Visiting the Tokyo Tower Records Is Like Stepping Into a Time Machine

The outside of Tower Records in Tokyo
The outside of Tower Records in Tokyo
Chaz Kangas

Two weeks ago, I penned a tribute to beloved music chain Tower Records. It was the 10th anniversary of its closing, which was coincidentally coinciding with my first ever visit to Tokyo where one of the few remaining active Tower Records was still standing. We were pretty overwhelmed by the feedback, seeing everything from classic behind-the-register tales kickstarting a career in music to commemorative Tower Records tattoos. Thus, for those of you who have yet to make the trip out to Japan to check it out, I’m happy to report the euphoria that awaits.

Does that sound hyperbolic for a record store? If it does, you probably weren’t there. Seriously though, it can’t be overstated what Tower Records meant to a few generations of music lovers, especially those of us with a sentimental affection for purchasing physical media. It was a destination to be immersed in familiar sounds with the always present promise of new favorites just around the corner. There were music stores before and since, but Tower felt like a skyscraper of music literally towering over us. It was special.

Visiting the Tokyo Tower Records Is Like Stepping Into a Time Machine
Chaz Kangas

So special, that I remember my last time walking out of that West 4th and Broadway, New York Tower Records the last time I was inside one that cold December week in 2006. I even recall a few days later on the way to the airport home for Christmas, having the taxi driver taking me to the airport deliberately pass it so I could witness it still full of vibrant energy one more time. For as much as memories fade with age, those neon red lights have remained vibrant.

It’s amazing what feelings lay dormant inside us until a familiar reality stirs them up again. So much so that when I saw the giant Tower Records sign peek out over the skyline in Shibuya, my heart began skipping beats like an over-excited turntable. It was real. For the first time in a decade, I was five blocks away from a functioning Tower Records. I tried to keep myself in-check with the alleged responsible “Adult” thing of keeping in mind that I’m not 18 anymore, a decade had past, and while the logo and the colors were the same, I was entering a location in an entirely different country/culture I hadn’t even been in for 24 hours at that point.

Visiting the Tokyo Tower Records Is Like Stepping Into a Time Machine
Chaz Kangas

Of course, that last bit was entirely unnecessary as stepping inside it was in every way imaginable like getting right back in-step with a friend I hadn’t seen in forever. While all Tower Records, even during their North American existence, were laid out differently, I felt I knew enough about their general location to have this second nature of working my way effortlessly around the store. Of course there were all the excellent local Tokyo elements added (a New Japan Pro Wrestling display just in time for Wrestle Kingdom 11 at the nearby Tokyo Dome, but with the unique hybrid promotional tie-in play on Tower’s slogan of “No NJPW, No Life”) but the overall vibe was unmistakably, uncompromisingly Tower.

I mentioned in the Tower memoriam post how the American Tower Records locations would allow national access to regional music acts. I’m proud to say this Shibuya Tower does the same, as I was pleasantly surprised to find releases from indieground/underground artists not just all over Japan, but from scene in New York, L.A. and Minneapolis as well. Seeing artists on store shelves who I knew personally gave me the same feeling it did when it first happened at a Tower in 2004, making the world a much bigger and much smaller place at the same time. 

Also echoing in the finest of Tower traditions was how knowledgable the staff was. While English was their second language, they still managed to weave suggestions and kick knowledge to me, being polite, helpful and remaining untouchably cool. This also goes for the top floor at the one innovation the American Towers I went to never had: a full cafe/restaurant.

Being a Minnesotan, I was also pretty thrilled to see all the Prince tributes they had throughout the store, from the endcaps to the books. I picked up a live album of Prince’s 1990 Tokyo Dome performance which I’d never seen on CD before. I also purchased a few gifts for my friends back home with whom I’d made so many Tower Records memories with growing up.

For the last hours of a not so great year, I couldn’t have picked a better place to begin my 2017 transition than the Tokyo Tower Records. It wasn’t so much a nostalgic experience as, for this location, the Tower Records experience never went away. The thrill of music and media was still vibrant and thriving, with the community aspect of such a shared passion crossing all language barriers. Anyone whose ever smiled at seeing the words “No Music, No Life” should make the pilgrimage, or at least find a certain warmth in the knowledge that their Tower still stands.


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