Friday, February 12, 2016

Japan, A Shopping Overview: Record Stores

While the vast majority of posts in this series are anime shopping related, I thought I might like to make some comments on my other great love in life (well, in hobby terms at least); music. After a long period of not really collecting music, I have in the last few years started to buy a fair wack of new and old releases. Tokyo has always had a sort of mythical status music collectors, so when I went over in late 2012 I had very high hopes for what I might find. On the first day I arrived in Tokyo, the first thing I did was to head into Shinjuku and trawl through the racks of the largest independent retailer in the city, Disk Union. However the experience was a bit of a disappointment. I had a long list of slightly rare CDs I wanted, some Lush, the Joy Division box set, Public Image Limited’s Metal Box CD in a tin case, the Beatnigs LP etc. About half an hour of searching later, I came out with one single Lush CD. My requests for music by three piece noise/punk/psychedelic Japanese group eX-Girl were greeted with quizzical looks. This wasn’t what I was expecting.

Certainly the city isn’t some wonderland for music collectors it’s sometimes made out to be. Also in the last few years, even Japan hasn’t been immune to the global trend of downward spiralling music sales. It’s blatantly obvious who record stores cater to. Almost every store I went to had mostly middle aged to old men flicking through the racks. Younger people seemingly aren’t taking up the slack.

The thing is I’m not a rabid record collector, so the following list of shops probably won’t satisfy the hardcore collector. This list is more for the casual fan. Frustratingly most record store guides on the web are old and out of date. Note that it can be very difficult to find some of the smaller specialist shops. Not only do you have to contend with the absurd Japanese address system (and generally no numbers of houses and businesses, and no street signs), but sometimes a lot of the small record shops are so small you could walk by them and not notice. If you’re really serious about record collecting, I’d find a copy of the Record + CD Map 2015 (pictured above), which lists just about every record shop in the country. Issued every year, this last edition was published in December 2014. A new version didn’t come out in 2015 which doesn’t bode well for record collectors. The guide is only in Japanese, but does contain area maps so you can find those obscure specialty record shops. The book is a little hard to find. It’s no longer listed for sale on, however Disk Union stores (see below) apparently carry copies. It’ll set you back around ¥2,800.

Tower Records
Branches: 85 stores across the country
Once a powerhouse in the US, the chain filed for bankruptcy in 2006. However physical copies of music (CDs and records) are still bought in Japan, so the Japanese stores still make enough profit to keep existing. The main store in Shibuya is an amazing sight to behold; nine floors with over 5,000 m² of floor space and almost every conceivable genre you can imagine. Most stuff here is full retail price, however if it’s in print, it’s most likely here. The Shibuya store has an entire floor dedicated to western music, which mostly means imports. They are much cheaper than their Japanese counterparts, but may be more expensive than CDs at home. In the stores outside metropolitan Tokyo, I’ve managed to find a fair few out of print CD singles I was looking for.

Branches: 62 stores across the country
Not as well stocked as Tower in my opinion. However like their much larger competitor they have CDs, DVDs and Blu-rays. Can’t remember if they stocked vinyl. Don’t recall seeing any in the shops I went to. As per most chain shores of the variety, you’re going to be paying full retail price. If you can’t find the in print Japanese music you want in Tower, HMV would be your next bet.

Books Kinokuniya
Branches: 56 stores across the country
Good for in print Japanese CD, DVD and Blu-ray music releases. Like previously discussed two chains, you’ll be paying full retail prices for stuff. And as I said before in my general anime chain shop post, I found a number of out print CDs I wanted in one Kinokuniya. Though you’re more likely to have more luck with shops outside the metropolitan Tokyo area in that regard.

Bic Camera and Yodobashi Camera
Branches: See previous post
Massive electronic chain store rivals. Most stores stock all the latest Japanese music releases; CDs, DVDs and Blu-rays. Don’t recall seeing a single vinyl record in any of these shops. Best thing about these shops is that because of the intense rivalry and vying  for the consumer’s yen, you’re going get around 5% to 10% off retail prices. Last time I was in Japan, I noticed that there wasn’t a single CD to be found in Yodobashi Camera’s Shinjuku store. Not sure if this is a sign of things to come or Shinjuku is just an anomaly. Hopefully it’s the latter.

Disk Union and RECOfan
Branches: Shinjuku, Shibuya, Nakano, Ochanomizu, Kanda, Takadanobaba, Kitazawa, Ikebukuro, Kichijoji, Machida, Yokohama, Chiba, Saitama, Osaka (Disk Union) Shibuya, Omori, Yokohama (RECOfan)
Two small independent chains operating mostly in the metropolitan Tokyo area. Disk Union has several stores not far from Shinjuku station, each one specialising in a different genre of music; dance, punk, pop, rock etc. Most are situated in the one building which is located in the same block as Books Kinokuniya’s massive main store. The individual stores themselves are usually pretty bloody small, crammed full of vinyl and CD racks with barely enough room for three or four people to browse the store (actually three people might be pushing it). I made the mistake last time of going to the Disk Union alternate rock/indies store on the Saturday morning before I was due to fly out in the afternoon. Five people in the shop, couldn’t get around any of them to browse the racks. Go during business hours on a weekday instead. You can find a fair wack of interesting titles, but most of the shops have been plundered, so don’t expect to find a lot of stuff you might be looking for. RECOfan on the other hand seems to have a lot more vinyl and some rather obscure stuff. Their Shibuya shop is also far more larger than any of Disk Union’s shops.

Other Independents
There are a ton of small used record stores all around the city. Shinjuku and Shibuya are your best bets. As I said before, there is no definitive guide, online for record stores in the city. There is a couple of good guides such as this one or this one, but you’re going to have to confirm that information by looking at the shop’s website (if they have one!). Also note that opening times can be a bit fluid. Most shops in Japan open around 10am, however a lot of these independents don’t open until 12pm. One in Shibuya I was planning to go to was still shuttered at 1:30pm on a Friday. All I can say is do as much research as you can, then hope for the best. As I said before a copy of the  Record + CD Map 2015 is essential for the hardcore collector, but it's a bit difficult to obtain.

Bootleg Shops
The first time I went to Tokyo, one of the things I wanted to do was to buy a Beatles bootleg. The country has had a love affair with the group since the 1960’s (there’s a giant mural of the “Let it Be” album cover on a residential block on the train line from Narita airport) and there’s also been a “collector’s market” of material as well. In other words a thriving black market for bootleg material such as live shows and unreleased or rare studio and radio session recordings. Bizarrely most of this material is sold out in the open in shops that are almost entirely dedicated to bootlegs. Nearly all of these of these kind of shops can be found in the Kitashinjuku area of Shinjuku. There’s a main road which runs parallel to the train line running through Okubo station (west of the line) where a lot of record shops can be found (most more towards the physical centre of Shinjuku). In the blocks west of that road is where you’ll find a lot of these shops. Unfortunately there isn’t any comprehensive, up to date lists of these types of shops anywhere. You may not be able to do much research on these shops before you go either. There’s scant info available on the internet.

On the very last day of my first trip in 2012, I got my Beatles bootleg; a factory pressed four disc DVD set of the still commercially unreleased (on DVD and Blu-ray at least) 1970 documentary film “Let It Be”.

It may be sourced from a laserdisc, but it is the best version of the film until the last two Beatles die off and Apple can finally issue the damn film on home video again. Last time I went in December, the shop I bought it from had seemingly gone out of business. I also went to another bootleg shop which was well hidden inside a multi-story building near a post office. Airs Music Video has a wide range live concert recordings on DVD-R with colour photocopied covers. From 1960’s garage bands to modern stuff, it’s all there in the shop. Of course the question is why would you do into this shop and pay for this stuff when you could easily download it from the web, which of course 100% of this stuff is sourced from.

The best thing about the shop is the photos and messages from musicians who have visited the shop.

A couple of photos I took; first up above, Jim O'Rourke, Thurston Moore (from Sonic Youth) and Beck.

And above, Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave) who also visited twice, a repeat visitor like Thurston, who has been at least three times.

Most who visit are of the prog rock and hard rock variety, but as you can see from the photos alt rockers end up there too. Essentially what happens in these kind of stores is that the musician will rock up and get some free stuff in exchange for a personalised message and photo. It baffles me that they would agree to this as the shop is literally profiting off them by selling bootlegs of their work. At any rate it is great to walk around the shop marvelling at all the musicians who have paid a visit. The floor or so above Airs is a cult video store also run by the people who run Airs. It has a full size Alien figure (from the 1979 film of the same name) outside the entrance.

That’s about it for record shops. I really wish I could have given more helpful hints and links and addresses to shops, but unless you’re living there and going to shops on a regular basis, it’s impossible. Next time I’ll be giving my thoughts on Akihabara.

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