9 Expert Tips For Record Shopping In Tokyo
Crate diggers, assemble.
For vinyl lovers, Tokyo is paradise – at least, that’s what everyone believes. It’s partly a myth. Sure there are many record shops to be found in Tokyo, but you can still face difficulties when digging for treasure.
I hate to start with the bad news first, but some home truths might save you disappointment. The devaluation of the Yen has made Japanese records cheaper but it’s also meant many record dealers from around the world have already strip-mined the stores. Plus, the growing middle-class in places that were denied access to many record releases in the past (Russia, China and Eastern Europe) has led to a whole new breed of dealers regularly hit the stores and cleaning out every classic rock record they can find. On top of this, many, many record shops have closed in the past few years. Even though I was in Tokyo in November, I must note that some of the stores I mention below may have gone in this short time.
But the good news is there are still a lot of record stores in Tokyo, probably more than anywhere else in the world. So, with a little preparation (and a lot of map studying and walking) you can still come away with amazing finds. Here’s some tips to help you on your way.
#1 Check your sources
Be wary of relying on the internet for information about Tokyo stores unless the information is very recent. I did a quick scan of the information online and was shocked by how out-of-date it all is. One essential purchase is the Japanese Record Stores Guide book which can be bought at almost any record shop (and many book stores). Though it is written entirely in Japanese, with a little assistance you should be able to work out which areas and which stores are of most interest to you. I’m told the 2013 edition was the last one that will be produced because there aren’t enough stores left to justify another edition.
One of the great things about record shopping in Tokyo is the wide range of music available. If you’re looking for genres of music that are very hard to find in Australia – Brazilian jazz, French ye-ye, free jazz, prog-rock, hair metal or unusual reggae titles – you will not be disappointed. Another bonus is the specialisation of many stores. If, for example, you are looking for punk or hip-hop you can find stores that only stock those titles.
#3 The superior product
Since the early ’70s, Japanese pressings have been superior to those from anywhere else. Apart from the better sound quality, many are also packaged with all sorts of surprises – posters, bonus tracks, sticker sets and other extras – that make them highly sought after.
#4 Welcome to 7″ heaven
If you collect 7”s, you’ll really be in heaven. Every Japanese single has a picture sleeve, usually a unique, full-colour design. But don’t expect to head home with a copy of either the Stooges’ ‘Raw Power’ or the Damned’s ‘Neat, Neat, Neat’ single unless you have a spare $2000 or so. Japanese dealers know the value of the rare records and price them accordingly. On the other hand, you can find many of the common Stones or Led Zeppelin singles for around $10 each.
#5 The cramps
Be warned, Tokyo stores can be very cramped. The high cost of rent in the city means every bit of space is used. Records are packed tightly into the racks and, on weekends especially, the customers are packed in just as tightly. Though it can be richly rewarding, shopping in Japan can be far more tiring than you would expect.
#6 Fair game
If you have a friend who can read Japanese, get them to check on any record fairs that are on whilst you are in Tokyo.
#7 Opening hours
Most record stores in Tokyo don’t open before 11am or midday but they stay open until 8 or 9pm. Go in the afternoon.
#8 I’m in chains
There are a few record chain stores with shops around Tokyo. The main one is Disk Union, which has around 20 stores. Some carry a broad range of music while others are very specialised. They are probably your best place to start. Disk Union has a policy of marking their stock down constantly so that there is always a high turnover. Other chains include Recofan and Coconut Discs.
#9 Popular areas
There are three main areas I would suggest you concentrate on. Allow at least a full day for each area.
Shinjuku is one of the main shopping districts of Tokyo. At night, the Kabuki-cho area north of the station is Tokyo’s biggest nightlife district. I wish I had taken photos of the Shinjuku record stores a decade ago. There were so many that a week would not have been enough time to visit them all, and they specialised to an extent that was mind boggling. There was a store that only sold Beatles and another that only sold Rolling Stones records. There was even a store that exclusively sold first pressings of USA Blue Note jazz records. Many have gone but there are still enough around Shinjuku to keep you busy.
The best part of Shinjuku for record shopping is the NW corner, Nishi-Shinjuku. Good stores in this area include Warehouse (specialists in first Japanese pressing of classic rock and jazz), Nat (punk specialists in a shared shop with Warehouse), Barn Homes (garage rock/’60s) and Das Gemeinethe (lots of indie-pop).
To the east side of the station, Disk Union has about 15 different stores, all with their own speciality – punk, soul, jazz, hip-hop, classic, and so on. The main store is really seven different stores, one on each level. One level is even devoted to Latin releases.
Not far from Shinjuku, on the Yamanote line, is another busy shopping area, Shibuya. If you are after electronica, hip-hop, trance or general dance music, this is the best area for you. Manhattan is probably the best store in the area but there are lots of small, hidden stores. Very recently, HMV opened a second-hand store here that has some bargains. The Disk Union store in Shibuya has a good range of genres. The basement is great for soul/funk/jazz, though I would suggest you inspect each record before purchasing as I have found their grading of record condition has been off the mark. A short walk from Shibuya is Harajuku, Tokyo’s youth fashion area. It only has a number of small record stores sprinkled throughout the area.
Shimokitazawa is like a small village, tucked away near Shibuya. It’s full of tiny, hole-in-the-wall, second-hand stores selling old toys, retro clothing and – of course – records. But it is also a confusing maze and you may need a guide to help you locate the hard to find stores. Good stores include Jet Set (indies), Otonomad (world music), Flash Disc Ranch (soul/R&B), Vinyl Story (old rock/folk/pysch) and City Country City (soul/funk). The Disk Union in Shimokitazawa has a great broad range.
Those areas, Shinjuku, Shibuya and Shimokitazawa, are probably the three areas I would suggest you concentrate on. If you are game to try some other areas, then hit Ochanomizu or Ikebukuro. Ochanomizu is where many of the universities are located so there are a number of good record stores there. It is also a great place if you are looking for musical instruments and pedals or accessories. Disk Union has a few stores in the area including a jazz store that very might well be the biggest and best jazz store in the world. Ikebukuro, in the north of inner Tokyo has a good Disk Union, a Recofan and a number of smaller (again, hard to find) record stores.
To reiterate a few points:
- Know what you are looking for in advance and try to work out which stores are the most likely to suit you.
- Get a copy of the Japan Record Stores Guide.
- Shop during the week, not on the weekends.
- Try to work out if any record fairs are on during your visit.
- Allow plenty of time for shopping.
(Lead image: Karen Vangronsveld/Flickr)