Photo/IllutrationRyota Katsuhara, right, winds the handle of the gramophone to play a disc for customers at the Gramophone Cafe Edison in Nagoya’s Shin-Sakae district in Naka Ward. (Nao Hidaka)

  • Photo/Illustraion

NAGOYA--It felt like Marilyn Monroe was in the room, but how could that be?

The song playing at Gramophone Cafe Edison was the Hollywood icon's “River of No Return” from the 1954 movie of the same name that also starred Robert Mitchum.

What set the song apart from run-of-the-mill fare that plays at most venues nowadays was the feeling that the blonde bombshell was present and giving a live performance. No chance of that as the 1950s sex symbol died in 1962.

And this is the magic of a visit to this recently opened venue in the Shin-Sakae district here.

Masaki Inoue, a co-owner of the establishment, likes to play old 78-rpm records on a gramophone, but not any old one.

This is where decades-old technology differs from the compact disc that most people know today. Music recorded on CD is compressed to fit a particular format, but 78-rpms are the size of a typical vinyl LP, allowing for a more dynamic and personal sound.

“It feels like you can hear Monroe's breaths. It really sounds live, doesn't it?” said Inoue, 71.

The cafe is named in honor of American inventor and businessman Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) and it opened in January to mark the 140th anniversary of the first phonograph in 1877.

The centerpiece of the cafe is an HMV-163 gramophone manufactured in 1928 by Gramophone Co. in Britain. The 1-meter-high wooden cabinet is a single music system with speakers and an old-style stylus that can make some old 78-rpms sound scratchy.

Visitors to the basement cafe are invariably struck by the eye-catching piece of furniture as gramophones are rarely seen anymore.

The gramophone is owned by Ryota Katsuhara, 69, the cafe's top dog, or "chief master," who is also a dealer in ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Katsuhara and Inoue, a former president of Aichi International School in Nagoya’s Meito Ward, used to play jazz together during their college days.

Katsuhara came across the HMV-163 gramophone six years or so ago during a business trip to Tokyo.

He already had a gramophone for family use that he had purchased at Inoue's recommendation, and happened to pop into a shop that specialized in the old-style music systems.

Katsuhara recalled that he was overwhelmed by the sound of the gramophone, a model originally manufactured for playing at dance halls and other venues.

As it happened, Katsuhara had been planning to allow his important customers to listen to records played on the gramophone he had at home the following week.

“I really want them to hear this sound,” Katsuhara thought.

The HMV-163 gramophone cost him 600,000 yen ($5,365), cash that he had prepared to buy up ukiyo-e prints.

“When I find something good, I want other people to be able to appreciate it," he said. "I guess that’s my character.”

Katsuhara and Inoue teamed up and hold private gatherings four times a year to play time-tested standards on their gramophones, events that are highly anticipated by customers.

Katsuhara and Inoue began thinking about opening a cafe to create relaxed surroundings for fans of records played on a gramophone.

The cafe had its preliminary opening in January, but opened for business properly on Feb. 19, the day when Edison patented the phonograph back in 1878.

Katsuhara also loves to play tango music, while Inoue spins the music of his favorite jazz. The cafe's collection includes rare vinyl records, such as “Nagoya koshinkyoku” (Nagoya March) and “Nagoya shi ka” (Nagoya city’s song), both of which were performed by the Matsuzakaya kangen gakudan (current Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra).

Visitors arriving with their only vinyl are also all welcome.

The store attracts a diverse range of customers, old friends of Katsuhara and Inoue who are now regulars as well as youngsters.

The latter are often keen to hear what the sound is given off by a gramophone.

“I feel the sound of CDs is superficial, whereas gramophones are able to reproduce subtle nuances of the music,” said a woman in her 60s from Nagoya’s Nishi Ward who was visiting the cafe with a friend.

“The sound of music reproduced by the gramophone is just out of this world. It comes across like live music, keeping the sound of the original audio source intact as much as possible,” said a gleeful Inoue.

Gramophone Cafe Edison is open from 12 p.m. to six p.m. and closed Mondays and Tuesdays.