Having been a synthesiser enthusiast for roughly ten years now, I’ve always been enamoured by the drool-worthy posts on internet gear forums with photos of an astounding array of vintage synths for very reasonable prices in Tokyo. I knew I’d have to get there at some point.
If you’re at all interested in second-hand electronic instruments and studio gear, Japan is a pretty great place to visit with an empty suitcase. There are a few factors that come into play that make Tokyo an amazing place to grab vintage gear. Firstly, Japan is the home of legendary companies like Korg, Roland, Akai and Yamaha – brands that brought us the original affordable synthesisers and home studio equipment. Couple this with the Japanese education system placing a strong emphasis on musical learning in their curriculum and the fact that there’s more people in greater Tokyo than the whole of Australia, and you’ve got yourself a city that’s teeming with second-hand gems. Last month, I finally got the opportunity to take the pilgrimage and see it all for myself. Here’s some stores you should definitely visit while you’re Tokyo.
Hard Off! – Various locations
Hard Off! is a chain store selling second-hand electronic goods. There are also offshoots called Book Off!, Mode Off! (clothes), Hobby Off! (RC cars, etc.) and more, but if you’re in the market for musical instruments, then you want to look out for a Hard Off. My favourite part of Hard Off is the ‘Junk’ floor. In this case, ‘junk’ just means the goods are slightly damaged or untested. There are multiple boxes of random bits and bobs, old keyboards, mixers, turntables, amplifiers, ADAT recorders, 100 yen vinyl records, boomboxes, cameras, cables – everything. I could have spent half a day in each of these stores trawling through the ‘junk’ for bargains. The two I visited were in Shimokitazawa and Ueno’s Ameyoko market district. There’s also one in Akihabara (Electric Town) and a huge one in Hachioji.
Echigoya Music – Shibuya
On the tenth floor of an office building opposite the huge Tower Records (yes, people still buy CDs in Japan, it’s weird) in Shibuya, is a little space dedicated to selling second-hand synths and new boutique gear. The store ranges in price and vintage – I saw Korg Volcas, Akai MPCs, a Fender Rhodes piano, a Yamaha CS60 synth, an Oberheim Xpander, a Roland JX8P, some new Eurorack gear and plenty more. Lots of gear was powered up and plugged in for customers to play with. I was the only one in the store when I visited a Friday afternoon. The clerk was friendly and had no issue with me touching everything possible and taking photos. I had a very nice time. Prices varied from reasonable to exceptionally cheap.
Ishibashi – Shibuya
Ishibashi is a large musical instrument chain store located throughout Japan. Unlike your average Australian store, they also sell some used gear. Unfortunately, they’re generally more focused on guitar and drums, but the Shibuya store does have a decent keys section with some nice gear in it. When I visited they had an immaculate 1970s MKI Korg Trident set up and plugged in that sounded incredibly lush. I’d never even seen an original Trident, let alone played one. They also had a couple of Roland TR-909 drum machines, some MPCs, and some newer second-hand gear like the Korg Electribe 2. Certainly worth a look if you’re in Shibuya.
Five G Music Technology – Shibuya
Five G is probably the most internationally famous synth store in Japan – and with good reason. The range and condition of their stock is unbeatable. Whether it’s the new Dave Smith Prophet X, some obscure Eurorack module from a German DIY builder or a trio of Moog Memorymoogs, it’s completely uncensored synth porn. And of course, tons of it is plugged in and ready for you to play with. The prices aren’t bargains here, but if you buy a vintage item from Five G, you can rest assured it’s been recently serviced, checked and is 100 percent functional. In fact, the service department is in full view and you can see the care the staff take with each instrument. If you want to spend some proper dollars on vintage gear in as close to mint condition as possible, Five G is the place to visit.
Good luck, and remember: Japan runs on 120 volt mains, so get yourself a step-down transformer before you plug anything into an Australian outlet.