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Music at Work

Music is vital to the atmosphere at Imanishi (1330 Dundas St. W.). A superior sound system, says owner Shori Imanishi, is one of those things that makes a restaurant “feel so good.” The humble but influential proponent of City Pop runs music through a solid state McIntosh tube amp; acoustic panels keep the sound waves from ricocheting off hard surfaces, resulting in a crisp, clear sound. Photo by Paolo Azarraga.

A feel-good, nostalgic genre of Japanese dance tunes called City Pop has become the kitchen soundtrack for a community of Toronto chefs—one that sets the tone for a kinder, brighter, kitchen culture.

Chef/City Pop evangelist Shori Imanishi. Photo by Paolo Azarraga.

When Shori Imanishi opened Imanishi Japanese Kitchen, his izakaya at Dundas West and Lisgar in 2015, his goal was to create the perfect amalgam of Japanese food, music, and Tokyo street culture. “I wanted to give it that Tokyo vibe,” the chef-owner says. “It wasn’t just about the food, but that entire experience you get when you’re in Japan.”

So he outfitted the room with 1970s-era Japanese beer signage, curry cannisters, album covers and manga, a kick-ass sound system, and a menu of modern Japanese comfort food classics (anchovy potato salad, tebasaki chicken wings, and ebi shrimp fry). A visit to Imanishi immerses you in a sensory collage, a magical, euphoric bar experience that very few establishments manage to achieve.

Central to that vibe is Japanese City Pop—a loosely defined genre that encompasses danceable, feel-good Japanese pop music from the late ’70s and ’80s. It’s American and UK rhythm and blues, funk, disco, pop, and jazz filtered through the musical sensibilities of a Japan whose future looked bright and was voracious for novel sounds, sights and fashions. It’s also a genre cherished by a subset Toronto cooks, connected to each other through Toronto’s restaurant, music, and DJ cultures.

From Imanishi’s City Pop Collection. Photo by Paolo Azarraga.

In 2018, when Braden Chong, executive sous chef at Mimi Chinese and sister restaurant Sunny’s Chinese, was working at Grey Gardens, he told Dimitri Panou, his pal and fellow cook, that he was considering moving to Japan to expand his skills. Panou, an avid record fan who DJed on the side, suggested he check out City Pop. But it wasn’t until 2019, as a cook at the new Nordic-style Lurra restaurant in Kyoto, that Chong learned just how addictive City Pop could be.

Mimi Chinese executive sous chef Braden Chong. Photo by Gabriel Li.

Despite the focused, serious, minimalism of Lurra’s cuisine—one dish involved three types of persimmon with a raw walnut milk, soy and dashi sauce, for example—Chong’s line-mates were “really fun guys who liked to joke around,” he recalls. Their musical tastes were aligned, too. He fell in love with the old pop songs they played for him by Tatsuro Yamashita, Anri, and Junko Ohashi. “It was so nostalgic,” he says. One of City Pop’s attractions in fact, is its brand of manufactured nostalgia, born from the glossy, bouncy Japanese sheen applied to familiar R&B, pop, jazz, and hip hop tropes.

Hisanori Hatanaka of Cosmos Records on Queen West, grew up with this music, and has introduced many a Torontonian to it. He sees the influences on City Pop of artists as disparate as The Beach Boys, David Bowie, Curtis Mayfield, Kraftwerk, New Order, and Duran Duran—but explains that Japanese songwriters recast those sounds in long, winding chord progression patterns that are more pleasing to the Japanese ear than the short, simple patterns used in western pop.

The term “City Pop” is also not one familiar to most Japanese. When he was growing up with it in the 70s and 80s, Hatanaka explains, “We called it ‘new music.’ Then it was called J-pop.” The Japanese millennials and gen Z-ers rediscovering this music today think of it as retro music, the tunes that light up their parents faces and turn them into swooning teenagers again, the way playing the Doobie Brothers or Hall and Oates might their North American counterparts.

But City Pop is not your typical restaurant kitchen music. Many male-dominated kitchens, says Panou, skew toward “hip hop and metal, often aggressive metal that makes you move fast—there’s that macho element.” Bonding over City Pop, then, is like finding a special, more rarefied niche in the kitchen, emotionally elevating rather than punishing. The band of cooks in the city who share a love for City Pop include Julian Bacchus at Lake Inez; his brother Jordan Bacchus at The Federal; and at Mimi Chinese, Chong’s colleagues: supervisor/server Mica White and senior sous chef Joseph Ysmael.

Photographer and Mimi Chinese supervisor/server Mica While. Photo by Brendan George Ko.

White, a photographer whose mother is Japanese, says, “I associate City Pop with Tokyo, especially when it’s paired with homestyle teishoku set meals—it’s like the comfort food my mother made.

While many fine dining restaurants forbid music in the kitchen during service to minimize distractions, music streams all day during prep. “I need to have something to keep my mind off being stressed twenty-four-seven,” says Chong. For him, City Pop provides that happy place, and he believes it has a direct effect on the quality of the food a restaurant turns out: “If we’re playing music we enjoy then we’re happier, and it’s easier to make good food,” he points out.

Chef/DJ-turned-urban planning student Dimitri Panou. Photo by Jim Panou.

Panou’s winding path to City Pop took him from the jazz and world music his parents played at home to learning to play guitar, drums and piano as a kid, all while discovering hip hop, punk, reggae and perhaps most importantly, DJing. He began spinning records around town in 2014 and continued these gigs after returning from a stint at Gramercy Tavern in New York. At some point, music for him became more about “the production of the songs and the old funk/soul/r&b tracks that they sampled,” he recalls, leading him to discover artists ranging from the O’Jays to James Brown, Roy Ayers, and Bob James.

He discovered City Pop about a decade ago at Cosmos Records, hanging out with Hatanaka and his pal Shuji Ogawa, who spent time in Toronto on a working holiday visa. Both DJed on the side. One day, he recalls, “Shuji pulled out this Tatsuro Yamashita album “Spacy," and played him the track “Dancer.” “It starts with this heavy drum break and then there’s this little guitar flourish and the bass kicks in, and I was instantly hooked. It just sounded like an amazing hip-hop sample … once the vocals came in, I knew I needed to hear more music like this,” Panou recalls.

Daitokai album cover. Photo by Dimitri Panou.

His budget was limited but he shelled out money for another City Pop album he loves, the soundtrack to a popular 1970s Japanese TV detective series Daitokai (The Big City) featuring a Starsky and Hutch-like like image of gun-wielding Tokyo Metropolitan Police officers.

Panou credits the “crossover between cooking and DJing worlds in Toronto” for introducing City Pop to a new generation of restaurant workers. Shuji and Hatanaka both DJed at 416 Snack Bar. The former Ryoji Ramen on College near Crawford was another place that featured regular City Pop nights. DJing mecca The Little Jerry occasionally dips into City Pop.

Hatanaka has seen up close how City Pop has taken off in the past five to ten years, thanks to YouTube algorithms and Tik-Tok memes, drawing fans in their 20s and early 30s to the store hunting for the music they’ve discovered on these platforms. Another sign of its growing mass appeal: on The Weekend’s “Out of Time,” from his latest album, Dawn FM, he samples a large swath of the Tomoko Aran City Pop tune “Midnight Pretenders.”

The most influential chef evangelist for City Pop, though, remains Shori Imanishi, who is humble about his role in the scene. As a young cook in Vancouver, he says City Pop was just what listened to with friends from Japan. A short stint as a cook in Japan at 16 and then a three-year sojourn starting when he was 21 cemented his love for the country’s music and street culture. City Pop took him back to the break dancing scene he was into as a kid: both were built upon 80s hip hop and R&B.

With the help of sound guru Robert Squire and $15,000 worth of audio equipment, Imanishi built his restaurant’s audio system. He bought the best solid state McIntosh tube amp he could afford, making up for its shortcomings by installing sound absorbing panels, which keep sound waves from ricocheting off harder surfaces and result in a crisp, clean sound. “People will come in and not notice what feels so good about a space,” he notes. “Maybe it’s the lighting, the a/c temperature, the seating—there are a lot of things that make a place feel good, and our sound system is one of those things.”

It’s the cumulative effect of all of those small details that have made Imanishi an industry favorite, says Mica White. City Pop, she says, “is integral to the type of clientele the restaurant attracts, a crowd that really appreciates sound, and comes of course for the food, but also for the atmosphere and the music. Shori is vital to that scene and community.”

In the end, the food and music at his restaurant come from the same place in Imanishi’s brain. “We’re trying not to stray too much from classic Japanese food, yet Japanese food is so fusion,” he explains—a lot like City Pop. But it’s not just about getting the right blend of fusion, it’s about upholding an abstract ideal: “The kind of quality we try to put out with sound is the same level of quality we try for in the food at Imanishi,” he says.


*This article by Nancy Matsumoto was originally published in the February/March Music edition of Toronto’s West End Phoenix newspaper.


© 2022 Nancy Matsumoto / West East Phoenix

Braden Chong City Pop Dimitri Panou Food Imanishi Japanese Kitchen Mica White Music Shori Imanishi Toronto