On my second day here my wife and I went guitar shopping in Ochanomizu, which has clearly become Tokyo's guitar store area. If that sounds oddly specific, well, this area's apparently used to that - a few years back, the same neighborhood was known as Tokyo's ski shop area. Some of those same shops are now guitar stores. My wife says there are a couple universities around so it's always been a very fad-based neighborhood, and right now a lot of Japanese want to learn to play guitar because of various pop bands that have started featuring instruments and made it seem like anybody can do it. (Almost every store had giant AKB48 displays, for example, which is ridiculous!)
Which is not to say that all of these stores are new or that nobody ever wanted to seriously learn to play here before. But playing guitar here is now trendy again and that's allowed a few new shops to open up, which makes it feel like the area's just been overrun by cheap guitars and budding musicians.
About a dozen guitar stores line the street just outside the Ochanomizu train station - you can't miss them.
I went looking for one specific guitar, which I knew I'd buy on sight if I found one:
Graffiti yellow Fender Cyclone. I figured I had a shot since Kimura Kaela used to play one, so these would have been very popular here a few years back. I've wanted one for a long time.
Unfortunately, no dice. Though I did see various cheap copies of it. (And it's already a cheap guitar!)
Here are a few photos of the outside of some of the stores we went in:
Different stores focus on different things. All of them have way more variety than any American guitar store. Greco, Tokai, Fernandes, Ibanez, plus super-cheap brands that just make copies of famous guitars like Edwards and G.I.G. are given pretty much equal billing with the "big two". Gretsch and Rickenbacker are also a lot more prominent than in the US.
Incidentally, those of you who know Ishibashi Music from their Ebay store, U-Box used outlet or just their English web site, their main shop and head office is on this street (though the Shibuya store is bigger).
There is one particular store - and sorry, I don't remember which one - that has a large selection of Japanese Fender offset guitars. Mustangs (actually popular in every shop), Jazzmasters and Jaguars, including a discounted Jazzmaster in Seafoam Green with matching headstock that I came very close to buying (and I might go back!). It has a tiny, tiny chip in the finish on top of the headstock - the kind of thing anyone would do themselves the first day they got the thing home - and for that reason they had taken about $150 off the price!
The big problem with buying a guitar at one of these stores is obviously how to get it home. You can bring it, but that's dangerous (to the guitar) and inconvenient, or you can ship it, but that's expensive. If not for that, I'd probably have bought that SFG Jazzmaster. The Cyclone is cheaper, smaller and lighter and uncommon enough that I'd have just figured it out, but I already have a Jazzmaster so spending the money on one and lugging it around just because it's a different color than the one I have just seemed a little too much. But it was tempting!
A little tip: if you buy a guitar with a bolt-on neck, you can take it apart, wrap it in bubble wrap and just stick it in a suitcase. If you pack it well, it should be fine, and you don't need a flight case.
One side note. One of the best used guitar stores we found was not actually a guitar store and it was not even in Tokyo - it was the Book Off "Super Bazaar" in a little town outside of Nagoya (more on that later). They had a bunch of old American guitars mixed in with newer Japanese ones, all in what amounts to a big thrift store.
I also almost bought this 1978 Mustang:
And this was a little funny - some of the tags attached to some of the guitars were labeled like this:
According to the text in the top right, this guitar, along with a bunch of others they sell, is apparently "junk".
A little update on this - Book*Off now has moved most of their guitars to their "Hard*Off" stores - look for them, they're great.