There’s an element of adventure awaiting visitors in record stores, where the scent of vinyl fills the room amid boxes and cases piled throughout, each containing records—both the recent or popular, and the ancient or obscure. Here, the curious and the daring may be rewarded with hidden gems, lost in an era when most music hounds dig up tracks online.
Record store hopping is more of a rare experience, something of bygone days—making it all the more exciting an activity. As Tokyo appears to have an affinity for nostalgia, music hunters are likely to make great discoveries in one of the city’s plethora of second-hand music shops that go beyond Disc Union and Book-Off.
A neon sign flashes this quaint little store’s name in the quiet backstreets of residential Kagurazaka, beckoning passersby into the basement of Mash Records. From outside, guitars and ukuleles can be seen hanging by the windows, already promising a quirky vibe.
Inside, crates full of records greet the visitor, offering everything from Western disco hits to mid-20th-century Japanese classics. Meanwhile, the walls are lined with cassette tapes—in case you’re keeping it that old school—of predominantly enka and Japanese folk. However, one corner of the room devotedly displays racks of CDs, which range from ’70s rock and folk to ’90s dance and pop. Only here can you see the fresh-faced Hanson brothers chilling next to Alice Cooper’s mascara-stained look of disapproval.
For a trip further down memory lane, peruse the shelf containing VHS tapes of rock shows and pop videos.
- Price range: On the cheap side, save the disc collections and rarities
- Standout genres: J-folk, U.S. classic rock
- Quirkiest find: Ace of Base’s greatest music videos on VHS
B1F Kyo Bldg., 15 Tenjicho, Shinjuku-ku. Tel: 03-3269-5120. Nearest station: Kagurazaka.
El Sur Records
The area surrounding Shibuya Station might boast a reputation as the mecca of eccentricity purveyed by fashionable young urbanites, but the Japanese affinity for world music is well and alive at El Sur Records.
Located on the 10th floor of an unassuming old, white building alongside Roppongi Dori, El Sur is a tiny yet luminous treasure trove of both Japanese and international gems. The term “eclectic,” in regard to the records and CDs that fill the shelves and racks, is an extreme understatement: the collections range from post-war Japanese folk that’s worth purchasing if only to display the artistic, old-timey cover art, to pop music discs and videos from the depths of South and Southeast Asia and Africa. There’s also some dance, ambient, and electro. The predominant selections here though are the Latin genres: salsa, Cumbia, merengue, and Bachata records dating as far back as the 1930s abound.
Great music for a summery vibe; pairs well with margaritas.
- Price range: Cheap to mid-range, except for the rarities
- Standout genres: Latin pop and traditional, Japanese folk
- Quirkiest find: Merengue music videos
#1006 Miyamasuzaka Bldg., 2-19-15 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku. Tel: 03-5485-9967. Nearest station: Shibuya.
Reggae Shop NAT
There’s an appreciation for reggae among Japanese youth, though the love affair hasn’t gone mainstream beyond the occasional Bob Marley portraits questionably imprinted on designer T-shirts. However, there are dedicated hubs of reggae fandom spread throughout the city.
One such place is Reggae Shop NAT in Nishi-Shinjuku. With its pink wooden sign out front, the earthy store boasts a huge selection of records, CDs, and even cassettes that covers all of reggae’s bases: from the early ska and rocksteady of the 1960s to ’90s dancehall and post-millennial dub and reggaeton. There’s also a large number of EPs under the Stone Love label, featuring the likes of Elephant Man, Tony Curtis, and Wayne Wonder; and mixtapes from various underground artists.
Note: The store’s stock is heavy on records but comparatively light on CDs.
- Price range: Fair, considering the rarities
- Standout genres: Reggae, dub, dancehall
- Quirkiest find: Tribute to the Beatles Reggae Style by various artists
1F Oak Plaza, 7-9-5 Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku. Tel:03-5337-7558. Nearest station: Shinjuku-nishiguchi.
It’s safe to assume that where there are records, there will be rock records—though not every music store stocks as hefty a collection of heavy metal, hard rock, and progressive rock as the simply named Shinjuku Records.
The privately-owned store has been a part of Shinjuku’s music landscape since it opened in 1970, and is still run lovingly by some of the shop’s founders. The history and dedication adds to a charm present in Shinjuku Records that is rare among Tokyo’s music shops. Rock’s biggest stars as well as lesser-known gems line the shelves, running the gamut from pop-rock to experimental rock. There’s also plenty of metal, folk, and indie here, both new and classic.
The store’s also got its share of collectors’ items, such as rare live albums from the likes of Dream Theater, Linda Ronstadt, Blur, and Paul McCartney from their Japan tours. Doesn’t rock harder than that.
- Price range: Mixed but generally affordable
- Standout genres: Everything rock
- Quirkiest find: Joe Perry’s Merry Christmas
#305 Daikan Plaza 756 Bldg., 7-5-6 Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku. Tel: 03-3363-3669. Nearest station: Shinjuku-nishiguchi. www.mmjp.or.jp/shinjuku-rec/sjk/