Countdown

As I got closer and closer to the end of my journey, I could feel a certain impatience creeping into my attitude towards each new place I visited. Perhaps it was the proximity to Tokyo, the growing list of things-to-do when I returned, or maybe weariness after coming up to six weeks on the road, but I was starting to see each new place as an obstacle to be overcome, as a ticking clock counting down to my return. Whether the end of that countdown promised relief or doom I still wasn’t sure, and while part of me was eager to return home in a blaze of glory, another part was just as powerfully tempted to just keep on pedalling past Tokyo and on to wherever the road takes me.

The burning in the fields remained, but the landscape began to feel more like Tokyo. I would encounter convenience stores and cross railway lines more frequently, I would recognise the names of the train stations more often as I crossed Saitama, Tochigi and made my way into Ibaraki.

Ibaraki is one of those prefectures that provokes an instant sense of cultural dread in Tokyoites, its name synonymous with rural oblivion. The movie Shimotsuma Monogatari (Kamikaze Girls in English) is a tribute to the tenacity and inner strength weirdos and outsiders need to survive, its eerily quiet landscape of rice fields and electricity pylons, all watched over by the surreal and monstrously tacky Ushiku Great Buddha statue.

I was fortunate enough to be offered a roof by Slovenian friends of mine, who survive in the aimless suburban sprawl of Tokai Mura thanks to a love of surfing – the one alternative lifestyle these places can offer with which the big city simply cannot compete. I was also able to meet up with my friend Nino, who I knew from his days living in Fukuoka via the excellent offbeat indie/post-rock band ruruxu/sinn, and who had also spent time in Aomori, introducing me to many of the best bands the area had to offer too.

Nino drew a blank when I quizzed him about the local music scene, admitting that when he wants to catch live shows now, he will tend to take the train the 150-odd kilometres to Tokyo rather than Ibaraki’s main city of Mito. Another friend of mine, who makes annual visits to the prefecture to attend the Rock in Japan music festival (which I’ve never been to but can nevertheless say with complete confidence is the worst music festival in the world), claims that even when its hotels are swelled with festivalgoers, Mito’s nightlife is pretty bleak.

“Brahman are a really important band from Ibaraki,” Nino says, “and all the young Ibaraki bands kind of sound like them, a bit like how the Fukuoka scene still has the influence of Number Girl.”

Brahman

With my antenna set to maximum strength, I found online what appeared to be a record shop/music lounge called Lights Out Records, and made my way into town to seek it out, in the hope of extracting some local expertise from the staff. On locating the store at around 5pm, I found only a pitch-dark staircase, indicating that either the store took its name far too literally or that it was closed. So much for that.

Stepping back outside, I decided to take a photo for the record before moving on, only for a man on a bicycle to catch my attention. Spend enough time among music people and you get pretty good at judging people’s muso-tribal affiliations from how they dress, and there was something about this guy that screamed “Record store owner!” at maximum volume. I peered closer as he was tying up his bike and spotted a badge of… wait, what the fuck is this? The Stingrays? The fucking Stingrays?

The Stingrays are a Buzzcocks-esque first-generation punk band from my other home of Bristol, who I had helped out a few hears ago getting started on a Japan tour. While my own booking efforts proved more or less useless (I don’t have enough contacts in the particular garage-punk corner of the music scene that they really needed to be playing to reach their natural Japanese fanbase), I’ve kept in touch with them and always try to catch them at least once on their semi-regular visits. There was a tremendous sense of feeling a link to home in seeing that badge, but it had nothing to do with Bristol and everything to do with the music. It was that instant feeling of connection you get when you encounter the secret handshake that indicates a fellow member of your cult. I confronted the guy with my knowledge of his secret and a cascade of further points of contact tumbled out of us. His name was Kikuchi and of course he knew Sumire (my old friend who I had run into in Sendai), and naturally he was good friends with DJ Wizz Jones (who frequently plays at my parties – and indeed everybody else’s – in Tokyo) – of course he’d be happy to show me around his shop.

Lights Out Records is a single, tiny room – no more than a closet really – and it’s clear from looking at it that there’s no way it survives as a record store alone. Like Mortar Records in Kumagaya, or Raf-Rec in Yamagata, or almost any record stores that manage to cling onto life these days, it’s the attached bar/DJ and live space that keeps it open.

“It’s a shame you’re not here on a weekend. We always have things going on at weekends.”

The same refrain came from the staff at Antenna, the café Kikuchi took me to afterwards. We catch two of the staff deep in discussion as they try to define the batshit junk-hardcore band Manga Shock, who one of them had seen at a show in Tokyo, at Shimokitazawa Three recently. “There’s nothing really on tonight. Weekends are fun though!”

Anorak Joy

One of the staff at Antenna plays in a band called Anorak Joy, which is the indiest name for an indie band ever devised. A young rock band called Super I Love You are one of the hottest new bands coming through, while post-rock band Inweu were the one piece of local flavour Nino could offer up unconditionally, so seeing his endorsement intersect with Kikuchi’s own recommendation was a reliable sign that there was something worth paying attention to (even if “better than Toe” sets a pretty low bar in the critical framework within which I operate).

Inweu

I left with a small stack of CDs and a nagging desire to come back and play a DJ set at Lights Out sometime. On my way back to the station, I passed a crowd of kids outside the venue Light House, with a sign outside promising the band within were on their “Major Debut Tour” (possibly the three most dispiriting words a live venue could ever combine in one phrase), on past the less inviting looking and therefore surely better Club Sonic, round the corner and into a little cluster of clothes shops.

I’d been able to identify Kikuchi as “one of us” instantly upon seeing him tying up his bicycle, and the connecton between music culture and fashion is still an important one, even if the balance has shifted from the latter as identifying marker of the former towards the former as an adjunct accessory to the latter. Shimotsuma Monogatari/Kamikaze Girls does a good job of exploring the importance of fashion and image as self expression and expression of group identity, and touches on the importance of music as part of that overall mix of signifiers. In Mito, shops like Baba Cool and Liquid are just as important as the record shops and cafés as laces where music people come, hang out and accessorise themselves with their tribal markers. The preponderance of mirrors in Liquid serves to remind me of how grossly overweight, old and unfashionable I am, and my instinctive fear and revulsion of fashion kicks in, preventing me from being able to talk to the staff, who seem happily deep in conversation with two girls anyway. I can’t help feeling that the self-expression aspect of fashion will always be undermined by the tribal aspect, and that music ought to be more than that, working at you from the inside out rather than the outside in. That may itself be just as much an expression of my own tribal prejudice though. Nevertheless, I slink away ashamed.

Super I Love You

I bid farewell to Mito, making a stopover in Tsukuba, a town so notoriously boring that my own band Trinitron immortalised in our electro-trance anthem One Great Year in Tsukuba – based entirely on the hedonistic tales of another Slovenian friend Sara’s time there as part of a group of students trying desperately to create their own entertainment.

I was disappointed to find Tsukuba a thoroughly pleasant little university town with a very nice bookshop called People that put on poetry readings and music events, often in association with the next door café. I also found an excellent bike shop run by Yasutomo Nakai, a former hardcore musician, with whom I could wax lyrical about bands like Deracine and Idea of a Joke. While people in Tohoku’s concept of Tokyo had been dominated by Koiwa and the venue Bushbash, people I met in the Kanto area seemed to set their compass by the western suburbs. Nakai at the bike shop had spent time in Koenji, while Yamazaki from Mortar Records had even slept rough around Higashi Koenji back in the ‘90s, and Kikuchi from Lights Out Records had lived in Kichijoji. Part of what keeps culture alive in the countryside surrounding Tokyo is people leaving for the capital and then later returning to their hometowns and starting up businesses.

The answer to the refrain I hear from so many of these people that they worry where their own successors will come from may lie there. Those people are still in Tokyo, Kyoto and wherever, and they just haven’t come home yet.

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