To get from Oita to Matsuyama in Ehime Prefecture on the island of Shikoku, I could either take a short ferry from Saganoseki to Misaki and wind my way along a 30km peninsula to the coastal road that leads to Matsuyama, or I could return to Beppu and take a longer ferry to Yawatahama. The former route would have meant two days travel at my usual pace so I got up early to make the latter route instead.
To get to the coastal road from Yawatahama I needed to cut through some mountains, which meant tunnels. Long tunnels. Kilometre after kilometre of darkness and the disorientating roaring of vehicles. Ehime seems to be a rare place in Japan that actually recognises the existence of cyclists in its infrastructure planning though, and even if that extent of that recognition was often merely the presence of signs saying things like, “Please don’t kill cyclists”, it was comforting to know someone was thinking of you.
I’ve always had a confusing relationship with water and the sea. I was born in 1978, the same year that the film The Water Babies was released. I never saw it, but it was something that was somehow in the air while I was growing up, and from the title alone I unconsciously constructed a sort of psychic mythology around it. I was a water baby and I constantly felt myself drawn to the ocean.
The ocean is also terrifying though, as any body of water where the bed is deeper than my feet can reach must be, especially one with so impenetrable a surface, under which any horrors or wonders might be waiting. The sea beckons you into its embrace without ever concealing its promise of death: almost attractive, almost comforting in its offer of the sheer, implacable, irresistable power it holds to crush you out of existence. We all secretly yearn for a greater power unto which we can submit, and the ocean combines immensity and accessibility like nothing else. Religions struggle to reconcile us to their abstract philosophies, but look at the ocean and its simple, terrible beauty is all there to drink in at once.
The sea also becomes boring after you’ve been staring at it for a few hours though, and battling against the wind throughout the day left me looking more and more inland, to the point where I was seeing sleeping dragons in the landscape, crouched among the hills for centuries until the locals had started to think of them as hills themselves, but always sleeping, dreaming, waiting until the time comes to wake and feed.
Time goes slower when travelling by the sea. It flattens out the horizon, making faraway places visible, taunting you with their distance. Struggling through the mountains and hills, each peak you conquer is a small achievement en route to a greater goal, but winding along the coast towards Matsuyama, all I had was the city, endlessly visible on a horizon that never seemed to get any nearer.
Eventually it did though, and I found myself in a pleasant, relatively small city with a nice castle (nice castles nearly always mean nice towns) and a refreshing feeling of openness that helped ease me gently back into urban existence after a day lost in the hypnotic emptiness of the sea.
Rather like with its counterparts across the water in Oita and Miyazaki, Ehime seems to exist as a bit of an island unto itself, without much in the way of connection with nearby prefectures. There are some links with Kagawa to the east, partly via the band Forget Me Not and the Impulse Records label, which have origins in Ehime although since the establishment of the record store, studio and live space Too Nice in Takamatsu, they seem to be spreading across Shikoku.
One of the problems I had with my travels last year was that making up my schedule as I went along and booking hotels often on the day of arrival meant that I was often paying more than I should for accommodation. This time round Mission Control and I have been planning weeks and even months ahead, which has been great at keeping costs down but unfortunately leaves me in situations like the one I found myself in in Matsuyama where there were two fascinating looking shows both taking place the day I was to leave.
Fortunately, Matsuyama seems to be one of those towns where if you show up at the right place, you can meet a lot of the people you need to meet anyway. Hoshizora Jett is a rock bar in a seedy basement in the rowdy part of town, and is hosting one of the two shows the following night. The event’s organiser, Mancio, is constantly being moved around hy his job and is leaving for Kagoshima soon, so he seems to be spending as much time as possible in his favourite spot as part of a drawn-out goodbye.
Despite the locals humming and hawing about the presence of any worthwhile local acts, Mancio eagerly takes me through the lineup of his event, including Olympic Nuts (reggae, comedy), Crapnet (effects pedals, noise), Sero Yamamoto (“Ehime’s lethal weapon!”), Hori (ambient noise) and Kashmir, Marianne & Manas (ethnic acid-folk and Mancio’s own band). It seems to be a common feature of local music scenes that outsiders who come into the area are more enthusiastic, and often more knowledgeable, about the local music scenes than the people actually in them.
Some of this may be down to protective shyness about local artists, and it’s interesting how the bands people often want to show outsiders from their local area aren’t necessarily the ones outsiders find most interesting. There’s an urge to present the safe choice: the artist who does the best imitation of what locals think is popular elsewhere, or acts who embody some traditional feature of the local area, with tradition thus immunising them from criticism. On a wider scale, you can see that Japan does this on a national scale, curating its own self-image for Western consumption through idiotic initiatives like “Cool Japan” that largely ignore anything that’s actually cool. That’s not to say that locals don’t know what’s interesting in their own area, of course: simply that there are sometimes motivators at work that that downplay some eccentric and individualistic talents in favour of something safe and boring when the whole area is likely to be judged on it.
Sero Yamamoto (as a sidenote, WHY do some people insist on taking phone videos in portrait mode? Videos should ALWAYS be shot in landscape!)
This dysfunction is a two-way thing though. When I hear Mancio is going to Kagoshima, I naturally have an extensive list of recommendations of places and bands, which swiftly overwhelms him, to the point where he’s covering his ears with his hands and exasperatedly insisting that now he knows about Bar Mojo, he’ll just go there and ask them, so could I please shut up and stop saying names of things.
This is a reasonable response – too much information at one time is hard to process, and it’s more fun to find things out for yourself. I may not understand it easily on an instinctive level – I want all the information immediately, and I don’t care where it comes from, because my time in any given place is limited – but I at least get it intellectually. There’s something embedded in there too, however, about the authenticity of information that comes from one source or another. As not just a Tokyoite but also an honest-to-goodness foreigner writing about local Japanese music, mine is just not the kind of face that this kind of information should have. Here in Japan, there’s a sort of novelty to it (“Look, the foreigner knows Japanese music well! How crazy!”) but when it comes to writing about Japanese music for overseas audiences, a Japanese-sounding name on the byline makes the information contained within feel inherently more authentic to many people.
As I discussed while in Oita, the bands that are popular with out-of-town audiences and those that are popular at home aren’t always the same, and writers from different places also pick up on different things as interesting. Applying the filter of “authenticity” to that is difficult, but not necessarily wrong. When I write my top 20 Japanese albums of the year rundown each year, I always compare it to other writers’ lists, and there is almost no crossover between my picks and those of Japanese journalists (who often do seem to congregate around certain key releases), although I would argue that my choices are no less authentic: simply sourced from a different part of the scene.
The artist from Matsuyama who everyone outside Matsuyama talks about is Spacegrinder. He’s playing at both the Hoshizora Jett show and the other show, at Double-U Studio tomorrow, and as a regular organiser in Matsuyama he’s in the rare position of being a local legend as well as a flag-flying representative of the town to outsiders as well. It’s almost better that I didn’t meet him than if I had been able to, so his status can remain undimmed as a mythical figure who has transcended the ghetto of eccentric outsider and reached the point of impossible-to-ignore.
After a while “Ehime’s secret weapon” Sero Yamamoto shows up, as does Yoshino, the owner of Hoshizora Jett and member of local band Now, and things start to get sentimental. Maybe Mancio’s impending departure has magnified the feeling, and maybe my position as a sort of welcome gatecrasher has enhanced my perception of it, but the sense of community in the room is palpable. While I sometimes talk about the idea of “home” or a “scene” as something that can be linked by more abstact lines of connection, the kind that’s based around a specific place like Jett has an intimate sort of power to it that’s unlike anything else.