in addition to MP Flapp’s previous posts here is his updated report on diggin’ in Tokyo & Osaka -December 2015.
Sometimes the best trips to look for records happen more by chance than design. This is one of those. It’s December and the year is running out. I’ve still not taken a proper holiday. Where’s best place to go to score some vinyl, chill a little, eat well and tactically avoid the commercial excesses of the season? It might come as a surprise that Japan would be the answer.
It’s actually a good time to go. It’s out-with the regular tourist season, the flights tend to be a bit cheaper, the hotels tend not to be fully booked, the shinkansen not overly busy, the weather can have an autumnal air, the shops are open every day and many record stores have end of year sales combined with the fact they pull out their top stock for the lure of the salary man’s bonus.
I’ve been to Japan more than once to buy records, so have a collection of maps and notes put together over the years with some valuable local assistance as a starting point. Having someone locally to point you in the right direction helps a lot, like anywhere else shops open, close and move, so one year’s good spots don’t necessary hold true for the next.
Until a few years ago the best guide to finding stores was the “Record Map”, a Japanese text only book detailing the locations of record and CD stores in almost every city in the country. It was never fully comprehensive, but as a guide it was invaluable. It ceased to be published in 2013. However, a sign that interest in stores and buying used music may be picking up is that the book is back on the shelves as a new and updated edition as of December 2014. The publication date was a bit late for this expedition as I was already on the ground when the book hit the shops.
This trip I’ve decided to focus on two locations: Tokyo and Osaka. Fly in to Tokyo spend some days there, travel to Osaka for a few more days, then return to Tokyo for a couple of days, before flying home on New Year’s Eve.
In my opinion, even if you drive, the best way to get between and around these cities is with the aid of the JR Rail Pass. Once you have the pass (the voucher is bought in advance of travelling to Japan) you are free to travel on any JR train. There are some exceptions with travelling on the shinkansen. The pass isn’t valid for a small number of superfast trains. However, the majority of shinkansen you can travel on by just making a reservation prior to boarding.
One thing I did differently to previous trips was to take a cheap Wi-Fi enabled tablet device. Given the short notice of the trip all I had was a rough plan with nothing fixed. Unlike a number of other countries cafes and bars tend not to have free Wi-Fi. All the hotels I stayed in had free Wi-Fi. So with this in mind all I did was firm up a plan for the day the night before and make sure any maps and the like were in an off-line form for browsing on the hoof.
3 Tokyo main areas for record shopping
For the first few days in Tokyo I usually focus on three main areas: Shibuya (with a side trip to Shimokitazawa), Shinjuku and Ochanomizu (with a side trip on foot to Jinbouchou). It’s a fairly easy circle of stores on the metro and in each of the areas there are enough shops dominated by the spread of Disk Unions to make finding your feet and common titles fairly easy. Disk Union is the dominant used music chain in Tokyo. However, in the vicinity of the stores in Shinjuku and Ochanomizu there are some other great independent stores well worth checking. Sadly a few of the regular spots in the Jinbouchou area (Turntable for example) have closed.
Although at least in Turntable’s case the entity still exists. Admittedly off the high street. Enan (the former proprietor of Turntable), having shut the physical store still operates privately and through the pop-up one day record sale. I made it to one such record sale in Jinbouchou. The record sales are usually held in a bar or small hall for one day with a few sellers offering a limited set of stock from boxes. The sale is usually wrapped in a very social setting with both sellers and buyers soundtracking the event by playing records for each other whilst discussing music. More of a house party style event in a bar than a formal record fair. The sales seem to be a welcome new trend, with the stock available and those selling varying from event-to-event.
to OBI or not to OBI
There have been some changes in the records available and the prices since my last trip. As of 1st April 2014 sales tax went up to 8%. It’s often possible to see the price less tax and with tax on the price sticker on the record. Very few stores add the tax on unexpectedly, so what you see on the sticker is the price. One type of record I collect is the Japanese vinyl editions of what might be classed as well known releases (David Bowie, Brian Eno, Scott Walker etc). These are the LP versions wrapped by an OBI strip round the cover with an insert or booklet specifically made for the edition. Complete, these records would appear to have become much harder to find over the years and a bit more expensive than they used to be. There are a few that have eluded me for more than one trip now. A complete copy of Fripp and Eno’s “Evening Star” in theory should be relatively straightforward to score. It isn’t. There are plenty of clean copies of great titles at super cheap prices, but complete top copies are becoming a challenge.
That said there is no shortage of records from about every conceivable geographical location and genre available in almost every store. There are some highly specialist stores that focus on a specific range of music, but in general most stores are across the board. It’s the main reason I come. It’s not just the availability and price of records (which is usually very competitive), but the fact you can zip round town on public transport and without really trying visit anywhere between ten and fifteen stores in any one day and do the same again the next without covering the same ground twice.
It goes without saying any of the Disk Unions are worth visiting. The stock turns over frequently and there is always a good range of records for every pocket. Of the independent stores in Shibuya I would recommend a visit to both Sonota (aka Manual of Errors) and El Sur Records. The former is a haven for the most obtuse mondo style records you’ve ever seen whilst the later has a broad range of world music with a healthy selection of African recordings (more CDs and less vinyl these days). One stop on the Keio Line on the express train from Shibuya is Shimokitazawa. Two notable spots here are Flash Disc Ranch for the selection of US used records combined with the sensible pricing policy and Yellow Pop whist not big is always good for turning up 80s alternative titles in top condition. The best Disk Union for Jazz is at Ochanomizu. A short walk from there in Jinbouchou is Record Sya. The store has existed on three floors for many years and is a great source for Japanese releases across almost every genre.
After all the digging for records you probably want a music related break for a drink. Tokyo has a wealth of unique music related café/bars. It’s really just a matter of finding them that is often the problem. Very few of these are often at street level and hence noticeable is passing. One distinct highlight of this trip was a visit to Sound Cafe Dzumi in Kichijoji. An upper floor haven for improvised and free jazz stoked with music and literature from the proprietors (Izumi Hideki) own archive. In addition to the Free Music Archive making regular radio broadcasts from the café they host frequent live performances.