Leaving Aomori City, my next stop was a brief stopover in Hirosaki. Only 45 kilometers or so from Aomori City, the journey was made more challenging by the rain that so effectively dampened the middle portion of the journey.
A few foothills teased me with a foreshadowing of mountains that lay yet to come, the racing clouds swirling and shifting deceptively in a way alarmingly similar to the experience of being on mushrooms. Even more disorientating was the confusion of suburban bed town backstreets that followed, from which I eventually untangled myself in time to be greeted by clouds bursting open on Mount Iwaki’s three-pointed summit.
With the huge volcano looming over me, the rest of the journey across the Tsugaru Plain to Hirosaki was pretty straightforward.
A few people in Aomori recommended post-rock/electronic band Kikoenaifuriwoshita, although on a Monday night there was little chance of seeing anything in a town of Hirosaki’s size. Instead, I met up with my friend Rumiko, who helps run Bamii in Koenji, the bar/restaurant where the Call And Response Records crowd often hang out after shows. Finding the godmother of our little scene in Tokyo way out here in Hirosaki should have felt strange, but I’m getting used to meeting people I know from Tokyo pretty much wherever I go now, whether I seek them out or not. More than anything, I suspect that this tells us something about what a non-place Tokyo is. Everyone there is either from or on their way to somewhere else, and the more you travel, the more of this shifting diaspora you encounter
Hirosaki is also Shuji Terayama’s town of birth, where he spent his very early years before moving to Misawa, and the young Rumiko seemed to take his advice to heart, upping sticks and running off to Tokyo as a teenager in the early ’70s to join the theatre. Walking around town again now in her sixties, she seemed to barely recognise it as home.
The purpose of this trip being broadly directed towards music, I’ve not made any special effort to sample the local food (there are plenty of people writing about food in Japan already) but when a Japanese person is showing you around their hometown, you will eat the special-thing-that-is-of-this-place or risk a friendship-fracturing faux pas. First off, this was hamburgers made from minced cuttlefish tentacles (igamenchi), and then on to an oden/kushiyaki place called Butcher.
Butcher was one of those places where you would say something and instantly someone from the other end of the counter would volunteer some information or advice about it. While Hirosaki has a handful of live venues, from the rock-orientated Mag-net to the blues-based Orange County, not to mention the town’s prominent role in the local Tsugaru-jamisen scene, according the the assembled crowd, your best chance of finding live music on any given night would be Robbin’s Nest, a pub-like space with an international atmosphere.
In fact, while Hirosaki is a quiet town, with the nightlife dropping off into darkness and silence the second you step away from its small commercial district, there are pockets of youthful cosmopolitanism that may have something to do with its position as a university town. Rumiko recalls that in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s it was a hotbed of student radicalism, edging into outright revolutionary sedition and terrorism thanks to the influence of the Japan Red Army. Nowadays it has cafés and wine bars.
Music talk at Butcher eventually cycled round to traditional music, with the Neputa Matsuri festival, and its Aomori City-based sister Nebuta. The festival features large illuminated floats that travel around town, and as with many such local events, participants cover all age groups and both men and women share the roles. Still sticking with my theme of the hometown-as-death, one origin story that caught my eye of Nebuta Matsuri has a victorious Japanese warlord ordering the families of defeated Emishi clansmen buried alive in the soil of their homeland, while their former followers are enslaved and ordered to tamp the dirt down over their suffocating corpses. Whether it has any truth to it or not, I don’t know, but it’s the story that suits the metaphor I’m currently working with, so for that reason alone I choose to believe it.
Rumiko pointed out that Hirosaki’s Neputa differs from Aomori City’s Nebuta in that the flutes play in a minor key rather then the major key favoured by Aomori. Nevertheless, while flutes and drums are the traditional instruments of almost any Japanese festival, the sheer size of some of the drums in both Aomori and Hirosaki’s festival is of note. Given the percussive nature of the local shamisen style, one wonders if Aomori Prefecture doesn’t take being a slave to the rhythm a little further than other parts of the country.
The next day I needed to make the crossing into Akita prefecture, and with the terror of the tunnels still fresh in my mind, I needed to plan my route carefully. Music would go on the backburner for three days of travel.