Do you want to be big in Japan – but don’t have an instrument? Or do you have an upcoming sold-out show at the Tokyo Dome but you burned your last guitar during your European tour? Maybe you’re a travelling businessman looking to pick up some unique Made in Japan gear for your dad-rock band back home? Well, here are some outsider’s inside tips on where to go and what to expect at some of Japan’s more interesting music shops.
Ochanomizu Instrument Street
How to get there: Ochanomizu Station – West Exit/Ochanomizu Bashi Exit
Having visited instrument stores on four continents, I’ve long held the belief that chain-instrument stores are the same worldwide. They use the same carpeting, have the same lighting, and the staff’s favorite hobbies are listening to Prog Rock and wearing Zildjan, Fender, or Tool t-shirts. Of course, this trend continues in Japan, but if you are looking for new-instrument nirvana, look no further than an entire street in Ochanomizu. You will find perhaps a dozen consecutive instrument shops, the primary focus of which is guitars.
I honestly can’t distinguish these shops from each other, it’s like a copy-and-paste function of six-string selections. Ochanomizu is where you go when you want to buy a vintage-reissue non-reverse Gibson Firebird, a Fender Special Edition Jaguar Thinline, or a PRS 513 – and they will have several of all of these in stock in numerous colours and variants. Most of the guitars are new and they are slightly less expensive than what you could find overseas.
Who can afford to shop here? From your dad (buying it for you) to a middle-manager spending his annual bonus.
Good for: Lots of guitars that are pretty rare to see back home but easy to find online.
Bad for: Anything slightly unusual that isn’t guaranteed to sell.
How to get there: 11-minutes walk from Tsunashima Station (on the Tokyu Toyoko Line)
Address: 〒222-0001 横浜市港北区樽町1-30-9 /1-30-9 Tarumachi, Kohoku-ku, Yokohama-shi 222-0001
Places like Ochanomizu might not excite the more eclectic collector. For the lovers of musical eccentricities and Japanese rarities, this little shop is definitely worth a visit. If you get on with the owner, you might end up playing some delta blues in the middle of the store with him (pro tip: he’s pretty good), and the black cat that lives in the shop will happily listen. If you’re really lucky he’ll bring down something like a possibly-German-made guitar that uses a 5-pin DIN output instead of the universally accepted 1/4 inch jack.
These are the kinds of things you can expect to find at Piquant; instruments that you know will be interesting but you didn’t even know existed. They have exceptionally rare Teisco amps piled up around the store, the rarest of which aren’t for sale. You can also find some vintage drum machines and record players. It’s a mini-musical funhouse, and the owner makes it feel like the kind of store that exists in a Studio Ghibli movie.
Who can afford to shop here? From the guy who sold his phone to buy it to hipsters who live in their parents loft apartment in Shimokitazawa.
Good for: Good quality rarities, seeing a black cat.
Bad for: Expecting to find one specific item.
How to get there: 10-minutes walk from Shibuya Station (Hachiko Exit)
Address: 〒150-0041 東京都渋谷区神南1-12-18, 9F /9F, 1-12-18 Jinnan, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 150-0041
If you would rather play EDM than REM, you probably want to visit this high-end store that’s just around the corner from Shibuya station. They stock some of the best synthesizers, drum machines and effect units ever made. Hidden away on the 9th floor, Echigoya offers anything from the mind-meltingly elusive 1970’s Roland Tape Echo (of which they had two working units for sale when I visited) to 808 drum machines, Leipzig SKs, Korg MS10s, and even entry-level Volca Keys. Sure they have premium prices, but it’s a good place to pick up first-class gear without the risks of ordering online.
Who can afford to shop here? From touring international DJs to retired international DJs.
Good for: Fully restored or new synths and drum machines.
Bad for: Your mortgage and/or wallet.
How to get there: 20-minutes walk from Hachioji Station
Address:〒192-0045 東京都八王子市大和田町5-1-21 / 5-1-21 Owadamachi, Hachioji, Tokyo 192-0045
I haven’t made it to all the Off-brand stores (and still wondering what Liquor-Off is about) but of all their shops I’ve seen in and around Tokyo, the Hachioji branch is the biggest by far for instruments. Featuring two aisles of drums, two aisles of bass guitars, four aisles of guitars, a brass section, a violin section, a traditional instrument section and the most mysterious of all, three aisles of “junk”, where you can expect to find analogue mixing desks, reel-to-reels, and all-in-one home studios. Looking for anything in these shops is like jumping into a giant container labelled “misc.” in permanent marker. Although there are hidden gems, there are also items that are more hassle than they’re worth.
Who can afford to shop here? From inconspicuous vagrants to anyone who loves a deal.
Good for: Unexpected surprises, DIY treasure hunts and fair prices.
Bad for: Convenience and saving time. Hachioji is far from Tokyo and this store is far from Hachioji station.
For all the non-analogue types that want to embrace the digital age, the future is here with online shopping! This is especially useful if you are looking for one particularly rare item, or if you are just after a good deal. For the high-risk types, there’s Yahoo! Auctions, but it’s difficult to use. You will need a Japanese address and credit card, and there is no English support. I’ve seen worthwhile items on it but never bothered to complete the Kafka-esque bureaucratic nightmare required to register.
If you’re looking for something with a foreigner-friendly facade, TC-Gakki is a safe and reliable alternative to Yahoo! Auctions. They have a wide range of used goods, they ship overseas, and they’ll hold your hand every step of the way.
Last, and surprisingly, the Japanese Amazon also has some listings on instruments if you know exactly what you are looking for, and yes, that includes used, too. Often individual stores will list their used items, and you might be able to get a good price on a new instrument if it’s a popular model. There is nothing quite like ordering a piano with Amazon Prime and getting that sweet free-shipping!