Japan is a great country for musicians. Thanks to strong local brands such as Yamaha and Roland and an overall cultural appreciation for music, it’s easy to find chuko gakki (中古楽器), or second-hand instruments, for surprisingly low prices—if you know where to look.
Musicians and those looking to start a new hobby living in cities such as Tokyo and Osaka are spoiled for choice regarding second-hand shops. However, what do you do if you’re in the countryside? Don’t fret, as there are plenty of places to buy online and in-person all over the country.
Japanese vocab for instruments
In case you need a little help with your search, here is a quick list of popular instruments in Japanese.
Craigslist continues to be a popular classifieds-style market site in the U.S. It’s never really caught on in Japan with the locals, but it does see some action from expats in bigger cities.
If you’re in the vicinity of a metropolitan area like Tokyo, Yokohama or Osaka, you’re in luck then. There are plenty of used musical instruments for sale, from guitars to modular synthesizers and all points between.
Unfortunately, it’s mostly foreigners using Craigslist. Thus, foreign prices. Used musical instruments are generally cheaper in Japan than overseas, at least for domestic items. Craigslist sellers tend to want amounts that reflect U.S. or European eBay trends rather than local ones. The upside to this is that you likely won’t need to use any Japanese.
A word of caution when using Craigslist (or any other classified-style site): there are scammers out there, so protect yourself, meet in a public place and if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
- Pros: Little to no Japanese required
- Cons: Big cities only, not the cheapest prices, occasional scammer
- Craigslist Japan
4. Hard Off
Part of the same company that runs Book Off, the hilariously named Hard Off is a nationwide chain of recycle shops focusing on appliances, electronics and musical instruments (presumably all “hard” things). As with all recycle shops, it’s a crapshoot what you’ll find, but the hunt is part of the fun.
Items in the main display area of the store all have a guarantee, which takes a little of the sting out of the sometimes high prices. However, head to the junk section for the real treasures. Don’t let the name turn you off.
In Hard Off-speak, “junk” means anything they can’t guarantee. So, while there’s plenty of beat-up trash, to be sure, there are also endless amounts of great buys waiting to be discovered.
If you don’t mind a few scratches or—better yet—you know how to do minor repairs, it’s an absolute goldmine. Each item also has a tag explaining the condition, so if you can read Japanese (or have a Google translate app on your phone), you don’t have to buy blind.
- Pros: Good deals abound
- Cons: Some surprisingly high prices, locations vary
- Hard-Off (used instruments)
3. Local recycle shops
Japan is dotted from top to bottom with mom-and-pop リサイクルショップ, or recycle shops. Unfortunately, unless you’re aiming for used Nitori bookcases or obasan (grandma) blouses, most will yield nothing but disappointment. However, it is always worth popping in a recycling shop if you happen on one, as you never know if the owner also deals in musical instruments.
I’ve not had much luck at recycle shops in the Nagoya area where I live, but I know others who have in other parts of the country. If you do find one that deals in instruments, make stopping by a part of your routine as you never know when something good will show up.
- Pros: The occasional incredible deal
- Cons: So much worthless junk
2. Flea market sites
App-based flea market sites such as メルカリ (Mercari) and ペイペイフリマ (PayPay Flea Market) are new to Japan’s secondhand retail market. Of course, most shoppers are looking for clothes and books, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t musical instruments.
You can also find great deals—deals that also don’t always get noticed so quickly. It can be an excellent source for used instruments if you have the time to look (such as on the train). Some sellers are even willing to haggle on price.
There are downsides, however. Your Japanese needs to be good enough to communicate with the sellers. Many people set prices based on what they’d like to get rather than what items are worth. Selection can be limited as well.
- Pros: Off most musicians’ radars
- Cons: Limited selection, Japanese required
- Mercari (used instruments)
- PayPay (used instruments)
1. Yahoo! Auctions
The grandaddy of used instrument deals is on ヤフオク! (Yahoo! Auctions). A holdover from when the search company was still a big deal, the auction site has more instruments for sale at any given time than there are penguins in Antarctica. At least, it seems that way.
Bid on the items you want, get into a bidding war with other people and maybe you’ll win and get a used saxophone (but in excellent condition) in the mail. Unfortunately, very few items are “buy-it-now,” and auctions all seem to end around midnight for some reason, ensuring night owls win all the bids.
Knowing a little Japanese goes a long way.
Many are sold untested and as-is, meaning the occasional leap of faith might be necessary. Also, your Japanese reading skills will need to be top-notch, as the text gets pretty dense. If you can make it past the language gate, however, a world of deals awaits you.
- Pros: A veritable ocean of deals
- Cons: Many items sold as-is, Japanese required
- Yahoo! Auctions (used instruments)
These are our five cheapest places to find musical instruments around Japan. Keep in mind that knowing a little Japanese goes a long way. The better the deals, the more Japanese you’ll likely need. Happy hunting!
Where do you think the best places are to pick up a second-hand instrument in Japan is? Do you think prices are better in Japan? Have any tips for haggling? Let us know in the comments!