This is an excerpt from the all-new July/August 2014 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For the rest of this story, plus features on Tom Petty guitarist Mike Campbell, Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, travel and guitar shopping in Tokyo, new gear and more, head to the Guitar Aficionado Online Store.
Guitar Heaven: From vintage to new to unique models made exclusively for the Japanese market, Tokyo offers possibly the greatest selection of guitars on earth.
Story and Photos By Chris Gill
There are many good reasons to take a vacation in Tokyo—the food, bars, culture, history, fashion, architecture, shrines, and festivals all rank highly with the millions of visitors who flock to the city annually. But for a dedicated music fan who plays guitar, the best reason to visit Tokyo is the multitude of outstanding guitar stores that are concentrated in various locations across the city, each stocked with an impressive selection of instruments. There are likely more musical instrument stores per square foot in the entire Tokyo prefecture than in any other urban center of the world, and the variety is remarkable, spanning a range from large retail chains stocked with every conceivable new model to specialists who deal exclusively in vintage, classical, or boutique steel-string guitars.
It takes only a few minutes in Tokyo to realize that the guitar is almost ubiquitous in everyday life there. Models holding guitars appear in many ads displayed on billboards and subway trains, and numerous Japanese, from teenagers to middle-aged men, are seen walking around with gig bags strapped over their shoulders at all hours of the day. Guitar-dominated music is played almost everywhere as well, from the Jeff Beck–style electric fusion I heard while having lunch in a traditional ramen-ya to Jane’s Addiction’s “Irresistible Force,” providing a somewhat incongruous soundtrack for the customers shopping for housewares and stationery at Shinjuku’s Tokyu Hands store. Even the J-Pop girl-group songs blaring from the electronics and otaku shops in Akihabara are punctuated with dazzling shred-guitar solos in between the choruses of sugary-sweet vocal melodies.
With a few hundred guitar stores spread across Tokyo’s expansive metropolis, which is like the sprawl of Los Angeles combined with the skyscrapers of Manhattan and the blazing lights of the Las Vegas strip, knowing where to start can be an intimidating prospect. It could take a tourist several months to visit every store. After the week I spent there, I feel like I barely scratched the surface. In fact, I discovered dozens of great stores that I overlooked or missed, even in areas that I scoured for an entire day after doing Internet searches back home. The upside is that those discoveries give me another reason to revisit Tokyo sooner than later.
Even if you’ve carefully mapped out a plan of attack well before catching a flight to Tokyo, once you arrive it can be a very confusing city to navigate. The biggest main roadways are elevated above the ground, and most streets are very narrow passageways that curve and meander seemingly aimlessly. Street names are almost always written in kanji, in the rare instances when there’s even a sign identifying the street, and address numbers are essentially random.
Even drivers who speak and read Japanese fluently can get confused, like the pair of young Japanese men in a Mercedes I saw who ended up at a dead end on a one-way street in Harajuku and had to back up about a quarter of a mile in reverse through a dense crowd of pedestrians to turn around. Using the subway system to travel to a location nearest your destination and then proceeding on foot is almost always the best way to get around.
I found two smartphone apps absolutely indispensable during my trip: mxData’s Tokyo Metro Subway and Google Maps. While Tokyo’s subway system is not too confusing, the Tokyo Metro Subway app saves time by choosing the fastest and most logical routes when you type in your start and end locations. Once you’re at street level, Google Maps takes care of the rest by providing a compass-like GPS directional pointer that makes it easy to home in on the destination that you’ve selected on the map.
Make sure to get an international data-roaming plan before you leave, as you’ll certainly use it. Free Wi-Fi is almost nonexistent, especially in the narrow back alleyways where many of the best shops are located. A prepaid Suica card, available from machines at most metro stations, is also highly recommended to avoid wasting time buying individual tickets for each subway/train ride and connection.
The best place to start a guitar search is in Ochanomizu, located east of Shinjuku. Reminiscent of the glory days of Manhattan’s 48th Street, but roughly 10 times the size, Ochanomizu is home to about 50 music stores, some 30 of which are dedicated exclusively to guitars. Most of the stores are located along or around the corner from a four-block stretch of the main street, Kandasurugadai, which is accessed from the bridge crossing the river next to the Ochanomizu metro station and at the western exits of the Ochanomizu JR train station. It’s estimated that about 15,000 new guitars are stocked in the various stores, along with a similar number of used and vintage instruments. The variety of guitars available in Ochanomizu is vast, ranging from surprisingly good $80 Strat copies to mint-condition vintage American instruments selling for tens of thousands of dollars.
Here you’ll find a variety of large retailers, including Big Boss, Ishibashi, and Kurosawa as well as specialists, like Guitar Planet. The two Shimokura Second Hands shops are must-visits for anyone seeking used bargains, especially for replicas of Fenders and Gibsons made and sold only in Japan by Aria, Burny, Fernandes, Greco, and Tokai. Each of the shops has about 1,500 guitars to choose from. The Big Boss store is also home to the ESP Custom Shop, where customers can special order guitars entirely made to their own specifications and even select exotic woods from a stash on display at the store. The main Kurosawa shop has several entire floors dedicated to different guitars, including separate floors for Fenders, Gibson/PRS, acoustic, and “metal” guitars. Most of the stores will not charge sales tax to customers who show their passports.
One could easily devote an entire day to exploring the shops in Ochanomizu, which generally open at 11 A.M. and close at 8 P.M. However, a visit to nearby Akihabara is highly recommended, especially for anyone into the latest high-tech consumer electronics, anime, and manga. Walking downhill from the Ochanomizu JR train station and crossing left beneath the train tracks, you’ll find yourself in Akihabara’s “Electric Town.” One building houses eight floors of independent toy stores selling an unimaginable variety of anime- and manga-related dolls and action figures, its aisles crowded with a disturbing number of single, middle-aged men ogling the female dolls in suggestive poses.
This is an excerpt from the all-new July/August 2014 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For the rest of this story, plus features on Mike Campbell, Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, travel and guitar shopping in Tokyo, new gear and more, head to the Guitar Aficionado Online Store.