Café Le Violon: Heaven Found in Asagaya.

Café Le Violon: Heaven Found in Asagaya.

I am a reader.  I come from a family where, had a giant peeled the walls back from our home, the four of us would have appeared in the living room, curled up on chairs and sofas, each with a book perched in front of us. We wouldn’t have looked up. My love of reading has been a great gift: the written word soothes me, distracts me from anxiety; armed with enough books, the boredom of a 16 hour flight would not be a problem. It has made my interior life rich, my references extensive; I know obscure facts about Siberia; I have a fairly extensive knowledge of world history; I can guess at the taste of freshly brewed palm wine in a Yoruba village; I know how to kill with just a ballpoint pen like that master assassin Nicolai Hell. The beach is my favorite place to read.  For years, I would read Moby Dick every summer, wrapped in a towel, the sound of waves crashing, the sun in my hair, sticky with salt. Melville’s words were a kind of dance, sometimes exploding into frenzies of action, a poetic whirlwind; other times, the text mirrored the rocking of a ship, long at sea, mired in boredom and that rhythm would lull me into the most wonderful naps.  I have friends that love to read on the subway, or at a library, or tucked onto some old couch, slipcovered so many times no one remembers what color it originally was. To all my reader friends, I have discovered, perhaps the greatest place to read a book: Café Le Violon in Asagaya.

Unsurprisingly, I discovered Café Le Violon through a work of fiction — Barry Eisler’s Rain series.  These are somewhat trashy books, describing the adventures of paid killer John Rain as he creates mayhem in Japan.  I would not exactly recommend these books, but they are extremely well researched and offer up some really good details about Tokyo neighbourhoods and Eisler’s obsessions: Counter-Surveillance, Whiskey, violence and coffee, particularly, old school kissaten (coffee shops).

Asagaya is one of my favorite Tokyo neighborhoods.  Located in the Suginami ward, it is connected to a dense web of Yokocho (side alleys), shotengai and covered arcades that extend to the neighboring cities of Nakano and Koenji.  There’s superb yakitori, Nepalese spice shops, a spot specializing in horse meat, tiny izakaya, naughty places advertising “relaxation,” and Cool Dread bar where I often play records.

The café is located a bit away from the dense commercial strip where the streets begin to wind and things are more residential.   In the window, there is a display of glass amplifier tubes, classical music posters and a painting of a violin.  The building is shared with a Thai restaurant and potted, “mouse-shit” peppers and other herbs dot the exterior.  To walk in is to leave the world behind.   The tiny space resembles a highly compressed, 19th century German library. The air is still and warm. There are a few tables, encircled by scrolled, wooden railings looking down onto a recessed space of well-worn, comfortable seating.  The walls are packed with paintings, seemingly inspired by Marc Chagall; an upright piano is tucked into place on the narrow walkway leading to the steps. Classical records are stacked in the hundreds.  The ceiling glows with soft light from old chandeliers, other musical geegaws hanging down from above.  19th century bric-a-brac fills a variety of surfaces.  The back wall is dominated by a giant, hand-built speaker array with a variety of metal horns, the bass bins extending beneath the dark wood floors.  It is beautiful, sculptural, like something out of Jules Verne.  A piano concerto fills the room with rich tones and texture, an aural warmth radiating with the subtle surface noise of old vinyl. It smells of parchment, roasted coffee, the fine dust of something middle eastern…cardomen? cinnamon? No one speaks. This is not a place to chat, this is not a place to bring children.  In an undertone, the proprietress takes our order.  The menu is stripped bare: juice, tea, home-made cheesecake and black coffee, beans roasted in-house, every day.  My coffee arrives at the precise, perfect temperature, hand dripped through a cotton filter to achieve a balance of flavor that never edges toward bitterness.

An old bird sits in the center table on the upper floor, arched forward, chin on folded hands, staring intently at the speaker.  This is his sweet spot, chosen for perfect acoustics.  He winces with irritation when the door opens, when a paper crinkles, when someone coughs.  You can imagine the regulars who might frequent: The Sanskrit Professor, the dealer in old stamps, the un-published playwright, the conductor’s mistress.  A young man sits next to me, slumped into his chair, his legs extended wearing khaki pants in dire need of an iron. A middle-aged woman timidly enters through the front with a large instrument case (a bassoon, perhaps?). She wears a dowdy skirt, thick, woolen tights, and orthopedic shoes irregularly worn at the heels.  She has the face of someone long-lost in dreams, an odd nose like that of a macaw. She orders a juice, takes a set of musical charts from her bag and sets to work.  It is an environment from which stories grow, the imagination at work creating lives with Café Le Violons as the hive.

I never want to leave here.  The earth has stopped spinning.  The planets have ground to a halt.  The universe is no longer expanding. Time has stopped.  The notes of the piano float through frozen air.  I open my book and begin to read.

Photo by Nik van der Giesen www.nvandergiesen.com / @nvdg81

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