Chiba: A Warning from History

As I circled closer and closer to the end of this first main stage of my trip, an ambivalent sort of apprehension had crept into my mood. In one way, I was in a hurry to get home – the sight of train stations that I knew would get me back to Tokyo within just an hour or two, or the road signs that pointed me towards home, beckoning me from every fresh stop I made. At the same time, however, part of me didn’t want to stop – part of me wanted to just keep on going, past Tokyo, into Kanagawa and beyond. The anxious knowledge gnawed at me that on returning, I would find Tokyo more or less unchanged from how I had left it, stuck in the same repetitive cycles of the same old same old that I had embarked on my travels in part to escape.

The roads in Chiba are hostile to cyclists in a number of ways, from the lack of a hard shoulder or margin for cyclists to hug, the neverending stream of heavy trucks to the rough, juddering surfaces of the pavements. It was along these roads that I made my way to the final stop on my trip: Chiba City.

Chiba certainly can lay claim to some key acts in Japanese musical history, with noise legend Keiji Haino one of its most renowned sons, and Kenzo Saeki of Halmens ensuring Chiba had an important presence in the development of new wave in Japan. In my own early musical explorations back in the early 2000s, I found that Chiba University was home to some of the music that helped kickstart the late ‘90s new wave revival, with Skyfisher, Chiba Radar, Hiwatt Electric and Deadcopy. Meanwhile, Pine*am from the somewhat related early/mid-2000s post-Shibuya-kei scene also have roots in the Chiba area.

Halmens

More so than any place I’ve so far visited, however, Chiba is inseparable from the greater Tokyo urban sprawl, which has its own effect on the cultural infrastructure and landscape of the city. Chiba and the nearby city of Kashiwa represent the eastern outer fringes of the Disk Union record store chain, which is really the hub of Tokyo indie music’s distribution network – especially since Tower Records gave up caring about anything except idol music. The Chiba City branch was a bit of a wasteland, while the larget Kashiwa branch had at least a few CDs I recognised in its new indie releases section.

Nuntyaku

The staff I quizzed at Kashiwa Disk Union remarked that ten years ago there had been a strong local hardcore scene, with Nuntyaku a key band. The remnants of that scene still hold on in the band Kamomekamome, but even the record store staff themselves struggled to name anything of value nowadays.

I’ll be honest here: I hated Chiba.

The monorail again, because it's so cool
The monorail again, because it’s so cool

I’ve visited towns and prefectures where it was hard to find anything much going on, but there was always someone somewhere who was struggling against the challenges of getting interesting music made in an isolated, depopulated corner of the country, and those little sparks of life illuminated even the greyest parts of Tohoku. Chiba, on the other hand, is a massive, bustling city of nearly a million people, and everything about it just filled me with despair and existential horror.

You’re not supposed to say things like this about places, and there is a reaction that commonly greets such sweeping statements that runs along the lines, “You must have done something wrong. You must have just not found the right places.” There’s a desire to turn broad outward criticism back inward that permeates the contemporary way of thinking – a Panglossian idea that everything is as it should be and you just have to adjust your mind to deal with it, a neurotic millennial response to the horrors of a world you can’t control. It’s true though. Completely accidentally, because it’s not a response driven any more by logic thanthe instinctive urge to lash out, but nonetheless true.

The visceral hatred that Chiba evoked in me may have some truth to it (Chiba has numerous live venues, but they all seem to play the same dreadful J-rock, idol music and pop-punk – if you have any spark of imagination, you’re probably playing in Tokyo where you can be with other like-minded musicians and fans) but it wasn’t a reaction that came from an entirely rational place. I didn’t just think Chiba was boring: I felt offended, personally affronted by the place.

I walked around the town on Friday night, looking over the bridge at the railway station, seeing trains coming and going that would take me directly to Koenji, where that very night my friends would all in a couple of hourse be enjoying the November edition of the monthly party I help organise. I could hop on a train and be there in time for it to open. This was the extreme extent of the effect Tokyo was having on me as I got closer. The two conflicting ways of thinking that I had noticed coming into conflict as I passed through Aomori and Akita – the John Lennon and Jim O’Rourke musical mindsets – had put aside their differences as I had grown accustomed to travelling through relatively remote parts of the country, but now, so close to Tokyo, I had killed John Lennon, and the harsher, more exacting standards of my Jim O’Rourke self held sway utterly.

Perhaps had I been in Akita or Niigata, I might have gone to one of the less offensive looking shows on a whim, and maybe I would have found something of some mild value in one of the bands playing, but here, so close to home, with parties I wanted to see on within an easy train ride of my current location, the music of Chiba only offered me despair and alienation.

Gas Boys

Another problem was that Chiba had finally confounded my musical radar, showing up the limits of the network of musical acquaintances on whom I relied to point me in the direction of cool stuff. I suspect that Chiba actually has a pretty lively club scene. Bands like the rock-edged Gas Boys and the similarly named but quite different sounding Gameboys are doing interesting things with hip hop, but that’s a community with which I have no connections and an environment I don’t have the keys to move freely through.

Gameboys x JZA

As I cycled home through the same persistent, feeble slapping rain that had greeted my departure back in September, through the grey urban landscape and roads that seemed designed to make cyclists feel unwelcome, I was already making plans for next year’s second stage of my travels. What Chiba had given me more than anything was a sense of what I needed to watch out for – a forewarning: scan the maps for places that could throw up similar challenges and be prepared well ahead of time.

As industrial Chiba gave way to suburban Tokyo, I found myself able to slip cautiously back in amongst the traffic, the old muscle memory of the rhythm and flow of Tokyo roads taking over. Then there was that glorious moment, around Akihabara Station where through the by now torrential rain I saw the crossing between Meiji-dori and Yasukuni-dori and realised that I knew every street, every hill, every traffic light and pedestrian crossing between there and Koenji.

A huge grin spread over my face and I realised I was actually happy to be back home. Even the taxi drivers, usually a source of constant terror and anger for me, were a welcome sight as I slipped into the old routine of swerving to avoid their sudden lurches and stops, foiling their attempts to block me at red lights, anticipating their unpredictable mid-street manoeuvres.

As I passed the signs for home, the live venues and restaurants where I hang out, and pulled up outside the flat I left six weeks previously, I promised myself one thing:

No more Chibas.

Yes!
Yes!
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