Best Tokyo record stores
The constant traveller: How to shop for vinyl in Tokyo
Words— Cynthia Chou
Tokyo may be future-forward, but it is no stranger to analog – especially when it comes to music. If asked to define the acoustic culture of Japan's capital, no answer would be complete without the mention of its long-standing love affair with vinyl. Home to the most record shops in the world, Tokyo is not only a haven for vinyl-hunting, it also provides the best venues for vinyl listening.
Kissatens are to Tokyo what cafes are to Paris. Literally translated as 'tea room’, in post-war times they served as meeting-places for the creative class to drink, smoke, and listen to records, particularly those of the jazz variety. Jazz did not play as background music, but served as the main attraction, with some venues enforcing codes of silence so that patrons could focus on the sounds coming from the turntables alone.
The tradition lives on today in the form of both surviving and newly-opened kissatens, who have adapted to the times by applying the art of roasting and pouring to coffee as well as tea. Serving as the daytime counterpart to the jazz whisky bars of the night (with some ‘vinyl bars’ playing both roles and transitioning from coffee into spirits come evening), they’ve kept the music-driven purpose of these establishments alive. An equally important part of the experience as any record store, Tokyo’s vinyl bars are unpretentious spaces to browse, savour, and discover something new, no matter how well-versed you may be. The owners of kissatens are the best music counsellors as well; give them a taste of your favourite sounds, and they will guide you towards your next favourite record.
Now that we’ve got the basics down, here is a rundown of pit stops to make when crate-digging in Tokyo:
Start in the Dogenzaka area of Shibuya. Once known as the “Mecca of Record Shops”, you can still find a high concentration of stand-out storefronts here, all within walking distance of each other. One such stop to make is Lighthouse Records; while newer compared to some of the more ‘established’ long-time shops, it has already built a solid reputation for its selection of house- and disco-focused albums. Down the street, Technique also deals in dance and club music, and is a favourite with local DJs.
For those with an inclination towards anything jazz, soul, or funk, head for a drink at JBS (aka "Jazz, Blues and Soul"), a vinyl bar that has been home to fine Japanese whiskys and more than ten thousand records on its wall-to-wall shelves for 13 years. The proprietor is as notorious for his amazing selection of tunes as he is for an intolerance of loud guests – so make sure you tune in to what’s playing and share some musical knowledge with the owner Mr. Kobayashi. Follow this up with a browse at Face Records, where Mr. Takei has been a purveyor of thousands of jazz, soul and funk selections since 1996.
If you’re heading outside of Shibuya, the Shimokitazawa district also makes for great digging. With its creative college-town energy, there’s all sizes and shades of collections to discover among its boutique-lined alleyways.
Known as the “supermarket” of record stores, Disk Union has over twenty locations around Japan and serves up everything from funk to punk. And while the Shinjuku shop boasts 8 floors and Shibuya's boasts 5, the Shimokitazawa location has only one – but is consistently cited by locals as the clear favourite. While vast, it does not compromise quality for quantity, and should be your first stop if you’re looking to build your classics collection for cheap.
Collectors looking to explore more Japanese-centric sounds and rarer presses should head to JET SET. Multi-location as well, the Shimokitazawa branch is an especially focused dealer of domestic pop and homegrown electronic releases, popular with visiting DJs hunting for sounds that can’t be found back home.
Around the corner and four minutes of a walk away is another spot with an excellent selection of Japanese releases. City Country City is particularly enjoyable in the evening, as you can order a pasta dish and sip a drink while browsing for records under mood lighting long after the sun has set. Besides the good eats, good drinks, and good sounds, it also boasts a couple of high quality listening decks and an extra-late closing hour of 1am.
Little Soul Cafe nearby also mixes the audio with the edible; the extremely cozy bar is packed with more than 15,000 records from floor to ceiling. Listen, feed, drink, and ask the man behind the bar if he has any boxes up for sale – and you’ll most likely be rewarded with some quality options from his personal collection.
Ekoda and Meguro
The vinyl culture of Tokyo may be headquartered in Dogenzaka and Shimokitazawa, but deeper collectors aren’t limited to just two districts when searching for vinyl nirvana.
Head a bit further out away from the city core into Ekoda, and you will come across the solid inventory of Coconuts Disk, known for less-discovered US- and Euro-releases. Choose to head towards the opposite direction into Meguro, and you will find Jazzy Sport, a DJ collective/independent music label/records distributor that is recognized as some of the best musical selectors around, both locally and internationally. Known for their eclectic sound and mix of no single genre, anyone hunting for the best of the best across multiple styles needs to make the trip out here.
Back into central Tokyo for one last notable spot – the aptly-named Dub Store Record Mart in Shinjuku. While the majority of vinyl bars and stores today focus on house or funk or jazz, the fact that the reggae scene in Tokyo is historically massive isn’t forgotten here –– in fact, Dub Store was a key player in establishing the genre’s presence within Japan in the early 90s. Their importance hasn’t waned, and they continue to provide both new and second-hand reggae releases.
Like any other craft Tokyo practices, the city's passionate and dedicated approach to the art of vinyl is a beauty to experience. Records are still an active way of life, and a window into the soul and slower side of the world’s largest and fastest city.