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 Jubilee are no longer active though, with Kim now playing in the more directly punk-influenced SuicideTV.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

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.

No golfing?

Kyoto and Osaka are close enough that they can legitimately be considered part of the same basic urban area, but Kyoto nevertheless has a cultural reputation and legacy quite distinct from Osaka in a way that a similar sized city like Kobe doesn’t – or at least not as strongly.

The route I took between the cities emphasised this distinction by avoiding main roads and instead following the Yodo River through a trail of tagged and numbered elderly hikers, past hundreds of families and students having barbecues, through individual daytrippers living out an idyll so surreal that there was actually a girl in a wide-brimmed straw hat and billowy dress chasing butterflies with a net. Adding to the air of aromatic unreality were the frequent signs urging people, “No golfing!” in places where only an insane lunatic would try to play golf. Golf, like any other leisure activity, is only permitted in clearly fenced off and strictly monetised locations.

The main visible difference between Kyoto and a normal Japanese city is that Kyoto retains the rigid grid layout of its pre-modern period, with a complex network of one-way systems funnelling traffic through its narrow streets. It’s not a friendly system for cyclists, but that doesn’t stop the city from enthusiastically promoting rent-a-cycles as a super-convenient way of getting around the city for tourists. Obviously there are a lot of temples and shrines given the town’s historic nature, although the most famous ones tend to cling to the lower reaches of the mountains that ring the city. More significant from the point of view of the music scene is the way that the narrow streets and plethora of old buildings that comprise the loosely defined centre of the city are more congenial to small boutiques and cafés than loud rock venues, forcing many of the actual live houses and clubs out towards the fringes and ensuring that the music scene has no real core in the way Osaka has Shinsaibashi.

For all that Kyoto has a distinct atmosphere from Osaka, the cities are nonetheless very close and there is a tremendous amount of overlap between the music scenes. My first stop is over near Saiin, an area many musicians seem to settle, and where a cluster of venues exists. I’m there to meet Suhara from Osaka’s Gyuune Cassette label – one of my favourite record labels in Japan, which has over the years released a lot of artists that I admire, including early albums by “Kansai Zero-Generation” trailblazers Afrirampo and the slightly later Midori, as well as more recent releases by postpunk bands BlondNewHalf and Otori.


Oboreta Ebi no Kenshi Hokoku-sho

Gyuune Cassette is far more eclectic than that though, and since it was founded in the mid-‘90s has released folk singer-songwriters like Kamin Shirahata, electro-funk seafood collective Oboreta Ebi no Kenshi Hokoku-sho (“Autopsy Report of Drowned Shrimp”), “progressive fast junk” like Himitsu King and lots and lots of psychedelia. Suhara himself was part of the original lineup of Acid Mothers Temple and still performs in various projects (he’s in Kyoto today for a show at the venue Ooh-La-La), and so the social circles he has strongest connections to make it perhaps natural that a lot of the label’s output includes bands like Leningrad Blues Machine which are deeply embedded in the Kansai area’s rich tradition of psychedelia and art junk – a tradition that, in addition to Acid Mothers Temple, also runs through the likes of Zuinosin, through the Boredoms and all the way back to Hadaka no Rallizes (Les Rallizes Dénudés).


Leningrad Blues Machine

Suhara has seen a lot of music come and go in Osaka over the years, but believes the core identity of the music scene there is fairly consistent, telling me, “The bands are different but the road they’re travelling is the same.” One thing that’s changed a lot is how easy it is to physically manufacture music. “Pressing a CD in the early ‘90s might cost you a million, but now you can do it for a tenth of that price.” As the label’s name suggests, when he started out, Suhara was making short runs of tapes, dubbing 200 copies himself. He seems a little cynical about the tentative revival of the cassette medium nowadays, and when I suggest to him that a number of label and record shop people I’ve spoken to on my travels are wary of the cassette format’s potential, he agrees that while some bands might think they’re cool, “The guys who have to actually make them think they’re a waste of time.”


Okachimenko

In the Kansai music scene of the moment, artists Suhara suggests are worth paying attention to include guitar-and-clarinet acoustic storytelling duo Okachimenko, shambolic punk band Byseishi, the “soft psychedelia” of Ikansen Hana Okoshi, and Suppattukalimar, the solo project of a girl who plays drums and keyboards while singing oddball technopop songs, often in Russian.

The show I’m hitting up is across town at Metro, a venue named after its location halfway down a staircase at the entrance to Jingu Marutamachi underground station. The gig tonight is part of the release tour of Tokyo hardcore band Tiala, although pigeonholing Tiala as simply hardcore perhaps does them a bit of a disservice with their music occupying the weirder and more experimental end of the genre while ramping the intensity up to its absolute maximum. They are also an important band in understanding how Tokyo interacts with the rest of Japan thanks to vocalist Kakinuma’s role running the venue Bushbash in Koiwa and the band’s connection with the Less Than TV label. In Eastern Japan in particular, Bushbash and Less Than TV are a key link connecting Tohoku and Hokkaido to Tokyo, and are well known and regarded to the west of the country as well.


Fluid

Opening the show, however, is Fluid, a long-running Kyoto postpunk/no wave band led by Metro’s manager (at least at the time of writing) Ryohei “Jack” Tanaka (I’ve always suspected the nickname comes from what he likes to drink for breakfast). Coming off the back of some dark, heavy club beats that the DJ has been spinning beforehand, Fluid are an unforgiving industrial jackhammer of a band, rhythmically relentless, cutting and slashing their way through the set with brutal efficiency and intensity, Jack’s vocals warped by effects beyond all recognition as a human sound.


Odd Eyes

Fluid and Tiala both contributed to a compilation album I released many years ago of Japanese underground bands covering songs by UK postpunk legends Wire, and while that album is largely forgotten in Tokyo, people at Metro still seem to remember it, thanks largely to the continuing influence Fluid hold over this part of the Kyoto music scene. Speaking to the guitarist of marvellous young art-punk band Odd Eyes, he remarks that remembers buying the album when he was a high school student, giving me a rush of that heady combination of pride and realisation of the unstoppable advance of death. Still, something I helped make actually inspired someone: you can’t put a price on that.

Yasushu Yoshida from Osaka is on the bill again, after seeing him at Osaka Bears last week, while heavy doom band She Luv It, shaking the foundations of the building above through Metro’s already immense PA rig. Tiala, meanwhile, are a force of nature, Kakinuma a taut, straining mass of veins and tendons, tearing through the songs at breakneck pace and earsplitting volume.


Lego Chameleon

Beyond the bands on the bill tonight, Metro’s own staff includes a number of musicians, with Lego Chameleon and Outatbero having close connections to the venue. Meanwhile staff members recommend the goth-edged dub of YYBY, offbeat garage-punk quartet Otoboke Beaver, and point out eclectic young electronic superstar producer Madegg as an important recent act to emerge from the Kyoto music scene.


Otoboke Beaver

Seeing Tiala also acts as a reminder of how I’m gradually moving back within touching distance of Tokyo, with Osaka and Kyoto naturally among the most common destinations for touring Tokyo musicians thanks to their relative accessibility by car (seven hours or so drive), their large, active music scenes, and the reciprocal nature of many of the relationships that see Kansai bands frequently making the return trip to Tokyo as well. In that sense, music scenes in places like Kobe, Osaka and Kyoto aren’t just integrated with each other but noticeably integrated with Tokyo and the Kanto area as well, with touring acts not an exciting novelty so much as a pretty regular occurence and a natural part of the weekly ebb and flow of music.


Madegg

For me, arriving in the area from the more distant west, there’s a mixture of alienation and familiarity in the situation. I’m a normal enough feature of the Tokyo live circuit that seeing me in Kyoto is barely worth more than a raised eyebrow to a visiting band from Tokyo, but after two months away in places like Tottori and Ehime, seeing familiar faces from home is a strangely emotional experience for me. Being in unfamiliar environments that are nonetheless within touching distance of home is the new normal as I move into the final stages of this trip though, so I might as well start getting used to it.

Sexy Music

Between Wakayama and Osaka lay seventy kilometres of largely identical urban highway with an airport in the middle. The airport was important because that weekend, one of my best friends was getting married in Tokyo and I was in the wedding band.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve got so used to travel from one place to another having a certain pace that the combination of speed and disjointedness that air travel brings made my arrival back in Tokyo feel unreal. “I’m not really here,” I wrote on Facebook, hoping to make myself sound mysterious, but it really didn’t feel like I was there. How could I, when I’d been on an artificial island in Osaka Prefecture an hour previously?

My band were doing a set of Guided By Voices covers, and while we’re honest about being a tribute band, since no one in Japan knows who GBV are, people keep mistaking us for the most amazing songwriters anyway. This for me is always deeply embarrassing (seriously, guys, Robert Pollard makes about eight bazillion albums a year, so start anywhere – there’s no excuse for not knowing), which makes it all the more difficult for me to understand how some bands can be so thievingly unoriginal and happily lap up the credit. That’s the difference between a cover and a rip-off: not so much in the music as in the wrapping.

The wedding was between my Call And Response Records collaborator Shingo, who used to play bass in The Mornings – one of Tokyo’s best bands of the 21st Century so far – and his girlfriend Manami, so the party was full of musicians. “OK, guys, there’s a lot of very important people here, so look sharp: this is an audition!” is what no one said. “On the one hand, it’s the most important day of Shingo and Manami’s lives, but on the other hand we’re playing GBV songs, so how much do you think I should drink before going onstage?” was a better characterisation of the dilemma.

When you’re playing GBV songs, at one gig in every ten, you’ll accidentally encounter someone in the audience who’s a massive fan (the only kinds of people who exist in the world are massive GBV fans and people who’ve never heard of the band) and if you can chance upon one of those guys (it’s always guys), you’ve got the night sewn up. In our case there was one right in the front row, who’d had no idea what kind of band we were beforehand but whose eyes practically exploded out of their sockets when the opening notes of A Salty Salute started to roll out of Ryotaro’s bass. If you can play to just one person, their enthusiasm sometimes just ripples out into the rest of the crowd. Real places are the best. Fuck the Internet.

One of my friends who travels a lot asked me if after a while everywhere doesn’t just start to feel the same. He’s noticed that with far more international and exotic places, so within just one country you’d expect the feeling of homogeneity to be even stronger. It’s a difficult question to answer, because a lot of it depends on expectations, but it throws a new layer on something I’d been thinking about for a long time.

When I was in Kanazawa, Asuna had suggested that the way the Internet has closed the information gap between scenes was helping to smooth over the differences between music in local areas, and I’ve been conscious of that as I move from place to place. However, as my friend at the wedding suggested, there’s also a sense that my own position as an observer might be a factor too. As I see more places, I’ll naturally look for themes and make connections, so the more I see, the more I’m unconsciously slotting everything into familiar narratives that I develop as I travel.

Osaka is in an interesting place in regard to those intersecting issues. On the one hand, it’s an enormous city with a strong regional identity, but on the other hand, it’s at a crossroads of all sorts of cultural cross-pollination. When I arrive back in Osaka after the wedding, my flight is delayed and I have to cycle the remaining forty kilometres to my hotel mostly in darkness, then after a swift shower rush directly to Bears – owned by Seiichi Yamamoto of Rovo and formerly of the Boredoms, it’s perhaps Osaka’s most famous live venue – where I am able to catch a set by Convex Level, a band from the city I’d just left behind earlier the same day.


Convex Level

Convex Level have been around for years (since the ‘80s) and their loose-fitting postpunk/new wave differs from the current generation of what probably count as their genre peers in the way they don’t drill every last guitar spasm down to the finest detail, a playfulness in the way they let songs drift, the aura of sloppiness that is nonetheless underscored by a strong core of musicianship. I feel something similar from Convex Level to what I get from Guided By Voices, even if they’re drawing from a slightly (but only slightly) different core of influences, with a slightly different tilt in the balance between postpunk and ‘60s/‘70s rock.

I also catch half of the set by Lostage, a band from nearby Nara but who I had always assumed were a Tokyo band from how often they seem to play there. Lostage occupy a sparsely populated zone somewhere between the basement-level amateur indie scene and mainstream respectability. They’ve managed to keep hold of something harsh and crunching, but they combine that with sprawling rock balladry that pushes the weight further over onto melody and away from pure dynamics. They’re one of the few successors to Number Girl who never compromised the scratchy edges for Rockin’ On-style pastel-coloured prog-pop, and they’re a treasure.

Trespass are there as well, although my flight delay means that I missed them. In lieu of there really being anyone I know in Osaka who can help me make sense of the vast, dizzying amount of music going on at all times around me, Maki and Makoto from Trespass are proving one of the few consistent features of my intimidating introduction into the Osaka music world. Makoto recommends Dirty is God, Back to Basics and the fantastically named Ultra Fuckers, as well as postpunk trio Douglas, as a good starting point for raw, nasty sounding underground rock and punk. In addition to Bears, meanwhile, the venues Hokage, Hard Rain, Fandango, King Cobra and Pangaea are prominent among the city’s countless live spaces and clubs – with most of them clustered around either the Umeda area towards the north of the city, and the Shinsaibashi/Namba areas towards the south.


Seiya Isono

The following night, however, I’m off to Para-Dice, a tiny, narrow little room in the middle of a shopping arcade just outside Umeda. It’s one of those venues where you feel like you’re in on some discreet little secret just from walking in. The two artists on the bill are pianist Kataashi Zubon and guitarist Seiya Isono. Both of them are singer-songwriters, which is a format of music that I’m instantly suspicious of thanks to its insistence on fake-buddy inter-song patter juxtaposed with overwrought, emotional in-song yowling. Both artists conform to this problematic stereotype more or less, and the audience howl with laughter at everything they say. Osaka is famous as a nursery for comedians, and if Osaka audiences are so easily pleased, it’s easy to see why so many might feel encouraged to take that path.

That said, they’re also both devastating musicians on a technical level, with Isono effortlessly producing complex guitar and rhythm loops that build into intricate progressive folk songs, delivering the vocals in a style that veers from conversational to a pitch-perfect falsetto. The product itself is immaculate.

DSC_9170
Seiya Isono

As the winner of the pre-gig paper-scissors-stone contest, Kataashi Zubon gets to headline (kind of, since they’ve already decided that they’re going to play together for an encore). As a rule, piano-based singer-songwriters who aren’t called Eiko Ishibashi are just by the nature of their chosen instrument more vulnerable to descents into smugness. Kataaashi Zubon is an incredible pianist on a technical level, who mixes pop and classical influences, often to comical effect and sometimes just as what appear to be dizzying displays of finger-gymnastics. I tend to feel that with piano, less is more, but he clearly disagrees, with every song a frenetic blizzard of notes, that he bangs down as hard as he possible can. Two songs leave me exhausted, but I stick it out to the end, only skipping the encore, which after my frantic weekend of travel and events promised to be too much of an exercise in back-slapping buddytude for my drained emotional resources to handle. It’s always painful when I find myself disliking something that’s obviously very good on a number of levels, and I can often pull myself onto the right sort of level to enjoy it in the way it’s intended, but tonight I leave the venue a failure.


Kataashi Zubon

Trudging back through the streets of Umeda, Osaka looks like one massive, anonymous red light district, and after being surrounded by almost my whole circle of friends for one long night in Tokyo, there’s something tremendously lonely. Part of me wishes I hadn’t gone back – that I hadn’t broken up the trip in that way, fracturing the narrative and disrupting the experience. But then looking at the fragmented way this stage of my travels have gone, with constant diversions by rail as I creep my way east by bicycle, is it really that different? The fact that I’m in a place where it only takes an hour or two to reach Tokyo tells me something about this place, and the sense of fragmentation I feel is part of the experience of being in a city like this in the first place.

Ownership

As I moved from the picturesque centre of Tokushima towards the port, the landscape became greyer and more industrial, with even the perky anime girl mascots on the side of the ferry seeming somehow faded and drab under the grey skies, pregnant with the threat of rain.

This journey to Wakayama was to be the last stretch of my trip carried out by sea, and once underway, the ferry began drunkenly lurching about, daring me to vomit and doing its best to ensure that I don’t miss these aquatic interludes in my cycling. Wrong, ferry! I will miss them: even the pukey bits.

Being in Wakayama is a lot like being in the 1970s, with the whole town radiating a sort of ramshackle, unfinished disarray. The Nankai Line’s imposing Wakayamashi Station towers over a neighbourhood full of basically nothing at all, while Japan Railways’ Wakayama Station sits at the heart of the town’s tiny enclave of modern-ish buildings. The town itself spreads in a languid agglomeration of hostess bars, tin roofed shacks and run-down shopping arcades between the two stations. The sole record store in town, Cross Road, has a surprisingly large indie section stocked at what feels like random over a period of many years, with some fading, unsold CDs by lost loves like Spectrum Synthesize and Squimaoto, and an early CD/R by my Tokyo-based friends Praha Depart among the many surprises. Looking at the music the staff at Cross Road have put on display (Jun Togawa, Velvet Underground, Bryan Eno), I get the distinct sense of a staff aware of a world of music they know they will struggle to sell on to their customers, but still determined to chip away at the edges.

In any case, with Wakayama as my gate into the Kansai area, I did what any self-respecting music nerd would do and instantly got on a train to Kobe.

Now this may seem like cheating, and yeah, well, it is if those are the rules you’ve decided to apply. However, rather like the way northern Kyushu is all really one place, the same can be said for Kansai. Wakayama may be pushing it a bit, being situated way down in the south and separated by some mild mountains, but once across the water in Kansai, it made more sense to me to treat the whole area as one place. More importantly, Kobe is where the live venue Helluva Lounge is, and this night was the only chance it looked like I was going to get to see a cool show there.

After I’d got over the unfortunate bungle that had resulted in Nankai Lines naming their rapid trains “rapi:t”, and a quick dash through the lively, rain-soaked streets of Kobe’s lively Motomachi district, I entered the venue to the sound of Janglepop tunemongers The City and instantly run into Canan from Tokyo new wave band Compact Club and Sugihara from Neons – urban Kansai is deeply connected to the musical merry-go-round and spend enough time at one stop on the loop and you’ll start to recognise people at any other place you get off as well. They were swiftly followed by bass-driven squeakcore punkas o’summer vacation, who had played at my show in Kumamoto a month previously. I’ve probably seen o’summer vacation more than almost any band over the past few months, although seeing them on something like their home turf (the members are spread through Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe) gave a sense of completion to my introduction to the band.


Trespass

Another local Kobe act (although now living in Osaka) was Trespass, a guitar-and-drum-based postpunk/new wave duo with a neat line in angular hooks, while headliners were French postpunk revivalists Frustration.

Frustration were interesting just in how much and how unashamedly they were ripping off a certain classic Manchester band – even down to the spazzy Ian Curtis dancing. I remarked at the time, and have continuously done since, that they should rename themselves Joie de Vision, but still no one laughs – I only repeat it here in the desperate hope that somewhere, sometime, someone finds it and thinks, “That’s a clever pun. Well done.”


Frustration

Anyway, there are two sides to this issue. One is, as one friend pointed out, “There are loads of kids who’ve never heard of Joy Division and will never get a chance to see them live, so what’s wrong with these guys providing that to them?” The other side is that making art isn’t about providing a service to the audience, it’s about how honest you’re being with yourself as you engage in the creative process.

Between these two positions, there’s a lot of room for debate and manoeuvering based on just how much you can crib from others, and clearly different people have different threshholds in what they’ll tolerate. The debate over Led Zeppelin’s appropriation of a guitar line from Spirit’s instrumental track Taurus partly illustrates how the public standards for originality have changed over time.

In the past, bands would begin by playing covers and develop their own styles from those, but nowadays, we expect musicians to deliver an album full of original material right from the get-go. Can we really be surprised that a lot of that “original” material is derivative of other works when those artists are often still at the “covers” stage of their artistic development? That said, Frustration are by no means a young band, so why are they still in that place? Shouldn’t they just be a covers band and be done with it? Or is there an argument that as deep, dedicated fans of bands like Joy Division and Magazine, it’s a legitimate path for them to channel their own artistic expression through the narrow conduit of the forms codified by those older bands? If so, how much of what remains can really be called theirs?

(It’s customary here to add “…and does it really matter?” but this is a cop-out. Yes, of course it matters, otherwise why am I even having this discussion and why are you reading it?)

The following night back in Wakayama (and therefore back in the 1970s) these questions don’t seem so relevant. The music scene in Wakayama is dominated by live venues and music bars run by classic rock, folk and blues fans, that trade primarily on Beatles and Dylan covers. There is one regular rock club called Gate and a lemonade shop that seems to be obsessed with visual-kei, but the place I find myself is Oldtime, run since 1987 by an old guy called Bobby (from Dylan).

“Recently I’ve been really into whisky,” he declares apropos of nothing, swaying a little.

There’s a small group of people in the venue, and it’s pretty open who goes up and plays. Bobby does a version of Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door, switching between Japanese and English lyrics in different sections, which itself highlights the different forms of delivery necessitated by stress-timed English and the more syllabic Japanese languages.

The cover, then, is not necessarily unoriginal, just as a song you’ve written yourself isn’t necessarily original. The way that arranging or reinterpreting a song can produce a subtly or radically different work is a theme I’ve returned to over and over again in projects I’ve organised (getting 21 different bands to cover Paranoid by Black Sabbath remains one of the achievements of which I’m most proud).

Mostly, these are just dudes who are very sincerely into their folk and rock, enjoying themselves by playing the classics, and in the process taking some small measure of ownership over them. In the sense that it’s different from what Frustration were doing in Kobe the previous night, that difference lies in the expectations the different audiences lay on them and the role of the notion of originality has in the different social environments within which the music gestates.

After Oldtime, I drop by the nearby Bar Gimmes, whose owner Okamoto is a garage and punk rock dude (we’re still in the ‘70s here, so The New York Dolls and The Damned stare down at me from every wall) and has been running the bar in this location since 2013 and before that in another spot nearby. The only customer in there is Isao, who used to play in a garage-punk band. When I ask about the local music scene, they both get that look I by now recognise instantly.

“Hmm… not really.”

They won’t even recommend their own bands, which could be more out of modesty than anything else. Actually, the very popular Kegawa no Maries hailed from Wakayama originally, starting out as a wonderful sort of crossdressing glam Bowie type thing, before settling into the more chugging, Stonesey form they became famous in. Okamoto eventually remembers a band called Ann, who used to be hot stuff in Wakayama ten years ago, and after some careful digging, I can confirm only that they appear to have existed.


Kegawa no Maries

Now my worry at this point is that I’m making Wakayama sound like a dead-end culture vacuum, which isn’t true, or at least isn’t an accurate reflection of my experience of the town. Wakayama feels like a blue collar town, still dominated by businesses owned and run locally (And gee, ain’t it quaint, honey!) It’s quiet for sure, but everything that’s there feels like it grew naturally out of the fabric of the town. This goes for the music too, and even where it is sparse, the little discoveries and connections feel all the more meaningful because of that.

We start talking about Bowie and Okamoto puts on “Heroes”. I look at my phone, and an enormous earthquake has just flattened parts of Kumamoto.

The uncanny island

The journey from Takamatsu to Tokushima was perhaps the most relentlessly pleasant section of my travels so far, with gradients, winds and skies working largely in my favour. Past Mount Yashima, along the garbage-strewn concrete knots of the Shikoku coast, beneath the watchful eyes of hunting birds of prey, and through sudden chicanes of conceptual art, my final stop on the island of Shikoku drew closer.

The journey would have been nothing more than the prelude to a disappointment if Tokushima itself hadn’t been one of the most instantly pretty towns of the trip. In its riverside parks, wooded hilltops, and spacious, faintly tropical boulevards of palm trees, Tokushima shares a similar atmosphere with the other main cities of Shikoku, combining all their most attractive points into one, condensed little island, cut off from the mainland by the courses and confluences of two rivers.

My contact in Tokushima came through a series of dominoes, the first of which was tipped by Agata from bubblegum-hardcore band Melt-Banana, who introduced me via email to local organiser Iyaman. While unable to get to Tokushima City from his job on the relevant night, he was able to set in motion another series of dominoes, starting with his brother Yoshitaka and eventually bringing what felt like the whole local music scene around the table of an izakaya in downtown Tokushima.


Young Persons Club

Joining us there were members of off-kilter indie rock band Young Persons Club, the manager of local live venue Crowbar, Iyaman’s occasional event collaborator “Ism Rockfield” of the Goodness Team event (who have supported shows by touring artists like Toe, Yasutaka Nakata, and Scha Dara Parr) a number of young musicians, including Fujioka from The Circus, Horibe from Monaurals and Yukimoto, formerly of Okayama-based indie rock band Ramca.

While the table layout and large group gathered meant that I was able to talk to some people more than others, they were able to agree on some key information, namely that Thirsty Chords are pretty much the best local band and that it was a bummer that they hadn’t been able to join us, while local venues included (in addition to Crowbar) the relatively new Em Base, Grindhouse, and music bars like Jiro’s Guitar Bar, Rocky, and Txalaparta. There’s not much in the way of record stores, but Tokushima apparently has its own mobile music store called Cabbage Case, that pops up at gigs here and there selling CDs, records and tapes, before packing up and disappearing into the night.


The Ninja

Other acts who crop up through the course of the back-and-forth discussion, mostly on the broad spectrum that lies between indie rock and punk, include the punky likes of Kain, Bows and The Ninja, and the more J-pop/shoegaze-influenced Shiroi Asa ni Saku and Bandneon.


Shiroi Asa ni Saku

One band everyone seems to rate as interesting, although one suspects not everyone is entirely sold on them yet, is Yuureka (their web site spells it Yuureka and their Twitter accound spells it Eureka – I’m going with a direct transcription of the katakana here). Another young band, they are clearly heavily influenced by the minimal, rhythmical sounds of bands like 54-71, Kuukan Gendai and Ningen OK, and Ism describes them as being “On the edge, just taking the step up from ‘amateur band’ to ‘indie’.”

“What’s the difference between an amateur band and an indie band?” I ask.

Ism thinks about this, before replying carefully that, “It’s in the atmosphere.”

I push a bit further, explaining as best I can that I feel the difference between an amateur band and an indie band is that amateurs want to become professional – they’re essentially major bands who just aren’t popular yet. Indie, on the other hand, has an ethos, that at least in some way rejects the major label system in favour of following its own path, often adopting the “amateur” DIY production process as a necessary means to preserving their creative independence.

With the blunt tool of my ugly, hacked-out Japanese, it takes a while to get this across. It’s hard to tell if Ism completely agrees with me or not, but he seems to accept this idea of indie and major as two paths forking out from the same starting point.

“Bands aren’t born indie or major. They start as amateur and realise they like the indie or DIY ethos later.”

The point as far as Yuureka are concerned seems to be that they are growing up.

After a detour with the young folk over to Txalaparta, where DJs are playing a mixture of anime music, ’70s rare groove and earsplitting German industrial music, I turn in, agreeing to meet up with Yukimoto again the next day.

Tokushima is famous primarily as the home of the Awaodori/Awa Dance festival, the largest street festival in Japan, and source of innumerable imitators (the largest of which is a huge event held in my home of Koenji every August, only slightly smaller than the original). Awaodori is such an important part of the city’s branding that its imagery infuses everything, jumping out at you from advertising and public art wherever you turn, and featuring prominently in the video for Kokodake wo Hanashi by Tokushima’s most celebrated pop daughters Chatmonchy. With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that the only record shop in town is called Awa Records (“Tower Records?” “No, ‘Awa Records’!” “Are you fucking kidding me?”)


Chatmonchy

Aside from a weirdly large number of truly ancient back issues of Cookie Scene magazine, Awa is a pretty normal CD store with the usual mixture of rock and pop you’d expect anywhere. Where indie-ish things are in stock, they seem to be more or less of the “Rockin’ On-kei” style of indie-edged pop-rock.

Coming from a musical substrata where the words “Rockin’ On” are always spoken with the edge of a sneer, I often have to stop and remind myself of the context in which people are making and listening to music in a particular place. As with almost everywhere in Shikoku (except perhaps Takamatsu), Tokushima has a strong sense of itself as being a bit of an isolated backwater. With the informal networks of fans and musicians that spread information about the sharper, harsher-edged (and I would say cooler) stuff still limited to a great extent by the practicalities of touring, the music you’re into depends largely on the alternative information sources available to you.

If that sounds patronising, then mea culpa, yeah, it kind of is. People like what they like, and unpopular music isn’t inherently superior to popular music (although funny how often there appears to be a negative correlation). Still, if your main sources of information are Rockin’ On Japan and the suggested listens on YouTube, it’s worth bearing in mind that what you’re being pushed towards isn’t the result of the passionate recommendation of a record store clerk or a friend: it’s the result of paid promotion by record labels, reinforced by algorithms designed to give you more of the same.

Part of my suspicion, however, is undoubtedly bitterness at young people not liking or even knowing about the stuff that I think they should like, and why the hell should a college kid care what a music writer in his late 30s thinks? (Answer: on principle they shouldn’t, but in practice they should, because it’s me and I’m always right). In any case, it’s a huge relief to discover that Yukimoto knows Hyacca. Thank fuck.


Ramca

We take a trip over to the university to hang out at a band circle’s club house. As someone who becomes increasingly terrified of young people the older I get, the university is like entering the tiger’s lair for me, and the fresh-faced, waiflike creatures that inhabit it torment me with their combination of superficial similarity to normal (i.e. over-25) humans, coupled with a sort unheimlichkeit that seems to reflect my own decay and death in its blank-faced otherness.

Still, my melodramatic (and let’s face it, massively exaggerated for comic effect) fear of youth conceals a real need I feel to make sure my own events and label can at least keep the customary one arm, reached out halfway towards audiences outside my own core group of friends – to make sure the rock-branded face of the corporate rock megalith isn’t the only one trying to speak to them. I joke about the alienness of youth, but I can’t believe they really are that different. They’re more scared of you than you are of them… or is that spiders?

In any case, at the club house we run into Hamada from Yuureka, who’s not actually in the band circle, but seems to hang out there a lot anyway, playing Super Smash Brothers. We watch his band’s videos: they’re cool.


Yuureka

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?”


Togyo

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.