I've heard from several people that Japan is a record shoppers' paradise. So I when came to Japan for the first ever time in summer 2003 I was intrigued to find out about it. I was on a two week holiday, the first week I travelled around and the second I stayed in Tokyo, were I did most of my shopping. This being TweeNet, I was obviously looking for indiepop records but I was really after records by Japanese artists and some Japanese only releases by western bands.
Prices - Two things you may have noticed about most Japanese CDs, they have two prices printed on their back, one is the price including 5% tax and the other one is without tax. Secondly there are usually two dates printed on back which are exactly two years apart. This is all part of the Saihan system. All CDs manufactured in Japan, whether by foreign or domestic artists, are subject to the Saihan resale price maintenance system. What this means for the record shopper is that wherever you buy a CD, you always pay the price printed on the back. No need to shop around for a cheaper store. This fixed price is valid for the two year period also printed on the back, afterwards the CD can be sold cheaper. The first date is not necessarily the original release date of the CD, every re-print gets new dates. The Saihan system doesn't apply to imported products which means foreign pressings are usually quite a bit cheaper than domestic ones. A Japanese full length CD puts you back ¥2800 to ¥3000, while imports can be as 'cheap' as ¥2000. 7"s are ¥800 or ¥900 (¥1000 was about 5 pounds, 7 Euros or 8 US Dollars). So, buying new Japanese releases is quite expensive, however I found many older CDs discounted or second hand between ¥200 and ¥800. On the other side of the spectrum were rare 80s indiepop singles selling for up to ¥30000 or more. One interesting fact is that a vinyl album cost around ¥2800 in 1983, much the same as a CD today while at least in Europe an LP in the early 80s cost about half as much as a CD costs now. Discuss...
To get the fans to buy domestic releases of foreign bands the labels usually throw in three extras: The little wrap-around paper advertising other releases by the artist and some extra photos, a second booklet with the lyrics to the songs and a Japanese translation and finally and most importantly a few bonus tracks sometimes unavailable otherwise.
Indiepop is on the decline in Japan for several years and the long-lasting recession is also cutting into record sales. Several shops have closed down (Rough Trade, DMS, Loft) others are still carrying the stuff but are making their money by selling dance records.
There are three categories of record shops in Japan, the internationally operating mega-store chains, (HMV, Virgin Megastore and Tower Records) with shops in most bigger cities, Japanese chain stores (usually equivalents to 'Sam Goody' or 'Our Price' but also really great chains such as 'Disk Union') and RecoFan and finally the small specialized shops. You want to go to all of them.
Did you ever wonder why you couldn't find any of the stuff on your want-list in London or the rest of England? Well it's because all those records are sitting in record shops in Japan. Japanese shop owners come over to Europe several times a year go around to shops and record fairs to buy stuff for their shops. In the past some shops had Japanese buyers permanently based in London for several years whose sole purpose it was to buy records all day long.
Vinyl - Even though the general Japanese public buys CDs or DVD-audios the same as everywhere else, there is still tons of vinyl to find all over Japan. I saw several recent years indiepop releases on vinyl for the first time, even Swedish or English releases, the vinyl for our own The Sound Of Leamington Spa series is Japan-only as well, so I guess it shouldn't have surprised me.
Finding stuff - If you are looking for western records you are in luck as they are usually in their own section and are ordered using the western alphabet. It is much harder if you are after J-Pop or other Japanese artists and don't read Japanese. Because these sections are ordered by the huge Japanese alphabet, it is pretty much impossible to find things. If you have a want-list, show it to a shop assistant, even if they don't speak English they can still pick up the records or show you where the artist's section is.
Non-Indiepop: - The Japanese are into everything, the more obscure the better. You find loads of specialized punk, garage, heavy metal and of course dance shops. There are also loads of 'oldies' shops with Japanese vinyl from the 50s to 80s. The Beatles are still huge, along with many other 60s bands. American Soft Rock is also bigger than anywhere else and you find loads of Japan-only re-releases.
Tokyo is the best place on earth to buy records of any kind, especially indiepop. If you have a lot of time, you can buy the book about music places in the Tokyo area with hundreds of record stores listed, however I noticed it is far from complete. Roughly half of all records I bought in Japan were purchased from just two chains, Disk Union and RECOfan. Both have loads of shops all over Tokyo, selling both new and used records and CDs. One of my favourite Disk Union branches is the one in Shimokitazawa but the ones in Shibuya, Shinjuku and Ikebukuro were also pretty good. Disk Union is a bit hipper or should I say more 'indie', while RECOfan is more mainstream in appearance and stock but I still found plenty of great JPop there. Because these two sell second hand and also have good discounts on loads of stuff I recommend a visit to them first.
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Next to Shibuya, Shinjuku is the other big hip shopping area in Tokyo. Again you find your RECOfans and Disk Unions as well as smaller but still relatively large HMVs. However the more interesting shops are all along one street to the north-west of Shinjuku station. There are probably dozens of small specialized shops here, 'Das Gemeine' for US indie-rock, 'Tiger Hole' for Punk, and various shops for sixties stuff along with others for rock and dance. The supposedly good second hand shop 'Ware House' was closed every time I checked. The main reason however an indiepopper comes to Shinjuku is for Vinyl (pronounces bynil in Japanese) The guy behind Vinyl also owns the Vinyl Japan label in London. Vinyl has four separate shops labelled Part 1 to 4 all close together. Each part covers a specific genre of music and part 2 is the most interesting, because it covers mainly the indie side of things. It's pretty big for an indie-only shop, but then it needs the space because there is a lot of stuff there. I would say it has the best selection of indiepop in a single place that I've ever seen. When I walked in for the first time they were playing the latest Sound Of Leamington Spa CDs (one of my own releases) over the speakers. If you are looking for rare records, you will find at least some of them but you may have to pay a high price.
Shimokitazawa is a few local train stops west of Shibuya and Shinjuku and it makes a welcome change from those busy ultra-hip shopping areas. It's still full of people but you don't find the big department stores. Instead there are lots of great smaller shops. A friend compared it to Camden Town in London, but I would say the Camden Town of Tokyo is Takeshita-Dori over in Harajuku. Shimokitazawa has a bunch of record shops, the two best being the aforementioned Disk Union branch and a place called 'Yellow Pop'.
The rest of Tokyo
Besides the three areas mentioned, I also went record shopping in Ikebukuro, another huge shopping district in northern Tokyo. It has good branches of Disk Union and RECOfan and I also found a vinyl LP by early 80s Japanese band 'Salon Music' at Coconuts Disks. There are several other key shopping areas in Tokyo with plenty more shops, but the ones mentioned here should keep you busy for a while.
Arch-Records is the main indie-pop shop in central Nagoya. Small but full of great stuff, with a good selection of foreign and Japanese releases.
I didn't have much time in Osaka but I had to check out Syft Records and Timebomb Records just around the corner. It seems indiepop has declined even more in Osaka than in Tokyo but despite carrying all the trendy stuff these two shops still have loads of indiepop. Syft has very friendly staff and was founded by an Ex-Timebomb employee. Syft is also a record label, most notably known for releasing most 'Space Kelly' material. Timebomb is bigger and has a fantastic selection of C86 12"s, but the prices are not always shopper-friendly or even market adjusted. The Trattoria Menu 1oo box was ¥9600 but I bought it in Yokohama for ¥1800.
Situated a long way from Tokyo on the southern island of Kyushu. The 'top indie shop' is Jungle Exotica which you shouldn't miss. When in town get a copy of the 'Fukuoka Music Map' in any shop. Along with clubs, studios and instrument shops it lists 42 record shops. Check out 'Ticro Market', Juke and the various branches of Borderline.
Most of the web sites below have printable maps.
Thank you: Jim Curran (check out his Tokyo pop pages at www.mindspring.com/~jcurran/tokyo/tokyopop.htm), Yoshi Kawashima, Kazu Kanazawa, Shu Tagawa, Yasushi Yanagidera and Yvonne McAvoy.