record Time is until 6pm on days with musical events. Closed on Tuesdays. A map on how to get there is on Violon’s website