The Classic Cafe of Nakano was reborn last November as Renaissance in Koenji. I was rather down when I heard that my favorite cafe in Tokyo had closed down with the death of the elderly proprietress, but some of the staff have resurrected the Classic in all its charm.
The new location is smaller than the original, housed in the basement of an unassuming office building, but stepping inside you immediately recognize the dim lighting and old decor. (The two photos above were taken with 1 second exposures, showing the room much more clearly than can be seen with the naked eye – it really is dark in there.) There have been a few changes; the tables and chairs were fixed and no longer rock when you shift your weight, and the classical music blared out of the speakers isn’t as scratchy-sounding as before. But the essential system remains the same – pay 400 yen to get in, receive your choice of coffee, tea, or painfully sweet orange drink, bring any food with you that you’d like, and request classical songs on the little chalkboard. (Coffee refills are 200 yen.)
It can be a little tricky to find the first time. Take the south exit of Koenji station and walk right along the tracks briefly until you get to the covered mall. Turn left and walk away from the tracks down the covered mall. Walk through the covered mall until you emerge onto an uncovered shopping street. It’s the first left after you cross into the open air street. (It’s one block before the post office sign on the right.) It’s "B" on this map.
The Classic, and now Renaissance, are called Meikyoku Kissa (名曲喫茶) in Japanese. They appeared mostly in postwar Japan around the 1950s, when record players were too expensive for most people to own. In the 1960s a foreign magazine featured one of these Meikyoku Kissa, describing them as a Japanese Greenwich Village, where young artists and bohemians hung out. They quickly became popular destinations for foreign backpackers, which created a striking image in this era when Westerners were still relatively rare in Tokyo. After that these cafes became locust points for local counterculture rather than classical music (though of course the music remains). While mainly frequented by scholars, artists, left wing activists, hippies, and the like, they became popular even as date spots for couples.
Most Meikyoku Kissa disappeared after record players became cheaply available, but a few famous spots have endured. Some of the things I always liked about the old Classic was near-complete darkness, the unfailingly twisted and generally incomprehensible art displayed on the walls (painted by the original owner), and the forlorn-looking goth artist women that served coffee with uniformly blank expressions. The smaller size gives less room for paintings at Renaissance, but they’ve successfully transplanted the atmosphere to the new place.