A Taste of Brilliant

The second major leg of my journey begins in Miyazaki on the island of Kyushu. Kyushu is the part of Japan where I’ve spent more time than anywhere outside Tokyo, but of the seven prefectures that make up the island, Oita and Miyazaki are places I’ve never been. Part of the reason for that is that the Kyushu transport network is concentrated in the north and west, with urban centres running roughly along the line traced by the Kyushu Shinkansen. Even people in neighbouring Kagoshima don’t know much about Miyazaki beyond a general sense that it’s vaguely tropical, and on more than one occasion I’ve heard them refer to it as “mysterious”.

After the palaver of lugging my bicycle to Sapporo on the train last September, I decided to have it shipped to my hotel in Miyazaki ahead of time, along with most of my luggage. So I was feeling light in both a physical and spiritual sense when I arrived in the mysterious city on the uncharted side of Kyushu, which all told looked pretty similar to any other mid-sized Japanese city, bar the addition of a few palm trees lining the central boulevard.

In Sendai last year, one of the people I’d met was Carl from the Bikini Lounge label, who had released the Miyazaki-based artist Rain Paints. By luck, Rain Paints was playing the night I arrived, at a cosy but spacious music bar called Park.

The show is part of the release tour for Kyoto dance music/post-post-Shibuya-kei producer Halfby’s new album, while Tokyo’s Videotapemusic also shared the bill, with his own laid-back, fuzzy pop grooves chopped together from old VHS cassettes. Rain Paints is basically the solo project of singer-songwriter Yasushi Matsuo, who specialises in a sort of faintly melancholy, British ‘80s-influenced indiepop (somewhere between The Cure and Felt) and he gives a warm, intimate performance.

The audience laughs every time he mentions he has cassettes for sale, so where Tokyo and other hip and with-it towns are grooving on tapes, and Okinawa never seemed to have got past the point where cassettes stopped being useful, Miyazaki appears to be caught between those worlds. A big reason why I’ve only dipped my toes tentatively into cassette and vinyl releases through my own Call And Response label is the suspicion I have that in most of the country they’re viewed as a weird, cosmopolitan big city innovation that’ll never catch on outside hipster central. I’ve heard all the arguments against CDs, but short of abandoning physical media altogether (which most bands don’t seem to want), the CD remains the simplest, most affordable to make, most accessible and most democratic medium that exists for music. I still have a lot of affection for cassettes, and there are some sorts of music where a bit of tape hiss can really work with the recorded sounds (noise, drone, some sorts of lo-fi indiepop). I do as well for vinyl, although it’s far too expensive to make as anything other than a high-end boutique product in Japan, and vinyl fundamentalists are the absolute worst, most obnoxious kind of music fan. Anyway, I don’t think we should be so eager to discount the appeal of the CD just yet.

Back at Park, the audience is getting drunker and drunker, which would be almost unheard of at a similarly fashionable indie event in Tokyo, and I get collared by one guy who wants to know what music is cool in the UK right now. Having not lived there for over fourteen years, and having no particular knowledge of recent overseas music, all I can offer is, “Um, my wife likes Chvrches recently.” The guy decides this is enough and loudly declares me the reincarnation of St. Francis Xavier, the Jesuit missionary who brought Christianity to Japan.

Another guy namechecks a few local bands, including the recently split up Odokemono, electronic producer Metajun, and says he plays in a band himself (he gives me a bandname but Google is drawing a blank and I try to keep a rule of only mentioning independently verifiable bands). He spots another guy in the room who works at a record store and knows a lot of about local record shops and approaches him.

“Hey, come over and talk to this guy. He’s a music journalist from the UK who wants to learn about local music in Miyazaki.”

Record store guy looks over his shoulder at me, then back at the guy.

“I’m busy talking to someone else.”

OK, I guess not him then.

The night ends with a photo of all the survivors, taken by the drunkest guy in the room, who ruins the picture through being unable to keep the camera steady. It’s a fitting end to the evening.

It’s not the end of my stay on Miyazaki though. I haven’t given up totally on record stores, and the next day I drop by Fact Records. It’s a dance music and hip hop speciality store, with some impressively deep cuts hidden away in the stacks, but I spot a Rain Paints 7-inch on the wall so it’s clear they support local music of whatever stripe. The owner points to a guy across the room and says, “See that guy? That’s MC Ject – the best rapper in Miyazaki.”

Later on I pass on the more traditional live venues like Weather King and instead drop by Strobo Mambo, a music bar run by Mabo-san, who used to play in a band called Kick’n the Lion (their guitarist Soh Yoshikane now plays for Zazen Boys). Rain Paints Matsuo’s wife is from Sendai, and at Park she had remarked on the difference in the local atmosphere as being that Miyazaki people seem to her easygoing to the point of being kind of unreliable (“They never show up on time,” she points out.) With this in mind, it is apparently in typical Miyazaki style that Strobo Mambo seems to open and close at completely random times. Smaller than Park, Strobo Mambo also hosts live events on occasion, and it seems to be the place all the musicians hang out when they’re off duty. There’s a really drunk guy here too, despite the bar only having opened about five minutes ago, and he aggressively insists one girl sing karaoke. A newlywed couple come in and the drunk guy goes and sits with them.

Meanwhile, Mabo-san and I start to realise our circles of friends in Tokyo has a massive overlap among members of the whole late-‘90s/early-2000s alternative scene that blossomed around Tokyo, while he waxes lyrical about the Japanese new wave scene of the ‘80s. There’s nothing like that in Miyazaki, he remarks. The girl next to me says that whenever she wants to see a band she likes, she has to travel to Fukuoka, 300km away at the other end of Kyushu. I’m not sure about this – I’ve been here one day and already seen a terrific local act – but it’s telling that even Miyazaki locals see themselves as a backwater.DSC_6073

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