• Emily McDonnell

#7: Rhinoçéros

Behind the bar: Berlin's first Japanese Jazz Kissa

When I moved to Berlin from Oxford, one of the few things I shipped with me was my beautiful olive-green Dansette, a record player ('The Tempo') made in the 1960s. I get a little shiver down my spine when the needle hits the record, the speaker crackles into life and the first notes of the vinyl reveal themselves. There’s something so mesmeric about listening to a record from end-to-end. And, thankfully, my favourite Berlin bar is of the same opinion.

I stumbled upon Rhinoçéros two years ago, while in search of a glass of wine. And, as I stepped over the threshold, I knew I’d found somewhere special. Flames flickered as wood crackled in the fireplace, black and white photos adorned the walls, and - best of all - two huge, wooden speakers were vibrating with the dulcet tones of a soul vinyl that spun on a Japanese Micro-Seiki record player. While I sat, mesmerised by my new surroundings, owners Bénédict and Martina brought me a glass of rich Côtes du Rhône and a cheese platter, and - just like that - I was head over heels.

“Our Japanese DJ friend kept telling us tales of jazz Kissaten,” Martina told me, “of how these cosy bars were havens for music lovers, and of how they were disappearing. We became fascinated by the concept, especially the idea of ‘active listening’. When Bénédict and I finally visited Japan, we were stunned by the way people sat in silence, absorbing the sound of the music. Each Kissa we visited was totally unique, but we found the same feeling of magic in each. It was so addictive that we knew we had to try and recreate it back in Berlin.”

And, I’d say, they’ve managed to achieve this rather spectacularly. There’s a magic in the bar that is rarely found and hard to conserve. Rhinoçéros is my sanctuary when I want to curl up with a book and ignore the world, it’s where I take my visiting parents to unwind after a day walking around the city, and it’s where I go on dates to swap secret smiles. I can always guarantee myself a good evening, good wine and good music.

Rhinoçéros was always meant to exist. The pair had had a painting of a rhino in their apartment, and the bar - situated on Rhinower Str - used to be a Japanese tea house. Bénédict and Martina have allowed art and creativity to thrive here, having hosted photography exhibitions (check out Tokyo Jazz Joints) and live concerts.

Music has always been important for the pair: they met in the Berlin club scene, and connected over HipHop, House and Disco. Both are super creative and charismatic types, Bénédict has always had his own bar or club space, each with a heavy focus on the quality of the music, while Martina is a costume designer with an impressive portfolio under her belt. But, on opening Rhinoçéros, they were keen to stick as much as possible to the Japanese tradition of playing Jazz, Soul and Funk in the bar.

“I’m learning about whole new genres. Yes, my taste is considered to be pretty mainstream,” Martina laughs, “but some albums get popular for a reason, right? Bénédict, however, has gone deep and he now knows so many obscure-but-exceptional jazz albums. I love the bar for many reasons, but one of them is that it allows me to discover new music. People bring their own favourite records to the bar, so they can play them and share them with us: this is so special.”

“We have started hosting regular listening sessions, too, so we can really re-create the Japanese Kissa feel: it's incredible that this silent, active listening is the norm in Japan. Before we put the record on, the atmosphere is a bit awkward with people shuffling around and whispering their drinks orders at us. But, once the needle hits the record, everyone sits totally enchanted by the music: it’s not often we follow the entire story an album tells anymore. The energy in the room is always electric, and I get goosebumps every single time.”

The thing that resonates with me the most is the wonderful blend of culture - French wine and cheese from Bénédict’s homeland, German wine as a nod to Martina, locally-brewed beer to showcase the city, and elegant Japanese whiskey as inspiration - everyone has their place here, and the one unifier is the music.

The two have exciting plans for the bar’s future, and I - for one - cannot wait.

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Jazz tips

Jazz is a genre I have always enjoyed, but I know very little about it. Luckily, Bénédict has put together a few playlists on Spotify that make discovering new artists much easier!

Check out his latest recommendations.

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