13 hour flight behind us, ready to sink into the neon (after finding our hotel and a good night’s sleep). Culture shock not really hitting full-on yet. Where are the record shops? What to do?
The answer is probably more than we were able to muster up in our total of six full days in Tokyo. Firstly, this is from a tourists perspective; I’m not going to get everything correct, or understand the nuance of some of the things that happened. From every possible angle, I’m not part of the Tokyo scene — I just visited and was lucky enough to know a couple people who introduced us to a few more folks. For that, I’m eternally grateful, because it made this trip much more special; to be able to speak to some folks and basically experience Tokyo a little closer to someone who lives there.
A few, small, notes about what people say on the Internet. I read a lot about Japan before going. That information was good to have, and helped navigate a lot of cultural things that I might not have known (like in Tokyo, stand on the left of escalators). Some of the things I experienced were understated in comparison of what people told me to expect, but other than that Tokyo was everything a major metropolis is. Full of tourists, some gracious and humble, some overbearing and downright rude. To the point you’d want to scream at the rude ones, “Just fucking shut up on the subway!” But that would be rude. Two specific things that I found not to be entirely true. One, on subways/trains, no one talks. I found that on JR Line trains, almost no one spoke. However, on the Tokyo Metro, many times young people were laughing, giggling and chatting up a storm. Maybe it’s just a cultural difference between a train and a subway? Two, people are hyper-polite. While an element of this is true, it’s not like everyone is saying “sumimasen” constantly (well, I was… but that’s my Canadian side showing). What I think people were experiencing is the formality of a typical Japanese interaction — lots of subtle cues that maybe westerners don’t understand — I certainly wasn’t able to grasp the nuance of everything but bumbled through just fine (although I wouldn’t know if I didn’t). Basically, if you bring some rudimentary Japanese phrases, and a bucket of humility, you’ll be fine. When in doubt, use the most formal version of the words you do know.
This guide is based on some minimal information and tainted by my experiences. Your mileage may vary. To me, punks are likely to want to know where to buy records, where to go to shows and where to eat, so that’s what I’m going to share.
In Tokyo alone, I went to NAT Records, RECOfan, Record Shop Boy, Record Shop Base and six different Disk Unions (three in Shinjuku, one in Ikebukuro, one in Shibuya and one in Ochanomizu). I bought a few records. Out of all of the ones I visited, Disk Union Shibuya (5F Punk), Disk Union Shinjuku (7F Punk Market) and Record Shop Base were the broadest, but if you were going more metallic, Record Shop Boy was pretty damn good too. Shinjuku is a bit of a nightmare to get around as it’s super easy to exit the wrong way from the station and get turned around. It took about three or four trips to the area to really “get” it. Even then, it was a bit of trouble. As you may or may not know, getting around Tokyo is difficult as streets aren’t always named, addresses are in blocks, and dependent on the order buildings were built. So you could have building #4 and building #12 next to each other. Thankfully as a modern traveller, I had Internet access and Google Maps rarely steered me wrong (remember to give it a minute to locate you because, lets face it, location based over WiFi is a bit dodgy). I have a rule that when on vacation try to buy stuff that is local, and my collection of Japanese hardcore had so many holes that I didn’t have a problem sticking too close to that rule. I did break it for a few purchases (Joy Division — Unknown Pleasures LP for Kate and for myself Crossed Out/Man Is the Bastard split 7" EP, second pressing, and a Finnish split 10" EP), but other than those three records in Tokyo, I bought Japanese records. Tokyo, like London and New York, is overall pretty picked over, so you’re unlikely to grab something unless you’re in the right place at the right time. I did see Black Flag — Nervous Breakdown 7" (brick sleeve) in a Disk Union (Shinjuku, Punk Market to be specific). Outside of that, none of the big ticket Japanese records (Death Side, Gauze, early ADK Records, The Stalin, early Dogma Records, early Lip Cream, GISM, etc.) were on display. In fact, I did go back to Disk Union and someone had bought the Nervous Breakdown within a week of it going on the wall. Turnover, is clearly high. With that said, I did find some gems (Lip Cream — Kill Ugly Pop LP, Ressurection flexi, Warhead’s two early 7" EPs) so I’m not disparaging Tokyo as a record shopping destination. Unlike London and New York — you can actually find things that are reasonable to purchase!
As you may or may not know Tokyo is made up of several wards. It’s a huge city, and for punks with a singular focus (on punk and hardcore) you’re going to be interested in the following areas at least: Shinjuku, Shibuya, Nakano and Koenji.
In Shinjuku you have the seven floor Disk Union, with “Punk Market” on the seventh floor. You also have NAT Records and another, separate Disk Union specializing in Metal (which of course has some, pardon the pun, crossover). There’s also a Tower Records and a HMV as well, both I didn’t visit. Oh yeah, if you’re not vinyl specific, there’s also a Book Off in Shinjuku where you might pick something up, but be prepared to search as not all Book Off’s sell CDs, and not all have handy “punk” sections — however Book Off definitely have discount pricing.
In Shibuya you have another Disk Union (the fifth floor specializing in punk and hardcore), RECOfan, Nerds and Face Records (there’s also a Tower and an HMV, which might have something as well). It’s likely that you’ll pass through those districts even if you aren’t staying in them. In hindsight, Shinjuku was a good place to stay, as it provided easy train access to all four of the areas I was interested in.
The other two districts; Nakano and Koenji were, in my opinion better options. Less crowded, a little more sedate, and probably where I’d stay (if possible) next time. Nakano is two stops from Shinjuku on the JR Chuo line, and while I didn’t end up at any record stores in Nakano, the ones that were suggested to me were Flower, Rare and of course, Disk Union.
One stops further out, was Koenji with Record Shop Base, Record Shop Boy and the unfortunately named Gas Chamber Records. I never did find Gas Chamber, but Base and Boy are must visits.
Neither of them have ground floor entrances, and Boy had no appreciable signage at the ground level, so make sure you do a google maps walkthrough before you actually venture out and get there. In addition there’s another Los Apson and Enban — who both don’t have a punk focus, but might have some things that interest punks.
VENUES & BARS
From the outside, punk shows typically happen in bars, and those bars are mostly in the performance spaces. However, in Japan it’s not uncommon to have the bar above, or below, where the show actually happens. If your preference is to get tanked at a show, make sure you at least keep enough wits about you to stumble down the stairs between sets. Here’s another thing (small sample though, but confirmed through a lot of conversation with other tourists and expats) shows run on time. If the door time is 7 PM, then be there no later than 7:30 if you want to catch the first band. Most shows run earlier than in North America (where it’s not uncommon to have the headlining band take stage at midnight or later), to allow for people to catch at least the last train home. If set times are posted, bands will be playing very close to those set times. That stereotype of punctuality was reinforced in my experience. And frankly, I’m old; I don’t really care for punk rock time, nor do I want to be up at 2 AM anymore. As you might imagine, rents are high everywhere in Tokyo, and prices for shows are high as well. Most shows I saw started at ¥2500 and upwards (Star Club, if you’re interested in seeing them was around ¥6000). That door price will get you one drink as well, but make sure you budget accordingly.
In Shinjuku, there’s at least five or six venues, or live houses, that could hold punk and hardcore shows; the two largest are Earthdom (slightly north of Shinjuku near Shin-Okubo station) and Shinjuku Antiknock — but there’s also Shinjuku Loft, Zone-B and Wall. All of them are on some kind of transit line, or within 10–15 minute walks from there. I should mention also that there’s a heavy metal themed bar in Shinjuku called G.O.D.S. that has some punk elements (thrash fanatics will dig the jukebox selection for sure) and there’s of course, a punk bar called H.O.D. (Hair of the Dog). I didn’t get to it, but it came recommended. Don’t expect day drinking, most bars open at around 5 PM or so. In Shibuya, there’s Club Quattro which tends to have larger bands (The Melvins sort of size). In Nakano, there’s Moonstep (there’s other locations with Moonstep as well, but Nakano tends to have more punk/hardcore acts). Lastly, Koenji has Sound Studio DOM and 20,000 Den-atsu (which is sort of between Nakano and Koenji JR stations).
Best bet? Try to find out a band that you want to see, figure out how frequently they play, and guess when their next gig will be (and book tickets way in advance if you’re not a baller). Or just go and see whatever’s happening. Chances are it’ll be better than what you see at home, because it’s happening somewhere else! If you’re looking for strategies on seeing particular bands, best bet is to follow them on Facebook, or their homepage if they have one, and bookmark the clubs I listed above and check their schedule pages for the dates you’re in Tokyo.
Undoubtedly, your food choices will be regulated by whatever diet you attend to. Vegans, as you probably are already aware, will have trouble customizing food in Japan — however I did pass by several restaurants that were vegan in Shinjuku. The down side is that they were western style. One thing is you can look for restaurants that have a listing on happycow.net (and dang, there’s 432 when I filter vegan on Shinjuku Tokyo) so the vegan in Tokyo thing is probably been overstated a bit. At worst, you could find Buddhist temples that serve meals, or eat Onigiri from 7-Eleven all the time. I’m not vegan nor vegetarian, and didn’t come from California where sushi is closer to Japanese style so I was frankly amazed with the food that I was eating. For the most part, we didn’t eat three meals, but several smaller meals throughout the day. As tourists, we were free to stop and eat some conveyor belt sushi anytime we wanted, or drop in for a quick tempura or udon set, and head off to the next thing to see. Overall, the food was excellent, and not as expensive as one would have you believe. Outside of a swankier kushikatsu meal and a fancier tempura meal with sake, I don’ t think we spent more that ¥3000 for the two of us on a meal. Drinking as well was much cheaper than Canada (although that’s true throughout most of the world). Beer was usually around ¥300 — ¥400 for draft, and less if you were buying in a convenience store or vending machine. Mixed drinks were usually around ¥400 to ¥800, depending on what you were having. The best thing I had was a Lime Sour, which was some sort of Sochu spirit with lime, and it was sour, but easy drinking. Very, very easy drinking. One thing that definitely saved us money was the no tipping — at bars or in restaurants.
I won’t go into specific spots, because as long as it’s not geared towards tourists (especially restaurants in a touristy area of town) you will be fine. If you’re trying to stay on budget, we found that convenience store pastries and coffee was sufficient for breakfast. Despite my personal affinity for 7-Eleven, Lawson was the best out of the major chains. Then you can do an inexpensive, but good meal at a more reputable restaurant, which might run you ¥1600. Then do conveyor belt sushi, which won’t cost a lot unless you eat the sea of Japan’s worth of sushi. We would follow that model and on some days would only spend ¥3500 on meals. We probably could have even spent less than that, but it’s a vacation, so let’s live a little, no?