Friday, 6 March 2015

The Wild Abandon of Live Music in Japan

Two weeks ago I went to my first Japanese music festival. The name, The Tokyo Hostess Weekender, may have mislead my friends to think I was going on a two day tour of strip clubs, but after going I can confirm there were far more guitars and far less seedy men singing Karaoke.*

"Festival" is also probably a little strong, considering it only had one stage, everyone didn't smell like a field, and no one was throwing beer. So maybe more of a concert. Or a two day gig. Anyway there were 10 bands playing, and I hadn't seen live music in 6 months so I was bubbling with enthusiasm. I mean, Radiohead and Sonic Youth** were playing. Even the 7 hour bus journey through countryside and Tokyo traffic didn't dampen my spirits.

I was also keen to observe the Japanese in the more relaxed setting of live music. Maybe they let their guard down. Maybe they get drunk and go wild. Maybe I would find the one.

Hats are In

First of course I should explain what this event really was. It took until we saw Caribou, a dancy housy electronic act (think 10 minute songs with one line of lyrics), followed directly by Belle and Sebastian (who often cut the choruses out of their songs to cram more words in over the top of jangly twee guitars) that I realised. The gig was a two day taster course of everything the western music biz were giving the coolie Tokyo-ians*** to lap up. None of the bands had anything in common musically. They all just happened to have popular albums coming out when they booked the venue.

So in the end I did not get to see much of the Japanese knee deep in wild abandon. Most of the crowd were not there to cheer on their favourite bands. They were instead window shopping. Some people of course were jumping about a bit at the front, and a couple of fan boys tapped their legs really enthusiastically, but the large majority watched with the disimpassioned gaze of a critic at an art gallery. There was a disproportionate number of berets. No one had their top off. People apologised for pushing past. I could have slid all the way to the front, but it felt too rude.

In between sets people put their medical masks back on and pulled out books rather than rushing for pints. And if you did sneak out for a beer, there was no free-for-all to get to the bar. There were just 3 huge lines of well behaved people snaking through the room. People waited their turn, drank their half pint, put the cups in the designated recycling bins, and went back for the next exhibition.

It's Real

The feel was best encapsulated by the early sets featuring the least know acts. As each song ended, there would be a polite moment of applause followed by silence as they waited for the next song. No laughter, no chitter chatter, no hustle and bustle. Just a sea of expectant faces wondering what the crazy gaijin were going to do next.

I am possibly being slightly unfair. Caribou, due to their lack of words and dancy beats, were perfect for the Japanese crowd to groove to and really got them going. The guy next to me even started yelling "Sun!" periodically and "Kakkoii!" as the music built. Real Estate were also amazing. I've never had a band make me feel so nostalgic for a place I've never been before. Like you've spent all day at the beach. The sun is going down so you slip a hoodie over the day's sunburn, then take the first sip of a fresh new beer. There is a fire of course, and all your favourite people are there. That's how the Real Estate set felt. With a mellow vibe like that, the whole crowd started swaying to the ripple and swell of the lilting guitar melodies. Suddenly I was in love with everyone and everything. The 4th beer helped.

Lovely Lips

Then during Temples I finally saw what I'd been hoping to see. I noticed a Japanese girl in the crowd entranced by the spectacle in front of her. As they started their final song, her eyes lit up. She then preceded to sing every word , one hand thrown in the air, the other clutching her book. I had never even heard of Temples, but this girl from the other side of the world had spent hours upon hours memorising lyrics. So I didn't quite see wild abandon, but definitely caught a snapshot of genuine fandom. She also happened to have a lovely looking pair of lips. I fell in love for the 100th time that day. Maybe I'd found the one.

I got back onto the bus, happy in the knowledge that Japan is full of beautiful women. While I fought the guy next to me for control of the arm rest, I resolved to study Japanese doubly hard so I can talk to them one day.


* The Japanese version of a strip club is called a Hostess Bar. The target, I think is to simulate some kind of personal intimacy, rather than the western counterpart which is about seeing skin. Instead of dancing, they generally act flirtatiously, sing Karaoke songs for you, and ask for money. I know this because some friends and I accidentally wandered into one once and awkwardly sat their while the hostesses poured our drinks and tried to whisper sweet nothings into our uncomprehending gaijin ears. We very quickly realised our mistake, but had already paid for an hour long all you can drink, so had to stay. Truly awful. I'm sure no one enjoyed the predicament at all.

** Well, the drummer from Radiohead and the guitarist from Sonic Youth. Its basically the same.

*** Tokyo-ites? Tokyo-nin? Tokyo-kko?
I googled "What do you call people from Tokyo?" and the best answer I got was "Their first name if you know them, last name if you don't." And I know that the gig was aimed at the coolies because everyone was wearing hats. Coolies like hats. Hats are in.

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