Making a welcome change of pace after the intense run of shows that had characterised my first week in Kansai, I left my bicycle in Kyoro and took the train north to Tsuruga in Fukui Prefecture. Fukui is part of the Hokuriku area that also includes Ishikawa and Toyama (and sometimes Niigata), although even by Hokuriku standards it’s a bit mysterious. During my time in Kanazawa in Ishikawa Prefecture, people greeted enquiries about their western neighbour with little more than blank shrugs.
The city of Tsuruga lies west of Fukui City, across a narrow strip of mountains from Lake Biwa, and as a result is far more strongly influenced by Kansai, Kyoto and what you might call “Biwa culture” – the air of delicately paced, slightly rarefied historical charm that seems to characterise the whole area surrounding the vast lake.
My main contact there is at a shop called Toklas: one of those little café/boutiques that sells a mixture of homemade food, handmade home accessories, children’s books and sparsely produced avant-folk albums. With the café and CD shop downstairs and a slightly larger showroom of goods that doubles as an occasional live space upstairs, Toklas combines almost every aspect of rural indie artisan culture in one space in a quiet, well-to-do street.
I ask the owner, Kitamura, whether they ever have trouble with noise complaints from the live events, and he laughs. They seem to get a free pass for any noise that emerges from the shop, perhaps partly because such a sparsely populated area can’t be too picky about what businesses set up shop there, and maybe partly the Kansai-ish attitude of “let it slide” that the area has adopted. In any case, it’s hard to imagine any sounds that are really all that offensive emerging from Toklas.
Kitamura is a musician himself, and plays in the band Popo, a band firmly in the easygoing, folky experimental tradition of the Tenniscoats and Tokyo’s Enban record store. With only two albums to their name over the past ten years, they have augmented this core with a number of additional releases exploring musical tangents with friends, such as a collaboration with veteran rapper ECD and contributions to Kanazawa-based Aotoao label’s Casiotone compilation series. Underlining Tsuruga’s disconnection from the prefectural capital and the greater influence of Kansai, Kitamura explains that most of Popo’s one- or twice-monthly live shows take place in the Kansai area, in places like Kyoto café Yugue and Osaka’s Hop Ken.
Tsuruga has more connections with Fukui City in different scenes, with Mrs. Kitamura pointing out Sing J Roy (“reggae, hip hop, strange guy”) as a local star in the prefectural capital, as well as turntablist DJ Akakabe. In the punk scene, Uchuu Sanrinsha are active both in Tsuruga, Fukui City and elsewhere. As often seems to be the case in rural areas, the introversion of the punk and hardcore scenes seems to act as an incubator for creative imaginations that might otherwise find it hard to thrive in such isolated environments, and as long as you’re loud, enthusiastic and don’t sing properly, you can get away with doing all sorts of weird stuff. Uchuu Sanrinsha’s combination of dirty, Stooges-style garage grind and electronic noise tricycle marks them as a band at least not hidebound by the conventions of hardcore orthodoxy. And this being seafood central Tsuruga, it perhaps goes without saying that one of them is a fisherman.
The isolation I talk about as characterising the Hokuriku region and the Sea of Japan coast in general wasn’t always the case though, and historically Tsuruga’s geographical position has made it a valuable link between the Sea of Japan coast and the large trading and population centres of Osaka and Nagoya. In 1899 the port was officially opened to trade with the UK and USA, making the city not just a link between the two sides of japan but placing it on an international thoroughfare that ran from London and Paris, through Asia and out across the Pacific to the Americas. As a result of this, a convoluted series of metaphorical thought processes saw the erection in 1999 of a series of bronze statues depicting scenes from the stories of manga artist Leiji Matsumoto, most notably Galaxy Express 999.
As I prepare to head back to Kyoto, I spot a group of anime geeks lovingly photographing the statue of Maetel that greets visitors outside the entrance to the station. As they line up their shots, the anime series’ theme song strikes up, playing a repeating loop of the line, “Galaxy Express 999 will take you on a journey, a neverending journey – a journey to the stars.”
It certainly seems to be going on forever, but to call most of these musicians stars feels like an overstatement.