I went to Japan this summer. Though we traveled for most of the two-week period, we spent a good 5 days or so in Tokyo, an urban studies nerd’s dream come to pulsing, loud, colorful life.
Even though I knew that live music of the non-J-pop variety isn’t a huge thing there, I’d anticipated seeing at least one show at a Tokyo “live house.” We may not associate Tokyo with live, local music the way we’d do with a place like Austin, but the biggest city in the world is, obviously, packed with matchbox-sized venues in which you can, at least in theory, hear just about every type of music known to mankind on any given night.
Here’s the thing, though: these places are insanely hard to find.
Okay also, I really don’t care for J-rock. And cover charges in Tokyo are also laughably batshit, so much so that even when we finally managed to find a good indie rock-kinda club, we got embarrassed and slunked away as soon as the not-having-any-of-our-foreign-shit bouncer told us the price.
But the main thing: looking for a Tokyo live house can be like looking for buried treasure, except slightly more fruitless and infinitely more confusing.
When I talk to people about Japan, I explain that Tokyo is kind of like a frantic, neon cross between Houston and New York. It’s sprawled like Houston, stretching on waaaaay further than the eye can see from the incredible (free) observatory of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building in Shinjuku. But the entire thing is as dense as Manhattan, with businesses and residences stacked haphazardly on top of each other around one of many centers, which are defined not by uptown, downtown, or midtown, but by their train stations- which also happen to be intricate and enormous. When you’re looking for a specific place, you have to look up (and occasionally down)- and you can forget about an address; those don’t really exist. The entrance to the one live house we managed to hunt down- that of the unspeakably high cover charge- was tucked into the back of a used bookstore. And I don’t mean that it was behind the bookstore- I mean that we had to go inside, be thoroughly confused by the signage, grab a shopping cart and roll it around for a few minutes, attempt to ask for an English menu, be denied an English menu, sacrifice some virgin blood and say the password three times before we could enter the club’s thoroughly hidden front door. That’s not entirely true, but kinda. And on other nights we tried searching for music, we usually ended up prowling the same block a few times, wonkily looking up and down and around, before resigning ourselves to drinking $2 Sapporo tallboys in the street instead.
Japan’s lack of open container laws kinda made up for the difficulty of accessing its live music scene, actually.
Our cluelessness and ensuing failure got me thinking about the role of outsiders like us in a local music scene. In theory, a good scene should be inclusive, welcoming, and safe for people of all ages, races, gender identities, abilities backgrounds, etc. But at the same time, local music scenes are great because they’re, well, local. At local shows you see the same bands, bartenders, and friends in the audience; you’re not crowded out by shoulder bitches and Snapchatters (well, mostly). I’m certain that 99% of the time when folks who don’t live in Austin (or who live here, but don’t generally catch local shows) go and see a hometown band they’re perfectly cool about it, blending in with the folks who’ve seen that band 17 times and used to date the drummer. But that other 1% can be incredibly annoying. I swear, if I hear one more person at a show gushing about how much they ~love~ Austin and how ~weird~ and ~unique~ it is… I probably won’t do anything more than whisper something passive-agressive in Arvind’s ear, but you get the idea. There’s also something of an outsider factor when I’m at a show I really care about with people who don’t give half a shit about the band playing. The hordes of tech bros who tend to frequent the shows of moderately-famous bands around town piss me off like no other when they’re only at Stubb’s or Mohawk to socialize and drink overpriced shit beer while I’m trying to enjoy music with which I likely feel a deep, personal connection (hey, that’s why I write this blog, right?). I’d consider these dudes, characteristic white male-ness aside, to be outsiders, at least in context.
And you know what? I could totally see myself playing the same role in the eyes of some Tokyo kid who’s into local shows and not so into sake-drunk, English-yelling, dad moves-dancing shitheads like Arv and me.
The music scene in Tokyo isn’t inaccessible for foreigners. You can find a zillion and one clubs listed on the Internets, as well as showlists published in English and Vice articles about seeing Grimes in Shinjuku (okay, maybe I’m a little salty because this didn’t happen to me). Tokyo may not be known for its live music, but the scene there is as vibrant and varied as it is in any other major city- or, you know, so I’ve heard. If, as we experienced, there really are greater barriers to access for folks like us, who are more or less just passing through, maybe that’s not really a bad thing. In such a mind-bogglingly globalized city, there’s sometime to be said for a scene that’s largely locals-only.
Experiencing some of the other ways that people engage with music in Japan was cool, though. J- and K-pop are wildly popular beyond anything I’ve seen in the U.S., including the Bieber Fever of 2010. The way that these genres influence art, fashion, the way things are sold and consumed, and even gender roles and behavioral norms in Japan is fascinating. On the surface, J- and K-pop stars and imagery are just tools used by advertisers, much like musicians in the U.S. and Europe. I think that the difference lies in both these genres’ ubiquity in Japan and in the extent of their fandom’s obsession. The aesthetics of J- and K-pop are everywhere; whether you’re in a mall or in a drugstore or on a street corner or on the subway. And many of the genres’ stars have cult-like followings in Japan, who expect (and demand) so much of their icons- if you don’t believe me, check out this article. Even though some of the same can be said for the culture of American pop music, Japanese folks truly take it to another level. Since J- and K-pop aren’t really my thing, I was pretty content with just watching from afar- so I hate to break it to you, but you aren’t getting a playlist of my J-pop faves. Sorry.
In Tokyo, karaoke is nearly as ubiquitous as J-pop hooks and iconography. Finding a karaoke joint in Tokyo is like finding a bar, or even a Starbucks- easy as hell. They range from seedy to mad upscale, with an even wider range of people stopping in to sing their hearts out on any given night of the week. Japanese people love karaoke. It is the national pastime; the equivalent of going out for tacos and margs in Austin or drinking Bud Light on “the land” back in my hometown. Since I consider myself to be an atrocious singer, I tend to avoid karaoke. But, not wanting to miss out on a priceless cultural experience, I gave it a go in Japan- and had the time of my life. With an admirable list of English songs and a mostly-private room, the karaoke joint was one of my favorite late-night stops in Tokyo. There are videos, but we’ll save those for another day.
‘Vinyl culture’ sounds pretentious and is something I don’t think much about (though I am pretty proud of my little record collection, tbh). However, Japan has a reputation for being into analog music (there are interesting articles about this here and here) that’s certainly reflected in the sheer ease of finding a fantastic vinyl bar- a nice little drinking joint where the music comes from a good old-fashioned turntable. We weren’t seeking these places out by any means; we just stumbled into them while looking for a live house or dodging cover charges at the rowdier bars. But damn, if I could find a vinyl bar half as good as some of the ones we patronized in Tokyo here in Austin, I’d never have a chill, post-work drink anywhere else. Japan’s vinyl bars are excellent, featuring entire walls packed with records and the kind of cool, dark lighting and tiny spaces that are somehow perfectly suited to listening to old jazz LPs selected by all-knowing bar owners and record collectors. As I sit here and sweat in the 100+ (!!) degree heat, where it’s almost too hot to even want a cold beer (almost), sipping whiskey and making small talk in a dark, effortlessly cool and terminally chill Tokyo vinyl bar feels like a daydream that could have only happened on another planet.
Which is kind of how the entire trip feels now, too.