MUSIC GET! Searching for sounds in Japan

In November 2015, I went to Tokyo for the first time and I learnt two things. First, that there is a limit to how much sushi you can eat before your organs rebel against your body, and second, Japan is the holy land for socially inept geeks, a.k.a. the majority of record collectors. As a socially inept geek, I had found my true home. On the plane back to England, I was already planning when I could return and rescue the dozens of records I had to leave behind in the racks due to baggage constraints. Thankfully, 18 months later and I was back on the plane, ready again to plunder the loot of the land of the rising sun.

This trip would not only take me back to Tokyo, but on to Kyoto and Osaka. After a long, cramped flight and an unforgettable experience (in the same way that having your finger nails pulled out with tweezers is an unforgettable experience) in a capsule hotel, my first base camp of the trip was established and I fired up Google Maps to pinpoint the best record shops in Tokyo.

Tokyo

Guitars in Ikebukuro

I was staying in the brothel-ridden area of Ikebukuro, which is handy for sexy massages and transport links, so it wouldn’t be hard for me to get around the metropolis of Tokyo and then have someone rub my feet afterwards. On the first morning, I set out to Shimokitazawa, a neighbourhood of Tokyo that numerous travel websites described as ‘trendy’ with ‘funky shops’. I’ve also heard Leeds described in the same way, so I was a little skeptical. Google seemed to be pointing me towards Best Sound Records as the place to check out in Shimokitazawa, so after killing some time wandering the narrow streets of the neighbourhood before opening time, I set out to have my first of many record-related ecstasies.

However, on my way to find BSR, I was reminded of one of the most frustrating things about Tokyo that my rosy memory had washed over from the last time. Japan and proper signage do not get on, and it’s hard enough finding the right street, let alone the right shop. Also, Japan isn’t content to keep its shops on street level, and you can guarantee the typical street extends in all dimensions. Eventually, I managed to find where BSR should be, but after wandering around what Google told me was the correct building and trying the numerous locked doors within, I couldn’t seem to locate any records. I gave BSR up as a bad job and decided to move on to the next place on my list.

Synthesisers galore at Five G

I’d done a lot of research on unusual places to visit before leaving England and one place that seemed extra unusual was Five G Music Technology in Harajuku. If you get a little bit sweaty at the thought of knobs and keys like I do, Five G will do more for you than any girls bar in Tokyo. If you find an elevator in a tucked away shopping arcade just up from Harajuku station, you can bathe in the glory of Japan’s analog mastery.

Akai MPC samplers

Synths are incredibly hard to come by in proper music shops in my experience of exploring music shops in the UK, so you can imagine my joy to be surrounded by a timeline of famous synths from the days of yore. Akai MPCs, LinnDrum machines, Roland Junos, you name it, Five G has it. I was extra excited to see not one, but two, TR-808s inside, which are rarer than rare back in the arse end of England.

Racks upon racks

In my childish mind, I had dreamt that I would be able to buy all my dream equipment for a few thousand yen, but obviously, that wouldn’t be the case. All the prices seemed concurrent with what I’d seen on eBay, so I left Five G in a little bit of a sulk, jealous that I’d have to wait a lot longer before I could create my synth factory at home. Wiping away my tears, I headed on to Tokyo’s epicentre of shopping, Shibuya.

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Tower Records looms over a rainy Shibuya

The main place to go in Shibuya for anyone with working ears is Tower Records. Tower Records is famous for a reason I can’t seem to find out, and as my most local branch is in Dublin, I don’t spend a lot of time wondering about it. Anyway, Tower Records in Shibuya is a massive monument to Japan’s native pop music, and as you progress upwards through the building, the floors get less populated and the blare of this weeks releases gets a little quieter. You might also find some familiar faces in the racks…

Nottz locals in the new releases

Tower Records isn’t a great place to go if you’re exclusively into vinyl, as the record selection is relatively small, and is a little higher than high street prices back home. Still, going to Tower Records is something that every music fan in Tokyo feels they need to do, even if it’s just to ponder how anyone can keep up with the endless boy bands and girl groups that dominate Japan’s airwaves.

Racks in Tower Records

It’s also worth mentioning that Tower Records has a brilliant selection of storage for CDs, so I recommend checking the array of branded boxes and sleeves they have out. It’s also one of the few places you can find cassettes, and the best place to pick up game and film soundtracks that aren’t likely to ever be released on vinyl, or in the UK on any format. They also have a cassette tape shelf! As 8-tracks seem to be crawling back as a novelty release this year, maybe ‘bring your own tape’ nights will be a regular event once the vinyl bubble bursts.

Cassettes, old and new

Every time I’ve been to Shibuya, it’s chucked it down and this time was no exception. As it was getting late and my trainers were starting to leak, I had to cut my Shibuya record shopping time down to one last shop. Shibuya has lots of great little record shops, but I decided to visit Manhattan Records, mainly because it was near to a burger place I wanted to go to afterwards. When in doubt, follow your stomach.

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Escaping the downpour at Manhattan Records

Thankfully Manhattan Records was a lot easier to find than BSR, and occupies a nice space not far from Shibuya main melee of shoppers. Dealing mainly in hip hop, Manhattan Records is a nice change of pace from the daze of the rest of the Shibuya. Although I am by no means a hip hop aficionado, I was able to find some great discs in the racks, such as the Chance the Rapper bootlegs that are on display below.

Inside Manhattan Records

Manhattan Records has plenty of funk/breaks/R&B too, and has that good vibration as soon as you walk in (which is the only thing that really matters in a record shop). They also have a good selection of CDs, and a great portion of the stock is focused on Japanese hip hop (which ashamedly, I know next to nothing about). You can also grab some branded cigarette lighters if you want. After cashing up and surveying the continuously poor weather, I decided to call it a day and wrap my big gob around a burger.

Kyoto

My Tokyo leg of the journey was only four days, meaning my record hunting time was very limited. There were plenty of shops I missed out on due to time constraints, but it wasn’t too big a deal, seeing as I’d had my fill from my first trip to Tokyo. Still, I wish I had chance to visit the incredible Shibuya branch of Disk Union and the nearby HMV, both of which have a mind-melting amount of records inside.

Thanks to the miraculous bullet train, I was soon in Kyoto and ready to explore fresh ground. Whilst many travel websites, and social media accounts that overuse emojis will portray Kyoto in spring as a magical peace garden, I actually found the city incredibly boring. Whilst it does have a few nice spots, and the lovely Nara is only a train ride away, the constant white noise of umbrella-happy tourists swarming the hotspots of the city are enough to drive anyone mad. Lucky for me, flooding my Facebook with pictures of cherry blossom and temples isn’t very high on my priority list, so I managed to avoid the worst of my fellow gaijin and head to somewhere that I found a little bit more comfortable.

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My favourite new discovery, Prototype in Kyoto

Again using Google as my map and directory, one of the first places I stumbled upon was Prototype, a cosy shop in one of the central neighbourhoods of Kyoto. Walking up the narrow stairs to the shop, I’m greeted by a wall of event posters, before the doorway gives way to a cave of discs and sleeves. Whoever is hiding behind the stacks of records on the counter bids me welcome, whilst dub reggae vibrates the windows of the shop.

If I could magically transport one shop from my trip back home, then it would be Prototype. Boasting an amazing selection of soul, jazz, reggae and Brazilian music, I was trying my best to be tame when it came to picking things out of the racks. The detailed tags on the stock also reminded me of Japan’s amusing grading system, with VG often means ‘practically unplayed’, which to someone used to the cynical British way of grading, where records covered in cigarette ash are marked as ‘plays well’, comes as a great blessing. I’ve not bought a record back from Japan yet that hasn’t been a joy to listen to, and it’s quite clear that everything is very well looked after, which almost makes me feel unworthy to bring all these pristine records home. You might also encounter the rarer ‘S/A/B/C rank’ way of grading records, with S rank being equivalent to near mint.

Prototype also has an interesting selection of second hand books, which will award any record shop bonus points on my mental scorecard. Whilst most are in Japanese, some are in English, with my oddest discovery being a book in English and Japanese, instructing Japanese tourists on how to speak Patois, so that they might visit Jamaica. After glancing over the first few pages, I knew this was a definite purchase for me, and I couldn’t wait to read it on the plane home.

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Racks ready for pillaging

After raiding Prototype, I headed on down the road to find Jet Set, which I had read good things about. After my experience with BSR in Tokyo, I now had my neck craned firmly upwards, ready to spy out any indicators of low flying record shops. Lucky for me, Jet Set is very keen on advertising, so it wasn’t hard to find the floor directory I was looking for.

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One of the few floor directories I could understand

Taking the lift up the sixth floor, I was welcomed by the ultra glossy front door of Jet Set, providing a stark contrast to the concrete monotony of the street outside. If the faux Pan Am logo isn’t enough to let you know Jet Set is a cool shop, then the smell of cigarette smoke and the quaint jazz on the stereo should do the trick. Walking into the shop, I was surprised to see how big the space was, as I had just started to adjust to the tiny rooms that are typical of Japan. The baby blue racks are filled with everything from local indie electronica to Latin and soul grooves, which had no doubt already been pored over by the areas hip hop samplers.

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Searching for the next cool thing in Jet Set

Osaka

I was beginning to think that I wouldn’t be able to visit as many record shops as I hoped, as time proved to be passing by with great haste, and I seemed to be spending most of my time navigating bus route maps and deciphering izakaya menus. My five days in Kyoto soon disappeared, and the thought that maybe I had exaggerated Japan’s reputation as a vinyl mecca began to form in my mind. I knew exactly the place to go to clear my worried mind once I reached my final destination, and luckily for me, it wasn’t far from my hotel in Osaka.

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Objectively the best place on Earth

Disk Union is inarguably the greatest chain of record shops in the entire world. Much cheaper than Fopp, without the MDF bullshit of Rough Trade, and with the ‘all we know is suffering’ look that all HMV staff possess being completely absent from their workforce, Disk Union is the stuff of dreams. I fell in love with Disk Union during my first trip to Tokyo, and I think I visited every branch they had in central Tokyo in a week, each time leaving with several bags of records and paraphernalia. After entering the Osaka branch, reality melted away and I was lost in vinyl-induced haze, caressing the spines of every glorious record in my music nirvana. Which is why I only realised after leaving, fingers straining on plastic bags, that I had forgotten to sneak any pictures of the interior. Hopefully, my hyperbole is enough to convince readers that Disk Union is the dog’s bollocks.

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Window display in Osaka

Having set an early high standard for record shops in Osaka, I made my way to Nipponbashi, a.k.a Denden Town, Osaka’s otaku hub. Unlike Akihabara, Denden Town has more than just hobby and anime stores, and isn’t quite as densely populated by blubbery tourists or schoolgirls advertising maid cafes, both of which are rampant in Akihabara. Denden Town has a decent population of record shops, and it didn’t take me long to stumble across one, after spotting the black spots in a window display.

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Jazz lining the walls of Sound Pak

Heading upstairs, I realise I am in Sound Pak, a shop that Google Maps had highlighted before I set out. Upstairs consisted of two rooms; one full of jazz records and another full of pop, classical and soundtrack music. Jazz isn’t something I normally collect, as beyond Miles and the Coltranes is a mystery to me, so I headed into the other room to rummage through the soundtrack boxes. Soundtracks make up the bulk of my collection at home, so I was keen to try and pick up some tokusatsu and classic anime soundtracks. Sadly, I left a little disappointed, not through lack of choice, but rather ignorance on my part of Japanese TV soundtracks. However, if you ever fancy the complete soundtracks to Gundam, Ultraman or Space Battleship Yamato 2199, then Sound Pak is definitely the place to stop by.

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Getting used to checking above street level

My research into Denden Town’s record shops had thrown up a place that I definitely needed to check out, called Forever Records. Not because Forever Records is particularly famous shop, or offers rarities for a few hundred yen, but because it shares its name with one of my local record shops, back home in Nottingham. Forever Record (Osaka Ver.) is a great place to check out if you’re starting to miss the familiar smell of musty records that most second hand shops in the UK possess, but it also has a great selection of pretty much every genre you can imagine. Although, I was starting to notice that soul music hadn’t quite taken off in Japan, often being resigned to boxes carelessly labelled ‘black music’, seemingly not as important to collectors as eurobeat or new age music.

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Not quite like the one in Nottingham

Forever Records would prove to be the last record shop I visited in Japan, as once again, time was proving to be short and I had plenty of other things to be doing. If you’ve ever heard the ‘you can look at record shops at home’ rhetoric while you’ve been abroad, then that might clear up why I was slacking off on my naive target of visiting five shops a day. As a multi-faceted human being, record shops aren’t the be all and end all of my existence so I wouldn’t shed a tear for the records left behind, and it only gave me more reason to plan a third trip to Japan once I had completed this one.

Gibson Marauder hiding in the back row at Loft

One of the last places I visited before returning home was Loft in Umeda. Loft will be familiar to anyone who’s been in Japan, occupying a niche in the retail market equatable to an Urban Outfitters/John Lewis mash-up, but not quite as sickening or middle class. Department stores in Japan are majestic retail beasts and you can get lost inside for days on end, wondering why one store would have whole floors dedicated to interior gardening or military modelling. As I found myself wandering Loft, trying to kill time in between meals, I was excited to see that the top floor had a music department, along with a 3D printing store. Because, why not.

As with everything in Japan, every hobby is indulged to its fullest, and to see a department store kitted out with the latest synthesisers and DJ equipment, and then still have room for hundreds of guitars, both top range and vintage, seemed utterly bizarre to me, coming from a country with an increasingly sparse high street. It was also nice to be in a music shop where there wasn’t anyone talking about ‘da blues, maaaan’, so I made the most of the surprisingly quiet music floor, the first moment of inner zen I had experienced in a fortnight. Sadly, as with many of the things I’d seen, I would have to leave all these great instruments and boxes behind, as Asiana Airlines wouldn’t let me take back a Gibson in my hold luggage.

Back In England

Stuffed into a plane seat, watching a Korean-subtitled version of Empire Of The Sun whilst my neighbour tucks into bibimbap, I was beginning to wonder if I ever went to Japan or if I had just fallen asleep on the way there and had dreamt my entire trip. To someone used to grey middle of England, Japan might as well be on Mars or in a parallel universe, seemingly trapped in the past and marching off into the future simultaneously. I could write six volumes on why I love Japan, but it wouldn’t do the country justice, and I would come across as a massive twat (if I don’t already). Despite all you hear about totalitarian work hours and a general ignorance of intimacy, every weirdo seems catered for in Japan.

Seeing as this bit of writing serves little purpose beyond allowing me to show off some holiday pics, here is my shortlist of tips for visiting Japan, whether you plan on spending you time in record shops or not:

  • Don’t worry about the language barrier – so long as you’re an English speaker. Japan mostly comes with English subtitles when it comes to the written word, but this isn’t the case with spoken language, obviously. However, I found the universal language of pointing, smiling and being patient seemed to work everywhere, but understanding sumimasen and arigatou gazaimasu will be very, very helpful. Of course, you could try learning the language properly before you go, or you could stick to the true British method of repeating things louder and slower until you get what you want (please don’t do this).
  • Check your money situation – I was operating on a simplified “¥1000 = £7.50” method of working out prices, but check the Google standard exchange rate before you go. It’s also worth checking out how much your bank charges for overseas transactions and whether there’s a limit on withdrawals when you’re abroad. Be warned, chip and pin is virtually non-existant in Japan and a lot of smaller places will be cash only, so make sure you have cash on you at all times or at least have a card that can be swiped. After hearing a couple of recommendations, I invested in a Revolut card, which I used countless times with no trouble. Also, 7/11 cash machines are the only ATMs I could trust to work with foreign cards, so consider topping your wallet up when you go past a 7/11 (of which there is one every hundred metres in Japan).
  • Check your baggage limit – I’ve not had any trouble with weight when I’ve been to Japan, but just be aware of your baggage limit as lots of records (and sake bottles) can soon add up. Record don’t tend to weigh more than 180 grams and most airlines will give you 23kg of hold baggage, so you can do your maths there. The first time I went I travelled with Emirates, and this time I travelled with Asiana Airlines, both times packing any records I bought back in my suitcase and nothing ever came back broken. Of course, airlines aren’t famous for treating your luggage with respect so try and buffer the stuff in your bag with t-shirts and socks if it’s remotely fragile.
  • Tax – Japan doesn’t have a consistent method of pricing its goods, and a couple of times I found myself at the till being lumped with a few extra yen for tax. I couldn’t figure out a reliable method for seeing which prices had taxes included and which didn’t, as that information tended to be in Japanese. But if the price isn’t a straight hundred denomination, then it probably has tax included. Japan does offer tax free shopping, but you have to spend over ~¥5400 (if I remember right) and its only available at larger stores and tourist trap places. If you are lucky to find a tax free shop, you’ll have to present your passport and fill in some paper work to save yourself a few hundred yen (enough to buy a Boss coffee from a vending machine).
  • Prepare your stomach – This is completely unrelated to records, but the only thing that I like more than record shops is eating, so I feel the need to include this. To be completely honest, if you’re a fussy eater or aren’t interested in fish or rice, then Japan’s going to be tough for you. There are quite a few western chains, but why would you bother going all that way if you’re going to alternate your meals between Starbucks, McDonald’s and KFC? Compared to the UK, Japan is very reasonably priced in regards to food, so long as you don’t want wagyu beef every meal, I suggest you get stuck in. So, start practicing your chopstick technique and divulge in some of the best food in the world. My personal recommendation is going to a grill-your-own-food place that does okonomiyaki, because that stuff is incredible.

That just about concludes all my thoughts regarding records in Japan. It’s hard to put into words how wacky Japan is, and it’s definitely a place that you can’t mentally prepare unless you’ve experienced it before. Hopefully, my word is enough to put Japan on your holiday horizons and persuade you to look further abroad for your record hunting.

 

Big love to all the shops I visited (or at least tried to)

 

 

 

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