Music reigns supreme at EP Bar, a haven for audiophiles and highball drinkers in Chinatown.
Mark Kushimi and Brandyn Liu
It’s been nearly nine years, but Ryan Miyashiro still remembers what record was playing when he first entered JBS, a small listening bar in Shibuya: Pete Rock & CL Smooth. It wasn’t the jazzy thump of early ’90s hip-hop that surprised him so much as the man playing it, Kobayashi Kazuhiro, who looked to be pushing 70 years old. As JBS’s owner and sole employee, Kazuhiro worked seven days a week.
He functioned as host, bartender, and music impresario, playing from his collection of over 10,000 records, which were organized prominently behind the bar. After selecting an album to play, Kazuhiro placed the vinyl’s jacket on the bar under a lamp, like a stage light illuminating the night’s protagonist. Conversations were hushed; this was music with a side of drinks, and Miyashiro was transfixed. “It was pretty much one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen,” he says.
Ever since, Miyashiro made a point of visiting JBS (shorthand for jazz, blues, and soul) during his trips to Japan, bringing along friends like Chris Nakano and Daniel Ng, who shared in his wonderment. In January 2022, the three opened an homage to JBS in Honolulu’s Chinatown: EP Bar, Hawai‘i’s first listening bar. An offshoot of the kissaten—quiet off-beat coffeehouses catering to writers and intellectuals that gained prominence in post-World War II Japan—listening bars are designed with audiophiles in mind. They tend to feature high-end audio equipment, robust, sometimes obscure vinyl collections, and noise restrictions—less talking, more listening—though EP Bar’s approach is less austere. “We’re not in Japan, we’re in America,” Miyashiro says. “I don’t think we could get away with that here.”
EP Bar belongs to a crop of newfangled listening bars, hip audio-forward spaces that have recently expanded to cities like Los Angeles, London, and Barcelona. Located in the back of Morning Glass Coffee’s Nu‘uanu Avenue outpost, EP Bar’s 600 square feet is den-like, exuding the interiority of a well-kept secret. The custom-built decor is sleek but warm, with vintage audio equipment and retro JBL L100 speakers flanking the bar. As promised—“EP” refers to extended play records—music reigns supreme. A library of around 2,000 records is organized behind the bar. “It’s everything from psychedelic and doo-wop to rock and Hawaiian,” says Miyashiro, who calls the people making those decisions each night EP Bar’s “sound selectors”—an assortment of friends and music lovers who play records from their own vinyl collections in addition to the bar’s. And like a good DJ, “they’re really good at reading the room,” he says.
Unlike JBS, where the only alcohol options are beer or whiskey, and all for 500 yen a pop, EP Bar has a more robust drink selection—but don’t call it a cocktail bar. “There’s so many places in Chinatown where you can get a great old-fashioned or a great martini,” says the bar director Sam Trusty. Rather than mimicking those places, Trusty says the goal in developing EP Bar’s whiskey-focused drink menu “was trying to find a balance of offering quality without being overwhelming, that feels appropriate for the space.” Thehighball selection, created in collaboration with Bar Leather Apron co-founder Justin Park, includes the Kyoho Highball , made with green grape acid concocted in-house. The most popular cocktail, the EP Bar Old Fashioned, spotlights Trusty’s black sesame-infused bourbon.
Many years ago, Trusty had her own experience at JBS that eventually led her to EP Bar. She wandered in one night without knowing what a listening bar was and, like Miyashiro, was struck by how unusual and intimate it felt, like an extension of someone’s living room. “I’ve been in the industry for so long, and I’ve traveled to so many places and visited hundreds of bars, but that one always comes back to mind,” she says. “There was nothing like that in Hawai‘i or any other city I had been to.” On a subsequent visit to Japan, she tried to return to JBS, which is tucked into the second floor of a nondescript building. “I Googled every possible combination—‘record bar,’ ‘bars with records’—and I couldn’t for the life of me find it,” she says, which only added to the bar’s allure. So, when she discovered that a listening bar was opening in Hawai‘i, working there felt like a dream job, her own way of finally returning.
What struck Trusty most about Kazuhiro was his humility, how unaware he seemed about the deep, long-lasting impression JBS has left on guests like Miyashiro and herself, who’ve unwittingly stumbled in over the years. It’s that magical and effortless intimacy that EP Bar hopes to reflect. Or, as Trusty recalls: “He’s just like, ‘I’m a guy, I want to play my records and if you want to sit here and drink a beer while I do that, that’s great.’”
Unlike the Tokyo listening bar it was inspired by, where the only alcohol options are beer or whiskey, EP Bar has a robust drink selection—but don’t call it a cocktail bar.