You're going to a music show in Tokyo. You wonder what the venue is like. You've come to the right place.
This post is about Tokyo's music clubs, which are called live houses. There's an incredible number of them—everything from huge venues that house thousands of people, to two speaker holes-in-the-wall. They are mainly located in the big shopping districts—Shibuya, Shinjuku and Shimokitazawa—but some are in quieter areas too. This post lists the main live houses, and the interesting smaller clubs and cafes. It's not a complete listing; some places I've neglected to mention because I forgot to, or didn't know the place, or didn't like it. Let me know if you think I should add any clubs.
NOTE: Directions to these clubs can be found in Tokyo Gig Guide. Tokyo Damage Report also has a list of punk clubs and other weird venues. I also wrote in the past about how to go to these clubs.
O-Nest: The O-Nest is probably Tokyo's most exciting live house now. It's a small venue that attracts artists that are innovative and accessible but haven't hit the big time yet (Spangle call Lilli line would be one example). O-Nest is also well designed: it has separate stage and bar floors connected by a stairwell overlooking Shibuya's love hotels, and it's one of the few live houses that lets you leave the club and re-enter it later. But though it's a good club I've found one strange thing about the O-Nest, which is it seems to have a high incidence of shows that look good on paper that end up being duds. I've probably left in the middle of more gigs here than anywhere else. Maybe that's a result of their hosting many new bands whose skills haven't caught up to their novelty and the hype surrounding them.
Quattro: I dislike the Quattro. But I have to go there once in a while because some musicians only play there. It's a Soulless Corporate Live House (SCLH). The sound and light systems are outstanding. But everything else is mediocre: the venue has no atmosphere; the staff are apathetic or worse; and the 'one drink' that you have to pay 500 yen for is about the size of free booze samples they hand out in department stores.
La Mama: I've only been here once or twice, but it's a decent live house with an easy-to-see, wide stage.
Eggman: Similar to La Mama. It's one of Shibuya's older live houses, and I think it's seen better days.
O-East & O-West: Sister live houses of the O-Nest, these two are for bigger acts, and they're both Soulless Corporate Live Houses (SCLH's), like the Quattro.
O-Crest: Size-wise it's between O-Nest and the two big O's, it's also basically a mini-SCLH.
Ax Shibuya: One of Tokyo's biggest live houses, it's a SCLH. But you gotta go there to see acts like Perfume.
Deseo: Next to the Yamanote train tracks, this is a live house for bands that are starting out. It's a Dive House—a live house that's a dive.
Yaneura Shibuya: This place has been around for ages, and it's the definition of a Dive House: witness within its walls the unending struggle between unruly, inebriated youth and surly staff.
Cyclone: Sister live house of Yaneura, it's also a true Dive House. My friend Dr. I once said this is a club for juvenile delinquents.
Chelsea Hotel: A relatively new live house, it looks like a lobby of a cheap hotel(in line with its name?), and attracts decent bands.
Aoiheya (blue room): This is a fun live house run by a chanson singer, and is designed according to her tastes (vines handing from the live stage ceiling, etc.).
Lush: A very hard to find live house, Lush hosts decent bands.
Tube: In a small alley near Tower Records, this a small but pleasant and well-designed space.
Que: Sometimes called one of the three great live houses of Shimokitazawa, along with the Shelter and Club 251, the Que is THE club for guitar pop, power pop and all manners of melodic, not-so-hard rock. It's the home turf of groups like advantage Lucy. The Que is also one of the few smaller live houses that don't force ticket sale quotas upon performers, and its events are generally of high quality. In spite of its prestige, though, the club is small, with only one main room, and can get very cramped at sold-out shows.
Shelter: Just down the street from the Que, the Shelter is the place for hard rock and smarter punk. It's a Dive Bar, but in a good way—they host rockin' bands, and the fans are into the shows.
Club 251: About midway in musical taste between the Que and Shelter. It's probably also fair to say that of the top-3 Shimokitazawa live houses, it's number three.
440: Right above 251, and run by the same people, this is a cafe club with chairs for the audience. The acts are generally mellow, with a lot of acoustic sets, and post-Shibuya-kei groups often play here. If watching a show here, make sure you aren't late, because then you will have to stand and there isn't that much space...
Basement Bar: This club is nearly impossible to find, hidden behind the beer cartons of a liquor store off of the main Shimokitazawa drag. It's a small live house that hosts decent events.
Mosaic: A fairly new live house, Mosaic is good because it has a bar on one floor and the live stage under it, letting you escape for a drink if an act is bad.
Mona Records: Like 440, this is a cafe club, but one with more character: the space is designed to look like a living room, and the area where musicians play is a raised floor where audience members take off their shoes and sit on the floor like in a traditional Japanese home (even the musicians play shoeless!). The bands featured at this club are pop, jazz, acoustic and mellow, mellow, mellow. Mona Records also sells CDs, has its own small label, and hosts small art exhibits—it's one of the more interesting clubs in Tokyo.
Garage: On the other side of the tracks from the Shimokitazawa Big-3, the Garage seems to mainly feature genki, straightforward youth rock groups. It's a small venue, and being right in the middle of a true residential area, the staff will, with fervor, chase you away from the premises as soon as shows end.
Loft: The Loft isn't Tokyo's biggest live house, but it is certainly its most legend-filled: having opened in 1976, the club has over the years featured some of Japan's most popular acts such as Southern All Stars, Boowy and Judy and Mary. The events held here are still of generally high quality. The Loft moved to Kabukicho from Nishi-Shinjuku in 1999—the live house now is a comfortable space with separate stage and bar floors, but be sure you don't get lost in the building that houses the Loft, because most of the other establishments in the building look pretty questionable...
Marz/Motion/Marble: All on the same block near the Loft, these three live houses are run by the same people, and sometimes events are held at a number of these clubs at once, letting you go from one to the other (and allowing you to get food and cheaper drinks at convenience stores en route, if you desire). Marz is a sparkling new club with a fancy light system. Motion is a small live house suited for minor indie bands. Marble, I haven't been to.
Jam: Shinjuku Jam is another of the older Shinjuku live houses, but, while its rival, the Loft, has turned into a Big Deal, the Jam remains a Dive House, a live house that is also a dive. Still, some people like the Jam for that, and it certainly has character. I've heard that the Jam is haunted.
Red Cloth: A fairly new live house, the Red Cloth is an attractive, small venue that's decorated in a vaguely Chinese fashion. From my experience the staff is generally friendly, and the indie events held here are often good.
ACB Hall: A total dive house, for punk kids.
Zher The Zoo: Run by the same people as the Que in Shimokitazawa, Zher The Zoo features bands that are very similar to those at the Que (Luminous Orange played here, for example). And no, I don't know what the name means.
Club Liner: Managed by a member of the comic punk group Telstar, Club Liner is a small club that brings in a lot of decent indie groups, many of them probably the Telstar guy's pals. Club Liner is also one of the first live houses, as far as I know, that divided its space into smoking and non-smoking sections (cigarette-smelling clothes and stinging eyes are constant occupational hazards for Tokyo club-goers).
Club Roots: This is a tiny club in an interesting building with an Okinawan theme, including an Okinawan restaurant and a culture center. Roots also serves awamori and a limited number of Okinawan fast food.
20000V: This is a Dive House (a live house that's also a dive), but one of those that's hard to dislike if you have a taste for dives.
Los Angeles Club: Went here a long time ago, don't remember what it's like, but am pretty sure it was a Dive House.
Enban: This is supposed to be a record store/cafe, but it's not clear whether it actually exists. I once passed by the place it's supposed to be, but didn't see anything except a window, from which some sketchy looking characters stared down at me. It could be that the Koenji guys are just putting me on, and this club is fictional—you have to watch out for Koenji people...they are sometimes of somewhat suspicious character...
Heaven's Door: In the middle of a peaceful local shopping district with little stores and eateries is this home of tattooed, body-pierced head-bangers and punkers of all stripes. Heaven's Door is the epitome of a Dive House (a live house that's also a dive), but one that you are sort of glad exists, in the same way that you appreciate there being brutal carnivores in the great outdoors, in addition to gentle creatures such as sheep, deer, zebras, etc.
Grapefruit Moon: If you're headed to this lovely cafe and are starting to worry whether the directions are wrong—could a music club really be in a little street like this with vegetable and fruit shops and fish sellers?—don't fret, and keep on going, because you're almost there. Right next to a bathhouse, Grapefruit Moon often features laid-back indie pop bands.
Goodman: Goodman is the place to go for prog, post-punk, smart indie-type bands. There seems to be a lot of affinity between the Goodman crowd and Koenji folks—maybe because it's connected by the Sobu line?
Star Pine's Cafe: Not much to say about Star Pine's Cafe except that it's a nice-looking, two-storied club.
Mandala 2: A cafe bar that's pretty characterless. Good indie bands sometimes play here, however.
Unit: I've never been here, and hope I don't ever have to, because the place exudes bad vibes: unsmiling staff who appear authoritarian in the way they make show-goers line up before shows, and so on. It's too bad because this club attracts a lot of fashionable, post-Shibuya-kei-type groups that look interesting. I imagine that the Unit is basically a SCLH (Soulless Corporate Live House).
Astro Hall: Not a big fan of this place...not sure what the management here wants to accomplish except to squeeze money out of young people there to see trendy bands. It's a mini-SCLH (Soulless Corporate Live House).
Liquid Room: This big club used to be in Shinjuku in a scary building whose floor would bounce up and down with the crowd as they bopped to the music...The Liquid Room is now in a bright and shiny new building near the station, but it's a true SCLH (Soulless Corporate Live House)—I once saw a security guard stop someone from passing out live show fliers TWO BLOCKS from the club, after a show. What sort of authoritarianism IS that?? Still, a visit to the Liquid Room is inevitable once in a while, because they host a lot of great Japanese and foreign artists...
Guilty: I went here ages ago to see Fugazi, and don't remember a thing about it. A big regret in my life is that I saw Joe Lally at the Freshness Burger near the Guilty but didn't say hi to him.