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A Tokyo Café Dives Deep into the Musical Past

Finnish movie posters on a pale matt blue wall, classic jazz from the 1910s and 20s, spartan wooden tables, and the smell of roasting coffee. This is a jazz-café “Juha” founded in 2010 in Nishi-Ogikubo. The owner, Syunsuke Ōba, has developed his teenage fascination with music and coffee into a minimalist, music space in which the rhythms of jazz, blues, and classic performances from a century ago massage the minds of contemporary Tokyoites. People do chat intimately, but this is more a place to listen intently to some unfamiliar recording or float off alone into one’s own thoughts.


“All I need is music and coffee. ‘Whether I would visit my shop as a customer is the minimum criteria for me in thinking how to run this place,” said Ōba. It was his passion for the coffee kissa culture in Japan that eventually led him to open his shop. “I was always into visiting jun-kissa (“pure” cafés that do not serve alcohol), jazz-kissa (jazz cafés), and meikyoku-kissa (cafés that play classical music) and dreaming of opening my own coffee shop,” he said. “Before Juha, I used to work at a coffee house ‘L’ambre’ in Shinjuku and a café ‘Mugs’ in Nakano. I was able to save up enough money, and when I was thirty-one I started my own place.”


Ōba explains why he chose Nishiogi to open Juha, touching upon his relationship to this town. He says, “When I was younger, I really liked ‘Donguri-ya’ and also visited secondhand bookstores in Nishiogi. During my teenage years, I often played in a live music club called ‘WATTS.’ So, I was quite familiar with Nishiogi, and I knew that the ideal place for me to open a coffee shop would be Nishiogi – a town with a culture of coffee shops and secondhand bookstores.”


For the interior design as well as the name of the café, Ōba got his inspiration from a Finnish movie director, Aki Kaurismäki, who directed the 1999 film Juha. “I love Aki Kaurismäki,” he said, “and because he uses this pale blue in many of his films, I also wanted to use the same color in my shop. I tried to create a space that, when you walk through the door is different from everyday space.”


The defining feature of Juha is music. While the jazz played at most Tokyo coffee shops is from the post-war period, Ōba focuses on blues and jazz recordings from the first three decades of the twentieth century. Ōba explained this as his own musical evolution. “At first, I was playing songs like old tango, going along with other jazz-kissa, meikyoku-kissa, and tango-kissa. But recently, I have come to play old songs from the pre-war era, including jazz, blues, and classics, which other coffee shops do not usually play. Since I hardly know anyone who is familiar with pre-war music, I find it interesting to dig into this all by myself.”


Ōba prefers LPs, which he scores at secondhand shops in Tokyo. He explains, “If you use CDs, the sound is as hard as hitting a wall. But with the LP, the sound quality is much better, which is very important to create a comfortable atmosphere. By featuring LPs, I hope I can pass on the old coffee-house culture to young people. I will be really happy if more young people find the LPs interesting and start their own coffee shop like this one.”


He also told us how the music helps him initiate a conversation with the customers. “Some of the customers ask me where I got the records from. The elderly are like ‘Oh, I know this song!’ and foreign customers often like pre-war blues.”


Another feature of Juha is home-roasted coffee. Ōba learned roasting techniques from his friend who is a coffee roaster. “When I was young, it was my routine to buy records at a record store and then go to a coffee shop to drink a cup of coffee while enjoying looking at those records. That’s how I became a big coffee person. At first, I was purchasing roasted coffee beans, but I had an opportunity to learn how to roast by myself. Since I like dark roast, I asked many people about tips for good coffee roasting. There is a coffee roaster named Wani Nakagawa, and I followed his way of using a roasting pan. Now, I use a manual coffee grinder. Some famous places often say like ‘we use coffee beans from this country and blah blah...’ but I think it is a bit pedantic, to be honest. It doesn’t matter as long as the coffee tastes good.”


Ōba arrives at Juha at 9 am every morning and begins his day shopping for supplies. After some food preparation, Juha opens at noon and closes at 6 pm. He told us, “I used to work until midnight, but then I got really sick. Because of the pandemic, now it feels like I have to go home in the evening, so I just close this place earlier. I get up early so that I can work while taking proper care of my health.”


In addition to choosing music and roasting coffee beans, Ōba also does everything from making menus to cooking food. He told us about popular dishes on Juha’s slowly evolving menu. “The most popular menu now is Lemon Cream Soda,” he said. “Coffee is also popular too, of course. Bread and scones are from a nearby bakery called ‘Gu-choki-panya’ and all cakes are made by me. Once in a while, I add new sweets on the menu, but I rarely change or add menus unless there is any particular reason. When I first started this place, I was always preoccupied with the idea that ‘unless I constantly add new menu items, customers won’t come.’ But now, I can say that ‘this is our style,’ so if it doesn’t align with what you like you don’t need to come, because those who like my style will probably come again. Trying to please all customers will just exhaust you.”


Surprisingly for Ōba, the customers at Juha differed from what he originally associated with Nishiogi. Reflecting upon the past eleven years, he told us about the transition in Nishogi from a town of bohemian secondhand bookstore browsers to bourgeois foodies.  “There used to be many secondhand bookstores, record shops, and coffee houses in Nishiogi about eleven years ago,” he said. “So, I thought more cultural types would come to Juha, but it is not the case. Back then, this area did not have as many shops as we do now, so much fewer people were visiting. But then, I don’t know exactly the cause, but since (the high-end bistro) ‘Organ’ opened, many restaurant owners started to have interests in Nishiogi. As more wine bars and other restaurants opened, the dining scene in this area became more vibrant. Also, the owners who find the rents in Kichijoji too expensive chose Nishiogi to open their places since it is more affordable here. In the beginning, when owners of different places had closer relationships, we often introduced our customers to one another. But because there are so many new places opening up before I even realize, the close ties we used to have in the past are now gradually diminishing I think.”


Currently, at Juha, many of the customers are women in their thirties or forties, many of whom spend time reading books. Ōba told us that many customers get to know Juha through Instagram and Twitter lately, while it is rare to have customers who don’t know about Juha walk in off the street. It may be because of the “door,” he speculated. “This rusty door scares some customers away,” he said with a laugh. “I have been told that it took some time and courage for them to walk in for the first time although they had wanted to check this place out for a long time.”


Based on his experience of working at several coffee shops and managing Juha, Ōba described the coffee business as an unforgiving financial model. “Frankly, the coffee house business is really difficult,” he said. “It’s a ‘500-yen business’ (the price of a drink) that only works if you get many customers. So, the first five years after I opened Juha was the hardest time. Now that Juha has been introduced by various magazines and writers, I have secured more regular customers than before. Running a café might seem easy; anyone can ‘open’ a café, but you cannot sustain your business unless you are strongly passionate about something.”


The pandemic has affected not only the sales but also the attitudes of some customers. Ōba says, “The number of customers has decreased for sure. I am barely making a living now. For now, I’m just trying my best to get through this difficult phase utilizing financial aid from the government. Now is the time to endure, but as long as I survive this tough period, I can start again from there. The regular customers come less frequently, like from once a week to once a month or even once in two months. I myself go to coffee houses less often too. As prevention measures, I have set this rule: ‘two people per group’ and ‘less than 90 minutes to spend time at Juha since a group of three people and more tend to talk loudly. Some customers even complain to me like, ‘why are you not warning the loud people over there to talk quietly?’ or ‘why don’t you ask them to leave?’ It is quite stressful… Those little things that I have to care about make me mentally exhausted. Some people just open the door and leave when seeing other customers already sitting inside.”


Despite the challenges of the pandemic, Ōba has been making efforts to sustain his café through selling coffee beans and records. “About two years ago, I started roasting coffee beans by myself,” he said. “Since more people are working from home due to the pandemic, the demand for coffee beans increased. As for the records, I used to be like ‘If you like the music I play here, go find the record by yourself,’ but I started selling the records at Juha because there is such good music at a record shop for around 500 to 600 yen and it is a shame if my customers don’t have the opportunity to enjoy them. I would rather want my customers to buy good records and enjoy them.”


In the café business, just staying in business for a decade already is a huge success. “For now, just maintaining this space is my priority,” Ōba said. “I hope to expand the range of coffee beans in the near future.”  A café is more of a form of personal expression than a business model. Juha is an expression of Ōba’s enduring passion for coffee and music, as well as a mellow Nishiogi version of Japan’s jazz-kissa culture. (James Farrer and Naho Kimura, January 3, 2022)

(Interview by James Farrer and Naho Kimura Oct 1, 2021; transcription and translation by Naho Kimura; Japanese editing by Fumiko Kimura; copyright by James Farrer, all rights reserved.)

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