Tokyo's essential music

Discover the sounds of Tokyo on a music-themed culture tour

Tokyo's essential music

Forget the ‘big in Japan’ years when fading stars and one hit wonders found inexplicable fame eastside – these days international A-listers are referencing Tokyo trends (Gwen Stefani), launching local brands (Pharrell Williams), collaborating with Japanese bands (Kanye West) or just churning out neon skyline videos (Madonna, among others). The cultural flow between Japan and the West is pretty equal now, and for music-loving visitors this is a great time to sample the thriving and diverse scenes that the city has to offer.

From buskers to rockabilly crews

You’re going to be out late, so aim for a relaxed 11am start at Harajuku Station. And make it a weekend, when the bridge beside the station is a gathering point for the teenage Harajuku girls who, as Gwen Stefani sang, ‘have got the wicked style’. The mix of goths, punks, schoolgirls and superheroes sits somewhere between cool and bizarre, and this weekly expression of youthful exuberance has become a major tourist attraction - a photo alongside the girls a modern must-have souvenir.

Just around the corner, close to the entrance to Yoyogi Park, you’ll find a local rockabilly crew using tarmac as their dancefloor most weekends. Some of these ladies and gents clearly date back to the original rockabilly years, but their enthusiasm seems undimmed. They’ve been joined by a younger generation that takes its fashion and moves every bit as seriously.

The area between Yoyogi park and the edge of Shibuya is also a popular spot for buskers, and the acts – most of whom hope to be ‘discovered’ – could be anything from a cappella pop stars to skiffle groups. You might also catch standup comedians, performance artists or breakdance crews practising their skills.

Shop til you drop

After a blast of local talent, head back past Harajuku Station until you see the narrow pedestrianised street Takeshita Dori, which is usually heaving with masses of teens out wandering with their friends. The narrow thoroughfare is lined with stores such as Closet Child (1-6-11 Jingumae, 3403 4106, and Mari’s Rock (1-8-3 Jingumae, 3423 0069,, outfitters to the Harajuku girls. The side streets are also crammed with quirky clothes shops and jewellery stores, worth a peek even if just out of anthropological interest. At the lower end of Takeshita Dori, cross the main road (Meiji Dori) and take the next right, which leads to Pharrell Williams’ Billionaire Boys Club/Ice Cream Store, easily identifiable by the traditional ice cream cart in the window. You can only buy these clothes in a handful of locations around the world, and this is the futuristic and funky flagship. Pharrell’s collaborator, legendary local DJ/designer NIGO®, has his own flagship A Bathing Ape store downstairs, where you’ll find even more urban attire.

A short walk down Meiji Dori, or one stop on the Yamanote line, leads to Shibuya, where visitors are greeted with two massive LCD screens playing the latest J-pop videos. Musically, Shibuya is all about dance music. Besides being the home to many of the city’s very best clubs, the area is a DJ’s fantasy, with the greatest concentration of vinyl outlets in the city. Technique, Dance Music Record and the five buildings that comprise Cisco are the big draws here, but wander the surrounding streets and you’ll uncover many more. For vinyl freaks this is dangerous territory; an afternoon can easily slip by unnoticed. The Quintrix Disc Lounge (10-1 Udagawa-cho, Shibuya-ku, 6415 6678, stands out from its peers by selling CDs and running a fully-stocked café/bar at the back. If you can stomach relentless trance, take a coffee, herbal tea or beer break here.

Next stop: nostalgiaville. A couple of blocks away, in the basement of the Quattro building are Get Back and Gimme Shelter, a pair of stores dedicated to the original Britrock legends. Get Back is the more impressive of the two, offering Fab Four-related goodies including vintage magazines, inflatable dolls, a full-size Yellow Submarine jukebox and New York era Lennon action figures. There’s admirable attention to detail: even Ringo’s solo years are represented in the music section. The Rolling Stones-related Gimme Shelter has a smaller range of goods, but you can pick up some T-shirts or rare presses of the classics. The basement also houses a ticket shop for upcoming rock and pop gigs.

J-pop Café

Now for something contemporary. Cross the street to the massive Beam building and head up to the seventh floor for the J-pop Café ( This indigenous take on pop is an acquired taste, but the saccharin sounds account for around 60 per cent of Japan’s music industry, have a big following throughout Asia and are beginning to break into Australia and the US market. J-pop is the sound of anime and video-game soundtracks, and its rise on the global scene is closely tied to the success of those formats.

The spacious J-pop Café is a fun place to hear some of the latest tracks. The main room loosely follows the dining club concept, and two or three times a week baby-faced songstresses perform to a young crowd of pop fans. Unlike its fellow dining clubs (Blue Note, Cotton Club and so on), at J-pop Café everything is priced for the pockets of an adolescent audience. But ours is just a flying visit, so head instead for the surprisingly urbane lounge bar, where the pop gets pumped through speakers while you relax with a drink. If the music appeals, you’ll find flyers for all the city’s upcoming J-pop gigs on your way out.

Jazz things up

For dinner, head north for some jazz. Although Tokyo is home to around 50 jazz clubs, there’s one special spot 15 minutes away from Shibuya, in Takadanobaba on the Yamanote line. The Hot House is surely the world’s smallest jazz club, struggling to cram in a dozen audience members. It can’t fit quartets and doesn’t need amps, but this is one place that proves biggest isn’t always best. The venue’s unique atmosphere, akin to a jam session in a living room, persuades some eminent musicians to perform here, almost nose-to-nose with the audience. The food is simple Japanese fare, handed from kitchen to customer by whoever happens to be seated in the middle. The Hot House is the only spot on the itinerary that demands a reservation, and be sure to show up in time for the 8.30pm start – if you’re late, there might be a pianist blocking the entrance.

Sing for your supper

How to round off a music-themed day Tokyo? If you’re travelling solo and still have the energy, you’re in a world-class party city with such superclubs as Yellow and Womb at your disposal. On a Friday or Saturday night they’ll be bursting with fellow clubbers. For groups, now is the time to try the essential Japanese pastime: karaoke. The easiest option is to head for Shinjuku and get nabbed by one of the touts that hover around Yasukuni Dori. They’ll escort you to one of the big, cheap chains such as Big Echo or Karaoke-Kan (as featured in ‘Lost in Translation’), where you’ll get a private lounge in which to drink and croon until the sun rises. A more stylish option is Lovenet ( in Roppongi, a collection of themed lounges where you can perform your drunken rendition of ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ in relative luxury. The Morocco Suite is a cosy two-person cave with a mattress and low table that’s perhaps most suitable for amorous couples; the deep-red Kiss Suite is, curiously, designed to hold four singers; while the most popular room of all is the Aqua Suite, where you can exercise your tonsils from a six-seater Jacuzzi. The food at Lovenet is a cut above the karaoke box norm: you can expect a good selection of Italian and Asian dishes. Lovenet stays open until 5am, which ought to be enough singing for anyone.

Time Out Tokyo Shortlist (Published in 2007)

Please note: All information is correct at the time of writing but is subject to change without notice.


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