19. Record Shopping in Shibuya

On a recent trip to Japan, I reserved the day before I flew home for record shopping. Since I was in Tokyo, I chose to go to Shibuya because of the variety and density of record stores there. I set out with snacks, a water bottle and the DJ bag I had brought for safely putting records in the overhead bin on the return flight. Because it is so crowded, Shibuya is otherwise not my cup of tea. It is famous for that intersection where a kabillion people cross at the same time from multiple directions. Thankfully, most of the record stores are on the periphery of the main shopping arteries.

20230311_153745  I began at the most obvious place – Tower Records. The store in Shibuya is seven stories tall, with each floor being dedicated to different genres. I was by myself, but I imagine this setup could either make or break a couple. Are you the type that needs to stick together, or are you OK if one of you spends an hour on the K-Pop floor while the other spends an hour on the classical music floor? How long is too long? I imagine my teenage-self forgetting I was there with a date in the first place.

Most of the store is CDs, as Japanese consumers never stopped buying music in that format, even after theP1000375 advent of streaming services. This allows for an incredibly large number of listening stations. On this wall alone, you could preview dozens of CDs. In each row of the store, there are smaller listening stations with anywhere from six to ten discs to sample. Oftentimes, when an artist comes out with a new record that is being featured at a listening station, stores will also include older releases, side-projects or other things associated with the artist.  You can do a deep dive pretty quickly.

Japanese fans are well-known for choosing a genre and focusing on it, sometimes to the exclusion of other genres. They become well-versed in all sorts of things. For example, in the world music section there are areas for Thailand, Okinawa, Turkey, and Israel (among others).  Just one floor below, hip hop heads can buy a book dedicated to the covers of classic gangsta rap tapes that circulated back in the day.



Outside of Tower, the stores tend to be much smaller and focused on just one genre (or several related ones). For example, I visited Hi Fi Records to take a look. Like many stores in Japan, they occupy a narrow space in a tiny commercial building – in this -407649146154017025 case, the second floor.


Walking through the sterile lobby feels like you are visiting your accountant or a podiatrist. When I opened Hi Fi’s door, I immediately stepped into a small room filled with cardboard boxes. It looked like somebody was either moving in or moving out. Unfortunately for me, I discovered Hi Fi’s niche is bachelor-pad exotica and easy listening – the kind of stuff a guy who wanted to show off his stereo in the 50’s might have put on while he started serving up  those cocktails he was telling you about. That and Laurel Canyon-style artists. I beat a hasty retreat. I’m not sure if the clerk working behind another stack of cardboard boxes even noticed my coming and going – I certainly did not look the vibe.

20230311_144434            In sharp contrast, I spent a good amount of time at Coco Isle Music Market. This store was also in a walk up, with an even smaller sign in the third-floor window. I walked past it a few times before I spotted it. I’m very glad that I didn’t give up, because Coco Isle is dedicated to Jamaican music, with an emphasis on reggae, rock steady, dub and ska. I really dig rock steady and dub, so I put my DJ bag down and started working through the bins. Consistent with the music they sold, they had a working sound system in the room. It took up a whole corner of the place and was so fucking loud I can’t imagine how the other tenants in the building deal with it. While checking out some potential purchases on the turntable listening station, I had to ask the clerk to turn the sound system down because even with the headphones on I couldn’t hear the record I was spinning. He was cool about it, and later we talked a bit about dub. He was proud to show me a photo of when Scientist visited the place. Their records were not cheap, but I expect that in Japan. Most Japanese collectors’ living space is limited, so having a few very expensive records instead of a lot of regular priced records makes sense. It is all about curation.


I grabbed a King Tubby record, one with Sly & Robbie and the Revolutionaries and a Congos record. The clerk warned me that the Congos record has a skip, but it was worth it for the price. I certainly will go back there the next time I have a chance to visit Shibuya.

Face FenceIf you thought a small sign in a window seemed a bit of an underwhelming way to promote your store, I give you Face Records’ placard on a chain link fence. Once I spotted it, I walked up an alley into a small cluster of record stores. Perhaps joining together to create a micro-climate is one way these small stores survive. One of the stores sported a motto for the vinyl-committed.


20230320_155455Face Records lists a number of genres on the front of the building, but it is really a place for jazz, soul, hip-hop and house. The aisles were so narrow you could not pass by another patron – you needed to circumnavigate the bins to get to where you wanted to go. Even by Japanese record store standards it felt claustrophobic, so I just grabbed a few things and got out. The one I was most interested in was an LP by Lightnin’ Hopkins that I had not seen before. Another was a 12” by Fab Five Freddy which had what it said were male and female versions of the same song on either side. When I got home and listened to it, the female side was sung/rapped in French. What?

P1000401My final stop for the day was RECOfan. This store is the opposite end of Tower. There are no fancy signs or bells and whistles – it is a decidedly utilitarian space. However, the store is spacious and has more of a lived-in feeling compared to the smaller stores that can feel like shrines or private museums. RECOfan is also not serving a single niche audience, as the boxes are filled with all manner of genres, mostly at reasonable prices. After an afternoon of crowded record store crawling, it is a good place to wind down.


I picked up a few more blues records, but I spent more time digging through a box of odds and ends stuck at the end of a table. It was a good decision, because I found a number of flexi-discs of regional folk songs, complete with accompanying booklets.  That is in fact my cup of tea, so I grabbed the most promising ones.

I also found this field recording from Germany. The cover is cool enough (no pun intended), but then I discovered that it opens up to a four-panel panoramic shot.




Somewhat randomly, I grabbed the Japanese edition of Paul McCartney’s 45 Give Ireland Back to the Irish. Paul is my favorite Beatle, always has been, and I have long been fascinated by this out-of-character, explicitly political song. I can’t think of anything similar in his songbook. The tune itself is not good, and could not be more 1972 McCartney-jams-and-glams. However, it gets points for being earnest and explicit, which I find preferable to John’s vague, hippy dippy platitudes.

I had been saying for some time that I wanted to spend my 60th birthday record shopping in Tokyo, but this trip has made me think otherwise. Perhaps because I had not been there since the pandemic began, I had lost a little perspective. It was fun, but I was reminded that they are just stores, after all – I should mark my 60th with something I don’t do all the time. I mean, there must be other things to do when you travel than to visit record stores. Thank goodness I have a couple of years to figure out what.

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