When travelling to a new country it can sometimes be hard to break away from the over-trodden tourist trails and get a real sense of the rich cultural life of a region. Experiencing a place is all about igniting the senses, and what better way to dive in than to explore it through its music scene? Though coronavirus may keep us locked at home for now, hopefully this guide will provide a flavour of the vibrant music scene of Japan, from its biggest clubs to smallest record stores, and even inspire some listening to bring the sounds to your ears at home.
Clubs – From Techno in Parking Lots to Haunted Houses:
As the biggest city in the world, it’s no surprise that Tokyo also boasts some of the biggest and best nightclubs. Whatever you most like to dance to, it’s guaranteed there’s a club that specialises in it. For those seeking to throw themselves in and explore Tokyo at night, there’s no better place to start than the famous Kabukicho district in Shinjuku. Overflowing with bars, restaurants and the iconic hostess bars, this red-light district caters well to foreigners and tourists, offering reduced price entry to a variety of late-night bars and clubs.
For those looking for a more local experience, the neighbouring Shibuya district offers a trendier, younger scene. Fans of heavy techno should check out Contact, a popular new club hidden in the back of a parking lot that hosts events almost every night of the week. A short walk around the corner is Circus, known for bringing big names to its relatively small venue. Even lower on the capacity spectrum is Bonobo, a tiny club in the back of a cocktail bar in Harajuku, with quirky decor and a distinct “haunted house” vibe, if you can imagine that!
‘What better way to discover Japanese music than the old way, flicking through a box of records in an iconic music shop?’
Live Music – Cosy Bars Offering Everything from “Kawaii Metal” to Old School Jazz:
For live music, the O-Group, a collection of large-capacity venues in Shibuya offer gigs all year round and are the main destination for touring international bands. However, for more intimate gigs with local bands, venues such as Gamuso, What the Dickens and the neighbourhood of Shimokitazawa, are all great places to grab a beer, sit with friends and enjoy live music in cosy surroundings. Tokyo may be known for J-Pop, but fans of genres as diverse as heavy metal and jazz have all carved out a niche in the mishmash jungle of bars or “Izakayas” across the city. Body&Soul, for example, is probably Tokyo’s most famous jazz club and has been putting on live jazz performances every night of the week for nearly 50 years.
For fans of something heavier, venues such as GODZ and Rockaholic offer live music from some of the heaviest death metal and hard rock bands; just don’t go expecting to hear your friend’s conversations over the top. Finally, no trip toJapan is complete without visiting a karaoke bar and Tokyo certainly has some of the wildest. There’s Karaoke Kan, famous for its appearance in Lost in Translation, Big Echo with its Hello-Kitty themed rooms, Polka Dots run by a Bob Dylan impersonator, and finally Lovenet – one of the most expensive karaoke bars in the city but the place to be if you feel like singing from the comfort of a hot tub.
Record Stores - The Biggest Music Shop in the World:
What better way to discover Japanese music than the old way, flicking through a box of records in an iconic music shop? Exploring Tower Records, Tokyo’s most famous record shop may as well be a day trip in itself, thanks to its whopping 5,000m2 of floor space. Complete with a café, bookstore and live music space, Tower Records is the destination for anyone into music.
For those specifically into hip-hop, Manhattan Records in Shibuya is Tokyo’s oldest hip-hop record store and worth a visit to dig out some old-school R&B. Finally, way off the beaten track in Tokyo’s most up-and-coming neighbourhood Koenji, is En-ban Records, a quirky CD shop selling hidden gems. Whilst there, make sure to visit local bars and vintage shops nearby, for a more alternative glimpse into Tokyo’s music scene.
This music video from British band “Clean Bandit” featuring a girl wandering the streets, markets and live music venues of Tokyo.
Clubs - Japan’s Number Two City for Big Clubbing:
Not to be outdone, Kyoto also boasts a wide selection of clubs with just as impressive a collection of resident DJs and quirky venues. Club Metro, for example, is a popular basement level venue situated quite literally in a functioning metro station. World is perhaps the biggest and best known in the city, and pretty much guarantees a good night, whatever your tastes. On the smaller end, there are clubs like Chambers that cater to more of a house and hip-hop crowd, Socrates, Kyoto’s underground destination for all things experimental, and finally Barcode, a Western-style relaxed late-night bar with karaoke and cocktails.
‘One of the most beautiful venues in the whole of Japan is Sarasa Nishijin, a café and bar built into an old bathhouse’.
Live Music - Reclaimed Spaces – From Sake Breweries to Sento Bathhouses:
If you visit one place in Kyoto, make it Taku-Taku. Located in the shell of a former sake brewery, this place is hugely popular with locals and tourists alike and you can guarantee a unique and impressive live performance any night of the week. Get there early and come with an open mind to experience anything from traditional Japanese folk, to psychedelic rock, to appearances from world-famous international artists.
More underground is UrBANGUILD, a popular multi-purpose space, much frequented by students. Expect local bands, art installations and great food and drink. Finally, one of the most beautiful venues in the whole of Japan is Sarasa Nishijin, a café and bar built into an old bathhouse. For those pining to glimpse a little of old Japan, or the magic of films like Spirited Away, get down to Sarasa and sip a cocktail whilst taking in some chilled out live music.
Clubs - Relax, Have Fun and Party Like an Osakan:
Clubbing in Osaka is certainly unique, and worth experiencing to see a different side to Japanese nightlife. Grittier than its neighbours, Osakan clubbing culture takes itself less seriously and parties tend to fall on the more mainstream (and cheaper!) side. With a capacity of 800 people, Club Joule is likely Osaka’s oldest and biggest club, with a fun, relaxed atmosphere and international DJs.
GHOST Ultra Lounge is similar but tends to attract an older, Western crowd. All international students in Osaka will have heard of Sam and Dave One, with its cheesy tunes and slight reputation for being a pick-up spot. Perhaps the hottest place right now, however, is Alzar; a rooftop club in Dotonbori set to revolutionise the local clubbing scene and put Osaka on the international music map.
Live Music - A Wet Heavy Metal Dream:
Just like Tokyo, Kyoto is stuffed full of hard rock bars. If that’s your scene, don’t miss bars like Rock Rock and MiDiAN, described by one reviewer as a “wet heavy metal dream, with skulls all over.” For fans of soul, ska or blues, the Groovy Music bar is a quirky space offering drinks and vinyl, visited by a loyal group of regular punters and a perfect example of a truly local independent venue. For international artists, Zepp Namba and Namba Hatch are two of the biggest venues and host a range of events from concerts to dance parties.
When shopping in Osaka, head on down to Nishishinsaibashi (good luck asking for directions!). This part of town is full of independent shops and trendy cafes at far cheaper prices than in the neighbouring touristy area of Dontobori. There you can find several music shops and independent records stores, such as Flake Records and the famous King Kong Records.
This bizarre Japanese twist on heavy metal, “Babymetal” – a hugely popular metal band complete with kawaii outfits, tight choreography, young pretty singers and killer bass lines.
Clubs - From Disco to Dub:
Our final city on this list is Yokohama. As Japan’s second-largest city, opportunities to discover hidden gems and niche themed music bars open up again. One such example is ‘Gimme!Gimme!Gimme!’ an aptly named (due to its tantalising drinks menu) late-night bar in the Noge area. Much like other places throughout Japan, this place works on a ticket system: buy your 500-yen drinks tickets as you go in and redeem them for one of their wonderfully cheap cocktails at the bar. Bursting with kitsch décor, from disco balls to neon signs, a visit to GGG is a guaranteed fun time, especially since its license extends until 4 am. Over by Yokohama Station, Bar Luther Dance Groups is another popular spot, with an emphasis on hip hop and dub. Entry is around 2,500-yen on weekends but includes two drink tickets.
Live Music - The Birthplace of Jazz in Japan:
Yokohoma is famous for its jazz scene, perhaps due to its international outlook as a port city; so even if jazz isn’t technically your thing, make sure you still checkout a couple of these historic venues. The first is Downbeat, a small hard to find bar with an excellent sound system and live jazz. Get chatting to the bar staff and you may even go away with some highly recommended vinyl tucked under your arm. The second is Windjammer, a themed bar designed to feel like the inside of an old ship. This iconic venue is Yokohama’s oldest jazz bar and is very foreigner-friendly.
If themed bars are your thing, look no further than Stardust, a shrine to the 60s, complete with functioning jukebox, neon signs and delicious cocktails. If you wanted to get a sense of what Japanese jazz fiends are listening to, slide onto a stool by the jukebox and tap along to the hand picked tunes from this bar’s loyal bunch of regulars. Worth a visit just for its décor, head on over to the painfully trendy Grassroots, a cosy wooden lined bar with psychedelic art, interesting installations, pop up vintage and, of course, live jazz sessions. Finally, if you’re in the mood to dance, head on down to BB Street, a live music venue with a daily rotation of live bands from diverse genres.
This Spotify playlist, showcasing some of the best Japanese jazz: