The final location in the Kyushu leg of this trip was Oita, and I had some trepidation about it. More like Miyazaki than Saga, Oita is mostly free of Fukuoka’s gravitational pull, but as a result somewhat removed from the main flow of musical action. I know a lot of musicians from Oita but none in Oita – it had the image of a place that good musicians leave.
To get to it though, I had to navigate my way through the confusing mess of cities and sub-cities that make up Kitakyushu, before turning south along the coast to my first stop in Usa. In contrast to the rain-soaked trip to Kitakyushu, the road to Usa was bathed in glorious sun, with just enough of a chill in the air to make cycling pleasant. It was the first day of the entire journey where the landscape and elements threw up no obstacles at all: the first day where I felt myself unambiguously enjoying cycling.
The following day the weather held up but there were hills to deal with. After a couple of dozen kilometres of steadily growing inclines, weaving my way between hills and mountains, I found myself working my way painfully slowly up a steep slope, dropping down a gear, then another, then another, with each click of the crankset the top seeming to become a more distant goal. With sweat pouring off me in gushing torrents and my head becoming giddy with exhaustion, I heard the sound of a heavenly choir underscored with the clanking of chains and machinery. That’s it, I’ve died and the angels and minions of Hell have come to weigh my soul.
Welcome to Harmonyland – a Hello Kitty-themed amusement park on a hilltop nestled in amongst the foothills of Mount Futago. Resisting the siren call of Kitty Purgatory, I was cast from the garden of heavenly delights, hurtling back downwards into the infernal welcoming maw of Beppu, the Las Vegas of Japan.
Beyond good and evil, however, lay Oita City, the factories that line its waterfront pumping a smear of brown haze out over the otherwise idyllic Beppu Bay. This was where most of the music scene could be found, so this was where I needed to be.
The first person I met up with was local organiser Go Kawamoto, who was relatively recently returned to Oita after some years living in Tokyo. According to Kawamoto, Oita doesn’t really have a music “scene” as such – he thinks it’s too small to qualify – although that raises the question of what a scene really is. In Tokyo I tend to think of it as a group of bands linked by genre, although when travelling I look at it differently, as a group of bands linked by location and the same basic circle of live venues. This relates back to the thoughts I tried to develop last year travelling around Tohoku, about the meaning of “home” and how in a small town home is a place, but in a city like Tokyo you need to construct a home out of more abstract materials. “Scene” is really just another way of saying “home” for musicians and artists, and what it really means is a network of familiar people who provide you with support and a sense of belonging.
One person who does perhaps more than anyone else to support local music in Oita is Hiroshi Kawamura of the live venue At Hall. Kawamura’s main interest is in the weird artists who exist at the fringes of the music scene, who can’t find a home anywhere else, and he recommends garage-psych band Ninjaman (echoing Kawamoto and a number of people back in Fukuoka) and indie-folk band Clavinotes, as well as mentioning Tori Kudo, now living in Ehime and with an extensive catalogue of work and collaborations, perhaps most notably his work with Maher Shalal Hash Baz.
Other venues in town include Be-0 (Oita’s inevitable iteration of the Fukuoka-based “Be” franchise), the twin Spot and Bitts Hall, the tiny Backstage and the more acoustic and jam session orientated Cantaloop 2, while back in Beppu there’s the rock bar Copper Ravens where punk and garage bands sometimes play. Further out towards the border with Fukuoka Prefecture the club CMVC in Hita City has a good reputation.
On the record store side of things, Oita has been along the same journey as most of the rest of Kyushu, with all the old record shops shutting down while newer, vinyl-specialist stores open. Ra’s Den Records is the new face on the block, previously incorporating a café/bar and event space, although that has since split off into its own thing.
One band from Oita that a lot of people in Fukuoka raved about was The Omelettes, who combine imagination, charm and melody into a series of miniature shambling prog-indie pocket symphonies. Whenever I bring them up to people actually in Oita, the response is always positive, but it’s also preceded with a little smile. I’ve seen that smile before, and it usually indicates an artist who sits awkwardly with the local musical environment but is really popular with people elsewhere, especially in the more cosmopolitan urban centres – “Oh, you’re from out of town, of course you like them!”
Kawamura believes his own band Nenecart occupy something like that position, playing well to audiences in Fukuoka but largely unremarked-upon at home. “Too fashionable” is a dangerous thing to be in a small town.
When bands from Tokyo play shows in more rural areas, they will sometimes get a pass from the locals for any percieved pretentiousness, but they’d damn well better be proper famous before pulling that shit. For indie bands, a more important skill is to be able to present an approachable face to the audience – a friendly sense of humour is a must – and put on a show. This sounds obvious, but there’s a lot of music where the artist’s relationship with their audience allows them to leave blanks that the listener can fill in – a lot happens between the notes. My own core philosophy with Call And Response Records lies somewhere in the idea that the audience is expected to do some work to reach the artist’s extended hand, but how much work you can expect the audience to do depends on what tools they have at their disposal and how they read the artist’s intentions in asking them to do this extra work to reach them.
This, I think, is at the core of what Yoshida from Panicsmile/Marukin was talking about when he remarked on Fukuoka seeming conservative after so many years in Tokyo – the audience needs to be given the tools to do the work you ask of them, and they mustn’t feel like they’re being talked down to.
With this in mind, it’s interesting to note the kinds of bands from Tokyo who seem to make the strongest connections with audiences in rural cities (if you’ll excuse the oxymoron). Kawamoto’s next show in Oita (at At Hall) brings The Vottones from Fukuoka, whose rock’n’roll is as direct and uncomplicated as it comes, and Fujirokkyu from Tokyo, whose energetically insistent party vibes conceal a lot of musical complexity behind the Technicolor grins. The message bands like these send is clear though: We love you and we’re giving you everything, right nere and now.