Japan Music – a Guide to Concerts, Gigs and Music Shopping in Tokyo
Get tips on Tokyo concerts, gigs, clubs, jazz bars and where to buy some great records in Japan's capital.
Tokyo has come to be regarded as somewhat of a Mecca for music fans over the years. Though Tokyo shares this reputation with a wide-array of other destinations (think Austin, Nashville, LA, Manchester…), the sheer size and density of the Japanese capital gives it an eclectic and often seemingly contradictory music scene that makes it unique. The music on offer fluctuates between the consumerist mainstream and the independent avant-garde at will and concert venues and record stores can be found around nearly every corner. So whether you want to trawl endless record bins, lose yourself in a mosh-pit or simply relax to some great music, keep reading to arm yourself with the information you’re going to need to make the most of what the Tokyo music scene has to offer.
Live Music in Tokyo
Seeing a band or artist live can, at it’s best, be an almost holy experience. The anticipation beforehand, the electric moment the stage fills with life and of course, the music itself. The right combination of artist and venue can give you this. However, go to the wrong place, or catch a dodgy performer, and this all falls to dust. With such a high volume of what are called ‘live houses’ (the Japanese term for a music venue, ranging from underground bunkers with barely enough room for speakers to huge stadia ) and clubs peppered all over the city, the fear of entering the wrong one is ever-present, even for a seasoned Tokyo music fan. My picks of the best places to check out should put these fears to bed.
Shimokitazawa and Koenji
For Shimokitazawa, take either the Odakyu Line from Shinjuku (7 minutes) or the Inokashira Line from Shibuya (3 minutes). For Koenji, hop on a Chuo Line Local or Rapid service from Shinjuku (7 minutes).
Head to either of these locations for a glut of used clothes, music stores and predictably – live houses. Both have long been considered the homes of alternative youth culture in Tokyo, with a strong inclination toward underground guitar and pop music. Though ongoing redevelopment around Shimokitazawa station is slowly chipping away some of it’s old charm and authenticity, both are well worth a visit. Though be advised, most shows in Japan have a relatively early start time (compared to Europe and America), so be sure not to get there too late. Some of my favourite venues include:
A veteran Tokyo venue, Shelter is a relatively small live-house that regularly hosts performers with fan-bases that way outstrip it’s size, as well as smaller and local acts.
From the South exit of Shimokitazawa station, follow the train tracks then turn right at a T-Junction. Follow the small road until you come across Shelter on your right hand side. Address: Senda Building, B1 2-6-10, Shimokitazawa.
Sound Studio Dom (Koenji):
Studio Dom’s main function is as a practice and recording space for local bands but is regularly put to use as a sort of DIY venue complete with bar and roof terrace.
Head for Koenji’s Pal arcade located right outside of the main exit, find Studio Dom on your left up a flight of stairs. Address: 3F Koenjiminami 4-25-7, Suginami-ku.
Tokyo Jazz Clubs and Bars
Japan has long been enthralled by jazz, a relationship that is said to have been birthed by American influence in the 1920s, and Tokyo is at the heart of this. So whether you’re in the mood for the familiar stylings of a master like Miles Davis or fancy a night of esoteric free-form – you’re in luck, because Tokyo has it all! World renowned clubs intermingle with side-street bars to entice any jazz lover, here’s a couple of the best:
Though only opened in 2005, this stylish venue aims to recreate the glamour of the golden age of jazz through a combination of glitzy aesthetics and world-class billings. A capacity of 180 makes this a medium-sized venue, yet there is rarely a spare seat in the house, no matter the day of the week. Past performers include Japanese big-names such as Ito Takeshi as well as past greats like Ben E. King. Consider booking tickets in advance to avoid disappointment.
A short walk from Nijubashi-Mae station on the Chiyoda Line brings you to the TOKIA Tokyo building and find the Cotton Club on the second floor. Address: Cotton Club, Tokia 2F, Tokyo Bldg, 2-7-3 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku.
Kichijoji in west Tokyo is said to be the epicenter of Tokyo jazz, a hive of experimentation and performance since it’s heyday in the 60s and 70s, and Sometime is surely the areas crowning glory. Combining a relaxed speakeasy atmosphere with artists old and new, this is the place to head for a night of fun, sound-tracked by world-class jazz. Crowds are typically a mix of young and old revelers and the management’s commitment to super low entry charges makes this a truly egalitarian venue.
Take the north exit from Kichijoji station (Chuo Line Rapid from Shinjuku), walk down Sun Road, turn left onto Penny Lane and you’ll find Sometime on your right hand side, down a flight of stairs. Address: Musashino, Kichijoji Honcho, 1−11−31.
These are hard times for clubs: venues across the world are increasingly being put at the mercy of stringent licensing laws and, especially in major cities, the pressure from land-hungry property developers is ever present (see Manchester’s famous Hacienda club, converted into luxury flats, for one example). Tokyo, however, though not immune, has proven resilient in the face of such difficult circumstances, maintaining a solid base of clubs catering to all tastes and budgets. Be warned however, prepare yourself to stay out until the first morning trains, super expensive taxis and a conspicuous lack of night buses makes getting home a perpetual challenge. Take a look at my pick of some of the best:
Hailed as one of Tokyo’s premier nightlife spots, Liquidroom in the swanky Ebisu neighborhood is a haven for the city’s music lovers, hosting big-name DJs and upstarts alike, who are able to take advantage of one of the best quality sound-systems in the country. Techno and house nights are common but check-out the clubs schedule for full listings.
From Ebisu station’s west exit, turn right onto Komazawa-dori, left onto Meiji-doru and Liquidroom will be on your left. Address: 3-16-6 Higashi, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo.
Sankeys’ reputation precedes it. With locations in London, New York and Ibiza, this newly opened branch in Tokyo’s fashionable Daikanyama represents quite a coup for Tokyo’s club scene. This exciting new prospect promises an eclectic lineup of dance music and with a ground-floor late-night Cuban restaurant this is the place for clubbers and foodies alike.
Within walking distance of both Shibuya and Daikanyama stations. From Shibuya, follow the tracks of the Yamanote Line south and turn right at the T-Junction, Sankeys is on your left. Address: B1F-B2F, 2-11 Sarugakucho, Shibuya-ku Tokyo.
Planning ahead and buying tickets
For an exceptionally well-maintained guide to upcoming concerts, gigs and various other musical events happening around Tokyo, check out tokyogigguide.com. Tickets for events can commonly be bought ahead of time either from the venues themselves or online, for the latter option Japanese skills may well be necessary however. For the spontaneous among you, turning up on the night can often be fruitful, do however make sure you get there before the scheduled start-time, especially for smaller capacity venues.
Buying Music in Tokyo
So you’ve been to the super-hip live-house, the cool jazz bar or stayed up until the early hours dancing and now what you want, more than anything, is to be able to recreate that experience anywhere and at any time. Luckily for you, Tokyo’s abundant music retailers have you covered. For habitual record collectors, Tokyo is well known as the go-to destination to spend days hunting down sought after records of any genre in the abundant stores which cover the city. Moreover, less obsessed fans of physical music are also well catered for, with Japan’s well-stocked chain stores or independent vendors. All those dissatisfied with the intangibility of the mp3, read on:
Originating in the US but now exclusive to Japan, Tower Records is somewhat of an institution. Boasting stores nationwide, a great selection of CDs, records and merchandise, this is no ordinary high-street music store. The flagship store in Tokyo’s Shibuya dominates the skyline with its bold reds and yellows, with no trip to the area complete without perusing the buildings nine expansive floors. Head here for music as well as books (including numerous foreign titles), electronics and even coffee.
From Shibuya station’s Hachiko exit, navigate the crossing and walk down the street housing the Seibu department store, Tower Records is on your right. Address: 1-22-14 Jinnan, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo.
Another Japanese institution, famed for it’s extensive stock and low prices. Disk Union specialises in records, acting as the first port-of-call for any collector worth their salt. You will find all musical styles here and don’t be afraid to consult to ever-helpful staff if you have something specific in mind. Stores are located across the city and country as a whole, but the multi-leveled Shinjuku branch comes highly recommended.
For the Shinjuku store, head to Shinjuku station A1 exit, walk around the corner and take a right at the Nikon camera shop, there are two stores on this street with the second being the main store and the first specialising in jazz records. Address: 3-31-4 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku 160-0022.
This huge store housing thousands of records is not for the light-hearted. However, be brave, and you will be rewarded for your efforts. Recofan stocks both domestic and international music with a focus on older artists and second-hand merchandise. It is the sort of store where you feel the potential for striking gold is just around the corner, just make sure one of the ever-present and nimble-fingered regulars doesn’t beat you to it.
Using Shibuya’s Hachiko exit, cross the road and walk north on the road flanked by the Seibu department store, before reaching Tokyu Hands on your right, turn left down a narrow road. Recofan is on the fourth floor of the Shibuya Beam building . Address: Shibuya Beam 4F, Udagawacho 31-2, Shibuya-ku Tokyo.
Flash Disc Ranch
This Shimokitazawa stalwart is seen by it’s owner as an “incubator for young people”, a place for generation after generation to discover the music that will define them. That’s an ambitious mission statement but once inside, soaking in the good-vibes, you can’t help but agree that this might just be the case. Around since 1982, Flash Disc Ranch is a fun place to hang-out and browse, with a special interest in jazz, soul and R&B records.
Leave the south exit of Shimokitazawa station and turn left, keep walking until you reach an intersection, at which point turn right. The store will be on your right-hand-side. Address: Misuzu Bldg 2F, 2-12-16 Shimo-Kitazawa, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo 155-0031.
If I told you you weren’t going to get lost, i’d be lying. Tokyo is the most populated city on earth by some distance and it’s sheer urban density is testament to this fact. The lack of street names and the tendency for concert venues and stores to be located underground or up many flights of stairs doesn’t help much either. My advice is to embrace the unfamiliarity, view the hunt for the location as a part of the fun and ultimately, when you find what you’re looking for, the reward will be twice as sweet.