Kobe is to Osaka something rather like what Yokohama is to Tokyo: a very large cuty in its own right that nonetheless functions as a sort of cultural annex to its larger neighbour. Like basically everywhere in the Kansai area, it seems to be dominated by supporters of the Hanshin Tigers baseball team, which is to say the absolute worst kind of human beings. Awful supporters of a stupid sport aside, there’s plenty going on artistically in Kobe, albeit often with this sort of refugee aura, like the work of people seeking a slower life outside the bustle and thrust of Osaka.
Stretched for mile after mile along a thin stretch of coast and hemmed in by mountains, Kobe doesn’t really have a centre in the traditional sense, but the Sannomiya/Motomachi area, near Chinatown, is where a lot of the town’s culture congregates. Just to the south of Motomachi station, an endless shopping arcade full of generic stores and cafés runs east to west, while underneath the railway tracks, a series of narrow alleys is the stage on which a gradual cultural shift seems to be playing out. In this forest of metal shutters, watch shops and old guys fixing electric typewriters increasingly share space with art galleries and stylish, faux-artisanal cafés, with old-timey Showa authenticity and postmodern hipsterdom currently sitting in a curious and surprisingly comfortable balance. How long the electric typewriter repair shops can last, who knows?
As they approach the station, these narrow arcades also host a number of breathtakingly chaotic used record stores – something that Kobe seems to have in no short supply. Unable to buy any records because of the already overloaded baggage I have to hook up to my bicycle, I view them warily. However, just to the south of the station lies Rock’Roll Aids Production, a small, very narrow record store specialising in psychedelia and new wave.
The owner is a breathtakingly enthusiastic and knowledgeable guy, originally from Kumamoto, and like me, he’s concerned about the ongoing swarm of earthquakes in Kyushu. Good people, good music – Kumamoto’s a good place and doesn’t deserve this shit.
He gets talking about local musical weirdo “Scotty”, who he describes ambiguously as “Kobe’s Daniel Johnson”, and points to Noramaru Shokudo, a sort of café/musical junkyard run by an old Kansai avant-garde/noise dude called Mochi, who hosts weird and wonderful music events there, amid the piles of esoteric musical gear.
A little too far for me to drop by at this time, however, I instead head to nearby Space Eauuu. Space Eauuu is another café/experimental music space/CD shop/boutique, boasting a set of omnidirectional speakers designed by Nara-based company Sonihouse. The idea of these speakers, according to Sonihouse’s web site, is to recreate the sensation of ambient acoustics that real sounds in nature have in contrast to the “linear box sound” of typical speakers. Now while I would guess that most of the customers of these kinds of speakers are buying them simply because their wood-finish dodecahedron shape looks cool, there’s also something almost post-postmodern about the obsessive effort they put into manufacturing an imitation of nature, where a mere postmodernist might simply celebrate the artificiality of electrical music reproduction.
Space Eauuu have built up connections with a number of local musicians. I’ve already encountered Kobe-based noise artist Jomyak, while in the broader area of Hyogo Prefecture, they recommend ambient artist Sleepland, electronic artist Yabemilk, now-Okayama-based Sanmasimaseba, and off-kilter pop group Kangarupo.
Perhaps the most significant act in the Hyogo underground, however, is the Himeji-based Eddie Marcon, who in addition to the band also operate the Pong Kong label and a whole ecosystem of subsidiary bands. In terms of the various threads of connection and influence running through Japanese indie music, the one they fit into most neatly is the one that includes such places as Borzoi Records in Tottori, Enban in Tokyo, and fellow artists like Asuna and Tenniscoats, with their various projects ranging from acoustic found-sound prog-folk to the synthpop naïvite pop of Shallazuratalli.
The next stop is further back in the direction of Osaka, where I meet up with Hirofumi Miki from o’summer vacation and the members of Kobe indie band Kasuppa. Kasuppa have a self-released EP called The Second of Fun, where they come across like a lo-fi take on the sort of pop-edged wall-of-guitars ‘alt-rock that Bob Mould was doing with Sugar in the ‘90s.
While Helluva Lounge is pretty widely regarded as the coolest rock venue in Kobe, and places like Space Eauuu host a more experimental side of indie and DIY music, there is a wide variety of different kinds of venues in addition, from the straight-up rock of twin venues Merseybeat and Backbeat, venues like Art House, 108, Chicken George and Blue Port to the rarefied atmosphere if the more highbrown Guggenheim House.
Being so close to Osaka, with large parts of Kobe functioning as an extended suburb of the larger city also means that Kobe musicians get access not just to their own town’s venues but also the the more specifically indie-focused venues that Osaka offers. Sat around the table at a yakitori shop over a series of alarmingly enormous beers, I’m bombarded with a fusillade of recommendations, including hyperactive gig-maniac new wave band BLONDnewHALF, New York Dolls-influenced ‘70s punkers Valva, the grinding grunge-like She Border Bicture, the stripped-down, fractured Ryushi, and avant-rockers Atame.
There’s something of a sempai-kohai (senior-junior hierarchical) relationship between Miki and the members of Kasuppa, which is a system that a lot of people hate and which can have destructive side-effects (who wants to be respected just for being old anyway? Be respected for doing something valuable!) However, the core of any functional relationship along those lines is the basic decency and give-and-take inherent in more experienced musicians helping out people who could benefit from their position and younger musicians paying attention to and supporting them in turn. Miki’s eager to help Kasuppa (who help themselves anyway by actually being good) and by the end of the night is caling up our mutual friend Mayumi in Tokyo to harrass her into booking them for something.
By the time her face pops up on the screen, we’re back at Miki’s place and Mayumi is at home in Tokyo, eating dinner with her husband. Miki has forgotten why he called in the first place, so instead he gets out his guitar and starts singing Oasis songs at the couple, who just politely prop the phone up on the table and continue their meal with their strange musical caller in the background. Musicians from Kobe have a reputation for being rather eccentric people, even by Osaka standards.
“Clan of Xymox are the best band who ever lived,” Miki declares out of the blue (something I later confirm through a rigorously scientific poll carried out on Twitter). Just because it ain’t gonna get you to no sunny place, that doesn’t mean a cause no longer worth fighting – but then we already know that: that’s why we’re here.