On the way to nowhere

In order to reach Hora Audio’s little farmhouse/studio in Shiga, I’d had to backtrack about 10km, which meant I’d added 20km to my overall trip through the windy hills that serve as the gateway to Gifu and the broader Nagoya area.

The clouds threatened rain the whole journey, adding an element of urgency, of a race against the weather. Sitting nestled into the most distant enclave of a greater urban and semi-urban plain that includes Nagoya, Yokkaichi, Toyoda and stretches as far as Hamamatsu, Gifu is an average sized Japanese city infused with all the worn-down desolation that can only come from a position of vaguely accessible remoteness from a larger regional urban centre.

The only band I really know from Gifu is the guitar pop band Half Sports, whose members are now spread out between Gifu and Tokyo, and whose live performances seem to cluster predominantly in Nagoya. Clearly Nagoya’s gravity exerts a strong pull over its smaller neighbour.

I arrive there during the Golden Week holiday period in early May, which means that even on weekdays there is a chance of some musical activity. I check into my hotel exhausted just as the heavens choose to open though, so it’s the following day that I make my way out.

Jubilee

Like any town of its size, Gifu supports three or four live venues, but the one that registers most significantly on the radar of someone like me is always King Biscuit. Located tucked away on a corner along a wide, leafy avenue, the venue’s boss, Kim, is someone I’ve met before via the screechy, feedback-driven Jubilee. I interviewed Jubilee for a zine I made a few years ago, and they played at the release party in Tokyo. Jubilee are no longer active though, with Kim now playing in the more directly punk-influenced SuicideTV.

Like a lot of small venues in towns without much in the way of their own self-supporting music scene infrastructure, King Biscuit has a dusty little CD store corner at the back of the bar, stocked with local CDs that probably no one will ever buy.dsc_0285

One of the first things I recognise upon entering the venue is the hunched, gangly presence of the room’s lone other foreigner, who turns out to be Charlie from Nagoya punk band Nicfit. He’s playing tonight with the bizarre and quite lovely LeakLeek, whose mixture of acoustic bass, violin and musical saw started the night off on a reassuringly off-kilter footing.

LeakLeek

SuicideTV followed, with an unashamedly ‘70s-influenced barrage of punk rock. Tellingly, they were the only local Gifu band on the bill, although given the proximity to Nagoya, it’s easy to see how the two scenes overlap, escpecially in seemingly well-connected venues like King Biscuit.

Next up were a solid hardcore band called C.W. from Kobe, followed by Nagoya’s utterly magnificent Shigebeer & A Thousand New Wife – a deranged, amp-bothering, Beefheartian duo, whose performance was a scattershot blizzard of delights.

Shigebeer & A Thousand New Wife

The final act of the night, Omit Vomit, I was vaguely familiar with from the Tokyo punk scene. I always felt their band name seemed like uncharacteristically sanitary advice for a punk band – I mean, yeah, I really would prefer that you omit activities such as vomiting from your behavioural repertoire, but at the same time, now that you’ve brought it up in the first place, I can’t help feeling you’ve compromised unacceptably by ruling it out. Sellouts! Their performance is ramshackle and borderline chaotic in a way that might be either accident or design.

Another feature of these small venues in somewhat remote cities is that far more than big cities, they will often put on excellent food after the shows for those who fancy sticking around and drinking a bit more, and King Biscuit’s post-show spread turns out to be one of the best I’ve encountered on the trip so far. There’s an obvious advantage in attracting bands from out of town and creating word-of-mouth in remote scenes, as well as a financial reward in keeping people out longer in venues that do most of their business on only two or three nights of the week. In any case, it’s nice.

Man In The Mirror

Talking to a sozzled Kim, he only seems to vaguely remember the show he played at my event with Jubilee, despite having the zine he featured in on display in the corner of the bar. He’s kind enough to give me a sample of his label’s latest release though, an EP by local noise-punk band Man In The Mirror (a Michael Jackson reference? It’s not clear). The EP is a pounding, frenetic four-song set that’s over in six and a half minutes, but where it will sell and to whom seems far less clear. In a lot of ways, Gifu is a city on the way to nowhere, but King Biscuit is doing a creditable job making it relevant more widely than its location really demands it should be.

suicideTV

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No circuit: pure sound

Throughout my travels around Japan, I’ve found myself looking at the notion of “home” through a number of different prisms. Home is a physical location where you live. Home is also a social environment formed by the people around you – an environment that to varying degrees we construct and curate around ourselves over time. The idea that home is also a function of time is one that I hadn’t really considered deeply until Kansai, but it undoubtedly is.

Time has been at work in the process of separating me from my old home in the UK, peeling away the fingers with which I cling to it one by one. It has also been at work anchoring me to my pathetic tinpot empire in Koenji, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in between the eastern and western stages of this trip with the release of my label’s monumentally narcissistic (and brilliant) Small Lights compilation album.

When travelling, spending usually no more than two or three nights in any location, time doesn’t get a chance to work its alchemy in the same way. You arrive, you get a superficial glance at the lay of the land, you meet someone clued-into the local scene if you’re lucky, and then you’re on your way once more. Small towns and cities are good for that, where one knowledgeable local can often tell you everything you need to know. Cities like Osaka or Kyoto are big enough that someone clued into one aspect of the town’s scene might be completely ignorant of something else happening in exactly the same neighbourhood, like parallel universes that never interact. To navigate this and get any kind of grip on it takes time.

Hide, who I stayed with for some of my time in Kyoto, started out making music out of the garage of his family home as a teenager, abandoned Japan for New York for 16 years, and returned to a Japan he didn’t really feel part of. Now making music and putting on parties with the friends and allies he has gathered around him in his home once more, he has completed a full circuit of the many manifestations – over physical, temporal and psychic space – of what home means, only to end up back where he started.

I spent longer in Osaka and Kyoto than in any other place I visited on this journey, with the exception of Fukuoka (a place that I was already very familiar with), and that time was barely enough to feel like I was starting to get a handle on the area. It left me with a roadmap for future visits, but I left the area just as I was beginning to find my feet. As I left Hide’s house on a hot Monday morning at the beginning of May, I realised I’d stayed in Kyoto and Osaka long enough to start to miss it.

With the already somewhat familiar Nagoya and Yokohama the only other really large cities between me and Tokyo, Kansai had also been the last big unexplored country for me. As I crawled through the slowly swelling crowds of tourists visiting the temples and historical sites that ring the forested slopes on the city’s edge, the expanse between there and Tokyo started to feel like a hardship to be overcome rather than a new land to explore.

My departure from Kansai would be a drawn-out farewell though, taking me through the unusual prefecture of Shiga. What makes Shiga so strange is Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest lake. Where a vast body of water like that would typically be a natural border between prefectures, it is the heart of Shiga, the prefecture encompassing the whole enormous lake. The largest city, Otsu, is close enough to Kyoto that it forms part of broadly the same metropolitan area, but my destination was the old castle town of Hikone, some 70km along the coast to the northeast.

Rather than taking the most direct route, I instead hugged the shoreline of Lake Biwa, partly for the view and partly because with summer gaining rapidly on me as it advanced from the south, the breeze from across the water made travel just that little bit more pleasant. Little groups of people were having barbecues alongside the whole southern portion of the lake, before it gave way to more esoteric forms of leisure like the microlight training school I encountered midway. The further along I got, the more deserted the roads became though, and as I rounded the last mountainous knot of coastline and the land flattened out towards my destination, I saw a particularly dramatic example of the occasional rural conflagrations that I was choosing to find symbolic.

A small, fieldside shack roared with fierce, angry flame and a woman hesitantly approached it with a spade full of dirt before backing away. In the distance sirens wailed.DSC_0261

If home is something built by time, time is also fuel to the fire in which hometowns burn. Back in the home where I was born, England was burning with a strange fire of its own, a mad glint in its eye as it doused its bridge to Europe in petrol. It was a thought that nagged at me more than I had expected now I was out on my own on the road once more – an ex-lover I thought I was over, but who still has the power to induce pangs of regret when I see them destroy themselves. With my old home losing itself in a conflagration of its own making, it lent a fresh urgency to my current journey. Would that heartless bitch Tokyo even remember me when I returned?

I can understand the urge people in big cities have to retire to the countryside. You can make a far less complicated home for yourself there – one that isn’t constantly changing around you, demanding you adapt yourself to its whims, one not so swift to brush you aside for the next new thing. Cities are high maintenance partners in life. Places like Shiga, on the other hand, move (and change) at a different pace. It’s easy to romanticise that, and travelling during temperate seasons has mostly shielded me from the crueller elements that batter rural areas – the comforts and amusements the city provides are hard to put a value on until you are released from their coddling embrace – but the countryside nonetheless has a powerful call.

Hikone is a city in name only. It is very much part of the countryside. At its centre is one of those immaculately manicured Japanese castle gardens that reconfigure what was once a military stronghold as a quietly refined place of rarefied beauty. I deflected looks of amused disgust from tourists, a sweaty invader in my gauche looking bright yellow jacket as I cycled round in search of my hotel, a trucker’s place of the sort where heavily augmented prostitutes can be delivered to guests’ doors past the blind eyes of the see-no-evil desk staff.

With a population of around 100,000, in a widely distributed, broadly rural configuration, the Hikone area supports music mostly through occasional acoustic performances (and sometimes something more experimental and interesting) in artisanal cafés. One of these places, Moku, situated in the shadow of the castle, was closed on the day I chose to visit. However, the following morning I backtracked several kilometres to a 150-year-old farmhouse that has recently been converted into a multipurpose speaker workshop, experimental live space and retailer of assorted experimental musical goods called Hora Audio.

Hora Audio is operated by Ryo Aoyanagi and his wife. These rural enclaves of experimental music seem to attract the Japanese incarnations of that Chicago-centred Drag City/Thrill Jockey style of sonic voyager, and Hora Audio seems to be very much in that vein. At the time I drop by, they are gearing up for a show by Aki Tsuyuko from nearby Gifu, building on earlier solo work she had done at the legendarily eccentric Enban record store in Koenji, Tokyo. The parallels and contrasts between Enban and Hora Audio are also revealing in terms of the thoughts this trip has set spinning around in my head.

Aki Tsuyuko

As self-imposed big city exiles, the Aoyanagis’ philosophy feels at least in part like a reaction against the alienating dislocation the combination of hyper-urban physical reality and post-urban digital reality the modern world has fostered. The speakers that are the core of Hora Audio’s work are made to order, with a back-loaded horn, tube amp style – as Aoyanagi describes it, “No circuit: pure sound.”

As someone who is entirely comfortable with the music I listen to being digitally mediated in any number of ways, it would be easy to dismiss this as performative hipsterism, but in a certain way, it’s coming from the same place as a lot of my own activities in the music scene. The emphasis on the relationship between live performance and recorded music, the value placed on the physical transaction of media, my wilfull Luddism when it comes to iTunes and streaming services. What Hora Audio does with the transmission of sound from recorded data into audible waves in the air, I try to do with the social transmission of music.

A key difference between the microcosm of the circuitless speaker and the macrocosm of any attempt to transmit music socially with as minimal interference from the “circuit” (which I guess I’m conceiving here as a sort of urban-digital cultural hegemony) as possible, is that to do the latter you need the big city. People need to be close together, able to gather and share information and vibes – there needs to physically be a critical social mass of people so that they can function like the vibrating particles of air in the speaker’s horn and amplify the signal.

What Hora Audio does seems like it could work because what they have created there is as far as possible self-contained – microcosmic – and perhaps there is a sense where the urban and rural music lifestyles are two sides of the same coin. To create a home around music, you either need complete isolation – to cut yourself off from the “circuit” and live out of its range – or you need to embrace the hyper-urban and use the condensed mass of humanity to organically create a signal of your own that drowns out that of the “circuit”. So an artist like Aki Tsuyuko can be at home equally in an urban location like Enban, which has condensed its own signal to the extent that it can locally drown out the cultural noise of Tokyo, as she is at the rural Hora Audio has simply removed itself from that cultural noise.

The homes we are born into are temporary shacks designed to accommodate us and give us the illusion of belonging until we can grow up and build our own. With England burning, the fragility of the task of building a place, a psychic space of my own, was only underlined with added urgency.

Business for music, are you OK?

As the calendar flips over into May, I’m back in Kyoto, reunited with my bicycle and back again at Hide from Ultra Bide’s place. He’s busy in his studio upstairs, recording, so there’s no time for another in-depth discussion of the failures and shortcomings of the Japanese music scene. Nevertheless, what he’s doing with his recordings and home parties (they’re not really “house parties” in the commonly understood sense) is totally outside the system of how the music scene usually works, and represents a way of thinking about music that easily gets lost the ore you focus on trying to work within the system’s restrictions. Back in the early days of punk in Japan, the teenage Hide did something similar, putting on shows in his parents’ garage and recording absolutely everyone who passed through.

It’s an uphill struggle to get any new way of thinking across when the status quo is so firmly established, but there are other people doing somewhat similar things. Today’s recording session is with one of the people from Figya in Osaka, a house devoted to music and arts, run on a communal basis outside the traditional live house system. Other similar places have begun to appear around the fringes of the Kansai music scene as well. Attempts to do similar things in Tokyo have tended to suffer from the attentions of police, who in the capital are hyper-sensitive to noise, but in Kansai things seem to be a little more relaxed (although all these home events still need to take tremendous precautions to keep on the good side of their neigbours).

A venue like Kyoto Metro is very much part of the live scene as an active part of the music economy, and the evening finds booking manager “Jack” Tanaka with mixed feelings about the role he plays. It’s May Day and he’s wearing an anti-fascist T-shirt, but he’s also clearly weary of the conflict between artistic and business interests in running a live venue. He’s quitting soon, partly so he can separate his music and business activities, and it feels like every night is a kind of farewell party.

YYBY

The event tonight is part of Austrian dance trio Elektro Guzzi’s Japan tour and the lineup is focused on a mixture of electronic music and bands with dance music influences. As a result, the acts onstage and Jack’s own DJ spots inbetween blend into each other, keeping a consistent, uneasy groove that I circulate in and out of throughout the evening, as a result losing touch with who’s who on the bill for much of the time.

Yolz in the Sky

Among the actual bands playing, YYBY’s understated but insistent electro-dub was worth special attention, while Yolz in the Sky have completed their evolution from a vaguely dance-orientated hardcore quartet into a strictly minimal guitar, loops and vocals duo – the closest thing Japan nowadays has to its own DAF. Yolz in the Sky are now elder statesmen of the Kansai underground scene, and the crowd greet them with a mixture of familiarity and a heightening of energy levels that carries through into Elektro Guzzi’s set.

After their set, while Jack continues to spin dark electro tunes on the turntables, I run into one of the members of synth-based new wave band Neons – a band originally from Kyoto but now mostly relocated to Tokyo, and who I’ve booked at my own shows. Despite being into the final month of my trip, Tokyo still feels very far away, but here’s someone who commutes to the capital for gigs and rehearsals. Admittedly though, probably not by bicycle. We get talking about synth music and I share with her the URL of some music that I’ve worked on.

Neons

“Look, he’s picking her up!” remarks one of the guys from YYBY, upon noticing us staring at each other’s phones. I snap back at him with some irritation at this – it touches the same nerve as jibes about me only liking “girls bands”. It triggers a self-righteous line of thought about how this sort of reaction makes it difficult to treat male and female musicians equally and sets questions ringing around my skull along the lines of, “Would he be making those same remarks if I were Japanese?”

The fact that comments like that can set my nerves jangling so much probably says a lot about the growing sense of dislocation I’ve been feeling as the trip has gone on. This last night in Kyoto is actually quite a warm farewell to the city though, with several already existing acquaintances around as a group of us head out to a Chinese restaurant for some post-gig food and drink. It’s an inevitable feature of travelling that you’re always leaving a place just as you start to find your feet there, but no one ever embarked on a voyage of exploration in order to feel comfortable.

It’s junk, but it’s not scum

The first stage of this trip, from Sapporo through eastern Japan and back to Tokyo, took a little over six weeks. By the end, I felt a mixture of eagerness to return to Tokyo and this conflicting desire to just keep on going, never staying in one place long enough to feel alienated by it. As I made the journey from Okayama back to Osaka, I’ve been on this western leg of the trip for just over two months, and it’s starting to feel too long. I genuinely want to be home.

The reason I’m stopping in Osaka rather than heading straight back to reunite with my bicycle in Kyoto is twofold: firstly to catch up on some record stores I missed first time round, and secondly because of a show that evening. Summer is starting to show its teeth as well, with daytime temperatures around the Kansai area creeping upwards and the quiet, vaguely run-down streets I walk through shimmering faintly with a post-apocalyptic stillness.

My first stop is Forever Records in Shinsaibashi, where owner Satoru Higashiseto instantly demands that I read the book Dokkiri: Japan Indies Music 1976-1989 by longtime Japanese music aficianado/zinester Kato David Hopkins before I even begin to try to understand the Osaka underground music scene. My bags are already overloaded with far more new acquisitions than I can safely carry on my bicycle, but I make a note of it for future purchase.

Forever Records has been around in various locations since 1979, with Satoru joining the store in 1987 after working a few years at a different record shop. What I’m starting to recognise as a typically Kansai-esque jumble of cardboard boxes greets me when I enter, along with a handful of prominently displayed krautrock t-shirts. Forever Records boasts an extensive supply of different vinyl editions of Kraftwerk’s The Man-Machine, which were adopted as promotional props for anarchic avant-punk trio Oshiripenpenz.

Looking through its shelves and stacks, it’s interesting that the way Japanese record shops usually segregate foreign and domestic artists doesn’t apply here to experimental and avant-garde music. Satoru says language is a key factor, with the division in language that exists in pop and rock obliterated by the distortion, noise and just plain nonsense of much avant-garde music.

Coa

Partly this lack of division seems also to be down to the fluid, international nature of a lot of collaborations, for example in the way German musicians like the late Klaus Dinger worked with Japanese musicians on his final band Japandorf. Artists like Forever Records favourites acoustic effects maestro Akio Suzuki and avant-garde composer Miki Yui exist in a pan-national limbo, at home in their art and among other artists, but no longer identifiably tied to a specific place.

Masonna

Nevertheless, Satoru also brings up artists such as Coa (a heavier precursor band to Himeji’s Eddie Marcon) and Kun Youri (who previously played with ‘70s underground legends Zuno Keisatsu and Les Rallizes Dénudés), as well as noise artists Solmania (whose Masahiko Ohno designed all of legendary noise label Alchemy Records’ record sleeves) and Masonna, all of whom have closer ties to the Kansai area. In particular, he recommends Oshiro Hino, a key figure in the bands Goat and Bonanzas as well as a solo artist under the name YPY, as a leading light in the current Osaka underground scene.

Momus

Functioning both in the international arts sphere and yet also very much a creature of Osaka is the city’s adopted son Momus, the Scottish indie legend who at the time of my visit is gallavanting around the fashionable capitals of Europe, but whose music since moving to Japan in the 1990s has nonetheless eagerly absorbed aspects of his new surroundings. The album Glyptothek draws from and heavily samples old Japanese folk records, as well as the sounds, music and atmosphere of the particular time and place he was making the music. There’s a difference, though, between music that consciously mines its environment and musc that grows unconsciously from it. As an alien, you are inevitably drawn towards the former approach, made more conscious of what makes it unique. This is perhaps why so many of the most enthusiastic promoters and documenters of Japan’s local music scenes are immigrants or prodigal sons.

A few minutes walk away in the Americamura area, the diverse, ramshackle King Kong Records sits around the corner from punk specialist Time Bomb Records. One of the staff at the latter, Hiroyoshi, takes time out to give me a brief tour and drops a few recommendations. He picks up on Framtid as a local band with an international profile, the long-running Nightmare, Himeji’s Sekien, as well as EX-C, Five No Risk, Corrupted and his own personal top recommendation, the heavy doom of Fucho.

Fucho

Like Forever Records, Time Bomb also has its own label, which has put out Kyoto hardcore band Blow One’s Cool, the ‘70s-style punk of First Alert, Kyoto art-punks Liquid Screen, and Osaka’s SYAS.

Helpful as both Hiroyoshi and Satoru are, the feeling of terror still grips me when I apologetically mention that I also have a record label. Yes, I have listened to you talk with passion about your city’s music, but here is my ulterior motive. I hand over cards from my dwindling supply and shrink away in shame. You’d probably hate everything I put out, please forget I exist. Please, someone, help bring me back into my comfort zone.

The live venue Hokage is much more like my comfort zone, not only because half of the bands playing there are people I know from the Tokyo scene. I’ve now been in and around Osaka for long enough that local gig nuts like Hamaji from KK Manga recognise me, while Kev from Boys of Hong Kong shows up once more and I’m able to meet in person another British immigrant, Matthew from Capuchin, with whom I’ve been in online contact for some time.

Hokage is also a venue that just instantly feels like home. The dark, dirty stairwells, tiny, grotto-like rooms and bar areas, the stage spread out on a carpet on the floor, the twisted pipes and wires – it’s everything an underground live venue should be.

I only catch the end of the suitably energetic and somehow definitively Osaka-esque Mofo, but catch the full set of the first Tokyo band on the bill, self-described “gothic punk/dark hardcore” band Klonns. I get the gothic-hardcore thing, although for me all that just seems like another way of saying “postpunk”, which they are certainly as well – the main defining point seems to be the vocals, which have more of the gutteral melodrama you associate with goth than the reserved sarcasm or bleak alienation I tend to associate with postpunk pure and proper. They’re pretty good anyway.

The official organiser of the event is Mogikojin, a solo drummer with a headset mic and some insane heavy metal guitar noodling on a backing track. What he does is more of a rock’n’roll theatrical performance than what you’d call “creating music”, which is an approach I always associated with Osaka. He’s part of the Tokyo contingent though, and there’s a kind of polish to what he does that distinguishes it as a product of the capital rather than its Kansai rival. Matthew takes up this point later, explaining that, “Osaka loves an underdog,” and that this can manifest itself in a sort of sloppiness and a general withering away of interest if a band gets too slick. It’s no coincidence that the naive, chaotic psuedo-genre known as “scum” is closely associated with the Osaka area. Tokyo bands, on the other hand, often seem to be polished to the point that the life gets sucked out of the music, their polyrhythms and stop-starts refined to such mathy, hair-trigger precision that the sponteneity and energy dies. Iguz in Kagoshima had remarked on something similar when she had asked, “What’s that music all the bands in Tokyo do? The stuff that goes, ‘Duduh-duh… duduh-duh-duh-duduh… duh’?” I get so used to hearing mathy post-hardcore in Tokyo that it’s easy to forget it’s not normal at all.

Bogulta

That said, Osaka certainly does have musicians who would count as technical virtuosos under anyone’s definition. They just make sure they play with a looseness and abandon that ensures it never becomes oppressive. Bogulta are anarchic and explosive, but it’s underscored with a level of musical ability that clearly operates on a far higher level than the merely slapdash. It’s junk, but it’s not scum.

Bogulta’s drummer Nani was one of the leading lights of the “Zero Generation” that made Osaka such hot stuff in the early 2000s, thanks to his role in the marvellous Zuinosin. After that, he did his time in Acid Mothers Temple like all drummers in Japan have to by law as a sort of National Service, while Bogulta remains as an outlet for his own music.

Following them are Saitama’s In The Sun, who despite containing elements of post-rock, blast it at you in the form of an unrelenting spacerock beam of white light/white heat. If there’s a unifying theme of this event, it’s that of taking artists who represent Osaka at its most core self (perhaps even to the point of being a Tokyo outsider’s stereotype of the city) and pitting them alongside artists who represent a response from the capital and its surrounding areas. The Tokyo/Saitama contingent at this event is characterised by a tension between the clinical refinement that characterises much of the area’s music scene and an energy that draws parallels with the Kansai scene, while the Osaka contingent is a somewhat idealised vision of town coloured by memories of the anarchic virtuosity of 10-15 years ago.

Oshiripenpenz are definitely a creature of that early 2000s Osaka weird avant-garde rock boom, their spindly guitar parts and complex rhythms offset by the vocalist’s often confrontational, frequently dangerous performance antics. Kev points out that the pipes and wall fittings that line the live area of Hokage are an invitation to any band to get climbing. Oshiripenpenz rarely need an invitation to start scaling the walls and rafters of a venue, and it doesn’t take long before vocalist Motako is hanging upside down. He appropriates one of the tables as props too, first as a a plinth, then as a weightlifting aid, and then finally as a majorette’s baton, cracking one girl across the jaw painfully with its spinning base – his subsequent breakdown into profuse apologies the only time in ten years of watching the band that I’ve ever seen his manic stage persona crack.

Oshiripenpenz

Ricocheting back to Tokyo again, junk-noise band Halbach are what Matthew describes as, “The kind of thing Osaka bands nowadays should be doing.” They have the wildness, the explosive bursts of noise, the relentless energy, the playful sense of fun, but they also have a sort of togetherness, a sense of what they do having been thought out and developed a little more. The collision of Stooges-style raw power, almost psychedelic, feedback-drenched dance music and grinding, Teutonic EBM with shrieking bubblegum-noise vocals is intoxicating.

Final act Bashauma, meanwhile, rush by in a blur of psychedelic garage-punk distortion and roar. They put the event together on the Osaka end of things, and while the music itself often feels like a tool of fleeting necessity that they deploy for the primary purpose of wrecking the venue, they can’t be faulted for their intensity and sticktoitiveness. They tear the entire place apart and then come back for an encore using equipment that surely should no longer be functioning.

Bashauma

It’s a heartening farewell to Osaka, leaving me with a feeling that I might finally be coming to grips with the fringes of what’s happening there. It’s tempered though by my increasing anxiety about Tokyo and what, if anything, is waiting for me when I return. Seeing bands like Halbach and In The Sun here in Osaka leaves a mixture of comfort and disorientation – familiar elements uprooted from their “natural” environment and delivered in a new context. The idea of home that has been a recurring fixture of these travels is a multilayered one, encompassing one’s place of birth, place of residence, and several overlapping layers of social and creative sphere. Tokyo is a notoriously difficult place to call home, and its ever-shifting yet somehow never-changing music scene is a shallow topsoil above inconsistently moving plates. It actively resists the setting down of roots. I’m tired, exhausted, eager to return, but scared what I find when I get back will be equally alien.

Pull yourself together

Travelling through the area of western Japan around the Seto Inland Sea, I met a lot of interesting musicians and caught recommendations of a lot of cool bands that I was unable to actually see. Fortunately, nearly all the most exciting bands I’d failed to catch live between Fukuoka and Tokushima were all playing together at Okayama Pepperland, about three hours by train from where I was staying in Kyoto. I had a brief argument with myself about whether this constituted cheating and decided that my duty to take any opportunity document the music of the area outweighed the notion that I should be constantly pushing forward and only documenting what I find at the time. I’d already seen a hell of a lot in Osaka and Kyoto, and there was more to come at the weekend, but this show at Pepperland was a rare chance.

As I left Kyoto, it was clear that the weather was noticeably beginning to warm up. Kyoto is notorious for its heat, shielded by mountains on three sides, which turn it into a windless basin of sheer humid horror in the summer. During the two weeks I was spending in Kansai without much in the way of cycling, the temperature was rapidly shooting upwards, getting ready to give me a nasty shock when I saddled up and started moving east again the following week.

The train ride to Okayama was split evenly between urban Osaka/Kobe sprawl and picturesque Hyogo/Okayama rural idyll, but insulated as I was behind glass the whole time, I arrived back in Okayama for my third visit to the city not feeling like I’d really travelled at all.

Narcolepsin

Opening the event were local Okayama post-hardcore, alt rock band Bomb Ketch, followed by jittery, strangely unbalanced Fukuoka postpunk trio Narcolepsin. The drummer plays a minimal kit and the keyboard player just stands motionlessly and emotionlessly behind her Alesis Micron, while the vocalist frantically tries to juggle everything else, with two guitars and a saxophone slung around him at one point. The dynamic between the hyperactive vocalist and impassive keyboard player is reminiscent of Sparks, while the music is tautly wired and electrifying. Needless to say they’re amazing.

I met the bassist from Yuureka in Tokushima, and seeing them live for the first time now, it was easy to understand what some of the people back in their hometown were saying about them. They’re a band who clearly don’t aim for mass pop acceptance, but who are nevertheless on the brink of being something special. The heavy yet tightly clipped funk rhythms have an obvious influence of Japanese indie bands like 54-71 and Kuukan Gendai, as well as echoes of Rage Against The Machine, but over the course of a set, it feels like they maybe gove you a little bit too much, too early, making it hard to differentiate the set’s climax from the fierce rush of energy it kicks off with. Either way, they’re impressive, but with definite room to refine their sound.

Hiroshima’s Jailbird Y are up next, bringing some of the heaviest and most ferocious noise-rock in west Japan, even when down to a mere one drummer as they are at this show. Vocalist Ando has been one of the most helpful and enthusiastic supporters of what I’m doing on this trip, introducing me to people all over the Seto area and Shikoku, so seeing his band live during the course of my journey feels not only lucky but also necessary.

Bombori

They’re followed by Bombori from Tokyo. Bombori are a hardcore band, but take their music way further into rock territory than the narrow confines of short, sharp punk – they’re as much Led Zeppelin as they are Black Flag. Their music is a series of roaring, defiant sonic climaxes interspersed with frenetic bursts of grinding noise. where Yuureka still have some room to grow in terms of the dynamics of a live set, Bombori have it honed to theatrical perfection. That’s not to say that their performances are inflexible though – I remember seeing them on the new bands stage at Fuji Rock last year and the drummer kept the waves of attack coming long after the frustrated festival staff had cut their power and moved onstage to start packing away the equipment. They eventually started disassembling his kit around him and he still seemed in no hurry to stop. Bombori are also the opposite of Narcolepsin in the sense that what they do is quite immaculately balanced, with every member of the band pulling his own weight in the service of their rock wreckage. Watching them, there’s something almost too perfect about it – a self-assurance that bludgeons me into impressed submission but leaves me no easy route into its inner workings. The tension is all directed confrontationally outwards, with no sense of competing internal forces pulling the music in different directions. There’s no reason there should be anything like that, but I still like it when there is. I like beautiful broken things.

The Noup are the organisers of the show, and they’ve given themselves an unenviable task going on after the double-climax of Jailbird Y and Bombori. Their music is a less brutal, more finely targetted kind of sonic violence, but nonetheless effective once it finds its way into one of its frequent kraut-ish grooves.

The Noup

The end of the show provides another one of those anxious, uncomfortable moments where I suddenly find myself adrift in a social environment I’m not sure how I fit into, as the venue sets up tables and orders in pizza for the bands and any friends of theirs who want to stick around. The party’s nothing to do with me and I don’t know any of the organisers, so I’m not going to stay, but as I wait for a good chance to say goodbye to Jailbird Y and Yuureka, I gradually realise I’ve stayed way too long to easily leave.

Between smalltown Japan, where any curious visitor is a welcome guest in the local music scene, and the tiny corner of the Tokyo scene where people know and care about who I am, it’s easy to get a sense of your own importance out of all proportion to how much you actually matter. Osaka and Kyoto with their sprawling, impenetrable-seeming music scenes have been a perhaps necessary corrective for that train of thought. My awkward interactions with record stores have compounded that sense of my own essential smallness and insignificance still further, but what The Noup’s event demonstrates is something a little more subtle.

The Noup are one of those bands you occasionally find in smaller Japanese cities who have ambitions beyond their municipal or prefectural borders, and guided by their own impeccable taste and their nose for an emerging buzz, they actively and eagerly court the attention of the coolest bands from out of town. By putting on their own events, producing their own zines, and bringing hot bands from around Japan, they are engaged in the difficult job of building an audience not just for themselves but for the kind of thing they do, training an audience to see not just them but to see them in context. It’s certainly a form of self-promotion, but it’s a very involved form that recognises that doing something different with music requires a kind of base or hinterland. They don’t just want to be cool: they want to be part of something cool.

The radar of bands like The Noup is a finely honed thing, so seeing what they think is cool is often a good indicator of what has a reputation for being cool elsewhere too. For someone like me who by this point is already going through a sort of existential crisis about where my own activities stand in relation to prevailling trends (and whose own activities have been left in an anxious state of stasis while travelling), I’ve watched the event go past with a mixture of fascination and terror that this train is whizzing by and I don’t have a ticket.

I eventually find Ando and make my farewells, cursing myself first for not exiting at a more stylish time and secondly for being so frail and needy that it matters to me in the first place. The steady erosion of my confidence as I spend more and more time away from home, sleeping in different, equally alien hotel rooms every night, is starting to worry me. There’s still a month to go, and I need to pull myself together.

Stepping on the face of Christ

For much of my stay in Kyoto, my friend Hide from the first-generation Japanese punk band Ultra Bide was kind enough to let me stay at his house and we spend most of the day and night on my return from Tsuruga talking ourselves raw about all the things that are wrong with the music scene in Japan.

The institutional problems facing people trying to make, release, promote or even just see and hear good music in Japan are something I’ve spent much of my time in this country trying to understand, document and where possible alleviate – the question of pay-to-play, the media’s institutional tilt towards certain kinds of artists, the distribution of costs in a general sense, the way the social cliques and hierarchies work. Even so, talking to Hide about these issues can make for heavy going because he takes such an uncompromisingly hard line on everything.

Ultra Bide

Where he and I differ lies not so much in the underlying understanding of music culture in Japan as in quibbles over what words we’d use to describe certain things or what emphasis we place on certain issues. Those differences matter mainly because of how they point towards two slightly differing approaches. To me, the question of “What can we actually do?” is the most important one, and Hide’s approach begins from such an uncompromising set of premises that the only viable paths are to destroy the whole edifice (impossible) or drop out completely. Unable to do the former, Hide has at least been able to take the latter path, retreating into a hermit-like existence in his home studio, putting on late afternoon/early evening parties in his house using an electronic drum kit. To him, my approach probably seems like a series of futile, self-undermining compromises in the face of a rotten institution that will never bend back to accommodate me, like putting a sticking plaster on a cancer.

Anyone who takes a critical stance against the music scene as a whole places themselves at risk of being dismissed as an eccentric, and this is a shame. Even if you disagree with the hardline conclusions Hide’s line of argument inevitably leads to, there’s a lot of truth to what he says too – the number of great musicians (Japanese and foreign) Japan loses to places like Berlin, London and New York because of the stifling, success-crushing institutional conservatism of the music scene is depressing. Secondly, Hide’s very singlemindedness is a big part of what makes his music good, giving it a directness, free from equivicating or cloaking sentiments and sonics, that a lot of music in Japanese indie lacks. Listening to the raw, heavy rock and propulsive garage punk he has recently been recording in his home studio with projects like Cancer Cures and Bitchfinger is refreshing after the fussiness that Japan, and especially Tokyo, gets you accustomed to.

The sense of the impossibility of fitting in is something a lot of foreigners in Japan have to come to terms with, and yet the desire to have a place where you feel accepted and at home is a natural, instinctive one that you cannot easily escape. A recurring theme of this trip has been my exploration of the way underground and indie music functions as a psychic home in a confusing world full of too much information and too many competing instructions on the correct way to live your life. As a result, some of the most crushing and dispiriting moments in my life immersed in the music scene have come from instances of rejection emerging from the music scene – a place that, in my mind at least, is supposed to be a refuge for outsiders.

In my case, it’s understandable – I’m a foreigner, I have no meaningful punk cred, and my musical activities are insignificant in the grander scheme of things. On the other hand, Hide is not only Japanese but also respected abroad, with a relationship with Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles label, as well as being a sort of “ur-sempai” in the sense that he can stake a legitimate claim to having founded punk rock in the Kansai area. After the “Tokyo Rockers” kicked off punk in Tokyo, it was people like Hide, Phew and Jojo Hiroshige who were the first people creating Kansai’s answer (even if Jojo was doing so mostly by lying on his back, trying to look up girls’ skirts). Put simply, Hide’s age, reputation and body of work give him superpowers by the standards of the Japanese underground scene, and yet he too ran into a brick wall of cold indifference when he tried to change anything. We often find our way into subcultures seeking a place where we can feel at home and safe from the world, so if we experience rejection even in that tiny world, it can hurt doubly bad.

Ultra Bide (1979 lineup)

The place where that line between acceptance and rejection is at its narrowest is in record stores. Step in there as a journalist and I usually find myself welcomed with smiles. Step in there as a record label looking for someone to stock my CDs and I get frosty aloofness. Record stores are the scariest places because they are the places where the limit of my influence, the raw essential nature of my value in the music scene, is exposed most starkly.

Like a number of cities seem to have nowadays, there is a special tourist map for record shoppers in Kyoto, but before I start doing my rounds, I stop off at Violet & Claire SOU, a café run by Sumire of the Twee Grrrls Club DJ team. An old friend from Tokyo, I met her by chance in Sendai during the Tohoku leg of my travels; however, when I actually visit the city where she lives, she’s away in Tokyo celebrating her other shop’s seventh anniversary. Her husband Satoru Ono is manning the shop in her absence though, and as a Kyoto native with ties to the music scene going way back to his teenage years, he’s one of the people I was most keen to catch up with.

Satoru Ono

As a university town with dozens of colleges and universities of various kinds, the influence of students on the Kyoto music scene is visible in both the way audiences can skew younger, and how amateur bands can spring up and fade away with dizzying speed. With SOU’s background in indiepop and twee pop culture, Ono picks up on Swimmees and Noble Trugs as two of the young generation of guitar pop bands who are currently making their gentle presence felt.

Guitar pop and the more fashionable end of poppy indie music is well represented in Kyoto by Second Royal, which has released Satoru Ono’s own work, as well as releasing the currently high flying Homecomings and promoting the much-buzzed-about Full Teenz. Second Royal has a shop in the cluster of fashionable looking shopping streets to the south of the old imperial palace. Second Royal shares a building with record store Art Rock No.1, which looks like a disorientating mixture of refined Scandinavian boutique and chaotic piles of record boxes. The owner recommends the suitably sophisticated chamber pop of Quaeru as his local pick-up.

Homecomings

A short distance from there is Jet Set, which is probably Kyoto’s most famous record store, with a smaller branch in Tokyo’s Shimokitazawa district. Split down the middle between indie rock and club music, I first have a chat with Lilla, whose main area of interest lies on the club side and who recommends the distinctly laid back grooves of beatmaker Toyomu. When I’m able to pin down their indie guy, Kosaka, he seems wary or shy of making specific recommendations when put on the spot, but wandering around the shop I see that Dylanesque singer-songwriter Hirohiko Nishi occupies top spot in the store’s local recommendations.

Moving further into the Teramachi shopping arcade, I’m faced with the nightmarish difficulty of finding anywhere to park a bicycle, even for ten minutes, that won’t cause a massive nuisance to someone in Kyoto’s narrow, overcrowded streets. Eventually I find a place that seems safe to risk and head into avant-garde specialist Parallax Records, which occupies a niche inside a building otherwise devoted to fashionable boutiques. The floor of the shop is strewn with old records, which guests are expected walk around on as they navigate the small shop. This causes two problems for me, because firstly, despite my suspicion of vinyl as being a largely hipster-driven phenomenon, I regard stepping on records in much the way that Christians in Japan may have regarded Shogunate demands that they step on an image of Jesus or the Virgin Mary. Secondly, since the records aren’t actually stuck to the floor in any way, it’s dangerously slippery if you’re not stepping with care. Maybe that’s the message: we demand that you commit blasphemy, but you must accept the peril that accompanies such sin.

While Parallax Records are wary of allowing any photographs that too closely depict the stock, the clerk recommends Osaka-based electronic sound-sculptor Kazuya Ishigami as a key local act, and one the shop seems to have a close relationship with.

Travelling around these intimidatingly stylish record shops, I’ve felt my ego getting gradually crushed under the weight of… of what? My own commercial insignificance? That’s the unsuccessful label owner in me talking. A sense that I’ll never be cool enough to be able to just walk into one of these places and feel like anything other than an interloper? I’m not getting any full-on High Fidelity asshattery from any of these guys, but there’s something about record stores that makes me paranoid: something infused into the fabric of the places that makes me feel gauche.

This dissipates a little with the book- and record-shop 100000t, which despite (or perhaps because of) clearly not being the sort of place that would have any use for anything I have to sell, feels a bit less intimidating. It has a cosy vibe to it and the owner is a cheerful fellow, happy to hunt down and give a bit of background to recommendations. One name he mentions, which I’ve heard before over the course of this trip, is the Kyoto-based music writer Shino Okamura, who is often regarded as a go-to person on the Kyoto music scene and something of a local music antenna. One band Okamura has championed, as well as being a 100000t recommendation, is psych-tinged alt-folk band HonjitsuKyuen. Another 100000t recommendation, Yoshida Shonen, has a different kind of Kyoto scene affiliation, meanwhile, via 2000s alt-rock legends Quruli (he was a member between 2011 and 2013), while the whimsical acousticry of Kaze no Mata Sunny is apparently worthy of mention purely on his own merits.

Yoshida Shonen

If I felt worryingly out of my depth going round the record stores, one place I can usually be fairly sure of feeling comfortable is in an izakaya. A dimly lit shop specialising in the sale of cheap beer and burned chicken skewers is as close to my natural environment as exists in Japan, so it was with great relief that this is the kind of place I ended up when I met up with Tani, the drummer from O’Summer Vacation. Joining up with Hori and Abe, two guys with connections in the live scene over on the western side of Kyoto, there was a very different atmosphere.

According to Tani, the area west of Nijo Castle and around the Saiin area of town is a popular area for musicians, and despite being less popular a commercial area, it’s home to a number of live venues. The live venues Nega-Posi and Gattaca are around this area, as well as music café Ooh-La-La and all manner of other live spots and music bars. Hori is involved in the Saiin Music Festival, beinging musicians and bands together in a series of shows spread over dozens of venues from tiny, makeshift acoustic stages to a main stage at the Kasuga Jinja Buddhist temple. Meanwhile Abe used to play drums for O’Summer Vacation and now plays with Futsu no Shiawase.

Moozmz

There are numerous bands they recommend through the course of the night, although the tight, understated and quietly funky hip hop-influenced indie of Moozmz, the lo-fi indie rock of Meshia to Ninjin, the anthemic pop-rock of The Fax, the fast, fiddly post-rock of Nuito, guitar/drum duo Anoranpe, and indie rock band Kailios told a story more in tune with the Japanese ‘90s/2000s indie tradition that Quruli had such a large part in creating than the more internationally-influenced, fashionably naïve guitar pop that places like SOU and to an extent Second Royal represent.

Talking to Tani, Abe and Hori in the more casual environment of an izakaya is also a real reminder of the aspect of the music lifestyle that I’ve missed being away from Tokyo for so long. Music is everywhere, but the connections and relationships you build with the people involved in it are what makes it feel like home. A lot of my paranoia and anxiety in big cities like Kyoto and Osaka comes from the feeling of having those connections ripped away, and being left unsure of how everything fits together. The flipside of that is that seeing the connections start to fall into place is part of what makes music so much fun to be involved in.

A journey to the stars

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.

Popo + ECD

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.

Sing J Roy

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.

Uchuu Sanrinsha

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.