Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Audio Man Dig and the Japanese Record Shop Trail.

Tower Records - Shibuya
Sonny Boy - Nagasaki
Sonny Boy

There are many reasons to visit Tokyo but the main one is for the record shops. Of which there are more in one city than any other city I know of. I’ve been to plenty of big cities but when it comes to the sheer variety or record shops on offer Tokyo makes the brain boggle like no other. And while Mrs Fisher details the logistics of how to get to Tokyo Tower I’m on Vinyl Hub checking out how many Disk Union shops there are in the Shinjuku area. But first you have to find the correct Disk Union shop for Disk Union has about thirty stores in Tokyo alone [and a recently opened branch in Osaka] and has dedicated classical music stores, dedicated Jazz stores [on three floors] and dedicated everything else stores. My favourite is the seven floor Shinjuku store where you go up in the tiny lift to floor six and browse the avant garde/noise section followed by the post punk section and then down the stairs stopping off at Prog, CD/Record accessories before having a shufty around the first floor new stuff and back out in to the street for some sushi and a beer.

Record shopping/browsing in Japan is not without its pitfalls though. The fancy OBI strip on a CD case may look exotic but when you’re faced with a wall of them written in Katakana it can become a frustrating experience [Katakana is the alphabet the Japanese use for translating foreign words]. A wall of CD’s, all with spines facing you, all in Katakana is nothing but a headache waiting to happen. See how long your patience holds after you’ve pulled out your tenth CD the most interesting of which is Sade’s Greatest Hits. And for some reason they catalogue them in alphabetical first name order. No I don’t know why either.

But first to the biggest one of them all and Tower Records. Originally an American chain that now survives in Japan alone. The gargantuan maw that is the entrance to their nine floor Shibuya Tokyo megastore [believed to be the biggest record shop in the world] stands like a malevolent monster waiting to suck in unsuspecting passers by before turning their Yen into saccharine drenched J-pop CD’s. Worth going in to just to get an idea as to what dangerous drugs feel like without ever having to take them or suffer the after effects. If you’re into having your senses assaulted by an iPad on every shelf end blaring out such unlikely named homespun J-pop bands as Bump Chicken and Mr. Children [names which somehow appear to have no effect whatsoever on their popularity but may go some way as to explaining why that popularity ends in far east airspace] then go ahead. I guess the classical music section is quieter. I have bought things from Tower Records on past trips but passed up on the Shibuya monster this time due to lack of time. I much prefer spending my Yen in the more relaxed and friendlier surroundings of Japan's much smaller establishments. Places that make you feel happy and relaxed and don't have iPads brainwashing you into buying Baby Metal CD's.

In Nagasaki I found Sonny Boy and a wall of CD’s all with spines facing me, all covered in Katakana. Believe it or not I have now learnt Katakana and to my annoyance have discovered it is of little use when faced with a wall of CD’s all with their OBI strips facing you. This is mainly due to the fact that translations are designed to help Japanese pronunciation hence for instance, The Damned become ‘Damudu’ and Miles Davis becomes something even odder due to the fact that the Japanese cant pronounce ‘v’s’.  As with most Japanese record shops the stock in Sonny Boy is meticulously catalogued with LP’s all in plastic sleeves, all having a small square of coloured paper attached to the top left hand corner containing all the information you need. There was a seriously good selection of European avant garde/electronic/prog but being so early in the trip and being unfamiliar with most of it I left empty handed. The vinyl walls were well packed, some would say overly-packed. One wall contained boxes of singles, some of the punk variety, that I casually browsed through as Mrs Fisher sat patiently on a nearby stool checking her phone for messages. A seven inch single from the early 80’s by a Japanese band called The Floor tempted me. I’d never heard of them but upon seeing the words ‘new wave/experimental’ I felt a twinge in my wallet but £20 quid for a single by a band I’d never heard of? Was it worth it? I guess Underwood has all their back catalogue bar that one and is cursing me now.

One advantage that some Japanese record shops have over their UK equivalents is that they quite happily stock used and new vinyl together. Another is that most vinyl is stocked in 12 inch deep wooden boxes situated at waist height usually two deep. This allows for faster browsing with a technique I saw in use whereby you start at the back of the box and pull a record up with one hand as the other hand selects the record in front of it, as the record at the back is dropped back down the other hand picks up its record and so the process continues. I saw quite a few people adopting this technique and watched them quick scan a box containing about 50 LP’s in a flat minute. Think about this the next time you’re in Jumbo Records and stretching to reach the A - J in the jazz section and your sciatic nerve starts twanging.

Next stop Fukuoka and Ticro Market which is located in the trendy clothes shopping area and up a flight of stairs. Its a fairly small shop [by Japanese standards] stocking almost exclusively vinyl and was big on Hip-Hop and dance with a smattering of most other genres catered for but again I left empty handed.

In Kanazawa I had Estacio Records on my list but after getting lost in the back streets the trip was abandoned in favor of keeping the entente cordial between me and Mrs Fisher alive and healthy. Mrs Fisher, it has to be said, has the patience of a saint when it comes to the fruitless search for record shops in foreign cities and has accompanied me on many a leg stumping walk in search of vinyl succor. So I wasn’t complaining. I still had four nights in Tokyo at the back of the trip to look forward to so not finding Estacio Records was no biggie. Instead we went for onion rings and beer. This is Japan we're talking about after all.

Later that night as we wandered the back streets looking for somewhere to have a quiet beer we came across Audio Man Dig. It was around 8 o’clock at night, a humid night and Audio Man Dig’s ramshackle outer and gloomy interior didn’t win me over, so we carried on walking. Ten minutes later curiosity drew me back and after managing to squeeze in through a front door that was almost hidden by a wall of hi-fi packaging I found myself in the most ramshackle record shop I’ve ever seen the inside of. Inside, sat listening to classical piano music, surrounded by hi-fi equipment and teetering box sets of classical music was a kindly faced gentleman who immediately sprung to his feet and began screwing in all the light bulbs in the back of the shop. The shop appeared to hold the three of us rather snugly but I feared as to what would happen if anyone else came in. The back of the shop disappeared into darkness where shelves of audio equipment could be seen, each with a day-glo sticker attached advertising price and condition. The few shelves that I could get to were mainly jazz and classical. To get to the jazz section I had to step over two boxes and then found myself shoulder to shoulder with vinyl and a red hot light bulb six inches from my skull. Then the nice man in the shop asked us if we liked coffee, which we said yes to and off he disappeared into the back of the shop whereupon ten minutes later he emerged with a pot of coffee and three cups. We sat in the three chairs that he had and listened in silence to the quite beautiful piano music that was playing through a Linn/Naim set up. ‘New model’ he said seeing I was interested. Mrs Fisher began taking notes and handed me a CD of Ethiopian harp music on the French Buda label. I began writing the names of artist and composers on a bit of paper and asking him if he had anything by them to which his reply was ‘nothing’.

‘Mauricio Kagel garimaska’,
‘Stockhausen garimaska’,

It could have been my pronunciation or my handwriting. Maybe I should have asked if he had any Damuda? I climbed back into the Jazz section for one more look and found Miles Davis. I found original Jap pressings of ‘Agharta’ amongst many others but plumped for Albert Ayler’s ‘Prophecy’, not an original but an Italian repress and welcome all the same. I took some pictures as he bagged up Albert and The Harp of King David and then I noticed some Impulse LP’s behind the counter that his hi-fi equipment sat on. A counter he’d now outgrown. He didn’t seem troubled by the fact that he was running out of space. He seemed like the happiest man in the world and he shut in ten minutes. I wiped some sweat off my forehead and made for the door. As I got there it was opened by the first of three westerners. I bid them good luck and we made for the fresher air.

The Nice Man in Audio Man Dig

Audio Man Dig

Audio Man Dig
Exterior of Audio Man Dig

Another reason why Japan wins ‘The Best Place to Go Record Shopping’ award is that most places stay open until 9 o’clock at night, seven days a week. At 7.30pm in your Tokyo hotel room you can say to yourself, ‘you know what I think I’ll just pop down to Disk Union in Shinjuku and see if they’ve got the new Bob album in’ and off you go to have a browse. In the UK they open at 9 o’clock in the morning when everybody’s in bed and shut when the shop has people in it. Its like the pubs used to be twenty years ago and is in some sense ridiculous.

When we got to Tokyo I made for the 6th floor of Shinjuku Disk Union and put my hands on the Whitehouse ‘New Britain’ boot which was going for a ridiculously cheap £10 then the new JFK/Grey Wolves collaboration ‘Assassin’. I bought a Lucian Berio LP, not one of his electronic works but good all the same. They had a copy of the Blood Stereo/Smegma split on Nashazaphone so I bought that too. I bought lots of stuff over four days, all of it most welcome and all of it damned cheap seeing as how they were having a 20% off everything weekend sale. And then Luke Younger told me about the second hand HMV shop in Shibuya, a place packed with rare and exotic jewels of the experimental/noise variety, a rich compendium of all that is good and rare and as it turns out, very expensive. I missed Luke in Tokyo by about three days but he told me about HMV in Shibuya and the Nightingale noise bar in the Golden Gai district [of which more later] and for this I am eternally grateful.

Its best not to confuse the HMV shop in Shibuya with ‘HMV and Book’ in Shibuya. Which is what I did. And although HMV and Book in Shibuya is a wonderfully pristine and well organized floor of books and CD’s its not the place to go if you’re seeking rare and exotic jewels of the experimental/noise variety. Instead we found [due to my most excellent map reading skills it has to be said] the two floor HMV that is mainly vinyl and has the biggest selection I’ve ever seen of avant garde/experimental/modern composition LP’s under one roof. 1950’s musique concrete singles? No problem. Those shiny silver Phillips series of LP’s by the likes of Francois Bayle? No problem. Gallery press Henri Chopin 10 inchers? Yours for huge amounts of Yen. Upstairs they had Jazz and World Music and a room dedicated to singles, downstairs there was a room dedicated to cassettes but I never found it. It was without doubt a mind boggling array of vinyl but the prices were out of my league so I left empty handed.

One of my aims whilst in Tokyo was to find Los Apson. I was there ten years ago when it lived in a tiny room on about the third of forth floor of a mundane office block in Shinjuku. A place rammed with all manner of audio strangeness and wrestling masks. I bought a bootleg of the Sex Pistols A&M single for a tenner and a BusRatch/Hijokaidan split. I still have them and the bag they came in. Since then Los Apson has upped sticks and moved to the up and coming trendy vintage clothing/record shop area that is Koenji. Sort of like Tokyo’s answer to Camden but without the million tourists a day and crap band t-shirt stalls. Then I discovered that Los Apson only opens from three in the afternoon until eight at night and we were there at noon. In its place I found Be-In Records in a covered shopping street. Up a flight of stairs I found a decent sized room specializing in mainly 60’s and 70’s UK and American rock/pop/prog vinyl with the usual wall full of Beatles including all the solo material. I mean how many people actually buy Ringo Star LP’s? Everything in English too which made for pleasant browsing. I left with Jazz though,  Cecil Taylor’s ‘Solo’ and Miles Davis ‘In a Silent Way’ both Jap pressings, both a fiver. Thank you very much Be-In Records.

On my last trip to the sixth floor of Disk Union in Shinjuku I pondered how many record shops there were in Tokyo and how long it would take me to get round them all. Probably weeks, months. There’s no other city I know of or have visited that has such an array of record shops catering to all tastes and pockets. What I’ve written here doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. These are just the ones I went in.

On our last night there I made a solo trip to Disk Union’s sixth floor and poked my nose in each section as I made my way down wondering if I’d ever get to come back. Regret mingled with the thought that tomorrow we’d be on a plane and I’d soon be at home playing what I’d bought. We were tired after three weeks stumping around Japan and my suitcase was getting dangerously heavy. As I hit the ground floor I couldn’t resist one last look around and as I turned the corner there was Keiji Haino checking out the Jap psych. Japan is full of surprises.


Before setting off I spent some time on the excellent Vinyl Hub website which is where you’ll find information on all the above shops except Audio Dig Man in Kanazawa who appears to have no web presence at all. The best I can do for you is to point you in the direction of the streets behind the Tokyu Hotel, just don’t leave it until 8 o’clock at night to go there.

Vinyl Hub

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