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.
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.
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.