The Shinano River

The next major stop on the journey was Nagano City, but before that I would have to navigate my way 180km up the valley of the Shinano River.

The Shinano River in Niigata City
The Shinano River in Niigata City

I broke this journey up into three stages, beginning with a musical trip to Nagaoka. My first stopoff was a brief pilgrimmage to Saimyoji, a Buddhist temple in the town of Sanjo, where Kanagawa’s wonderful Extruders recorded their superb Pray live album. There wasn’t anyone around, so I contented myself with taking in the atmosphere of the temple grounds, the wooded hills rising up behind, and a view of a large electical grid relay station spread out before. Nature electrified: it’s a metaphor, see?

Continuing along roads stained blood-red across the mixture of picturesque rice farms and sprawling industrial estates, I arrived in Nagaoka. I drop by a shop called Tatsumakidou, which sells a mixture of clothes, organic produce, mix CDs and acoustic albums. I’d heard that the owner Inosun was a key figure in Nagaoka’s lively dub scene, and he turned out to be an enthusiastic evangelist for it, pointing out that Nagaoka has more dub soundsystems than any town east of Tokyo and that the area hosts a number of festivals, including Gosetsu Jam, Aozora Camp and One Jah.

“There are lots of free parties around Nagaoka – acoustic, hippy-style music as well as reggae and soundsystems. Audiences are quiet though. Audiences in the west are all like, ‘Waaaaagh!’ but here people listen quietly. Musicians often think they’re shy, but they’re just listening very intently.”

Tonight was an acoustic show by a singer called Keiho, who was touring his new album River. The audience, who all looked like they had been knitted out of hemp, were clearly familiar with him, and there was an element of the prodigal son at play, touched with an edge of gentle mockery. Supporting Keiho was local musician Phoka, who mischievously introduced him as “Keiho, from Ehime,” and throughout the show, the locals would pounce on excuses to remind him that he was an outsider. The way the dynamic played out was friendly though, and it seemed clear that the mockery was designed to take the edge off any awkwardness he might feel at coming back home after a long time away.

Phoka’s own music was what really stood out for me, however. As well as being an exceptional supporting musician, easily and responsively filling out Keiho’s songs with her improvisations and harmonies, she did a short opening set of her own, using just her own voice and a ukelele (so often the Ironic Devil’s instrument) and turning them towards the creation of haunting, abstract folk music of Cocteau Twins-like spectral beauty, as well as her more conventional folk songs.

Phoka, full live set

Inosun asked me where in the UK I was from, and he and some of the others freaked when I said Bristol. “People in Nagaoka have a lot of respect for Bristol,” he declared solemnly. Massive Attack, Tricky, the Wild Bunch. Good music.”

I agreed, but I always feel a bit of a fake talking about Bristol now. As I rejoined the Shinano River the next morning and crept on along its winding valleysides towards the onsen hotel where I would spend the night of my fourteenth anniversary of living in Japan, I realised that the one month that had passed since leaving Koenji was what exerted the greatest homeward pull on me.

At dinner, two old guys had come out to the onsen to check in on their friendship, and Bristol meant nothing to them. “Whereabouts in Tokyo do you live? Koenji? Really? I’m going there tomorrow!”

He worked in construction and was going to Higashi Koenji, just a stone’s throw from my apartment, to build a house.

“What sort of job do you do?” he asks.

“Same thing as you: I try to build a home for people in Koenji,” I didn’t reply. He hadn’t been reading this blog, so he wouldn’t get the joke.

The Shinano River roars on through the night, and again I follow her curves towards Nagano, moving into higher and higher ground, battling over hills, and growing shorter and shorter of breath.

Nagano eventually greets me with apples and gunfire. I first guess they are blank shells fired off automatically at intervals to scare off birds, although the big yellow warning sign depicting a soldier in full combat gear complicates that theory somewhat.

In any case, this ambiguous welcome isn’t enough to dull my sense of achievement. One month to the day after I left Tokyo for Hokkaido, I’d made it half the length of the country. How d’you like them apples?apples


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