Photos and words by Dane Walker
Sometimes you just have to be prepared to go to far-flung and hectic places to get what you want.
Like Puerto Escondido in Mexico for surf. To the ex-girlfriend’s house to grab your old doors vinyl. And to the middle of Tokyo to get a 52 re-issue fender telecaster.
When you think of Japan, there are certain things that are going to spring to mind. Like sushi, karaoke and hopefully single malt whisky. Or maybe just crazy Japanese paraphernalia that normally won’t make it back into the country on the return trip. But what I discovered on a recent trip to Tokyo was that the curiously unassuming precinct of Ochanomizu, actually offers one of the greatest, largest and rarest selection of guitars on the planet.
Ochanomizu is home to Japan’s one-and-only Guitar Street. Or gi-ta su-to-ri-to, which is exactly how you’ll need to say if you ask any of the locals to point you in the right direction.When I eventually found Guitar Street, I realised a more apt name for it would be Guitar Heaven.
If you’re picturing something similar to the Crossing of the Red Sea, but instead of a parted sea, it’s more a 10-story-high facade of uninterrupted guitar mega-stores that rise up to engulf either side of a whack-ass street, well … congratulations. You’ve nailed it.
I had arrived.
The very first store I ventured into had an Antique Cherry Brian May custom, a very rare Stevie Ray Vaughan Hamiltone, and a Steve Vai Signature Ibanez on display. All in the front window. No big deal. Inside, thousands of guitars – Fenders, Gibsons, Martins, Rickenbackers, Gretschs, acoustics – each namesake with its own dedicated level. Walls stacked floor to ceiling, layered two guitars deep for as far as the eyes could see.
First stop for me was the Fenders. And it was the holy grail of Fenders at that. In stock was every model and colour imaginable. Sunburst, gold, red, white, yellow, paisley, black. Hendrix models, Stevie Ray Vaughan models, Eric Clapton models, re-issues and many originals from the 1950s and 60s. Fender Japan. Fender USA. Whatever. You name it, they had it.
“BUT FOR ROUGHLY 370 BUCKS YOU WOULD SCORE A BRAND NEW SUNBURST FENDER STRATOCASTER, MADE IN JAPAN. I’M PRETTY SURE MY KNEES BUCKLED AT THAT POINT”
The guitars didn’t just look sharp, either – the overall quality of the Japanese models was the best I’d ever seen. Unbelievably, they were insanely cheap too. Prices ranged anywhere from $300 up to a few thousand dollars. But for roughly 370 bucks you would score a brand new Sunburst Fender Stratocaster, made in Japan. I’m pretty sure my knees buckled at that point.
I asked to have a play of a Sunburst Fender Stratocaster with Texas Special pickups, a long-time favourite of mine. They plugged me into an old Fender Twin Reverb amp and cranked it. It sounded smooth, and gave out a thick, heavy blues sound. Could have played it all day but more guitars were calling out to me. Many more.
On to the best of the Gretsch. The standout was a captivatingly gorgeous Gretsch White Falcon, complete with gold hardware and a Bigsby tremolo. I was itching to get my hands on her but knew I wouldn’t do her any justice. Most notable mention though goes to the Gretsch Billy Bo, an update of Bo Diddley’s legendary box-shaped axe, designed by ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons.
I make my way up to Gibson level, still trying to recuperate from the first two levels. (We’re still in the first store, mind you. You might say I’ve got a weak spot for Gibson Les Paul’s. They really do it for me. I love the design, the finishes and the warm, thick sound they produce. So imagine the shocked look on my face when I was greeted with hundreds of them.
My favourite of the bunch was a Gibson Les Paul Supreme. Not cheap at about $3000, but still a helluva lot cheaper than back home. There were also whole quarters purely for Gibson Flying Vs and rooms dedicated to Gibson hollow bodied guitars. And if you’re more into, say, that discreet double-necked beast that Jimmy Page once tickled, of course they had that too.
But it was time for business. I was there to get me a sweet 52 re-issue Fender Telecaster (one of the most iconic guitars in rock ’n’ roll history).Out of all the stores in Ochanomizu (trust me, I went to them all), I found the best deal at a mega-store called Shimokura. The store’s so big, they have a part one, two and three which are located across the road.
Of course, they had my beautiful, blonde 52 Fender re-issue Telecaster in stock – well 6 of them. Along with my sweet guitar, they threw in a free Fender soft case and a practice amp – all for $650. Plus, they’ll take off tax for tourists if you’ve got your passport handy. And if it happens to be raining, they’ll be happy to fashion a raincoat for the guitar on your way out. Legends.
Whether you’re after the timeless Rickenbacker 360 (a 12-string used by George Harrison), or my personal favourite: the 52 re-issue Fender Telecaster, you can be sure Ochanomizu is going to deliver.
Not hitting up Tokyo anytime soon? Shimokura does have a decent online store but a fair warning: it’s in Japanese. Like, lot’s of Japanese. So get yourself a translator. Or just click on a picture of something that looks like a guitar, and then click on something that looks like a shopping trolley. You should be good to go.
*Ochanomizu isn’t really as much far-flung as it is one-stop from Akihabara, which is firmly on the trodden Tokyo tourist path. But after sitting on a cramped Airbus for 10-plus hours from Melbourne, I’d call it quite the trek.