A sort of tiny sardine

To get from Matsuyama to Hiroshima I needed to take another ferry, this time winding through the Seto Inland Sea. In comparison to the Ehime coastal road, constantly drawing my gaze out into the blue expanse, travelling by boat through the scattered islands between Shikoku and Honshu draws your attention landward towards the jumble of inconsistencies that the coast constantly throws your way.

Throughout the Japanese countryside, solar panels are springing upover almost any exposed hillside and the Seto Sea coast is no exception. It’s also an area of shipbuilding and trading ports though, with some of the most beautiful-ugly industrial constructions I’ve seen so far (along with bleak, desolate rural shopping arcades, ugly industrial agglomerations of obscure function are my favourite things when travelling). With thousands of boats and ships ploughing its narrow waterways, the Seto Sea is a busy place.

Hiroshima is Japan’s largest city west of Kobe and east of Fukuoka, but while it features a huge number of live venues, there’s a sense that it doesn’t quite have the same depth of indie music culture that Fukuoka has. It does have a couple of solid record stores though, with the rock- and club-orientated Stereo Records and the punk specialist Dumb Records a stones throw from each other. Both stores have been around for the best part of a decade and both have their own in-house record labels.


So-cho Pistons

Dumb Records these days devotes about two thirds of its floor space to a bar/café, although owner Nass of local band So-cho Pistons is by no means letting the store wither. Among his local recommendations are Super Overhead, psychobilly band The Napoleon and digital hardcore band Concre, while the venues Roots, Agit, Hug and especially Border are the key venues for the local punk scene.

Over at Stereo Records, the owner recommends DJ Koiwashi with a mischiovous smile playing across his lips. He jerks his thumb over at the shop assistant and adds, “It’s that guy.” Koiwashi are a sort of tiny sardine native to the Seto Inland Sea, and as with mentai rock in Fukuoka, the use of food as a metaphor to anchor music in its location opens up an interesting area of enquiry. In terms of live venues, the Stereo Records crew recommend the more traditional live venue 4.14 and the more bar-style Ongaku Shokudo Ondo. Meanwhile the larger Club Quattro (the local sister to the Tokyo-based main venue) is just about accessible for larger indie and underground events such as a recent show with Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her and Fukuoka avant-rockers z/nz.


Jailbird Y

My local contact in Hiroshima is Ando from the brilliant noise-rock band Jailbird Y (“We used to be Jailbird X but there are too many bands with “X” in their name so we changed it”). His favourite local act is spazzcore quartet Nuill & un Cuento de Hadas, while the now defunct Hot Snakes (Jailbird Y labelmates) and Blood Brothers were influential bands within the context of that scene.


Nuill & un Cuento de Hadas

My time in Hiroshima is being split apart by plans elsewhere and the awkwardness of travelling between Japan’s two main coasts, so it’s at this point that I leave my increasingly battered and grimy bicycle in a parking shed and take the train through what feels like a single endless oil refinery to Hofu in Yamaguchi.

Yamaguchi’s capital is Yamaguchi City and its largest city is Shimonoseki, but Hofu is the place everyone talks about. The main reason for this is the bar and live venue Indoyo, which conveniently turns out to be closed on the one day I’m able to visit. Instead, I take a walk down a couple of miles of generic rural highway to the local branch of the predominently porn-specialist chain Trend Shoten.

The hard-drinking manager of the Trend Shoten Hofu branch is a chap who goes under the name Komoto/Komofesto, and he has somehow managed to turn an entire section of the shop into a record store specialising in experimental rock, punk, metal and grindcore, as well as keeping in stock a vast selection of the most absurdly niche DIY books and zines (there are several volumes of one particular zine devoted to photography, art and poetry about bottoms and farting).

“The shop has the word ‘trend’ in its name,” he explains, “and so you have to look for new things, not just what’s popular now. If you only stock what’s popular, that won’t be popular forever.”


Elephant

As one of the key event organisers in the area, he points to prog-pop band Pozo and post-rock/emo band Elephant as bands in Yamaguchi Prefecture who are making a name, with the venue Organ’s Melody the key venue in Yamaguchi City and record store Diskbox, owned by Ichiraku of drum-based experimental act Doravideo. Drummer Tatsuhisa Yamamoto of Natsumen and Jim O’Rourke’s band originally hails from Hofu, as does Tokyo-based junk-rap collective Skillkills. In addition to The Tuesday (who I’d seen in Fukuoka the previous week), The Rozwells and Banana Erectors hold up Yamaguchi’s end of the punk scene, while on a more eccentric tilt, Muchi Muchi Purin combine mathy rhythms with an entertaining sort of psychedelic junk (or at least they did – their web site hasn’t been updated since 2014).

In the absence of any shows on this quiet Sunday night, we decamp to the bar/café/event space Umineko, where we get talking about the relative “gravity” a city can exert on its surrounding area. Shimonoseki, despite being the largest city in the prefecture, is essentially a suburb of Kitakyushu (itself very much within the orbit of Fukuoka) and outside the well-regarded café Com, doesn’t seem to really have much in the way of a music scene. Komoto believes part of what keeps Hofu clinging on as a place in its own right is that it exists right on the border between the cultural gravity wells of Fukuoka and Hiroshima.

Upstairs at Umineko there seems to be a talk event on the philosophical implications of home interior design and plumbing (I think!) and the guest speaker certainly seems to have strong opinions about the manhole covers of London. I find myself talking to a journalist from Tokyo and our conversation cycles back to the idea of what a “home” means and how your place comes to define your identity. Coming from Tokyo, we all construct a psychic Tokyo of our own out of only the pieces we can handle if we want to live our lives from day to day without going insane from the overload of information like Grant Morrison’s Joker. However, travelling outside Tokyo, we find ourselves defined by the necessarily simplified images of Tokyo that exist in the minds of people from outside the city. The idea of siezing on a single image like koiwashi or mentaiko and using that as a hook to define our identity in relation to our place is unthinkable to a Tokyoite, but the smaller the town and the less dizzying chaotic barrage of information, the easier it becomes to do just that without feeling that you’ve subsumed some essential aspect of yourself to an overwhelming whole. In Tokyo, we are overloaded with symbols and signifiers to the point that they start to be come meaningless, but travel a bit further out and these little local signifiers can then become symbols around which an identity can gather.

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