If the hills between Miyazaki and Kagoshima were a struggle, those between Kagoshima and Miyazaki were a bitch. When travelling in Tohoku, Niigata and Nagano, the more mountainous paths would usually give you a sort of sort of Sophie’s Choice between a gruelling mountain or a terrifying tunnel. Kyushu just grins, opens its arms wide and declares, “I not make you choose, friend! I give you mountain and tunnel!”
As with the Hokuriku area, where the Shinkansen opened in 2015, the area between Kumamoto and Kagoshima was opened up to the Shinkansen relatively recently, and so small, relatively empty towns like Izumi, where I stayed the first night, now have shiny new bullet train stations.
In the 2011 film Kiseki (I Wish in English) the completion of the Shinkansen linking Fukuoka in the north and Kagoshima in the south is a key plot point, and one of the subplots involves the makers of a local Kagoshima snack discussing a proposed special edition of their speciality in order to cash in on the arrival of the “Sakura” Shinkansen. The discussion they have echoes a lot of what musicians ought to consider in relation to how they respond to the arrival of new musical trends, i.e. chasing fashion and risking looking like gimmickry, or retaining their integrity and risking irrelevance in the broader context into which they have been thrust. I tend to think that “irrelevant” is a useful stick with which to swipe away something I don’t like, but actually in its substance isn’t itself a particularly relevant idea. Fuck fashion: do what feels right.
As I crawl between the hills, I crisscross the new Shinkansen line, passing a number of places that may or may not be locations from the film. I also find myself in a 1.5 kilometre tunnel with no sidewalk or cycle path and nothing but the disorientating of what might be one small car or might be a fleet of enormous lorries, converging on me from any or all directions. In those situations, all you can safely do is just get off and walk, clinging to the tunnel sides, eyes straining into the distance for a glimpse of natural light. I recorded the last ten minutes of my journey through the tunnel and then, using that as a base, tried to recreate something of what it sounds like in my head while cycling through the countryside (basically moments of terrifying noise merged with ‘80s synth-pop disco and constantly looping clips of whatever was playing in the last hotel lobby).
Moving closer to Kumamoto, the curious mixture of picturesque, almost twee little country towns and hulking industrial dystopia starts to lean more and more towards the latter. A large, modern city, there’s still something about Kumamoto that feels a bit like the past (travelling through Kyushu generally can feel like travelling through time) and the hulking big bakelite phone in my hotel room reminds me of some of my musings on cassette culture. In Tokyo, that phone would have been part of an intricately constructed retro-chic ensemble, but here, it’s just because the hotel’s shit — “Meh, it still works. Leave it.” The act of fetishising an old object’s authenticity undermines its authenticity by transmuting its functionality into the realm of aestheticism, but like the cassette tapes in the Okinawan music store, this phone is functioning philosophically as it was originally intended (and by analysing it in this way, I’m fetishising it and just robbing it of what fascinates me most about it — ho hum).
Anyway, Kumamoto is another place I visit fairly regularly, since as the second major city in Kyushu after Fukuoka it’s a popular second stop on a short, weekend tour. The most popular venue for touring acts (at least the kind of acts I tend to work with) is Navaro, where I’ve helped organise a big event the following night. The other major venue as far as the local scene is concerned is Django, while Drum Be-9 is the Kumamoto branch of a commercial live music chain that runs a number of venues in Fukuoka.
Until recently, Kumamoto also hosted the marvellous On The Corner Records, run by one of the guys from the magnificent Ishiatamazizo – a caustic, Television-esque art-punk band. Another fine local band is Cultos, a sort of garage-punk cabaret act with a cross-dressing singer, while in recent years friends of mine in town have recommended the more post-rock-influenced Mulletcut. Apparently no longer playing are Trialerror and the devastatingly intense emo-disco-core band Cynicalsmileisyourfavorite, which is a terrible shame.
With a big event at Navaro the following night, I instead drop by Rock Bar Days where their deeply knowledgeable in-house DJ Kyoko Iwashita is spinning a meandering selection of indie tracks. As someone who tends to DJ lounges more than clubs, I tend to judge a DJ set based on whether it takes you on a journey rather than whether it makes you dance (dancing is at best optional in most of the indie music bars I frequent) and Days is a great place to go on one of those journeys. With the passing of On The Corner Records, Days is also one of the last places in town where you can pick up CDs by local artists, and even then not many. And yes, this is definitely a theme.