Tokyo as a bustling metropolitan is a place where the world’s weird, wondrous and wacky come together, somehow melding seamlessly with its strict traditions and centuries-old culture.
From the rise of Visual Kei bands in the 1980s (who doesn’t know X-JAPAN?) to every 90s teen favourite J-pop (long before the hallyu wave, mind you), Tokyo’s music scene has withstood the test of time, slowly evolving over the years to bring you a combination of sensorial adventures that only make sense because it’s Tokyo.
Thanks to the meticulous dedication of its residents, Tokyo offers an utterly mind-blowing, eye-opening experience for any music lover to enjoy.
1. Blow your mind with multisensory digital experiences
Combining music and visuals, multisensory experiences are the latest buzzword. See how the world of sound has evolved with the power of technology, brought to you by TeamLab, an “art collective of ultratechnologists who seek to navigate the confluence of art, science, technology, design and the natural world”. The result is nothing short of breathtaking; imagine scenes from James Cameron’s Avatar, now translated into real life.
TeamLab Borderless is a permanent museum located on the man-made island Odaiba, while TeamLab Planets in Toyosu (open through Autumn 2020) is a newer offering, where you walk barefoot through water as you gasp (inwardly) at the digital installations. A new TeamLab venture in Mifuneyama Park also just opened recently, boasting clusters of digital megaliths in an abandoned bath house, forging the connection between modern tech and traditional majesty.
If you’re looking for something fancy, take it one step further with a 12-course dinner at MoonFlower Sagaya, where you dine in a stunning digital world of interactive nature, thanks to artificial intelligence-controlled projections.
With artwork by teamLab and music by composer Hideaki Takahashi, you know you’re in for a treat. Watch as tiny birds flutter across the table, landing on your hand, only to fly away when you move suddenly.
2. Hit up one of many vinyl bars for drinks and tunes
One can never run out of choices when in Tokyo. Audiophiles with a soft spot for vinyl will feel completely at home in any of the many listening bars around town, and mark our words – although the choice of the word “many” is an understatement.
Check out Bar Martha in Ebisu (pictured), JBS Bar in Shibuya or Upstairs Records & Bar in Shimokitazawa, and kick back with craft beer or umeshu in hand while you enjoy the ambience, surrounded by sweet tunes straight from the turntable.
3. Play the Yayoi Kusama piano for free 202m above ground
Covered in an eccentric black-and-yellow polka dot motif that is unmistakably Yayoi Kusama’s handiwork, the Tocho Omoide piano sits in the South Observatory, on the 45th floor of the Tokyo metropolitan government’s main building at the South Observatory. Meaning “memory piano”, the piano was donated by a Tokyoite last summer, and underwent a makeover by Japan’s most well-known avant garde artist, catapulting it into instant stardom.
As long as the observation deck is open, anyone can play the piano for free – no reservations needed – but you only have five minutes to show your mastery on the keys. For more information, check the official site page.
4. Feel the transformative power of your favourite music
Located in upscale Ginza, the KEF Music Gallery houses an extensive array of products by British sound system maker, KEF. Putting much thought into its products to deliver unbridled sound quality that is second to none, you’ll be awed by the crystal-clear renditions of your favourite tunes, brought to life by the brand’s best-selling speakers like the LSX.
If you’re always on the go, the Space One Wireless headphones will give you crisp, noise-free sound that replicates live performances, perfect for on-board movies or music without having to deal with fiddly headphones that get tangled up in all your blankets. Treat yourself to a special souvenir as a memento from your world explorations – this one will not disappoint.
5. Delve into the depths of Koenji’s underground music scene
Once the hub of Tokyo’s punk scene, the suburban Koenji is now a popular hangout for artists, musicians and creative. Less hipster than Shimokitazawa and less touristy than Roppongi, Koenji brings all underground music enthusiasts to the yard, and for good reason.
Twenty minutes out from the city centre of Tokyo, Koenji’s live music venues like Jirokichi, Muryoku Muzenji (located beneath the Koenji station’s train tracks) and 20,000 Den-Atsu (a new venue following the demise of original location 20,000V after a fire in 2009) host performances almost every night, delivering unpretentious, no-frills sessions that range anywhere between hard rock to percussion.
Here’s a tip – Arrive sometime during the middle of the day to explore the nooks and crannies of Koenji’s streets (there are lots of photo-worthy spots) before making your way to your preferred live music venue. Shows often start early around 7pm, so you’ll still be able to catch the subway back to the city afterwards.
Unique to Japan, the shamisen is a three-stringed traditional musical instrument, often used to accompany kabuki, puppet plays or folk songs. The taiko (or wadaiko), on the other hand, is a large drum that produces a sound similar to that of rumbling thunder, often performed in a group during festivals.
Don’t let language barriers get in the way of your music discovery; sign up for an introductory shamisen or taiko class with an English-speaking guide. Granted, it might be a tad touristy, but nothing beats the feeling of making sound come to life in your own hands.
If you’re feeling adventurous after the session, see how everything comes together as a whole by attending a kabuki performance – we recommend the majestic Kabukiza Theatre for its beautiful architecture and frequent shows.
7. Catch a concert starring the world’s most famous hologram
Neon blue hair, pigtails, and the voice of an angel… Hatsune Miku is a popstar who is loved by many all around the world, often performing in sell-out concerts to thousands of fans who know all her songs by heart. One guy in Japan even married her, and carries a plush toy in her likeness all around town.
Thing is, Hatsune Miku is not real – at least, from a scientific perspective. Originally created by Crypton Future Media as the face of a computer software that allowed users to generate their own music, which would then be performed by the virtual reality character, Miku.
As creepy as it may seem, what is intriguing is how and why a hologram like Miku has become so popular. Miku fan or not, if you're into anime, this is definitely something to add to your bucket list just for the experience.
8. Feast your eyes on over a thousand musical instruments
Located in the Shizuoka prefecture, one and a half hours away from Tokyo via shinkansen, the Hamamatsu Museum of Musical Instruments is not to be missed. For just 800 yen (approx. 8 USD), you get to see over 1,300 musical instruments from Asia, Oceania, Africa, America, Europe and Japan, and even listen to the sounds they make, either via a headphone stand or a superdirectional speaker.
What makes this museum special is that several times a day, the museum staff also perform live demonstrations on different instruments, and unlike most museums where all exhibits are cordoned off, you get to try some for yourself in the “hands-on room”.
Here’s an interesting factoid. Did you know that the Hamamatsu is the birthplace of renowned musical instrument brands, Yamaha, Roland and Kawai? It is also recognized as a UNESCO Creative City of Music, often hosting many music-related festivals, all the more reason to plan a visit to this coastal city.