A music-lover’s guide to Tokyo

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We got together with Melbourne band The Lagerphones to put together a music lover’s ultimate guide to Tokyo. The band are no strangers to Japan, having toured there several times over four years. In light of their new Japan-inspired album ATARA-CD (あたらシーディー) we got the lowdown on the very best places to visit. 

BEST CAFE FOR MUSIC IN TOKYO

Chosen by: Ben Harrison [Trumpet, Vocals]

Lion cafe is golden nugget surrounded by some of Tokyo’s more colourful places. It’s classic interior fitted with beautiful wooden tables and velvet chairs is a stark contrast to the bustling of Shibuya outside.

As soon as you enter, you can feel the calm ambience as the beautiful classical music surrounds your ears. As you look around, there are only a handful of people sitting in reverence, most by themselves. After whispering your cafe order, you can sit back and forget that you are in busy Shibuya, or Tokyo, or anywhere really. You can exist there in private and let the music soak through you until you are ready to return to the outside world. Lion is magical. It hails to a time of simplicity, where people can sit without the world nagging them and just be there for a while. If you’re after a break from anything or everything, I would highly recommend a trip here.

BEST BAR IN TOKYO 

Chosen by: Marty Holoubek [Bass]

Before I start this little review, I must inform you that it is an impossible task to name the best bar in all of Tokyo. However, in saying this, sometimes The Lagerphones achieve the impossible. Up a tiny unsigned staircase tucked away from the rest of the Shinjuku bustle lies Bar Toilet. The name of this bar is an ode to the place that one will most probably find themselves in solitude on a regular basis.

Bar Toilet is furnished with about a dozen seats, a long bar and a gigantic picture of a nude guy jumping off some hay bales by some famous photographer that I can never remember the name of (Ryan McGinley). The space is quite small, but it has two upright pianos and there are often tiny intimate concerts held here. The house-made umeshu (plum wine) is positively banging and there are some small food options in case you’re hungry. If you’re looking for a place to escape the busy Tokyo scene, make sure you go and have a peaceful drink at Bar Toilet.

BEST MUSIC VENUE IN TOKYO

Chosen by: Nick Martyn [Drums]

The question of best music venue in Tokyo is very hard in a city that takes live music extremely seriously, with such incredible diversity and top-notch professional staff everywhere you go. You’ve got your legendary larger places like Liquid Room and Unit, your smaller hubs like Room, Underbar and Organ, (and that only covers Shibuya) but I want to give a special mention to Shimokitazawa’s finest – Three. This basement club has you weaving through corridors and doorways until you turn past the bar and suddenly you’re struck by the band that is shredding the towering stage. The first thing I notice, after the labyrinthine layout that allows punters to be creative about where they cop a view of the band, is the incredible sound system. This thing hits you like a proverbial, and boy do those sound techs know how to use it. I’ve seen jazz groups, performance artists, rockabilly bands and experimental noisy types hit that stage and it’s always been a thrill. The audience is there to soak up whatever is being thrown at them, and I think that’s what makes a truly great music venue. Along with some sweaty dancing and a reasonably priced bar.

BEST JAPANESE MUSICIAN

Chosen by: James Macaulay [Trombone]

Masabumi Kikuchi was a legendary Japanese pianist and composer who we discovered by chance during our first tour in 2015. One night we were drinking shochu together in one of the tiny dark bars in the Golden Gai, when the music the old Master of the bar was playing vehemently captured our attention. It had shifted suddenly away from what had been a cheerfully lilting funk groove, to a brief, astonishing and aggressive saxophone solo, before changing back into easy funk before we had adjusted to the contrast. The album we were hearing was Kikuchi’s seminal fusion record Susto, recorded between New York and Tokyo in 1980, featuring a host of legendary American and Japanese artists.

Kikuchi played regularly with the drummer Paul Motian, making seven records with him and bassist Gary Peacock as ‘Tethered Moon’. He appears on Motian’s famous Live at the Village Vanguard albums, playing magnificently searching, and beguiling piano throughout. My other favourite album of his is Sunrise, with Motian and bassist Thomas Morgan, which is an utterly profound album in its directness, lyricism and simplicity of design. It opens simply with ‘Ballad 1’, and closes with ‘Last Ballad’. The man does not mince words or extra-musical ideas in his titles. Over time we have learnt just how important Masabumi Kikuchi was to the creative jazz scene in Japan and how much of mentor he was to younger artists, reminding me as ever of the late, great Australian drummer, Allan Browne.

BEST VINYL STORE IN TOKYO

Chosen by: Jon Hunt [Clarinet]

Tokyo is undoubtedly the greatest city on earth to buy vinyl records. Disk Union alone has around 12 separate stores in Shinjuku alone that stocks for people of any musical taste. Although Disk Union gets my honourable mention and I will always buy more records than I can afford there every time I visit Japan, Hi-Fi Record Store takes out the top spot for me

Situated along Meiji-dori in Shibuya, Hi-Fi has a vast selection of gems from folk to pop to jazz and every sub-genre in between to satisfy even the most dedicated record aficionado. The store is by no means the largest record store in Japan but it is so fantastically curated that if I came by an unlimited supply of yen, I’d probably buy every album in the store. Just a few that I took home with me last time I visited include – Marquee Moon by Television, The George Benson Cookbook, The Wild Tchoupitoulas, Duke Ellington’s Latin American Suite and a picture disc of David Bowie’s Let’s Dance. I can’t wait to add to my collection when we return in September.

BEST VINTAGE INSTRUMENT STORE

Chosen by: Louis King [Banjo]

Picking one shop seems cruel in a city where there is such a glut of vintage instruments. The Ochanimizu district is a must visit for anyone who is in search of a vintage guitar, bass, mandolin, or any other stringed instrument. Guitar shops line the streets, often four or five levels high, boasting a collection of instruments dwarfing any equivalent Australian retailer. Prices range from almost level with the inflated Australian market to some serious bargains if you have a keen eye. Japanese made instruments are especially cheap, with domestic Japanese Fenders, Greco’s, Orvilles, Bachhus’, and Burnys in abundance

I was lucky enough to purchase a 1934 Gibson L-7 Archtop Guitar on our last tour in Japan from TC GAKKI for less than half of what I have commonly seen them advertised for in America. It was hiding in the back row behind some new Martins and had the price heavily discounted for a weekend flash sale. When confronted with such an amazing collection of instruments it’s hard to resist the want to play them. On one particularly memorable afternoon, I played a dozen instruments at Woodman guitars that I’d been ogling in magazines and on the internet since I was a teenager. I left feeling contentedly reminded of the fact that all the money I’ll ever earn will probably be spent on guitars. It’s also worth noting that all instruments over 100,000 yen (a little over $1,000 AUD) are available to non-japanese residents at a tax-free price, which works out to about 10 percent off. Sugoi! (wow). Happy shopping!