Travelling without moving

A big difference between this western stage of my journey around Japan and last autumn’s eastern stage is in how on the one hand places generally feel so much closer together, while on the other the landscape feels more decisively fractured by mountains and seas. In Tohoku, travelling three days from one city to another, over a largely unchanging landscape was the norm. In the west, forested hills erupt forth from the land, beautiful stretches of coastline open up before you, routes are cut off by mountainous regions I don’t feel equipped to tackle, or disrupted by the frequent need for ferry journeys. Part of the purpose of travelling as much as possible by bicycle is that it gives you a far more meaningful sense of the position of each place relative to the rest of the country, but the mountains and seas of western Japan have fractured that process.

Even in Kyushu, where I fought through every inch of the landscape alone, the sense of isolation that defined so much of my travel in eastern Japan was mostly absent. In the east, I was a permanent stranger, seeing new places and new people every day. Here in the west, I am revisiting many of these places and I have a loose network of contacts scattered across the region. A flow of information preceeds each new location, ensuring I arrive in each new place with memories, expectations and preconceptions colouring my impressions.

West Japan feels smaller, partly because each individual prefecture actually is smaller, partly because the landscape is forcing my off my bicycle with greater frequency and making me skip areas I would otherwise have taken several days to cover, but partly also because the human presence in relation to the landscape is so much bigger. Shimane and Tottori were outliers in this regard, while the twin cities of Okayama and Takamatsu, facing each other across the water of the inland sea, are much more representative of this stage of my journey.

The capital of Kagawa, Japan’s smallest prefecture, Takamatsu is a mid-large sized city comparable to Okayama, Kagoshima or Kumamoto. It’s a city primarily defined for me by its endless shopping arcade that stretches more or less unbroken for several kilometres, but then that’s just me: I’m all about the architectural engineering of Japanese retail complexes. Other people think things like udon noodles or scenic gardens are important, the losers.

The last time I was in Takamatsu, I DJed at a bar called iL (the sign is like the Public Image Limited logo with the “P” erased) so that was my first port of call. It’s the kind of place where people will say to you things like, “It was produced by Conny Plank,” and just naturally expect you to know what that means, which is to say it’s very much my kind of place.

The day I arrive, there’s a show featuring two Norwegian experimental musicians, Martin Taxt and Eirik Blekesaune, the latter of whom is playing glitchy noise via a laptop and external controller and the former playing tuba connected via a network of effectors controlled by Japanese noisician Toshimaru Nakamura as part of the duo Pan On Fire.

Both Eirik and Martin are members of the Norwegian Verdensteatret art collective, although Martin is temporarily living in Tokyo. He’s leaving in the summer though, remarking on the impossibility of making a living as an artist without the funding systems Europe has in place.

Pan On Fire

This touches on a big problem for many creative people in Japan: that if you’re making something, you’re either expected to treat it as a hobby while you work a “real” job, to produce something that the market will understand as a commercially viable product, or where fnding exists as with idiotic initiatives like “Cool Japan” it must somehow function to further the greater glory of the Japanese nation as envisioned by some political functionaries and/or marketing drones at big ad agencies like Dentsu. Admittedly, a lot of good art can quite comfortably be made within those three categories, but they also exclude a lot of work that might be valuable in and of itself despite costing too much to produce on a hobby basis and having no particular commercial or political value.

In the music scene, the main bugbear is the way venues all over the place tend to expect local musicians to pay to play. In Okayama, Muraoka from Test Pattern had remarked on this system that, “Most local bands really are just hobbies – people playing at being rock stars, like karaoke. Those bands should pay.” On the other hand, earlier in the day I’d let myself get drawn into an online argument with an American musician in Tokyo who was furious with the 4,500 bill his band had been handed after a show in Koenji. I have sympathy with both positions upto a point, and I think the battle lines of the debate are less about the desirability of the pay-to-play system, which I don’t think anyone really likes, even its defenders, are really about the attitudes and assumptions that underly each side’s positions.

People who defend pay-to-play aren’t really fans of the system: they’re usually older musicians and scene faces who find the complaints of younger musicians childish and selfish. There’s an element of old-man sempai-ism here, with people who’ve been through the system and no longer have to deal with it trying to protect their own positions. There’s also an element of perspective though: they have a more realistic sense of the interconnected economy of which it’s all part and they realise that by taking these barrier-of-entry costs away from bands, they wouldn’t be eliminating those costs, just shifting their burden elsewhere – there are arguments about who should shoulder that burden, but they inevitably become cyclical and self-serving after a while, and it’s easy to see how they can feel tiresome. The deeper problem is lots of people wanting to play music and not that many people wanting to watch it.

Those who complain loudest against the system are really making a moral argument, not a practical one, and the moral fury of their argument can make it difficult to think practically about how to get round the problem. There’s a simple test to assess the validity of the moral position though: just ask yourself if you would feel comfortable asking a musician to pay you money in order to play a show – not whether you would feel compelled to ask them for money out of practical necessity: just examine your instinctive reaction to the idea.

In any case, if that’s where the debate within the music scene is endlessly and tiresomely stuck, you can easily imagine how for an artist like Martin Taxt, for whom his art is his living, the situation in Japan is completely impossible.

Coton Bunko

As I say though, that doesn’t mean good music is impossible. One advantage of music as an artform is that unlike some of the more eleborate visual arts, it’s relatively cheap to make and perform, and one advantage of the pay-to-play system is that these legions of essentially worthless hobby bands are subsidising an often quite impressive infrastructure for those performers who are able to take advantage of it.

Picnic Disco

In the audience, quietly and intently watching the show, is Tanaka of Takamatsu experimental unit Coton Bunko, who creates ambient electronic soundscapes with a complex array of instruments and effectors, many of them homemade. At the poppier extreme is Masami Takashima of new wave/art-pop band Miu Mau (along with Fukuoka-based bandmates Hiromi from Hyacca and Miwako from Masadayomasa), who creates solo work under the name Coet Cocoeh.

Miu Mau

Like Okayama, Takamatsu is still just a little bit too small to have what you could call a fully formed alternative “scene” in the sense of a unified and creatively interconnected thing, but partly with the help of iL’s anchoring power, the town supports a handful of offbeat acts like the technopop-esque Picnic Disco, iL house band Dub Study, acid-folk singer-songwriter Wakiichi and his off-kilter progressive band Concept. The staff at iL hold up ’80s band Vinyl Kaitai Koujou as godfathers of Takamatsu underground music.

Vinyl Kaitai Koujou

For a city that in many ways seems like a single, enormous network of shopping arcades, it’s perhaps inevitable that (as with any similarly sized city) this oddball music is very much an outlier in a local musical landscape that is otherwise utterly generic and commercial. Perhaps another feature of the livelier flow of information I find myself plugged into while travelling in the west is that I am finding myself drawn more easily to the niches of weird stuff, more easily able to ignore the commercial J-rock and pop that most people are actually listening to. If I felt any responsibility to be fair to such horrible music, I might consider that some sort of failure on my part as a researcher and journalist, but I don’t. However, in the context of how cities interrelate and link together creatively and psychically, it perhaps means that travelling in west Japan I have in some significant ways not really left Tokyo.


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