Top of the charts

My first night in Akita City was spent listening to the howling wind and rain battering my window. The following morning, only the wind remained, and I was able to take in the castle and surrounding Senshu Park.

Akita comes across as a town not very used to foreigners. Children say “Hello” and then run off laughing. Old people in the park strike up conversations in frankly incomprehensible dialects. Gardeners greet you as you walk by. As a trtaveller, it’s lovely, but it’s also a sort of friendliness mixed with a conscious sense of your otherness. Tokyo has a reputation for being cold, but as a place to live it has the value of being a town that respects your freedom to be ignored.

Also, however, in Akita’s case – with mountain ranges cutting it off from its neighbours to the north, east and south, and the sea to its west; with a population rapidly fleeing the prefecture; with a suicide rate that has topped the national charts for the past twenty years – I suspect this sense of my otherness as a foreigner is mixed with a sense of their own otherness as a rather isolated enclave in one of the most depopulated areas of Japan.

There are four main live venues in Akita – Loud Affection, Club Swindle, Live Spot 2000, and Live Space 4-kai – but even on this Friday night, none of them had any shows on. My usual pre-visit casting around for recommendations had already thrown up pop-punk band Rubber Johnny and epic indie rock band Halos, but In order to make sure I had at least something to take away from the day directly from the source, I paid a visit to Tower Records and spoke to the store’s buyer.

The most popular music was basically the same as everywhere else on Japan, with awful One OK Rock and Fear, and Loathing in Las Vegas (a band both remarkable and disgusting for their use of an Oxford Comma in their name) among the current top sellers. This is perhaps to be expected, but it nevertheless bears noting: mainstream pop cultural hegemony is alive and well, even in such a self-consciously isolated area.

Asuka Aoya: Fuyu no Kamisama

Tower also had a special display promoting local bands, the most popular of which seems to be Karasu, a typically emotional rock band who are of no artistic value whatsoever. More promising was Asuka Aoya, whose min’yo-tinged folk melodies and mixture of jazz and country arrangements give her music a bit more character than the usual singer-songwriter fodder. Most interesting perhaps was Eishin & The Meditationalies, a band led by a Buddhist monk and whose sunny, reggae-influenced folk pop has a lot going on under the surface (if you can get past the cheesy rasta overtones of single Unity).

Yu Takahashi probably stands as Akita’s favourite son with his generic brand of feelgood pop-rock embodying a kind of unifying power that probably makes more sense in an Akita context. Where as a musician in Tokyo you actively seek atomisation in order that your community be manageably small, in a more sparsely populated place, these cultural lightning rods that bring people together are more important. Local pop heroes like Takahashi, local festivals like Nebuta/Neputa Matsuri, and some combination of both. Akita Prefecture’s Oomagari fireworks festival is the largest in Japan, and Asuka Aono played live at last year’s event.

These sorts of local festivals occur around Tokyo as well, and are ways of asserting the identity of towns and districts within the metropolis, and a cross section of the community generally does get involved to a greater or lesser degree. However, as with my local area Koenji’s huge Awa-odori festival, they are often manufactured, imported from elsewhere, and the connection between the music and the location within Tokyo is becoming more and more eroded, with local festivals rarely providing a useful medium for music to set down roots.

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