Vinyl Love -- Record Shopping in Tokyo
A Crate-Digger's Bonanza
Tokyo has more record shops than any other city in the world. Tokyo is a vinyl lover’s paradise. Prices have increased a lot in the past few years, but you can still find gems all around the city. Some of Tokyo’s stores are large and well laid-out. Many are tiny, cramped, disorganized and almost impossible to find even with a map or guide. Finding these hidden treasure troves is part of the adventure of Tokyo record shopping.
The Author Record Shopping and Crate Digging in Tokyo -- Photo by Adele Daniele
I'm a record dealer and I go to Japan on business. I buy and sell records, so I am usually waiting outside a store when it opens in the morning. I'll be inside another when it closes at night. I do this for days on end. (I know, poor me!) You’re probably not going to spend that sort of time and effort in your record digging. But don't despair.
Remember, you have a strong advantage over dealers from around the world (like me!) who are flocking to Tokyo. Or maybe Osaka. A dealer has to cover all costs (travel/accommodation/meals/etc.); all freight and postage costs; import duties and taxes – and still make a profit. Dealers are constantly doing sums in their head as they go through a record shop. Dealers can’t afford to pay ¥2,500 for a record unless they can resell it for a much higher price. If you are on holiday, and buying for yourself, you can score great records. Unlike most non-Japanese record dealers!
Tokyo has Over 700 Record Shops -- Photo by Andrew Curry
Essential for your record shopping journey is the Japan Record + CD Map Book. Released just about every year, it lists (almost) all the record stores in Japan. The book is written in Japanese. You may need some help to work it out. However, it has easy-to-understand maps of the stores. I say this as someone who doesn't read Japanese.
Japanese Records are Presented in Plastic Bags to Preserve Their Condition -- Photo by Adrienne Mah
Most record stores in Japan present their used records beautifully in clean, sealable bags, with a written description and condition of the record. Unfortunately, the bags also disguise possible faults (especially splits on the record sleeve). A good store will list this information. If you can’t read Japanese, you may not realize this.
You can start your record-buying journey at a few chain stores around Tokyo – Coconut, Recofan, Rare and, most importantly, Disk Union.
The following areas are likely to yield the best results in the shortest amount of time:
Disk Union is Tokyo's Largest Record Chain -- Photo by Andrew Curry
Shinjuku has the highest concentration of record stores in Tokyo. Even a serious record shopper may not need to go anywhere else. Properly combing the stores of Shinjuku will take days. On the east side of Shinjuku Station, you'll find about twelve Disk Union stores. Exact numbers are difficult because some stores are on multiple floors. Each store (or floor of a store) specializes in different genres. You can find classical, jazz, Japanese, punk, metal, soul, etc. Work out which store(s) you want to hit in advance. The Disk Union website has some English information.
Nat Records Specializes in Punk -- Photo by Andrew Curry
Nishi-Shinjuku (west, on the other side of the station) is the traditional record hub of Tokyo. The area is much quieter these days, but some great shops are hidden in the maze of narrow streets. One of my favourites is Nat/Warehouse, two stores occupying the same space. Nat is a punk specialist store with a wide range of current/old, second-hand/new releases. Warehouse has a great range of Japanese first pressing LPs (complete with obi paper bands), especially from the '60s and '70s. Their prices are very reasonable.
Nearby is Shinjuku Records. Fans of metal and hard rock will be blown away by the range of records (and paraphernalia) available. Other stores in Nishi-Shinjuku including Strangelove Records specialize in bootlegs. You'll even find one retailer dedicated to The Beatles. The 7-chome area of Nishi-Shinjuku is full of record stores, with some buildings hosting a record shop on almost every floor.
The Last Remaining HMV in Tokyo Stocks Used Wares -- Photo by Adrienne Mah
The Shibuya Disk Union store has floors devoted to different musical genres. Just along from Disk Union, HMV has opened a large store full of second-hand treasures. I can think of at least another ten record stores in Shibuya, though they are so hidden you will have little chance of finding them without the record stores guidebook. Manhattan is the DJ store. Not a lot of second-hand records are sold here. I’m told Lighthouse has a good range of rare hip-hop and modern R&B, though I have never visited.
Like Records? Tokyo is a Great Place to Score Rare Vinyl -- Photo by Adrienne Mah
Face Records is great for soul, funk and jazz. Rn'R Music Garden stocks lots of rockabilly and country. My favorite store in Shibuya is Sonota. Sonota specializes in “incredibly strange music” and it lives up to this claim. If you want to find an album demonstrating turkey hunting calls, on how to play the bagpipes or a typist training course (and who doesn’t??), you will love this shop.
Look Up to Find This Record Store in Jinbocho, Tokyo -- Photo from Flickr cc by Jun560
Across town from Shinjuku and Shibuya (but only a few stops on the Chuo line) is Ochanomizu. Ochanomizu is a hub for universities. This means plenty of shops for students – including record stores. Disk Union has a bunch of branches in the area. The main store is straight opposite the east exit of the station. You'll also find a small metal/hard rock store beside the station. Just down the road from the west exit is the jazz store. I think this is possibly the best store in the world for second-hand jazz LPs. A side room in the jazz store has a wide selection of funk/soul/rare groove LPs. Using a map or app, head down the road from the jazz store. You’ll soon be in Jinbocho. About a half dozen tiny record stores can be found here in the small back streets.
Flash Disc Ranch Records Will Keep You Busy -- Photo by Adrienne Mah
Not just great for record stores, Shimokitazawa is one of my favourite places to visit in Tokyo. Think of a small village packed with venues, second-hand clothing and knick-knack stores as well as cheap places to eat and drink. The area can be confusing because it is a labyrinth of small streets, split by a train line. On the south side of the station, there is a very good Disk Union that features a wide range of genres. On your way there, you will pass Flash Disc Ranch. Flash Disc Ranch is a large store, up a flight of stairs. Almost all the stock is American pressings. Prices seem to be all over the place. I have found some original '60s soul 7"s at bargain prices.
Tokyo: A Record Shopper's Paradise -- Photo by Julie Fader
The north side of the station has a handful of small stores including Otonomad and Jet Set. Otonomad has a good range of second-hand LPs, especially world music. Jet Set is a great shop to find the latest Japanese indie releases. This list is not exhaustive. Plenty of shops in the area selling all sorts of old toys and pop culture items may have a box of records hidden in a corner. Part of the fun of Shimokitazawa is exploring.
If you have more time, it might be worth investigating the stores along the Chuo line west of Shinjuku. Nakano, Koenji and Kichijoji stations in particular.
- Get the latest Japan Record + CD Map Book
- Record stores open/close/move all the time. Some information I have provided here is bound to have changed
- It helps to learn a bit of Japanese if you can. Words like “scratched” (hikkakareta), “missing poster” (posutaa nashi), “split cover” (warareta kabaa), etc.
- Take plenty of cash. Many of the smaller shops don’t accept credit cards
- Don’t try to cover too many bases. Work out the stores that are most likely to stock the genres of music you are after and find an area with a high concentration of those stores
Going on a record-buying spree around Tokyo? Check out our trip below!