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Essential boutiques, plus the best book, music and souvenir stores
Discover Japan’s endless diversity with our in-depth guide
March 31, Harajuku
March 30, Shinjuku
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Six years ago, something small happened in Koenji. Music aficionado Kazunori Taniguchi, along with his business partner Yoshimitsu Kitamura, decided that big isn't always better.
'I really liked the idea of having a collection of music that I could help people to discover. I thought that I could take it in my own direction,' says Taniguchi.
In the wake of epic music rental libraries like Tokyo's famed Janis chain, Taniguchi decided to follow a different approach by opening a select music shop that caters to the individual. Dubbing the shop Small Music, Taniguchi and Kitamura wanted to focus on 'music that matters'.
Unlike a retail shop or larger rental outlet, the Small Music's emphasis is on the individual experience of music. The eclectic, well-edited stock of compact discs and other music related material is an international mix that runs the gamut from rarer modern artists, folk, classics, to hip hop, Japanese indie, jazz, dub, and electronica.
'Every genre has a wide range of representation, and many different ways to express that,' says Taniguchi of the reasoning behind the tighter focus of offerings at Small Music.
The always evolving selection is organised in a more organic way, sometimes by record label, other times by genre or individual artist; looking through the shelves is like taking a modern musical history lesson filtered through an instinctual Venn diagram. Customers can find a cross-section of genres that span not only well-known individual artists and groups, but also lesser-known musical pioneers that gave way to acts that are famous today.
Taniguchi muses, 'The idea of wandering through, looking around you, and not just zeroing in on something specific can be a really enlightening experience when it comes to music. We want our customers to leave here with something new and unexpected each time they visit us.'
Oftentimes, the new and unexpected comes by way of the staff selections played in the shop. 'It's great when we have a disc on and someone asks us what's playing,' says Kitamura. 'You can tell we really caught someone's attention with the music, that the music struck a chord with them.'
The personal touch is especially evident in the carefully crafted comments written by the staff and attached to the cases, helping the customer to understand the artist's context and significance. 'If people can get a feel for the influences or time when a certain album came out, or even other artists or projects that are related to an artist or album, it really helps to flesh out the music for the listener', says Kitamura.
Don't let the packed shelves intimidate you, though. In contrast to other music outlets which thrive on the principal of specificity, Small Music is the perfect place for those who don't necessarily know what they're looking for.
Kitamura comments, 'People ask us to pick things out for them. We like to give suggestions according to ambience, atmosphere, mood, or what they'll be doing when they're listening. Once the staff gets to know a customer, then we can give suggestions that might take them in new directions.'
Taniguchi adds, 'Music isn't about listening to just one genre. It's not about only listening to, say, jazz. That would be like eating the same type of food all the time. For us, music is about having a little bit of everything. Maybe it's a Japanese breakfast, a French lunch, a Scandinavian dinner. Music is the same; you have to keep the palate sharp by trying what you've never had before'.
'We want people to come here and find themselves in a place where they can discover something new, find their own taste in music, and experience music they may not have heard before even if it's not new,' says Kitamura. 'Often, it's more about what's new to you.'
'The common denominator with everything we do here is music. Me, my partner, the staff, music is a basic element of our life. For our customers, they may all have different hobbies or interests, but the one thing that they all have in common is that they want to hear something new and different,' comments Taniguchi.
This approach has made Small Music a natural gathering place for those who already love music, or are looking to love more of it. 'People often bring their friends in, they stop by on their way home from work, they sit and have a listen at the listening table; we want it to be a bit of a hangout,' say Taniguchi and Kitamura.
With its cosy clubhouse atmosphere, the shop resembles something not unlike a childhood tree house. Nestled on the third floor of a building surrounded by unusually tall trees, and overlooking the calm courtyard of Hikawa shrine, Small Music is a sanctuary in which to escape from the generic pop-music and hectic, fast-paced bustle of Tokyo life.
Both Japanese and English are spoken, though all CD commentaries are in Japanese. English speaking staff is, when available, ready to help explain the commentaries and help make suggestions.
Written by JNGC