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The Lion Whispers


Five years into the 21st century and trends have become so fast-paced that they no longer make any sense. Our culture rusts immediately upon touching the air. The so-called “trendy café” feels dated the minute it opens. By the time the blueprints are drawn and the pillars erected, the table design, seat upholstery, and menu fonts have all become considerably outmoded.

We, fashionable individuals, must then retreat back to the basics, the teiban (定番). So if you want a cup of coffee, there is nowhere better in Japan — nay, the world — than Lion in Shibuya — Tokyo’s premier classical music kissaten.

Lion was originally built in the first year of the Showa Era (1926), but burned up in the WWII firebombing of Tokyo. They were miraculously able to restore it to its original design in 1950 — which appears to be based on a miniature 19th century European concert hall. Two gigantic, high-quality speakers are nestled in the altar area. Patrons sit in creaky wooden seats that all face the music. Tables are separated by high dividers — almost like we are riding on the Orient Express from Munich to Vienna.

The lights are low and the air vaguely smells of pipe smoke. Music is the main event, so talking is strongly discouraged. Waiters slip menus for their antiquated beverage selection — “milk egg,” anyone? — onto the table, and orders are taken in whispers. The experience is a bit like going to church with all the text removed. When a piece ends, the manager will come on the intercom and announce the title, but otherwise, there is little noise to distract from the music.

Today, I enjoyed a milk coffee while listening to Mozart’s delightful flute sonatas K10-K15 (written at the age of eight). Caffeine goes very well with the baroque harpsichord arpegiating at 100 miles per hour with the high-pitched toot-toot of the clavi organ.

The only downside to Lion is when people come in who don’t know the Lions Club rules and start gabbing away like it was Excelsior. Things are so quiet that even hushed human voices can easily override symphonic grandeur. Perhaps this is an apt metaphor for Japan. Everything works in beautiful harmony until clueless outsiders pop in and start disobeying the orders.

W. David MARX (Marxy)
February 2, 2006

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

27 Responses

  1. channing Says:

    I think I was actually here (which is quite remarkable because my one trip to Japan was almost wholly clueless as far as sightseeing destinations)! It left quite an impression on me. It reminded me a bit of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unitarian church.

  2. Arnaud Says:

    Marxy, I think the people who thought of you as a timid concept-oriented scholar must be pretty impressed now and will probably think twice before coming after you. You didn’t hesitate to daringly brave the taboos of the Japanese entertainment establishment -i.e. the interdiction to take pictures at Lion, as mentionned on the Lion website- to satisfy the daily need for enlightment of your faithful readers (and potential informers)!

    I hope your server is located in international waters… Japanese police is no joke…

  3. marxy Says:

    Who says I took these pictures?

  4. joey Says:

    I feel like Ichiran is kinda the Ramen-equivalent. Even though the ramen is blah and I’ve never seen them discipline the youngstas for talking…

  5. Arnaud Says:

    Good point. Just mention the copyright then.

  6. jasong Says:

    This entry could almost run with Momus’ name on it. Are you channeling?

    1926…built during the reconstruction of the Imperial Capital, destroyed, and rebuilt again. The website says they have 5000 selections and take requests (but may refuse anything too modern).

    How about another little two character play to accompany the last line of your post?

  7. Snallygaster Says:

    That cafe sounds too good to be true; I was struck by the fact that the web site of such a civilized-sounding establishment would feature that most obnoxious of all homepage atrocities, the unsolicited MIDI stream.

  8. Momus Says:

    It sounds like the late lamented Scala-Za in Shinjuku (baroque music, frilly Bavarian waitresses, ivy, serious coffee, 1950s plush seats with antimacassars), demolished suddenly in 2003. Let’s hope the lion roars at the wrecker’s ball. But this is Tokyo, nothing is sacred and no building stands forever.

  9. marxy Says:

    Lion is unfortunately not so snobby about the coffee or too obsessed with waitress costumes – only strict about the silence (and photography). The cafe is perhaps the only commercial venue in all of Tokyo yet to be demolished over the years to make room for something more shiny.

    The reasons:

    1) Frequented by lots of loyal old men, not kids with promiscious tastes.
    2) In the love hotel district, so rent is cheap and no respectible businesses want to take over the property.
    3) Verging on landmark status.

  10. Rory P. Wavekrest Says:

    “I feel like Ichiran is kinda the Ramen-equivalent. Even though the ramen is blah and I’ve never seen them discipline the youngstas for talking…”

    You think Ichiran is blah? I’m usually quite happy with their ramen.
    Plus, you can BYOB.

  11. joey Says:

    Wow, I didn’t know about the BYOB thing, that’s cool. I think it’s a little better than average, but don’t like their chashu very much. Issei Ramen in Toritsu-Daigaku on the Tokyu-Toyoko line is my favorite ramen shop.

  12. odot Says:

    what’s the name of this literally underground café in shinjuku that has an old viennese feel and lots of dust on ots worn out couches?

  13. Momus Says:

    That could be the new Scala-Za. The old cafe closed on December 31st 2002 and the building was demolished. But the new Scala-Za opened on October 1st 2003 in a basement near Shinjuku station West exit with “Eurapean style and Asian taste”.

  14. Chris_B Says:

    I was also thinkin the opening read like momuses. I hereby propose that M&M do an extended piece as cowriters. I’ll bit tittlered pink if it happens and promise to buy drinkies for M&M at the cafe of choice.

    Oh, thanks to both M’s for the cafe infos. I hope to put em to use someday.

  15. Momus Says:

    We often end up writing about the same stuff by serendipity, or finishing each other’s sentences (not the way the other intended, of course). But we have also collaborated on an entry, so the drinks are on you.

  16. Chris_B Says:

    meh. april 1 entry. guess it counts. email me the when and where (in Tokyo of course)

  17. amida Says:

    There is a cafe just like this in Kyoto, across from Demachiyanagi Station and above (oddly enough) a pachinko parlor.

  18. Brad Says:

    I think odot is thinking of L’ambre (らんぶる) one of my favorite cafes in Tokyo.

  19. n Says:

    i miss the now long-gone ‘CLASSIC’ off the shoutengai in Nakano. it was also a classical music cafe, but run by students from Tama-bi. you could talk, you could bring in whatever food you wanted, and the refills on coffee were half-priced. there were only three menu choices, American coffee, orange juice, or tea, and the place with two stories with a hole in the second that looked back down to the first (and felt like it was going to completely collapse)……ahh

  20. marxy Says:

    I think we’re slowly putting together that Lion’s the last of this breed.

  21. Sarmoung Says:

    Brad: There’s a Cafe De L’Ambre in Ginza that served me the best cup of coffee I had on a recent trip to Japan. It’s the only place I visited that emphasised that its beans were aged. I wrote (somewhat inarticulately) about it here:

    Marxy: I’m not quite convinced it’s game over yet for such places. There are still a few classical music kissa about the place and Lion, which has considerable charm no doubt, isn’t the only place in Tokyo to offer a similar experience (the Nakano Classic is a sad loss if it’s gone though). My impression trawling through Toyko (and Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, Nara, Naha even) kissaten was that there is something of a brave (last?) stand being fought by such places. Nostalgia isn’t necessarily sufficient to keep them going though, but there’s a certain parallel with the revival of interest in the classic British cafe (pronounced “caff” in this instance):

  22. marxy Says:

    Again, Lion isn’t coffee-obsessed. I like their milk coffee, but I doubt they’re putting much effort into it. I think this is where it differs from the normal Showa-esque kissaten around town.

  23. Momus Says:

    I think odot is thinking of L’ambre (らんぶる) one of my favorite cafes in Tokyo.

    But he did say “literally underground”, ie a basement. L’ambre is at ground level.

  24. basementboy Says:

    Dood. RENOIR.

  25. marxy Says:

    Oh, come on. Renoir is a bland hold over from the 80s. They appear to be in decline as well.

  26. basementboy Says:

    I agree, a dying breed, and I don’t mean to diss el Lion. But those baroque chemistry-set coffee drips, the velour furniture – different in every branch, yet always fully Renoir – and the 120 yen egg soup and coffee morning set … I mean, as I think I said, DOOD. Plus wi-fi (snap!) and a clientele with the biggest, squarest eyeglasses I have yet to find. Bland it ain’t. Sure, the music might be better at some other kissaten. There IS no music at Renoir.

  27. basementboy Says:

    My last post was deleted so if I appear here twice, forgive me. Anyway yes – a dying breed, and I’m certain not trying to get on the Lion or any of the classier kissaten. But I think Renoir deserves respect for slightly different reasons: the branding (each outlet different, yet each indubitably Renoir), the baroque coffee drips, and the 120-yen egg/soup/toast morning set. Plus its bubble-era rep, which attracts a wicked kind of square-glassed, amphetamine-taking amakudari crowd. Lunchtime there is for MEN. It’s not remotely classy. And it’s got velour out the ass, if that’s one’s thing.