Shopping for Jazz in Japan: A Photo Essay

Aaron Gilbreath
5 min readJan 6, 2020

It’s nice to visit a country that appreciates vintage music that America largely neglects, and to find so many killer old albums still in print.

Disc Union jazz basement store, Shibuya, Tokyo 2014. Photo by author

Japan is one of the largest consumers of jazz in the world. Jazz plays everywhere from department stores to kimono stores, and albums long out-of-print remain in print there, often carefully remastered and pressed on thick, quality vinyl. Collectors flock to Japan from all over the world, and locals paw through bins with a lightning fast, systematic efficiency.

I’m a huge fan of Hard Bop and Be-Bop. When I visited Tokyo and Kyoto in 2014, I made a list of record stores to visit. They blew me away. In America, jazz seems to be mostly music for older white guys. In Japan, middle-aged salarymen shop alongside young female executives and the sorts of stylish urbanites you’d expect to only listen to indie rock, and even the smallest store crams its shelves with an astounding number of jazz books and magazines.

Tower Records in Shibuya devotes its sixth floor to jazz, while nearby Disk Union keeps theirs in a windowless basement below the busy street. In Shimokitazawa, owner Koya Abe sips beer and plays Charlie Parker amid the used vinyl in his charmingly cramped Noah Lewis Records.

Although I couldn’t afford a fraction of I wanted, I bought tons of great stuff, including a live Jazz Messengers album I didn’t know existed and a bunch of albums out of print in the US. Rather than a valuable haul, I wanted experience. Japan gave me that. We tell ourselves we’ll never forget our most powerful travel experiences, but time chews holes in our memories. These photos remind me that I was there.

Disk Union, Shibuya

Aaron Gilbreath

Essayist, Journalist, Burritoist. Longreads Editor. Writing: Harper’s, NYT, Slate, Paris Review, VQR, Oxford American, Kenyon Review. 3 nonfiction books.