Well Done 47

The Kanto area is usually described as a plain, but navigating it by bicycle isn’t as simple as that might sound. The roads in Kanagawa try relentlessly to funnel you toward central Tokyo, but I wasn’t quite ready to return to the familiar white noise of Tokyo traffic. Instead, I needed to spend a bit more time with the rattle and roll of rural truckers as I cut northwest from Yokohama, over its deceptively sharply contoured topography, and headed for Hachioji.

Situated in the far fringes of the western end of Tokyo, Hachioji is the end point of a suburban smear that spreads itself over a 30km stretch of torn-up, concreted-over former countryside between the edge of Tokyo’s 23 central wards and the mountains that separate Tokyo from Yamanashi Prefecture. It’s also where I first lived when I moved to Tokyo in 2001.

Thus, the first familiar glimpses of Tokyo I received upon re-entering the sprawling non-city weren’t the great traffic-funnels of Koushu-kaido or Route 246 but the vaguely rural outposts of Machida and Hashimoto, before diving once more into the hills, trees and tightly-packed, semi-suburban farmland that fringes the outskirts of Hachioji.

One of the ironies of Tokyo is that while it absorbs creativity from neighbouring cities, often seeming to leave them barren but for the most middle-of-the-road J-rock wannabies, Tokyo extends so far west that, while Hachioji is nominally an outpost of Tokyo, it actually has more of a distinctive music culture than many cities in neighbouring prefectures.

Yumi Arai/Matsutoya

The most famous musician from the area is probably the singer-songwriter Yumi Arai/Matsutoya, who was a prominent member of the generation of 1970s artists who revolutionised Japanese pop, taking it from the disposable bubblegum of the 1960s and bringing it to somewhere more mature and sophisticated. “Yuming”, as she is often known also played a significant role in the continuation and development of bubblegum pop and idol music in the 1980s, as a songwriter (under a pseudonym) for legendary idol singer Seiko Matsuda and most likely a key songwriting influence for Yasushi Akimoto, producer of first Onyanko Club and more recently AKB48.

Maximum The Hormone

Probably the act that most typifies Hachioji in the contemporary Japanese rock landscape, however, is Maximum The Hormone, with their trashy punk-metal sensibility and raucous energy, unpredictable but unsublimated by art-school sensibilities. You might be able to find bands with a similar approach in any number of places, but there are few places it fits better than Hachioji. Hachioji isn’t classy, it isn’t fashionable, it isn’t cool, and it doesn’t give a fuck.


It isn’t one-dimensional either, though, and on an upstairs floor of the live venue Rips an intrepid visotor can also find Senseless Records, one of Japan’s leading specialists in emo, post-hardcore and math-rock. With a close relationship with Rips, there’s a small scene of indie and alternative bands centred around Senseless, most notably the albini-esque Malegoat.


I wasn’t staying in the centre of town though, and instead I found my stop for the night signalled by the appearance of a five-story pagoda across a steep valley. In the shadow of that pagoda lay my father-in-law’s house, where I was able to stay the night before leaving my bicycle one last time and taking one final diversion by train to the city of Kofu in Yamanashi Prefecture.

Kofu is one of the smallest prefectural capitals in Japan, separated by mountains from Tokyo and situated far up a sheltered strip of more or less flat land that eventually leads north to Matsumoto in Nagano Prefecture. The grand old lady Fuji reappeared to me as the train emerged from the mountains and wound its way through the idyllic farmland and small villages of Yamanashi.

As the main urban settlement in its area, Kofu naturally has its share of music venues: the apparently folk-biased Feel Rock Café Yumura, the slightly more alternative-looking King Rat, the larger, more mainstream Conviction, and the suits-all-comers Nao Studio Kazoo Hall, not to mention music bars like Time Gang, nestled in amongst the narrow streets of Kofu’s night-time party corner.

Still, I found myself wandering its streets in a daze, unable to concentrate on or engage with what I was experiencing. It may partly be because – especially on a Wednesday afternoon – Kofu isn’t really the kind of city that insists on itself with any great urgency, its elegantly deserted shopping arcades and shuttered storefronts lending it an air of comfortable desolation. It’s also one of the rare places where I had no contact to guide me through the hidden nooks of the local music culture. The one record shop I encountered, Kogakudo, was a clean, manicured space inside a clothes shop, which seemed to specialise primarily in boy bands from the Johnny & Associates stable of chart pop idols.

Where Kanagawa and Saitama are places for musicians who want to keep Tokyo at arm’s length but still stay in touch with with its creative life, Yamanashi is a place for people who want to cut their ties almost completely. It’s a place for someone like Jim O’Rourke to go and build his own studio that he can live and work in throughout the day, unbothered by the constant demands on his attention the Tokyo music scene might make.

More than anything, though, it was because my mind was on Tokyo, and specifically Koenji. I’ve talked before about the difficulty I have in really considering anywhere “home”, but one simple way of defining the word might be that it’s the place that calls you when you’re away. In the early stages of my trip, travelling through the northeast of Japan, I tended to find Bristol, where I grew up in the UK, held a stronger grip on my vision of “home” when I was in the countryside, while Tokyo asserted itself more strongly when I was in a city. Now, in this most rural of Japanese cities, with political events in the UK increasingly alienating me from any lingering attachment to the country, two or three weeks awa from the murder of MP Jo Cox by a fascist paramilitary and the formal descent into parochial bigotry that followed, Tokyo, and specifically Koenji, was the only place I wanted to get back to. That’s where my friends were, that’s where my most important family was, and that’s where my music was.

The next morning I returned to Hachioji, picked up my bike, and flew east as fast as I could, really pausing only to take a crafty photograph for my model aeroplane-enthusiast father of an antique Lockheed Starfighter and a Mitsubishi F-1 on display outside a military installation.

Entering the city from this direction took me down roads and neighbourhoods that shared names with places I knew from the railways stations but which were utterly different when experienced from the roads. It was only upon entering my own ward of Suginami that the Tokyo I knew exploded into full recognition. I made a symbolic point of putting my phone with its map application away in my pocket and navigating the last few kilometres from memory.

Arriving at my empty apartment, Mission Control had before going to work left me a message on post-it notes affixed to a piece of Christmas bunting: “Well done 47”. I wasn’t sure what I’d actually done, and I’m still not, but that at least I could put a number on – 47 prefectures over the course of two main stages of travel, totalling about five and a half months, and here I was back where I’d started.DSC_0690

The following night, I made what I hoped would be a triumphant return, Djing at a small Koenji bar called How High The Moon, interior bedecked with the the kind of millennial hipster trash I love to mock, but which in its own way helps define the identity of a particular layer of Tokyo that I can instinctively feel at least a little close to.

The first live event I go to after returning is just a few doors down from my apartment at the UFO Club in Higashi-Koenji, where new wave revivalist Takashi Nakayama is performing with an ad-hoc band consisting of members of his old band Skyfisher and his then-current one Mukokyu Kakokyu Shinkokyu. Joining him on the bill are new wave-influenced Kyoto band David Boys (I suspect a pun on the Japanese pronunciation of “David Bowie”), Osaka-based avant-pop drummer Suppattukalimar, theatrical Tokyo-based alternative band Half Moon Make Love, and synth-punk lunatics Jebiotto (who I released through my Call And Response label and are the best band in Tokyo).

In a way, it doesn’t feel like I ever really left. My big return to the DJ booth is fun, but there’s also a vaguely uncomfortable feeling of life going on as normal. The event at the UFO Club is great, and seeing bands I’d heard about on my travels in Osaka and Kyoto but not had a chance to see when I was staying there was great. Again though, there was a nagging sense that I was just slotting back into my life as usual. The purpose of travel is that it should change you, shouldn’t it? Was I just one of those tourists Joseph Conrad mocked in Lord Jim, who collect stickers on their luggage but bring nothing more profound back with them from the exotic locations they visit.


Looking back from two years later, there are some things that are different. Whenever I find myself travelling within Japan, I know someone there. Whenever I encounter something new, I can more easily place it in its context. Whenever I want to do something new, I have a far wider net that I can cast for ideas or material. Still, it remains difficult to keep those connections warm and maintain this fragile network. “I’ll be sure to come back, and next time let’s do an event together!” quickly founders under the sheer expense and logistical difficulty of bringing musicians from Tokyo to anywhere but the biggest cities. The venue Nu in Shimane has opened and closed in the time since I came back to Tokyo, with nothing ever coming of my grand plans to take an artist on a grand tour of the northern shoulder of Japan. I have had great times in Sendai since this journey, but have never successfully convinced a band to venture with me any further north. Even a place as familiar to me as Kagoshima, I’ve not had the occasion to revisit since this trip.

Throw Away Your CDs Go Out To A Show (album trailer video)

At the same time, though, the compilation album Throw Away Your CDs Go Out To A Show, released in the summer of 2017, was a direct product of this journey, both in terms of the bands who participated and the series of six release events that I was able to put on throughout the country. One of Call And Response’s most successful releases, it was built on the back of experiences I would never have had without this journey.

The great songwriter Ian McNabb’s underappreciated Liverpool band The Icicle Works had a song called I Never Saw My Hometown Till I Went Around The World, and for a long time I had been determined to use that as the title of the “homecoming” entry of this blog. I don’t know if my thoughts can be honestly summarised by a sentiment that tidy. For all my fretting about what the meaning of “home” is, I’m can’t be so facile as to declare that this journey gave me an answer. Before embarking on it, though, I didn’t even know it was the question, so if there’s going to be a conclusion for now, let’s let it be that.

Come to my party (in Tokyo)?

Much of Kanagawa Prefecture, like Saitama and Chiba, is so close to Tokyo that it falls under the same broadluy defined metropolitan area. Whenever you see the figure of 30-35 million quoted as Tokyo’s population, they are including much of the population of these surrounding prefectures in the figure. As a result, the journey along the sunny Sagami Bay seafront going east from Odawara gives very little hint of the rural, and the hilly turn northeast to Yokohama begins to feel comfortingly familiar.

Despite having in many ways been absorbed into the insatiable amorphous monstrosity of Tokyo, Yokohama is the second largest city in Japan and still stubbornly retains its own distinct urban atmosphere – slightly faded, slightly more spacious, a bit more room for locally owned businesses to cling onto existence and continue to colour the neighbourhoods.

Musically, Yokohama’s history as an important port city and major source of overseas imports, as well as the postwar history of military bases in the general vicinity, helped contribute to it becoming the jazz capital of Japan. So-called jazz kissaor jazz listening cafés sprung up in the postwar years and into the ‘60s and ‘70s and were influential in the dissemination of new jazz music in Japan from that extraordinary period in the genre’s development. They are crumbling and fading now, as the owners retire and die out, but Yokohama is still home to a disproportionately wide array of bars and live venues specialising in jazz.


As far as rock music goes, Yokohama seems to be in a similar position to Chiba, with plenty of its own venues, clubs and bars, particularly around the busy Kannai area, but generally offering a range of music catering to a narrower range of more mainstream tastes – at least in the realm of rock music. More offbeat or experimental bands like low-key psychedelic postpunk trio Extruders or spiky, acerbic, dryly humourous art-punk duo Sayuu may hail from the general Yokohama area/Kanagawa Prefecture, but nearly all their gigs are in Tokyo.

Extruders (live at Saimyoji temple in Niigata)

Also like Chiba, the seafront area of Kanagawa Prefecture has its own culture of club music, reggae and hip hop, catering to a completely different crowd from the pasty-skinned indie and punk fans I typically encounter when I let my own musical prejudices guide my discoveries. During the summer season when they’re officially open, the beachfront bars of the Shonan area typically throb with club sounds as the bronze-skinned, bleached-haired surfer set descend.

I have vivid memories of taking the train down from Tokyo for an evening of whisper-voiced indiepop at one of the beach bars, with the small crowd of immaculately coutured tweepop kids strikingly out of place amid all the raucous beach bods. It was funny, but it also revealed something often invisible in the music scene: the extent to which social class – something most Japanese deny even exists in the country – defines musical taste. Their hairstyles and the abundance of tattoos the Shonan beach kids carry are very different social signifiers from the predominantly middle-class, university-educated, well-to-do indie kids with their boutique-bought ensembles, although both crowds are in some way marking themselves as something separate from, and inaccessible to mainstream culture.

Shonan also plays host to the live bar and club Oppa-la, near Enoshima Station. An unusual and interesting venue, it often operates at an intersection between club and punk culture, and it’s common for somewhat experimental artists from Tokyo and beyond to descend on Oppa-la for parties that often go on into the early hours of the morning, performing alongside DJs, MCs and other acts from the local area.

For most of the musicians I know in Kanagawa, however, the traffic with the capital is the other way. After arriving in Yokohama and taking a shower, I immediately took the train back the way I had come, as far as Fujisawa. A large town at the opposite end of Sagami Bay from Odawara, I disembarked in one of its quieter suburbs and made my way through the silent early-evening streets to the house where Matthew Guay of indie bands The Oversleep Excuse and Glow and the Forest had recently moved with his family.

The Oversleep Excuse

A musician who had lived in Tokyo for most of his life in Japan, still works there, and plays live almost exclusively there, Matthew had taken the step to move out to the seaside mostly so that he and his wife could buy a house for their family, including two children. Another, related reason was to be closer to the children’s grandparents, who (as with many families in Japan) take an active role in supporting the parents in raising the children.

Glow and the Forest

We sit at his kitchen counter knocking back beers and listening to music while the children mind their own business and grandma sleeps upstairs. Matthew has just got hold of a new demo CD-R by a mutual friend of ours from way back when we were first getting involved in the Tokyo music scene more than ten years previously, Rikinari Hata, who at this point is making synth-based lo-fi EBM/industrial music as Soloist Apartment (he currently goes by the more confrontational sounding Soloist Anti Pop Totalization). Matthew’s Oversleep Excuse bandmate Adam has moved out of Tokyo in the opposite direction, into Saitama, necessitating that they continue to meet up in Tokyo for rehearsals, even if that wasn’t where the band played most of their shows.

Once his wife is home to keep an eye on the kids, we take a walk over to the beach just in time to catch the sunset. It’s still May, so the beach isn’t officially open and the summer beach culture hasn’t yet descended, so we’re able to sit there undisturbed except once, unexpectedly by a coworker of mine from the job from which I’m at this time goofing off, who happened to be marauding the area for his own mysterious reasons. Matthew remarks that he’s lucky that he has the flexibility in his life to still carry on two bands as well as caring for his family. I suggest to him that a lot of the musicians in Kanagawa are in fact transplanted Tokyoites who have moved away from the city to raise families, but whose musical activities are still tied to the networks of friends and connections they had fostered in the capital.

The following night I meet my friends Konatsu and Maru, from the bands Nakigao Twintail and Hakuchi respectively. A different thread connects them to Tokyo. They’re both young musicians from saga in Kyushu, who are using the industrial city of Kawasaki as a jumping-off point in advance of an eventual move to the capital. At this time, Konatsu is still a university student, so she needs to commute to school in Shibuya while Maru must travel to work at an office out in the western suburban fringes of Tokyo. For them, Kanagawa Prefecture is a temporary stopping-off point in a process that will see them shacked up in the urban warrens of Tokyo’s busy Shibuya commercial and entertainment district within a year of my visit.

The third night of my stay in Yokohama is really the first time I get to explore the city itself, rather than dashing out to meet people in its satellites. Moving from the hostel where I’m staying in the backstreets of Ishikawacho, near the tourist areas of Chinatown and the seafront, I make a move over to a hotel in the gentrified former red light district of Koganecho. There, I have lunch at Shichoshitsu Sono 2, an arts centre that has a sister venue in central Tokyo. Containing a series of art studios and a café/bar/bookshop/CD shop/used clothes shop/live venue, it’s a venue I’ve been to before for evening events, including one party I co-organised in the middle of a typhoon and which coaxed out a grand total of two customers. In the daytime, though, it’s a peaceful spot on an attractive riverside promenade where old women from the neighbourhood feel just as confortable dropping by as members of the arts crowd. The Koganecho location didn’t stick around for much longer after my visit, but a fresh “Sono 3” location also in Yokohama has since opened. At the time, however, Shichoshitsu feels like a valuable local cultural hub on the Koganecho area.

I briefly drop by again in the evening for a beer with Kohei from Yokohama-based indie-rock band Come To My Party. Unlike Matthew, Konatsu and Maru, he and his bandmade and drummer Emily are Yokohama locals, but like most of them, his band play primarily in Tokyo.

Come To My Party

One reason for this is that, while indie fans in Yokohama are usually happy enough to take the 30-40-minute train ride into central Tokyo, Tokyo-based fans can very rarely be coaxed out to make the reverse journey. Talking about this situation with Kohei raises the question of, “What’s the more authentic Yokohama music experience: travelling all the way to Tokyo to see the best local Yokohama band, or missing out on all the best local bands because they’re playing all the way over in Tokyo?”

The acoustic blues covers act playing at Shichoshitsu this night wasn’t really our speed, so Kohei suggests moving down the river to Chojamachi. The Chojamachi and Nogacho area lies near the mouth of the same river that runs through Koganecho and just to the north of the main entertainment and commercial district of Kannai. Its narrow, bar-filled alleys are deeply infused with the atmophere of the Showa Period, and in particular the era of post-war reconstruction. Several of the jazz clubs, bars and cafés that Yokohama is famous for are scattered throughout its streets, while hostess bars cluster along the riverside, threatening to spill out over the water itself in places. There’s even a bar that appears to be themed after the goth-tinged British ‘90s alt-rock band Placebo, although we’re both too hungry and afraid to investigate it for ourselves.

Over the course of my journey, I’ve speculated that musical subcultures can transcend location, creating circles of belonging that span hundreds and thousands of kilometres. At the same time, though, just as towering, horizon-obliterating geological forms like Mount Fuji can impose themselves on their surroundings and help define even mundane aspects of existence, the cultural power embodied in the cluster of places we call Tokyo can have a powerful impact (and in subcultures like indie and alternative music perhaps a destructive one) on even a city as large as Yokohama, with all its obvious and distinctive character.

The grand old lady

If the process of leaving Nagoya for Hamamatsu felt like my journey entering its epilogue, during my transit across Shizuoka Prefecture I started to feel in earnest as if I was returning to Tokyo.

The thundering Route 1 Tokaido highway dominates the route, made more significant to me by my constant need to avoid it. Navigating with Google Maps was never an ideal method of getting around because of the way it didn’t really recognise bicycles as a mode of transport distinct from either pedestrians or cars. Tell it you’re a pedestrian it it might send you up a staircase or down a bumpy gravel footpath; tell it you’re a car and it’ll send you on a toll road or highway where non-motorised vehicles are forbidden. The safest way was to tell it you’re a pedestrian but be aware of your surroundings and make adjustments to your route as necessary. In Shizuoka, however, that started to fall apart as its pedestrian navigation began increasingly directing me onto the impassable Tokaido, eventually forcing me to switch off navigation and guess as the the suitability of each road.

In practice, this didn’t make much difference to my route, but it started to feeldifferent very quickly. It was a form of unmooring, of wriggling free of my strings and using the map as a guide for exploration rather than a set of rails shunting me along to my next destination.

Hills and mountains stood between me and Shizuoka, offering me only three obvious routes through: Route 1 to the north, Route 150 through a long series of sub-mountain tunnels, and a winding coastal road near the town of Yaizu. Opting for the latter, I struggled up a sharp cliffside incline beneath the Hotel Ambia Shofukaku, only to find the road closed. Letting out a scream of frustration followed by a good few minutes of incoherent profanity that echoed around the cliffs, I retreated north to figure out a legitimate route along the impassable Route 1. It turned out that there was a sparsely signposted but more or less usable cycle path through the hills that saw me through to the small coastal plains where Shizuoka nestled, and it was here, amid gathering rainclouds, that I took a break for a few days in a run-down hotel with creaking wi-fi and two hundred pages of my book Quit Your Band! to edit.

Shizuoka itself is a decent sized city, with a slightly older, more cracked and faded, rusty sort of atmosphere than its slightly larger neighbour Hamamatsu. It’s home to a similar number of venues though, and in Cornershop Records has an indie record store with its own distinct character. Opened in the late ‘90s, there’s something of that decade about its atmosphere, and the owner clearly has an affection for the Shibuya-kei music that defined Japan’s alternative music culture at that time. The name of the shop was apparently given by Tomoyuki Tanaka of legendary Shibuya-kei act Fantastic Plastic Machine, but it also shares the name with a British indie band, formed out of London’s Indian immigrant community, who eclectically combined musical and cultural references from the indie rock and dance music that filled the cultural air of ‘90s Britain with elements of Indian music from their own families’ backgrounds.

This eclectic approach to bringing together disparate musical elements was mirrored to a large extent in Shibuya-kei’s crate-digging musical ethos, but the layer of cultural identity that informed the specific sort of fusion Cornershop made feels like something different. As members of a cultural minority with recent immigrant roots, Cornershop’s music feels partly about reconciling two separate cultural identities, both of which they were in some way dislocated from, and forming that into something that expressed something about themselves.

However, music itself is a culture of sorts. Shibuya-kei may have been manufactured to a degree by the staff at HMV in Shibuya, but there are enough interconnections between the artists connected to it that there is a recognisable creative community with some shared aesthetic leanings. How might people like Kahimi Karie, Hiromix, Tomoyuki Tanaka and others have felt at that time? Did they just see themselves as creative people pursuing their own unique vision, or did the community of people around them mean something on a different level from their creative endeavours? I’ve talked before on this blog about music as a source of belonging independent of geography or family, and going through the edits to Quit Your Band! in Shizuoka had really driven home to me the extent to which my own activity was about using music to define a space for myself in a world where the physical place I had grown up was feeling increasingly remote. Fragments of news from the UK as the 2016 EU referendum drew closer was revealing a frightening and alienating world, fuelled by fear and hatred of immigrants. Britain was already a country that had closed its doors to me when it introduced its freelancer-unfriendly financial restrictions on citizens with foreign spouses, and just a couple of months later its new prime minister Theresa May would announce that culturally unmoored people like me were “citizens of nowhere”. The way the country seemed to be doubling down on geography as the sole definer of belonging flow directly in the face of the direction my own confused grasping for answers was taking me.

Cornershop Records, meanwhile, was littered with the cultural detritus of my childhood in the UK, with a bizarre number of the inexplicably fashionable-in-Japan Fred the Flour Grader dolls. Here in Japan, shorn of his context as mascot of the Homepride food producer, he seemed to scream at me the fragility of cultural signifiers as a tether to a place. Shibuya-kei fetishised the roots that musical elements represented, even as it divorced them from those roots and reconfigured them into a new, albeit transient, culture. In the same way, Fred the Flour Grader had shed many of his cultural associations, his essence being boiled down by the manner of his Japanese consumption into an all-encompassing symbol of Englishness that has been divorced from whatver it was that tied him to England. Like me, he was a person between places.

In a way, Shizuoka is a classic example of a place between places. While Hamamatsu is loosely within Nagoya’s orbit, Shizuoka City sits alone on a small plain surrounded by hills and mountains to the north and west, and Suruga Bay to the south and east, just outside the cultural gravity wells of both Nagoya and Tokyo.

Hikashu – Ikirukoto

My evening meander through the rain-soaked Wednesday night in Shizuoka’s entertainment district took me to a couple of the city’s live venues, both of which were occupying their off-nights in different ways. The larger of the places I visited was Freaky Show, which was open as a regular bar on this particular night. The young guy tending the bar also did some of the booking for the venue and we had an enthusiastic conversation about music where we both heroically failed to meet each other with any shared frame of reference. I asked him if he knew Shizuoka Prefecture resident and avant-garde musical legend Koichi Makigami of experimental jazz/prog/new wave band Hikashu, and he gushed about visual-kei bands from Yokohama.

I upped and moved along eventually, dropping by the nearby grimy basement venue Sougen. Sougen’s website and the sign outside claimed it was open as a bar, but upon entering, I found a young-looking indie rock band practicing. I stood and watched them for a few minutes and they continued playing, pretending not to see the enormous foreigner looming over half the room until an increasingly awkward stand-off was in full swing. The band cracked first and they took a break, a couple of them coming over to ask what I was doing. One of the band seemed to work at Sougen and since no one ever came in to drink on off-nights, he was using it as a rehearsal space. I remarked on one of the posters on the wall featuring my friends’ band Folk Enough from Fukuoka and they blinked at me blankly. Then I explained more about my trip and they started to get quite excited, producing a CD-R from one of their bags and gifting it to me. I immediately and stupidly lost it, and along with it all information about the band and who they were. My mind was also lost between places, it seemed.

Of course, there’s more to Shizuoka than a couple of live bars, both very different but both attractive in their particular ways. A bar called Asahi no Ataru Ie (“House of the Rising Sun”) puts on a lot of intimate acoustic shows and occasional oddball weirdness. I had seen noise act Niwa in Hamamatsu, and the general Shizuoka region is also home to football-loving dance music trackmaker Master Master. Meanwhile one of the most active and energetic Shizuoka bands was garage-punk The Wemmer.

The Wemmer – Jet Masturbation Boy

During my stay on Shizuoka, however, it was difficult to keep my mind on the trip. Lurking somewhere behind the hills and above the clouds was Mount Fuji, guarding the gateway to the place I lived but didn’t quite feel I had the right to call home. It was only once I left Shizuoka City for a brief stopover in Numazu that I got my first glimpse of the grand old lady herself though, first in a brief, pale silhouette through the haze and then emerging taller and clearer around a rocky headland.

She came to dominate my vision for the next two days though, looming over the route to Numazu, then as I clambered over her undulating skirts towards Gotemba. Hokusai famously created “a hundred views of Mount Fuji”, and he could have made a hundred more. Fuji is the frame, the anchor that holds a thousand views together. When I talk about a sense of place and belonging, I instinctively lean away from assigning too much significance to geographical location – you aren’t defined by the dirt you were born on! – but the grand old lady insists on herself; you cannot exist in her shadow without feeling her presence constantly in every contour of the landscape and every step you take as you go about your life.

But while she is a powerful argument for the importance of physical place in defining our existence, she is no nationalist. Fuji is reduced by those who try to make her a symbol when the full weight of her physical presence is so insistent, and she makes that weight felt on natives and immigrants alike – anyone who steps into her shadow is immediately and unquestionably her subject.

Finally, she vanishes in a sudden deep descent into a wooded valley and it is like losing the sky. I keep glancing behind me, straining for one final glimpse of her snow-streaked crown, but she is gone for now, to return only in months to come, in those familiar distant, stolen glimpses through the metal and glass towers of Tokyo.

I hurtle down the valley, into the awaiting roar of Route 246, alive with the rumble of trucks carrying their cargo to and from the heart of Tokyo. There’s a tradition of road songs in America, from Route 66 to Highway 61 to Thunder Road, where the street or the highway is a symbol of the nation: of freedom, of its legends, of its decay, of the state of the American Dream. English songs like Penny Lane, Dead End Street, the Stanhope Road of Pulp’s Babiesoften treat a road not as a route from one place to another but as more of a fixed spot: a location around which life unfolds as the song’s narrator peels back the layers to reveal the secret heart of this little corner of society. Kraftwerk turned the sleek, modernist efficiency of the Autobahn into a futuristic vision of German post-war rebirth and a European future.

NiNa – Route 246

Route 246 doesn’t perhaps have the romance or expansive vision represented by some of these iconic Western roads, but it occupies its own little place in the rock consciousness of Tokyoites. Beginning in the seedy party centre of Tokyo around Roppongi and running through the somewhat more fashionable Shibuya and Sangenjaya areas, it’s one of the main routes out of the city and towards the beaches of Kanagawa, as well as a notorious truckers’ route afflicted by frequent traffic jams. What Route 246 represents to many in Tokyo is an ambivalent feeling of temporary escape from the stress of working life, together with a resigned recognition that the journey itself is probably going to be a tedious, unpleasant experience that barely if at all justifies the opportunity to get away. It is the escape route and the cage that keeps you trapped inside. The song Route 246 by Japanese-British-American supergroup NiNa describes this situation directly. Pop sinder and borderline idol Kyoko Fukada, in her own Route 246, written by Yasuharu Konishi of Shibuya-kei pioneers Pizzicato 5, takes a slightly less direct approach, focusing more on the route it takes her through the city of Tokyo itself, but I feel a similar ambivalence is at work in the background of the song.

Kyoko Fukada & The 2-Tones – Route 246

Route 246 as it winds through the mounain pass between Fuji and Kanagawa Prefecture is all roaring, rumbling trucks on a road only just wide enough to accommodate them, and very much not ideal for a cyclist on an overladen bicycle, trapped between the screaming flow of elephantine traffic on one side and a hundred metre plummet into a ravine on the other. It was perhaps the section of this journey most intensely shot through with pure terror, so when I emerged into the peaceful streets of rural Kanagawa and began my gentle cruise down to the coastal town of Odawara, the relief was absolute.

As one of the terminal stations of the Odakyu Line railway, as well as a stop on the Japan Railways Tokaido Line, Odawara also found me once more being pricked by the remote tendrils of Tokyo. I could hop on a train and in less than one and a half hours be in Shinjuku. Whether Tokyo was home or not, I would soon be back there, for better or worse.

Random violence against objects

Leaving Nagoya and embarking on the final slog eastwards, in many ways it felt as if my journey was over but for some loose ends. It felt like I was entering an epilogue rather than launching into some brave new adventure. Somewhere ahead of me, towering over Shizuoka Prefecture was Mount Fuji, guarding the gateway to the Kanto Plains and, if not exactly home, at least the place I lived.

It was also at around this time that I my attempts at documenting my journey ground to a halt as final drafts of my book Quit Your Band! Musical Notes from the Japanese Underground started filling my inbox and clamouring for my attention. In that book, I focused primarily on my own experiences over the past 10-15 years in the Tokyo music scene, and the shift away from writing up my travel notes every two or three days into blog posts chronicling my journey in real time and towards this seemingly endless, granular process of revisiting my past in a city still several hundred kilometres away, started to give the journey an unreal quality.

The next major stop was to be Hamamatsu to the west of Shizuoka Prefecture, but before that I stopped off for a night in Okazaki, some 40km east of Nagoya. Okazaki is one of those nominally large Japanese cities that you can wander through for hours without ever finding what you might call a “downtown” area. When I eventually found it, looking to kill some time before hotel check-in, it was little more than a short street with a handful of izakayas and bars, all of which were closed at that time of the afternoon. Instead, I found myself taking a lazy bicycle tour along the town’s spacious riverside park and the areas around the castle.

I remember, many months previously, vividly stopping in the countryside of Tohoku and being struck by the almost complete silence. However, in a visibly urbanised, or at least suburbanised area, your definition of silence expands to accept all kinds of sounds because what you are really noticing is the subtraction of many of the sights and sounds you expect from an area like that. A few years previously, walking around my neighbourhood of Koenji on a sunny afternoon in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake with my wife – this journey’s Mission Control – she remarked on the stillness that had descended on the town, as if we were suddenly the only people left alive in an abandoned city. You can experience that same eerie sense of desolation in hundreds of cities around Japan on any weekday afternoon.

Hamamatsu is far smaller than Nagoya, but it is nonetheless a large, modern city with a bustling centre, where I was able to find an outdoor concert featuring the kind of pleasant, happy music city centres find acceptable as an accompaniment to shopping. My first stop there was Sone Records, a small indie record store that has a reputation for supporting local bands and has some close connections with (and similar tastes to) File-Under Records in Nagoya.

The owner, Kuwaken, was one of the most immediately friendly and open record shop owners I’ve encountered on my travels and pulled a beer out of his fridge as we were talking and slid it over the counter to me. The walls are covered in grafitti from bands who’ve toured through Hamamatsu and dropped by the store, which pays testament to the affection many musicians hold the shop and Kuwaken in. He’d been running Sone Records for seven years by then and, like many small indie operations outside the million-plus population major regional centres, it’s a precarious existence.


Like many cities of Hamamatsu’s size, there’s a large-ish commercial live venue (Force), a couple of small-ish rock/punk venues (G-Side, Mescaline Drive) and some assorted non-music-specific places such as cafés and the Kamoe Art Center, although the nearby Kirchherr is the one Sone Records has the closest relationship with, Kuwaken often putting on his own events there. He also mentions the venue FM Stage in nearby Iwata, whose PA engineer and manager, Kohei, is the go-to recording engineer for a lot of Hamamatsu bands.

A few of the local indie bands he mentions include psychedelic noise-rock band Up-Tight, post-Supercar indie rock band Me In Grasshopper and soft-voiced singer-songwriter Ryohadano (“There are loads of singer-songwriters around here!” remarks Kuwaken.)

Me In Grasshopper

Probably the hottest Hamamatsu band at this time, however, was probably Qujaku. Starting out under the name The Piqnic, Qujaku combine noise-rock, postpunk and heavy, tribal psychedelia with a sound that feels like it could fill a stadium or arena despite many of their gigs still being in tiny hovels like Kirchherr and Nagoya Bar Ripple. I’d seen them once or twice in Tokyo and, as with similar bands like London-based Japanese psych-rockers Bo Ningen, always been a little uncertain about how seriously to take their bombastic, epic rock, but (also like Bo Ningen) they’d by this point really started to grow into their sound and inhabit it with greater assurance.


They weren’t playing any shows while I’m in town, but on my final night in Hamamatsu I was lucky enough to catch a show by noise act Niwa, visiting from my next destination, Shizuoka City. Niwa’s performances seem to vary from the compact one-man unit I saw at Kirchherr, to larger-scale performance art chaos with drums, guitar and random violence against objects.

The fact an act like Niwa was playing on a bill together with powerpop/guitar rock band Giraffe!Giraffe!Giraffe! is the kind of completely normal thing that almost never happens in Tokyo but which is a natural fact of life in any city with a population of under a million.


It was the middle of May, the leading edge of the rainy season was starting to drop teasers for its arrival, the first hints of summer humidity were beginning to settle in the atmosphere, and clouds were gathering over the mountains to the northeast as I set off out of reach of Nagoya’s gravity well and head for Shizuoka City, and then beyond that the Kanto Plains, Tokyo and the end of my journey.