If Matsumoto was the first place on my travels where you could start to feel the touch of Tokyo’s direct influence, Gunma Prefecture is where that influence startes to blur and distort the identity of the place to the point where it becomes hard to even see it as a place in its own right.
The geography of the Kanto area plays a part as well. As the largest, widest area of flat, open land in Japan, the Kanto Plain is the most populated and most urbanised area of Japan, and without the mountains or long stretches of countryside dividing one prefecture from another, the identities of Gunma, Saitama, Kanagawa, Tokyo, Chiba, Ibaraki and Tochigi Prefectures can feel blurred at the edges, or even as if they blend into one greater Tokyo area.
Walking around Takasaki, I take in a curious local music and culture festival featuring what seems to be a mix of local schools and other cultural clubs and organisations, before indulging my love of run-down rural shopping arcades at the ambitiously named Chuo Ginza. Lying on the flat Kanto Plain part of Gunma rather than in its mountainous hinterland, Takasaki is the musical heart of Gunma. The live venue Sunburst caters to the local rock and punk scenes, while the larger Fleez provides for more mainstream tastes.
Tonight, however, I’m meeting up with Furukawa from local hardcore band Sarushibai and heading to Cool Fool in neighbouring Maebashi. Cool Fool is a small rock bar and live spot run by Atsushi Sato, one of ‘80s punk band and Nagomu Records alumni Bachikaburi’s many former members, who also had a career in Beijing with The Fly, which Furukawa describes as the “number one deep spot in Gunma”.
The night we are there is a live music night featuring a bunch of old rockers playing classic rock homages. What was interesting about it was the extent to which they all laced their performances with an intimate sort of humour. Aware of the small setting, there was no way they could perform as rock stars, so they instead made it a kind of cabaret performance of rock music. There are of course other ways of dealing with small performance spaces, and punk bands may respond to the same situation by turning the cramped proximity into an opportunity to confront and break down the barriers with the audience in a ferocious hothouse of noise. An indiepop band might use the same space to create an intimate, cosy atmosphere.
Tokyo bands are experts at dealing with small venues, and the extent to which the kind of music that comes out of a place is moulded and defined by the kinds of venues that bands can get cannot be underestimated. When a band steps out into a tiny little box of a venue with a low or non-existent stage leaving hardly any barrier between the band and audience, that band cannot come on like some chest-thumping stadium rock legend – they just look stupid.
The music the old guys at Cool Fool are making isn’t particularly great or interesting, but it works within its environment and it’s hard to fault it in context. Furukawa takes a dim view of most of the Gunma music scene, blaming local success stories Back Number for fostering a generation of dreary, plodding pop-rock bands. At the more extreme fringes, he recommends metal band Immortal Sense, crust punks Totsugeki Sensha, and grindcore band Little Bastards, noting with some resignation that all these bands are now in their 40s. Sasurau are a rare band taking a more arty approach with their Lightning Bolt-influenced drum- and guitar-based sound.
Around midnight we are joined by a group of friends from out of town, including my Call And Response Records colleague Shingo “Rally” Nakagawa, his fiancé Manami, and noise turntablist DJ Memai.
Anyone who has spent a lot of time in Japan will know that for all the Japanese people’s vaunted politeness, they are total assholes when it comes to remarking on your weight. “Hi, long time no see, you got fat,” is a perfectly ordinary and common greeting here. Japan is a nation populated entirely by your grandmother. After 1,000km of cycling, I was curious to see how friends from Tokyo would react on seeing me again, and I got the impression that they were looking forward to the opportunity to judge me as well.
The results were anticlimactic. Upon reuniting, we just got through all the greeting hugs, then I was prodded in the belly a few times and they cautiously agreed that, “Hmm… I guess you look a bit thinner. Around the face at least.” Upon seeing myself in profile in a photograph for the first time on the trip, I was forced to conclude that even that may have been overstating my case. How could I travel all that distance and not look any thinner? OK, it was hardly the point of the journey, but I had expected at least some fringe benefits. I guess it’s something that comes with ageing.
Imai from Saitama-based underground band S-explode was also with them. S-explode are one of the bands whose name kept cropping up here and there as I travelled the country, and their admirers seem to be spread widely. Viewed from outside, the difference between Saitama and Tokyo can seem pretty meaningless, and it’s clear that no one really saw S-explode as particularly distinct from the Tokyo scene. Even people from Saitama themselves are often unsure. Indeed, when I was in Sendai, I asked the vocalist from a visiting band from a the capital where in Tokyo he lived and his reply was “Saitama in Tokyo.”
There are always particular places though, and Imai is in charge of booking at the venue LadderLadder in Chichibu. A small tourist town in the mountains, Chichibu has an atmosphere quite distinct from Tokyo’s, and thanks perhaps largely to Imai himself it has become a popular annex to the underground and experimental music scene in Tokyo and beyond. As I travelled around eastern Japan, the idea that “there’s cool stuff happening in Chichibu” was widespread, and that mostly comes down to this one venue. Where Chichibu differs from a place like Matsumoto, however, is the extent to which a place like LadderLadder relies on being able to bring a large portion of its audience out from Tokyo for some of these events – particularly high profile underground shows like Tokyo Boredom and MultipleTap events. On most days, the place is closed, just like any other small town live venue.
Imai is part of the MultipleTap collective, which allowed me to finally quiz someone on why the short documentary on noise and experimental music they had shown at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival had been presented as a silent film. He shrugged. He had no idea what was going through everyone’s minds and thought it was a stupid idea. “The trailer was cool though.”