The long periods I’ve spent on this tour just travelling through the Japanese countryside are just as important a part of the journey as the destinations they take me to for a number of reasons.
Partly they function as a kind of enforced, controlled boredom, washing my mind clear by giving it a single, repetitive task to handle (“move from A to B while not dying”). Partly they serve to give me a real, physical sense of the distances between towns, helping to put each place in some kind of psychogeographical context. Partly they serve as a reminder of what a small proportion of the country’s landmass is occupied by cities, and what a limiting factor that urban prism can be on my understanding of the world.
One thing that spending a lot of time in the countryside has done is make me reassess the way I use the words “natural” and “artificial”.
One of my first reactions to Nagano City was of a sense of artificiality. It’s a pretty town with a lot of apparently old buildings, but their facades have been hollowed out and their insides reconstructed in a distinctly modern way. As with many places back in Tohoku, there is a visible desire to repurpose old buildings, but while the artists who occupy old buildings in economically depressed areas often have engage with the past anf what the buildings represent in certain ways, Nagano is a tourist town, and that gives a particular economic charge to the kind of repurposing that goes on. The old buildings of Nagano feel twee, and ultimately fake. They are there for display, like a theme park version of a traditional Japanese town.
But then, after three days following the Shinano River through Niigata, is it really right for me to be using the word “fake” like that. Doesn’t Nature itself have a monopoly on the meaning of the word “natural”? Isn’t all urban existence, and indeed basically all rural existence, a deviation from the natural? What I’m really arguing with isn’t that something is natural or artificial: what I’m arguing with is the fetishisation of the past without critical engagement with what it represents. If the contents, décor and all, of the store occupying that old wood-framed building could have been lifted wholesale from an identical store somewhere in Daikanyama or Ginza, what is the point of the old wood-framed building? For someone travelling the country, looking at the way art engages with place, this kind of thing is the visual language of The Enemy.
Still, if picturesque locales like Nagano attract tourists, that simply creates the economic reality of the place, within which musicians have to operate, and while the atmosphere of the town is very different, certain other rules of thumb seem to hold true.
The number of live venues seemed consistent with the population, including an outlet of the Junk Box chain, the rock-orientated J, the more acoustic India Live The Sky, and local favourite Neon Hall. When you talk to local musicians, Neon Hall is practically the only place they mention, and looking at the schedules of one or two hip local bands shows it is where they play nearly every gig. Situated in one of those gorgeous, rickety old buildings of which Nagano seems to have so many, with a funky, retro bookshop on the ground floor, it used to be owned by the bass player of Ogre You Asshole and remains the hub of at least the artier end of the prefecture’s live scene.
It’s also closed all month for rehearsals of a theatrical production. Ho hum.
Another link I had to the local music culture of Nagano was the Antenna group, who style themselves as a sort of local muscal culture organisation and claim to have a record shop run out of another repurposed old building. Ominously quiet when I approached the building, all my enquiries ended up falling into damp silence, and when I returned three days later, signs of occupancy were every bit as sparse. “Did they contact you?” asked the café owner who had tried to put me in touch with them the first time round, with a look on his face that said, “They didn’t, did they? I expected as much.”
While Nagano City is certainly the town in the prefecture that produces the most local musical culture, it was Matsumoto where I found the most information, the most open doors and the liveliest people.
Matsumoto is like a kind of super-Nagano, with all the prefectural capital’s touristy quaintness magnified in every possible way. From the famous castle to the cutesy shopping streets to the beautifully manicured riverbank, if there was something that discomfited me about Nagano, Matsumoto should have troubled me tenfold.
That it didn’t is probably a result of its smallness. My friend Iguz from Kagoshima had recommended a bar called Give Me Little More, where her band Futtachi had played once on tour, meanwhile a friend of a friend, Atsuko, who I had got in touch with via the usual convoluted network of friendships and acquaintances, had also directed me to the same place. When two recommendations from completely unrelated sources intersect, that’s always a sign that a place is worth checking out, and Give Me Little More turned out to be exactly the place I needed to be, albeit at exactly the wrong time once more.
With one room holding a conventional bar counter and a small hall in the back with a PA and drum kit, GMALM is an important live venue in its own right as well as one of those places where you can just go and sit while a parade of local music scene characters pass through the door, delivering flyers and negotiating live schedules.
One guy giving out flyers for an event called Sound Lab turns out to be from a local post-Shibuya-kei act called WPX, while the owner, Nimi, organises an indiepop party called Hungry Beat. Nimi recommends local band Bears Markin’ (a band who are so traditional and retro their web site is an old-skool BBS page) and Nagano City lo-fi indie outfit The Ooparts, while he points to the now defunct (but quite excellent) garage-punk/riot grrrl trio P-Heavy as a great recent act.
For Nimi, however, the key to what keeps things lively is the surprisingly large number of overseas actus who pass through Matsumoto on tour. Given its size (pop. 240,000), it shouldn’t be such a significant stop, but its attraction as a tourist spot perhaps gives it greater pull as a destination for visiting artists, and perhaps the town’s aesthetic appeal has also fed into a disproportionate number of creative people in its arts scene.
Atsuko and a group of visiting friends from out of town come in at this point, followed by Chifumi, former guitarist of P-Heavy. Chifumi makes a point that strikes home to me in two distinct but important ways: Matsumoto is really close to Tokyo.
Now Matsumoto isn’t that close to Tokyo, but it isn’t that far either. It’s less than 200km from Hachioji, which is a point of debate between Mission Control and I over whether it really qualifies as Tokyo at all, but it’s close enough. It’s close enough that visiting Matsumoto from Tokyo isn’t that big a stretch for a casual trip. For the first time in my journey so far, I had found myself at the fringes of Tokyo’s gravitational reach – Matsumoto was within striking distance of its tentacles.
There was something else too though. Over those nights on the road from Niigata, I had been interested to discover the extent to which over the years the notion of “home” had come to be intertwined with Koenji and Tokyo and untangled from Bristol. Matsumoto was a significant place for me because it is the final stop on the Chuo Line – the line that runs through Kofu in Yamanashi Prefecture, Mission Control’s hometown of Hachioji, and eventually Koenji itself and on to Shinjuku and Tokyo Station. You could look at the express trains on the platform and see the names of familiar places on the destination boards. It was tempting to just forget about my bicycle, hidden in the back of a restaurant garage in Nagano City and just hop on a train home.
It turns out that part of the reason for Matsumoto’s popularity with overseas acts is Chifumi herself though, and through the contacts she picked up in her P-Heavy days, she has been able to bring various acts to Matsumoto, as well as putting on her own Nami to Kami improv and experimental events. I Am Robot and Proud will be in town tomorrow, while Pika (ex-Afrirampo) will be there next week.
The fatigue of constant movement is taking a toll on me by the time I get back to Nagano City, and I pass up an acoustic event at India The Sky in favour of a long sleep. To reach Takasaki in Gunma Prefecture, I have mountains and high places to cross, and I don’t know if I’m up to it. One thing Matsumoto has given me that I’m sure to see more of as my journey progresses, however, is a sense of home being within reach. What’s left of it.