November 22, 2018

Clubbing in Tokyo

Tokyo is home to an epic nightlife scene. Alas, it can be quite overwhelming to navigate all of the venues and genres so refer to this guide.

People party at ageHa which used to be the biggest club in Tokyo as well as Asia

Well, everyone, I’m unfortunately grounded for the time being and not able to travel. As anyone who follows me on social media already knows, I was recently thrown from my bicycle while cycling in Okayama Prefecture and broke both my elbow and my shoulder. Yikes! While I am certainly on the mend already following reconstructive surgery, this presents a bit of a problem in regards to my weekly articles. Thankfully though, I have more than enough content trapped in my dense noggin to tide us over until I am fit for the road again. On that note, today we will be looking at a topic that is near and dear to my heart, clubbing in Japan. Most of you are likely unaware of my life before travel but for a good five years or so, I was DJing weekly at Tokyo’s top clubs. As such, I know all the ins and outs of the scene far better than most.

Anyway, to kick things off let’s begin by examining what sets the Tokyo nightlife scene apart from the rest of the world. Unlike some other major cities in Asia, clubbing in Tokyo has an extensive history. There are venues which have been in operation since the 90’s and some of the earliest stars in house and techno music came from Japan. Moreover, several big European trance acts broke into the DJ/performance scene via Tokyo. Over the decades, the city’s party scene has had its share of ups and downs as well as drastic changes. For example, you may recall headlines about Japan’s so-called no dancinglaws circulating a few years back. The sudden enforcement of these arcane laws from the 50’s wrought havoc on the entire industry back in 2011 but, like my busted arm, it is making a strong recovery.

Now, as one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world, Tokyo certainly has no shortage of places to party. This presents a bit of a problem though. You see, amongst the vast concrete cityscape, it’s hard to tell where one should even begin to look, let alone how make the right choice from seemingly countless options. To make matter worse, accurate English language resources on Tokyo’s nightlife scene are limited and oftentimes outdated. Moreover, when available, they are almost always heavily biased or simply inaccurate. Part of this deficit is due to a lack of understanding about how the local music scene works. That said, perhaps an even bigger factor is the extremely rapid rate in which venues pop up only to later disappear or change their branding.

Before getting into the specifics, first allow me to explain what differentiates the various types of venues found in Tokyo. Knowing how to tell these apart can help you make the right decision when deciding where to party. Put simply, the main options you will encounter can be divvied up into clubs, discos, and DJ bars. From a foreign perspective, it may be hard to discern the nuance between these three modalities but there are key differences within each experiences. For example, clubs tend to be more focused on the music itself. They generally have a large dance floor and very few tables or chairs. Most clubs do not have a resident DJ but rather have different sets of performers each night. Some clubs are open only on Friday and Saturday while others may open a limited section of the venue during weekdays. In general, men and women pay the same entrance fee for clubs.

In contrast to clubs, what the Japanese call “discos” are a very different beast all together. Not to be confused with the genre of music from the 70’s, discos are a venue that superficially resemble clubs. The vibe inside, however, is totally different. Generally speaking, patrons visit clubs to savor the music; on the other hand, folks who frequent discos are typically looking to meet someone of the opposite sex or to just have a night out on the town. While discos have a dance floor, it tends to be reduced in size in favor of more tables and VIP seats. Unlike clubs, they may have strict dress codes and especially so for men. The entrance fees for men and women may also be vastly different. Lately, there has been an increasing overlap between clubs and discos as EDM culture has become mainstream but only a few venues are able to get the formula right.

Rounding out our trio of venues, we have DJ bars. As the name suggests, these are by definition bars that have a DJ spinning. Generally speaking, most of these establishments lean towards the house or techno genre. That said, if you look hard enough and do a bit of digging in Google, you can find DJ bars that cater to fans of Hip-hop, Psytrance, Drum n’ Bass, and other niche domains. Some DJ bars have small dance floors but don’t go expecting anything too spacious. After all, most of these venues are independently owned businesses that are barely keeping their heads above water. They simply don’t have the massive budgets that fund the clubs and discos. While some DJ bars require no entrance fee, those that do will likely be much cheaper than bigger venues.

Before moving on, know there is one category I am purposely omitting, the so-called “Gaijin clubs.” These venues cater to obnoxious foreign travelers and bottom-of-the-barbell, washed up expats. While the ample support for English-only speakers can be tempting at first, they tend to be more like Mos Eisley’s cantina, wretched hives of scum and villainy. Unless you’re clamoring for a night that you’ll later regret (in every sense of the word), avoid this scene at all cost. Most of these clubs are located in the Roppongi area and are easily identifiable by the sleazy touts standing outside.

Tokyo’s Clubs by the Genre

People party to electronic dance music at a club in Tokyo

Let’s get on to the good stuff seeing we just defined the various venues. What follows is a general outline of where to party based on your musical taste. I’ve divided things by genre to make it easier to skim but eclectic connoisseurs would do well to read the entire piece.

Techno and House
Despite their distinct differences, techno and house parties can often be found at the same venues. Shibuya’s WOMB was once Tokyo’s cherished bastion of underground music and especially so when it came to minimal and techno. However, that crown is long gone as the venue has transitioned to mostly commercial in recent years. One or two nights a month, they will still host a house or techno event but that’s about it.

For clubs, the best places to find quality house and techno are Circus Tokyo, Vent, and Contact. There are also a number of small to mid-sized venues which host quality house and techno events, including Solfa in Nakameguro, and Zero in Aoyama. If you are particularly into house music and other underground styles such as club jazz, disco, funk, and rare groove, a visit to The Room is a must. This tiny Shibuya venue is one of Tokyo’s oldest venues in continuous operation. The Room has been in business since the early 90’s and is presided over by Kyoto Jazz Massive’s Shuya Okino. On some nights, they also host live music. Generally, weekday operations wrap before the last train while weekend events tend to run VERY late.

Trance
Despite being one of the most popular music genres in Tokyo during its early days, trance sadly does not have a dedicated venue anymore. Trance events tend to be scattered throughout the city but there are a several venues which you should always check for trance events. The most obvious one to check first was ageHa but it closed. They typically hosted a large trance event at least once every few months and sometimes more frequently. A few times a year, they also held trance classics events with crowds that sometimes reached well over 4,000 people!

Since ageHa closed, there is also a trance event called C.O.T. (Church of Trance). It often shifts venues based on its capacity needs and schedule but you can often find it hosted at Solfa in Nakameguro. C.O.T. is quite special in that it brings big-name international trance acts to very intimate Tokyo venues. The local line-up is always stellar as well. If none of these work for your travel schedule, you can also find trance parties in some rather odd hours/locations as well. Nagomix in Shibuya is a venue that only hosts “day” events, many of which are trance. They tend to finish by around 8:00 PM. Club Six in Roppongi and Diana in Hibiya usually operate as discos, but once a week they hold trance nights. On occasion, R Lounge in Shibuya also hosts trance or psytrance parties.

Commercial Music
Pretty much every disco out there plays a similar selection of familiar commercial hits. Seeing as some venues ride a fine line between disco and club, it can be hard to tell which is which. Venues Camelot and 1Oak are both discos but feel much like a disco/club hybrid. Camelot in particular does this formula quite well and its 3 floors of music keep things interesting. TK Shibuya, V2 Tokyo, Diana and…well…pretty much all establishments in Roppongi fall under the disco style category.

These types of establishments are NOT the kind of places that I would recommend to a hardcore clubber. They are good for casual clubbers (especially as groups of friends), revelers who want table/bottle service, and people looking to meet someone of the opposite sex. Their glitzy nature can also make them good spots to celebrate a birthday or a special occasion.

Drum n’ Bass
Believe it or not, Tokyo has a solid following for drum n’ bass, and some VERY long-running DnB events. Drum n’ Bass Sessions, held a few times a year at
Daikanyama’s UNIT, has been running for over 20 years. 06S, held every first Saturday at WOMB in Shibuya, has been going for over a decade and a half. Additionally, thanks to a new generation of DnB DJs, cozy, small-scale drum n’ bass parties have popped up all over the place. Check the schedules of Fai and Zero in Aoyama or HeavySick in Nakano. Both veterans and young blood alike host more intimate DnB parties at these places.

Hardstyle & Hard Dance
A genre that was previously very popular in Japan, hard dance and hardstyle no longer have dedicated regular venues. However, due to the efforts of Japan’s own hard dance legend Yoji Biomehanika, some of Tokyo’s biggest venues do host the occasional event for hard sounds. ageHa used to host its “ageHard” event for all kinds of harder sounding music. Sound Museum Vision occasionally holds hardstyle events. Smaller events for harder sounds can be found in places like R Lounge. Sometimes “daytime” hardstyle events will pop up at venues like WOMB too so keep an eye on the schedule!

Hip-hop
The good news for hip-hop lovers is that most venues that play commercial music will have a good helping of hip-hop in the mix. The bad news? It can be hard to find places playing pure hip-hop nowadays. Harlem in Shibuya or 1Oak in Azabu Juban will be your best bets. Alternatively, R Lounge hosts a lot of hip-hop events as well. If you are more purist or old-school in your tastes, there are some underground alternatives in Tokyo but this isn’t a space that I know particularly well.

Tokyo Clubbing Tips

A DJ by the name of Tha Boogie Bandit plays electronic dance music at ageHa, a club that was once the biggest in Tokyo

To close this piece, let’s talk about some tips to avoid hassles and save money. For starters, you can sometimes find discounts for events by checking on iFlyer or Resident Advisor. iFlyer is Japan’s long-running alternative to Resident Advisor, and some events will list on one platform and not the other. It’s best to check both when you’re looking for somewhere to go. Commercial venues aside, most clubs change up their line-up and music each night. It’s near impossible to know what to expect at any given venue without first looking up the details.

Of course, the best way to get a fat discount on a club entrance fee is to get on a DJ’s discount list. Honestly, this is not all that hard to do at all. Check the event info and look at the names of the DJs on the support lineup (NOT the guest DJs). Try to find them on Twitter or Facebook and send them a message or comment. Usually it’s that easy! Just be sure to do it early enough to ensure that they see your message in time. By the way, if you can’t find anyone, shoot me a message on social media and I’ll hook you up with some of my old DJ friends if they are playing.

Anyway, moving right along, for discos, the best way to get cheap entry is to hold onto those flyers the club staff hand out around town. You can find them passing out flyers at night in busy areas of Shibuya and Roppongi. The flyers typically have some decent coupons attached. Some flyers even offer free entry for foreigners or free entry before a certain hour.

To avoid hassles at club entrances, make sure you aren’t bringing in any large bags. Leave those oversized backpacks at the hotel. Also keep in mind that most venues will NOT allow you to snap photograph inside the club and they certainly won’t let you bring in outside food or drinks. Finish drinks before entering and check any cameras or bulky bags/coats into the cloak service or lockers. Almost every club has these available. Oh, and DO NOT try to bring in drugs. Clubs in Tokyo will call the police on you if they catch you trying to bring drugs into the venue. It’s not worth the risk unless you want to spend decades in jail.

Moving on, while this is common sense, most nightlight options prohibit forcible nampa.” Take note, self-acclaimed Don Juans, this means NO aggressive pickup is allowed. You can be thrown out of a club if your pursuit of someone is clearly causing them to feel uncomfortable or if they complain to the staff. At most venues, you will not see people getting intimate on the dance floor let alone even making much physical contact while dancing. Trying to grind up on someone while dancing is likely just going to be embarrassing and awkward for them and for you as well when they make their escape! Save physical contact for your alone time rather than at the club.

Lastly, do remember to control both your liquor consumption and your temper. Nothing makes every other foreigner within a 5 mile radius collectively facepalm faster than when a non-Japanese fellow gets drunkenly out of control and kicked out of a club or bar. In particularly bad cases, you may even end up at the police station. That’s NOT how you want to end what was suppose to be a fun night out. Bar brawls and club fights are rare in Japan but if you have any problems whatsoever notify a staff or security right away. Many of the big venues have staff who speak some English so don’t hesitate to ask for help if you need it.