One area of Japan that I couldn’t visit during the eastern stage of my trip last autumn, and which doesn’t easily fit into the western stage either, is the Hokuriku area. Strictly speaking the region also includes Niigata, which I visited in October, but the core of the region is Fukui, Ishikawa and Toyama prefectures, all on the Japan Sea coast, separated by huge expanses of mountains from the Tokai area through which the main east-west travel routes have traditionally run.
My initial plan was to take the train through each of the three prefectures (in February, the whole region is engulfed in snow and cycling would be suicidal), but in the end I decided making my base in Ishikawa’s capital of Kanazawa and branch out to nearby cities would allow me to be more flexible with my schedule. The next amendment to the plan was to cut Fukui from the itinerary and visit it while I’m in Kyoto later on in the trip.
Travelling by train obviously gets you where you want to go much faster than crawling between cities by bicycle, often taking days at a time to reach your destination. The flipside of that is that by bypassing those slow struggles through the countryside, you lose the sense of distance and place. Especially with the recent opening of the Hokuriku Shinkansen, the area gains a great deal in business, but loses some of its sense of place: you step into an air conditioned carriage at one end, and thus insulated, you zip past miles of countryside and the destination where you end up feels like it could be anywhere.
The weather doesn’t give a fuck about any high-speed rail connection though, and in that way at least Kanazawa feels wildly different from Tokyo. When I was cycling through Niigata, I remember noticing these curious little metal rings, drilled into the centre of the roads, almost like nails fixing them in place lest they buckle and tear themselves free from the earth. They annoyed me because there seemed to be no real purpose for them, but hey, local quirks, whatever.
In Kanazawa in the dead of winter, I finally discovered what they were for. Water is squirted through them to prevent snow from settling on the roads, and Ishikawa was going through some serious snow while I was there.
The next problem was finding people and places to go. Perhaps the most famous record label in Kanazawa is the Rallye label, which recently has released some well regarded indie albums from Suichuu Zukan and Annie the Clumsy (both Tokyo/Kanto area artists), although their Kanazawa operations seem to be focused around their store, which nowadays seems to be primarily a fashion boutique.
Rallye were too busy to meet me during my stay, so that left my other main point of connection, the Aotoao label and its owner Asuna. Asuna is someone I’d heard about from avant-garde monk Enshu in Niigata and local organiser Chifumi in Matsumoto, and more than anything else, he was the person I really wanted to meet. After some leveraging of my connections and general pestering, I was able to arrange to meet him at Kapo, the multi-purpose arts space he works out of, situated in a disused bank.
Asuna is himself a musician and organiser, as well as running his Aotoao and WFTTapes labels, and it becomes clear talking to him that the relationship between art and location is important. His label’s releases, while not exclusively local, do feature a lot of local artists, he doesn’t work with people he hasn’t met and seen play in person, and he even titled one of his own albums after the full address of the apartment where he lived for a while in Tokyo some years ago. He notes with an air of disappointment that the way that the Internet has simplified access to information about music has also had the effect of ironing out the creative misunderstandings that often made local scenes so distinctive.
One of his most curious projects is a series of compilations, each on an 80mm CD, featuring 21 artists, with songs of around one minute in length, recorded using vintage Casiotone synthesisers. The artists are a mixture of Ishikawa-based musicians, those from around Japan, and plenty from abroad (Casiotone For The Painfully Alone opens the second volume of the series, and a number of Chicago artists from the general orbit of Tortoise also take part). Again, these are all people Asuna has met and cultivated relationships with – they’re people he traveled to meet or who traveled to meet him, so the sense of space, distance and location is still in some way preserved in the process.
A key local figure Asuna identifies is Hideaki Shimada, who played as part of Merzbow in the early days before it became simply Masami Akita’s solo project. Shimada sometimes plays under the name Agencement, and has organised local shows for the likes of Evan Parker. Also hailing from Ishikawa is folk singer Rima Kato (whose brother Yu is also a musician, under the name Family Basik and whose father played in legendary ’70s underground rock band Murahachibu). Greenmachine were a defining band in the hardcore and underground rock scene, with the mathy Ningen OK having gained a reputation a generation or two on in the same loose scene.
Going back further, the area is now home to Tsutomu Nakayama, formerly of ‘70s underground legends Zuno Keisatsu, while in the ‘80s Kanazawa gave birth to avant-rock band Cock C’Nell, who still play about once a year in their home town.
While Kapo can host relatively large live events as well as small acoustic shows and even contemporary dance, it is also a workspace for artists, and its relative remoteness from the centre of town means it’s not the sort of place you’d casually drop by for a drink. In Kanazawa, that role seems to be taken by Mero Mero Pochi.
When I drop by, there is a troupe of actors rehearsing a short production that they’re going to be performing in Tokyo a couple of weeks later. They’re kind enough to let my hang out and take a few photos – they claim it has something to do with the September 11th terrorist attacks, although the story also seemed to involve a dying elephant, a sword-wielding gangster and a couple’s troubled sex life over its 20-minute running time.
Mero Mero Pochi hosts live events, includes a small CD shop of its own and serves some of the most magnificent curry I’ve ever tasted. Nearby Mokkiriya is apparently another popular place for musicians to hang out, while Kanazawa also features the usual array of more conventional live houses and clubs, like the large Eight Hall and smaller AZ Hall and vanvanV4. Among the local record stores, Record Jungle is deservedly legendary, its vast stacks winding round and round, covering a huge range of genres, all in some impressive depth. Its local music section is confined to a single small cardboard box that seemed half full of CDs by Tokyo-based Suichuu, Sore wa Kurushii, but there were some genuine Japanese underground oddities hidden away in some of its boxes for those with the patience to rifle through them.
In general, I’ve confined my travels to temperate months that are more congenial to cycling, with economics and the flow of information sitting at the heart of my concept of musical development. The idea that geographical factors like the climate could influence the development of music culture has seemed like a vague and unsatisfyingly fuzzy notion, but walking back to the hotel through growing mounds of slushy snow, the climate felt anything but vague, and it was easy to wonder how anyone in Kanazawa gets out to shows through a large part of the year.