The drowned world and the desert

Perhaps more than anywhere in Japan, the prefectures of Shimane and Tottori have a reputation as a backwater. They are the two least populated prefectures and have the two smallest capital cities. No one you speak to knows of any bands from either place, and hardly anyone seems to tour there. On the other hand, in small places like this there is none of the fragmentation you get in larger cities, and all you need much of the time is to meet one person and that person can give you a wealth of information.

To get across the mountainous expanse that divides the Shimane coast from the more populated Hiroshima side of the country, I bagged up my bicycle and took a couple of trains. The second of the two was a tiny, single-carriage train that ran along a narrow, picturesque line through the mountains, and was populated almost exclusively by photographers taking pictures of the sights and platform signs. Positions on the train were divided up like walruses on the beach, according to the seniority of the photographers, with one seasoned veteran taking the prime position at the rear of the carriage with his Canon DSLR, while two younger guys jostled for scraps with their little Nikons.

I exited partway, navigating the last couple of dozen kilometres through the hills and sheets of rain by bicycle, eventually arriving at Oda. Izumi Goto at Organ-za in Shimane had recommended a café/gallery called Po, which was conveniently closed on the day I arrived, so I rested the night and set off the next morning through dryer but nonetheless bleak and grey skies towards the main city of Matsue.

Matsue sits on the banks of Lake Shinji with its back to the Nakaumi lagoon, the waters of its many rivers running so close to street level that they constantly threaten to drown the city. This has had an interesting effect on the music scene though.

Long-running plans to widen the main waterway through the city and reduce the danger of flooding from rainfall upstream being pushed through too narrow a channel have rendered one bank of the river more or less worthless, which has allowed places like Homare to open up. A café/bar with a small upstairs room where various tiny events can take place, Homare’s boss, Kenta, opened it up knowing the clock was ticking on the location but determined to have a place at least for that amount of time.

Kenta is also part of a small group of five people who have taken over the next door jazz bar and are converting it into an event space called Nu. Fellow Nu member Futtsu organises a club event called Frente! and an acoustic event called Iijikan, while we’re also briefly joined by another Nu team member Masaru from DJ Bar Mix just over on the “safe” side of the water.

Nu provides a beautiful view over the river even as the river promises to swallow the place up forever within two short years, and the connection with water is important for Kenta, who explains that, “Matsue is a town of water, so having this view of the river is important in expressing the venue’s identity as part of the city. Why bother opening a local live house and just make it another Club Quattro?”


From the posters and flyers around Homare, the Matsue indie crowd seem to be admirers of the sort of poppy, upbeat, happy indie rock represented by Tokyo bands like Fujirokkyu and Sebastian X, although Shimane itself has given us some ferocious rock musicians like Guitar Wolf and the vocalist of Osaka-based heavy rock band Gezan. Kenta recommends “acoustic punk” act Togyo from the local area, but believes that Shimane does better at creating spaces for musicians to play than at creating the actual musicians themselves.

Kenta himself has organised small festivals at a nearby beachside café called Home, while in neighbouring Tottori, gigs seem to happen anywhere from curry shops to strip theatres.

To reach Tottori, however, I need to spend another two days on my bicycle, thr first through yet more rain (the Sea of Japan coast is notorious for its abysmal weather) and the second through glorious sunshine.

If Matsue is a city of water, Tottori is a city of sand. It is home to the enticingly named “Tottori Sand Museum” as well as Japan’s largest and most famous expanse of sand dunes. In my dark past as a cram school teacher, one of the lessons asked students about Japanese geography and asked, “Are there any deserts in Japan?” Students would invariably answer, “Yes, Tottori,” to which I would always have to bite back the reply, “Well, I know it’s a quiet town, but that’s hardly fair!” After visiting for real, however, I’m sure I saw more people at the sand dunes than I did in the whole city between there and my hotel.

The night I arrive, I’m lucky enough to find a gig at the promised curry shop, Asipai, tucked into a backstreet behind a highway lined with generic franchise stores and near the more conventional live venue Strawberry Fields. Kansai-based pianist Sunday Kamide of the bands Wonderful Boys and Tensai Band is playing an upbeat, crowdpleasing set in front of a small crowd. Kenta from Matsue has headed over for the show as well, but apart from reacquainting myself with him, I’m too exhausted to really dive in and start networking (the curry was spectacular though).

The following day I visit Borzoi Records, which had come recommended to me by both Kenta in Matsue and Asuna in Kanazawa and which I find situated on the corner of a gloriously dishevelled, 50-year-old and almost completely abandonedshopping arcade. Owner Katsuaki Maegaki opened the store after tiring of the need to chase commercial successes at the Tottori branch of a music chain, and now Borzoi is pretty much the only surviving record store in town – suck on that, anonymous commercially-inclined chain store!

Maegaki echoes the sentiments of the Matsue crew, that while there are interesting places to play, there’s little actually being made in the area. Tottori was previously home to the now inactive Tori label, whose owner Tanaka is an interesting musician, but beyond that even he begins to stumble. Borzoi really is a terrific shop though, with connections to record store Enban near my home in Koenji (Enban owner Taguchi gets everywhere), and a rich line in Japanese indie music.

Returning to my room for the night, I settle in with Hiroshi Teshigahara’s 1964 film adaptation of Kobo Abe’s novel The Woman in the Dunes, filmed in the Tottori sand dunes and with a spine tingling score by Toru Takemitsu. It’s a film about a man with modest dreams of minor recognition in his esoteric field of expertise, who is trapped endlessly performing a repetitive, soul-destroying task for the benefit of a corrupt business establishment and I see no parallels at all with the life of a music journalist.


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