Tokyo has an array of cool, unique basement-level venues that are perfect for escaping from the summer heat. They not only have a low temperature, but they’re locations that are out of the way, known mostly to locals, and provide a fuller portrait of Tokyo’s rich culture. During the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, be sure to use these art, music, and themed venues to explore some of Tokyo’s most interesting neighborhoods.
BY Richard Milner
Large, prominent chain establishments and famous sightseeing spots are considered must-sees for many tourists in Tokyo, but visitors run the risk of getting an incomplete picture of the city if they only go to these kinds of places. Many of the coolest places in Tokyo are out of sight and literally underground on the basement level of buildings. They’re typically hard to find, but they reward explorers who want more out of their time in Tokyo.
Tokyo’s “coolest venues” has two meanings in this case: they’re hip, stylish, and memorable, and they’re also a physically cool way to beat the heat because they’re underground. During the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics, when visitors are expected in the millions, it’s important for travelers to narrow their choices regarding where to visit, and escape from the sun and the crowds. Take a look at the following list and find something that catches your eye.
Dug, founded in 1961, is one of the oldest thriving jazz bars in Tokyo, and with good reason. Throughout its history, it has played host to prominent musicians, and is full of memorabilia and black-and-white photos that testify to its longevity. Dug operates as a café during the day, and a bar at night. It has a surprisingly nice selection of cakes and desserts to accompany coffee, and small foods to accompany beer, wine, or liquor. Dug also provides complimentary snacks with each and every drink.
Dug’s owner can often be found on the premises at a permanently reserved table. He and the always-happy staff lend a homey, cozy feeling to the place that invites a sense of rest and relaxation. The music, pulled from both vinyl and CDs, is typically classic jazz, and provides the perfect backdrop to Dug’s dimly lit, brick basement full of reflective surfaces of bottles and glass. Prices are reasonable, and during later hours (6pm through 2am) there is a small ¥550 table charge.
The one thing for travelers to note about Dug is that it is very much a smoking establishment. Not every visitor smokes, but depending on where you sit and how good the ventilation is, you might need to consider your personal tastes and health preferences before deciding to stay for a long time.
Godz is one of Tokyo’s metal staples, and its reputation is well-deserved. It’s an extremely cool, dark, metal music-themed basement separated into two halves: one is a tavern-like hall with long tables and stools, and the other is a traditional bar with some smaller circular tables. The clientele is surprisingly diverse, and comes from all walks of life and professions, joined together by a common love of music. In fact, it’s quite easy to strike up conversations with strangers during your visit and make friends for the evening.
Guests can make requests for music using slips of paper. No matter how obscure the track, a member of the staff will find it and play it on Godz’ extraordinary sound system. Sometimes, the music is synced to a TV on one of the bar’s walls, so guests can watch music videos and live performances, as well. The staff speak English with varying degrees of proficiency, so there won’t be any trouble reading your requests or fielding questions about the venue.
Subterraneans (yes, with an “s”) is one of the most well-hidden, cool venues in the Shibuya area. North of Hachiko, past the 109 Building and Tower Records, but before Yoyogi Park, Subteranneans is nearly impossible to come across by accident. The small spiral staircase and guitar behind a glass case in the wall indicate that you’ve found the right venue. You might hear music playing from behind the door at the bottom, and once inside, you’ll definitely find one of the cooler basement-level venues in Tokyo.
Subteranneans is a fairly small space full of odd wall decorations, art objects, spare guitars and music cables. A projector above the bar plays movies on the far wall (without sound). Owner, Kimoto Kadu, regularly hosts independent DJs, musicians, and bands. The enclosed basement room (big enough for maybe 15 at most, standing) is the perfect intimate setting to relax, forget the streets above, and just enjoy some music. Drinks are quite reasonably priced. It should also be noted that Kadu maintains a very active Facebook page, so any information about upcoming shows can be found there.
El Café Latino is the ideal choice in Tokyo for any kind of Latin music. Whether it’s salsa, tango, merengue, reggaeton, bachata, traditional Mexican music, Brazilian music, or anything in between: all genres can be found here. It is split into an upstairs, on street level, and a basement where most of the music can be found. The venue is not only a restaurant and a Latin dance club, but they offer Latin dance lessons on either a regular or drop-in basis.
The surrounding neighborhood of Roppongi is a well-known hub for travelers and expats, and contains an immense array of restaurants, bars, clubs, and shopping areas. Tourists can easily explore the surrounding area on the way to El Café Latino, or use the venue as starting point to get to know Roppongi. If you’re from a Latin American country and craving a bit of home, or a traveler who wants to experience this kind of culture while in Japan, then stop by between the Tokyo 2020 games, or any other time, and enjoy yourself for an evening.
Space Orbit, located halfway between two of Tokyo’s hippest neighborhoods, Shimokitazawa and Sangenjaya, is a truly unique, hybrid art-and-music space. Easily overlooked unless you know where to find it, simply follow the white Christmas lights down a spiral staircase to a single-roomed venue that looks like someone’s carpeted living room. A small bar is on one side, turntables are on another wall, an old, wooden TV is on another, and a rotating gallery of work from local, independent artists is on another. Depending on the day, you can sit on bean bags and chat with guests about the gallery, watch a show on TV, grab a drink and relax to live, ambient music, or do all three at the same time.
Ryo, the owner, also provides an excellent array of homemade food that includes things like Japanese curry and Indian thali. Just make sure to give him enough time to cook. He also maintains an active Instagram account “space_orbit” and is more than willing to talk about music, art, or any obscure subject for hours on end.
Diesel Art Gallery is a small, primarily photograph-and-sculpture gallery in the basement of the Diesel Building in Shibuya, a concept store created by the Diesel company. The gallery tends to focus on the relationship between fashion and art, or fashion and the human form, and features some truly expressive work by independent, world-class artists. The Diesel building itself contains clothing stores, a wine shop, cafes, and can be visited in one trip while exploring Shibuya and its neighboring districts.
The Shiseido Gallery, affiliated with the Shiseido cosmetic group, is arguably Tokyo’s oldest art gallery. It first opened its doors in Ginza in 1919, and features a schedule of alternating exhibits that often explore the senses. The interior is a clean, pristine white that visitors can access from an easily overlooked, back entrance down a flight of stairs to a small, double-roomed gallery. This is very much a place to pass through quickly while traveling through the surrounding high streets of Ginza, rather than hang out at for a long time.
At the time of this writing, the current gallery was dubbed Taste of Reminiscence: Delicacies from Nature and focused on the relationship between memory, taste, and smell. A central exhibit of unlabeled smells under bell jars on podiums circled a futuristic table with place settings. Guests were encouraged to lift each bell jar, take a whiff, and then proceed to a secret backroom where their favorite smell might be explored further in food form. The rest of the exhibit, which is interactive, is supposed to be a secret. Shiseido Gallery is worth the visit just to glimpse the mind of whatever artist has their work on display.
Mother’s Ruin is an extremely cool, comfortable, basement-level bar in Shimokitazawa 30-years old and running. Like other basement venues, it’s very easy to pass by unless you’re actively looking for it. The staircase leading down to Mother’s Ruin doesn’t look anything like the inside of the bar. The interior is all irregular wood and broken brick (hence “ruin”), with Aztec accents and a giant lizard sculpture perched upside down on the ceiling. Triangular, gem-like table lamps and sun insignias along the wall round out the interior design. The menu has a wide range of unique, homemade cocktails in addition to classic drinks like gin and tonic.
Haruna Yamazaki, the owner, is an equally cool, welcoming, and street-savvy proprietor who happens to be nearly bilingual in both Japanese and English. She owns both Mother’s Ruin and its sister bar, Mother, a first-floor establishment with similar interior design less than two minutes away from Mother’s Ruin. This venue tends to attract travelers and expats as well as locals. It is a perfect meeting spot for tourists to get a non-touristy window into one of Tokyo’s coolest neighborhoods and its people.
Since 1992, Gari-gari has occupied its very particular niche at Ikeno-ue station, a mere five or so minute walk from its more well-known neighbor, Shimokitazawa. Literally every single surface of Gari-gari’s interior is papered with posters of movies, pictures of celebrities, and magazine covers. The rest of the bar is layered with hand-drawn scribblings, random signs, baubles, and an otherwise endless array of visually jarring kitsch. No doubt due to its memorabilia, the venue has been used numerous times by independent film and documentary makers either as the subject of a film, or as the backdrop for a scene.
Gari-gari often plays host to events for local, independent musicians and spoken-word groups, such as poetry recitals in both English and Japanese. Its prices are extremely reasonable at about ¥500 for any menu item. Cover charges do apply in the evening, so be sure to take that into account when visiting. Ikeno-ue, although a small neighborhood, has a good amount of interesting restaurants and shops, but if they aren’t enough, simply walk down the street to Shimokitazawa and enjoy the rest of your evening.
Abbey Road is a Beatles-themed basement venue in Roppongi, so it stands to reason that there’d be plenty of music on hand. The interior resembles a warmly-colored, intimate speakeasy full of round tables, a stage on one side, and Beatles collectibles. The signature band that plays at Abbey Road, the all-Japanese Parrots, perform flawless English-language renditions of Beatles songs. Even when the band isn’t playing, Abbey Road is a perfect hidden gem despite its connection with history’s most famous rock band.
There’s also pub food like fish-and-chips and pizza for a snack or a full meal. Prices are fairly reasonable given its location inside the heart of Roppongi. The entrance to Abbey Road is small, but not too tricky to find because of a largish, green sign with the Beatles’ pictures and band name written on it. Just follow the arrows and make your way downstairs for a pleasant, cool evening outside of the summer heat.
I am a writer, teacher, and speaker currently working and living in Tokyo. I have an MA in Digital Creative Media and a BA in Psychology, and I have worked as a narrative designer in the video game industry and also as a mental health care professional in New York. In my spare time I love to travel, read, and practice yoga.