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I nearly walked right past it without stopping. After a couple of drinks in one Yokohama beer bar on a quiet October night, I was heading to another. While in full stride through Chinatown, the jazz caught my ear. I turned to look inside, spotting weathered rows of vinyl records & bottles of whisky on the shelves. With my brain already being in “walk” mode, I took a few more steps, but I knew I had to stop & see what this unexpected bar held within. The sign above said “Minton House.” I had just stumbled upon a relic of a fading era of Japanese jazz & whisky bars in Yokohama.
A group of older customers was sitting at the chairs near the door. I could tell that they were regulars. The Minton House is not a place with bar stools. These old wooden chairs are more like thrones than chairs. Or perhaps restaurant high chairs you see used for toddlers, keeping you safely wrapped inside as you consume increasing amounts of whisky.
Everything inside Minton House is wood, from the chairs to the tables to the floor. The feel is perhaps even older than it is, but it’s clear the bar has been there for some 40+ years, both from the space itself and the clientele. The best description of Minton House is “jazz cabin.” A jazz cabin that happens to sell whisky.
I took a seat along the bar, giving plenty of space to the group, but not wanting to seclude myself in the back part of the room. There were no other customers. My view featured the rows of whisky bottles & thousands of vinyl records from the owner’s immense jazz collection. In the back, the walls are devoted to posters & other memorabilia.
I ordered a highball with Nikka Taketsuru & sat there sipping it while looking around. I noticed that the whisky bottles in front of me were all marked with people’s names. This concept of purchasing a bottle and keeping it at the bar is a brilliant idea. In Japan, it is known as “bottle keep”. If I lived in Yokohama, I would keep a bottle at Minton House.
As I sat & enjoyed my whisky & the jazz, a guy sat down next to me in the space next to the regulars. He looked every bit the part of someone you’d expect to see in a Japanese jazz bar: a thin man with long hair and a beard, dressed in black, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes as he leaned back in his chair, tapping his fingers on the armrest in time with the music.
The bar was smoky, but this is the sort of joint where that actually adds to the experience. Gradually, I found myself being welcomed to conversation.
Then, as I was deciding whether or not I wanted another highball, the question was answered for me. One of the gentlemen asked the owner, Oidon, to pour some of his bottle of Wild Turkey into my glass.
Kanpai! I was now part of the group for the evening. Any plans I had for the rest of my night were eagerly abandoned, having gone with the flow into a hole in the wall.
While we listened to “Our Man in Paris” by Dexter Gordon, I learned more about my new friends, who were in their 60s & 70s. They all spoke just enough English that we were able to converse a bit. The trio said they go to Minton House every day, which is believable. They were clearly all very close, with a palpable flirty dynamic.
The woman in the group was smoking from a long cigarette holder like she was Audrey Hepburn, if Audrey Hepburn had a gravely voice & handed out dried candied tomatoes as a snack in divey Japanese jazz bars while wearing red sneakers & leaning back in her chair.
She said her name was Fu. Fu asked me what my birthday was so she could calculate my lucky number. It turned out to be 7, same as hers. She told me that I was surrounded by happy people. In that moment, I surely was.
One of the guys told me his name was Shinatro, which came complete with a Frank Sinatra joke. Later on, Shinatro sang a bit of “My Way” to fill in more of the picture.
My highball was gradually refilled to become a mix of a few different whiskies, as some Laphroaig joined the party. I had three whiskies from three of my favorite countries in front of me. It was clear I wouldn’t be walking out any time soon. We toasted “kanpai!” at a crescendo of Keith Jarrett’s “The Köln Concert.”
These small bars in Japan are a labor of love. The idea that a person can open a business & fill it with their passions is lovely. Oidon describes the history of Minton House in this interview. Unfortunately, as time has gone on, this idea of a passion project bar has become increasingly difficult to hang onto. For Japanese jazz bars specifically, their place in history has begun to fade as the population ages & real estate prices increase.
Jazz bars became popular in Japan after World War Two as a gathering place where people could listen to records & have a drink. There are projects to remember Japan’s jazz bars, including the site Tokyo Jazz Joints, which features an exhaustive gallery of photos from jazz bars all over the country, not just Tokyo, including Yokohama’s Minton House. Eventually, Minton House will fade into the night with one last note, as many of its fellow jazz bars have already done.
Near the end of the night, Shinatro insisted on giving me the last little bit of Laphroaig from his bottle. With one final “kanpai!,” Oidon put on some Frank Sinatra on as a last call.
As I left into the quiet Yokohama night, my new friends said, “I pray you have happiness.” I pray they all do too.