By Matt Schley
Koenji, known as a kind of bohemian neighbourhood in which to buy used clothes, visit strange cafés and view the Awa Odori festival once a year, has a long history as one of Tokyo’s focal points for punk, psychedelic and otherwise odd rock. Live venues in Koenji come in all shapes and sizes, from the (relatively) upscale Koenji High, where (relatively) famous bands are known to play a show or two, to Enban, a record store/live house that could cram in about 10 people if it really tried. If you’re feeling the itch to visit Koenji, the following venues are not to be missed.
The largest venue on this list, 20,000 Den-Atsu is the reincarnation of one of Koenji’s most famous venues, 20,000 Volt, which was shut down in 2009 after the izakaya above it burnt down. The staff of 20,000 V opened Den-Atsu just a few minutes away near Higashi-Koenji station and (re)established the venue as a premier destination for punk, noise and hardcore bands. The sound system is nice and beefy, the floor is large (by Koenji standards, at least) and there’s a soundproof door between the main stage and the well-stocked bar, so your ears can take refuge between bands.
Wow! You may find yourself thinking upon entering Muryoku Muzenji: whoever owns this place really likes cats. Actually, that’s a bit of an understatement. The entire venue is plastered with feline photographs, illustrations, collages and other art. It almost feels like it’s a place for cat worship first, live house second. Muzenji is home to some of Koenji’s stranger gigs – don’t expect bands concerned with such silly concepts as rhythm or tuning. Seriously though, Muzenji’s been home to some pretty mind-blowing noise gigs, and the decor definitely adds to the trippiness. Oh, and don’t worry if you feel the floor buckle under your feet. After all, it hasn’t collapsed yet.
One doesn’t look like a whole lot from the outside – it’s in a basement just off Koenji’s Pal shopping arcade, next to an old folks’ home – but if One’s hilariously minimalist signboard is set up, you can bet the place is rocking. Or thumping. Or discoing. That’s because One ain’t no one-genre venue: its owner, the gruff but lovable Takashi Oguri, rents out the venue for a variety of events, both recurring and one-off. Able to accommodate live performances (drumless ones, anyway), One nonetheless usually serves as a DJ-centric venue. Recommended regular events include Last Monday, which happens exactly when you think it does, the impossibly funky Koenji Night Fever, and the free (!) alt/punk/dance party Fashion Crisis.
Not strictly a live house, Dom generally serves as a practice space for misfit musicians of all stripes. But its soundproof studios are often rented out for performances, including a weekly jazz session. The multi-room setup is perfect for gigs with multiple bands, and once in a while they’ll even open up the rooftop for barbecues. Especially attractive for budget-conscious gig-goers is Dom’s bring-your-own-drink policy (though they also sell beer for a reasonable ¥300), making Dom shows some of the cheapest out there.
Not far from the temple from which Koenji takes its name, Koenji High is probably the least grungy venue on this list (whether that’s a good thing is a matter of personal taste). It’s a go-to performance space for both local indie and electropop acts. In fact, Koenji High is probably best known overseas – if it's known at all – as the host of the Tokyo Blip Festival, an international event devoted to lo-fi, video game-inspired chiptunes. The 2010 Koenji High show featured a live set by none other than Hirokazu 'Hip' Tanaka, who wrote the music for Nintendo games such as Metroid and Donkey Kong Jr. Um, awesome? Attached to Koenji High you’ll also find Amp Cafe, a chillout space that hosts local artists’ work and its own occasional mini live shows.