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Japan Underground’s Tom Smith on how to rock and roll all nite in Tokyo

There are plenty of things to do during the day in Tokyo; from the trip out to the Ghibli Museum, to meeting your anime and manga needs in Akihabara, to window shopping in Harajuku, to visiting temples and the usual guidebook activites – but what happens when the sun sets, the tourist attractions shut their gates and the shops close for the day? It was a problem that I had faced several times myself. I wanted to see bands playing live music, experience local pubs and bar culture, and not get back to my hotel until it was light. Now, my nights in the city are as busy, if not busier, than my days. Here’s a quick look at some of the night hotspots worth hitting for music fans.

If it’s clubs you’re after, don’t go expecting the same kind of experience found in the UK (but do expect plenty of drunkards passed out at the station awaiting the first train home). Firstly, dancing after midnight is forbidden by law in Japan (seriously), which might explain the distinct lack of big clubs in the capital despite having a population upwards of 13 million.

There are places that offer that ‘big club’ experience (try ageHa in East Tokyo or Womb in Shubuya – and avoid Gasspanic where possible) but mostly the venues offer a smaller and more intimate experience.

For example, I recently caught a DJ set from Yasutaka Nakata – the man behind Jpop legends Perfume, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and Capsule – in a tiny place called Air, hidden down a residential Shibuya street. It had three floors, the main holding no more than 250 at a push, and had a fully functioning restaurant on the ground floor that served proper meals all night. Another techno club I went to had a traditional tearoom directly above the DJ-booth, only accessible by a rickety ladder. As I said, a very different experience.

One of my main reasons for travelling to Japan is to quench my thirst for the country’s rock music, and if I’m in Tokyo you’ll probably find me somewhere within the vicinity of the Tousen Udagawa Building (map), a 5-10 minute walk north of Shibuya Station. You’ll known when you’ve found it by the amount of teenage rockers sprawled across the street and in the nearby convenience store, stocking up on cheap booze to cheekily sneak inside a venue with them.

The towerblock is an indie-music heaven and houses floor after floor of live houses. In the basement you’ll find Chelsea Hotel (which is neither a hotel, nor is it in Chelsea) with Star Lounge on the ground floor, The Game above it, and my favourite venue Milkyway above that – my favourite because it offers three choices of unlimited drink wrist bands, two of which include unlimited alcohol for a couple of thousand yen. Bargain!

Between the above venues, you’re guaranteed to find a show to satisfy your need to rock. But be warned, gigs in Japan ain’t cheap. Average entry is between 2-4000 yen (around £15-20), regardless of how famous the bands are. Doors are also early, with most shows opening just after five and kicking people out before 10pm. And don’t expect the most famous band to headline either. Often visiting bands from outside of Tokyo will have the ‘headline’ slot. One show I went to had the biggest band of the night on first. At 3pm. Suffice to say, I missed them entirely.

Your night doesn’t have to end after a gig. Just around the corner are two of the best rock bars I’ve visited in Japan; Bar Rockaholic, and Bar Rock no Cocoro – the latter boasts free wifi while the former (whose barman is pictured above, with a GazettE thing going on) encourages guests to requests songs and sing along over shots of tequila. Both places open in the early evening and remain open until around 5 or 6am depending on demand. If you’re lucky you might even spot the odd famous musician making an appearance too. Last time I was in Tokyo I managed to bump into the vocalist of SiM as well as the guitarist of THE KIDDIE in two separate bars on the same night.

You can get a guided tour of the area courtesy Gackt’s video to Graffitti, found below. The full version has the singer fighting yankiis outside of Bar Rockaholick, as well as riding off into the sunset in a horse ‘parked’ behind Bar Rock no Cocoro. Here, in the shortened version, he croons to a drunk salaryman and dances with excited band girls outside of Chelsea Hotel:

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It’s also worth mentioning Bar Come On Rock if you find yourself near Shibuya’s major music venues Shibya O-East, O-West and Club Asia (and it’s love hotel district). I’m pretty sure the owner of the bar has a secret identity as a member of a certain masked-band, and if you look to the walls you’ll find all sorts of musical celebrities have drank there. Plus, every night is free entry and certain events there feature unlimited drinks for lady-folk for a mere one thousand yen. The same price as a vodka-Red Bull! Sometimes I wish I were a girl…

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