Ochanomizu: Distinctive Town in Tune with Musical Instruments in Tokyo

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Visitors try out guitars at a music store near Ochanomizu Station on March 15.

Hop off the train at JR Ochanomizu Station in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, pass through the ticket gate to come out on the main street and there is immediately a line of musical instrument stores there to greet visitors. Most of the locations sell electric and acoustic guitars, while some specialize in wind instruments and violins.

There are more than 40 musical instrument stores huddled in the area — a rare phenomenon in such close proximity, not only unique in Japan but also on the global landscape. I dug into the history of the area to discover how and why it started.

When I visited the area on the evening of March 21, a national holiday, it was bustling with musical instrument lovers, including students and folks from overseas.

Chiharu Koike, 13, and her younger sister Minami, 11, from Abiko, Chiba Prefecture, were among the visitors. Their father Atsushi, 50, accompanied the two as they hunted for musical instruments they wanted to purchase.

Influenced by the anime “Bocchi the Rock!” which depicts the lives of members of a high school girl band as they grow up together, the sisters planned to buy a guitar and bass guitar.

The girls finally found the instruments of their choice and got their father to make the purchase.

They looked delighted, each saying they wanted to work hard to play well.

“We came to Ochanomizu because I was sure it was the right place. I felt the store clerks here would be more knowledgeable compared to other areas,” their father said with a sense of satisfaction.

Today, Ochanomizu is a town of musical instruments that attracts many visitors.

That being the case, what was it like in the past?

During the Edo period (1603-1867), it was packed with residences of hatamoto (direct retainers of the Tokugawa shogunate), according to Tomomi Takagi, curator of Chiyoda Ward’s cultural promotion department.

When Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun in the Edo period, handed down his post to his son Hidetada and moved from Edo (now Tokyo) to Suruga (currently part of Shizuoka Prefecture), hatamoto retainers also moved with him.

After Ieyasu’s death, the retainers returned to Edo and took up residence in the area near the current JR Ochanomizu Station, which was close to Edo Castle and offered a view of Mt. Fuji.

During the early years of the Meiji era (1868-1912) after a new government headed by Emperor Meiji took its place, hatamoto retainers chose various paths and moved to live in other places, which increased the number of vacant houses in the area.

Instead, universities became the center of the area’s redevelopment projects, with the opening of the present-day Meiji University in 1886 and what is now Nihon University School of Dentistry in 1921.

A railroad stop, which later became JR Ochanomizu Station, opened in 1904.

Said Takagi: “The current popularity of Ochanomizu was brought about by its transformation into a town for students. It was the turning point for this area.”

I also interviewed Hiroshi Iwata, president of Taniguchi Gakki, which is a long-established music store that has been in business since before World War II.

The store, which sells accordions and other instruments, was founded in 1935 in the Asakusa district. It was moved to a location near Meiji University in 1941 because the founder wanted to do business in Ochanomizu, where there was a large number of students.

After the war ended, many musical instruments were sold by the Allied Occupation forces to the private sector, which increased the selection of store items.

In the 1950s, the “singing movement” to call for peace by singing songs together in offices and other places picked up momentum. These circumstances contributed to a boost in sales of musical instruments.

Another store with a long history there said some general merchandise shops started selling musical instruments to take advantage of the boom at that time.

Because of the electric guitar craze in the 1960s and the following rise in popularity of modern folk music in the 1970s, the number of stores in the area gradually increased. Ochanomizu became a popular destination during the New Year season for students who wanted to purchase musical instruments using “otoshidama” cash gifts they received during the holiday season.

In the 1990s, the number of music stores in the area dramatically spiked amid the huge wave of visual-kei bands, which are rock groups that express their aesthetic world through makeup and costume. Because of this boom, “Ochanomizu” became a brand name, further accelerating the opening of new stores.

Although an increased number of similar stores in close proximity normally leads to price-cutting competition, stores in Ochanomizu have each managed to survive by being unique. For example, some specialize in ukuleles, while others focus on vintage guitars.

Iwata stressed the charm of the area, saying: “Here in Ochanomizu, you can see a variety of instruments at one time by visiting the multitude of stores. That is why Ochanomizu is so highly regarded both in Japan and abroad.”

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Ryudo Uzaki shares his memories of the area near Ochanomizu Station.

Developing as a music area

Ryudo Uzaki, 77, a popular musician and Meiji University graduate, became passionate about playing jazz because of a trumpet he bought at a store near Ochanomizu Station when he was a member of a music club at university.

“In the 1960s, there were not yet many music stores in Ochanomizu, but there were cafes featuring jazz and classical music,” he recalled about his student days. “The area already had the feel of a music town.”

At the time, he did not have equipment to record and reproduce melodies, so he frequented the jazz cafe, each time requesting many music pieces, and frantically transcribing them onto sheet music.

After becoming a professional musician, he did not have many opportunities to visit the area. However, after 2000, he became president of an alumni organization of the music club, and that led him to organize an annual jazz event at a hall of the university.

He has made efforts to promote the area through music, including being involved in the formation of a federation of local music stores and others.

“I want to make Ochanomizu like New Orleans, where we hear the sounds of guitars and trumpets everywhere,” he said with a smile from ear to ear.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
An area filled with music stores near JR Ochanomizu Station in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, attracts many visitors on March 19.