Ginga Gaijin (The Dreaded Godzilla)

May 18th, 2011

I thought I’d take the opportunity while on the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka to begin my blog.

I am increasingly self-conscious… so many tsk tsks and huff puffs when faced with my oversized odd-shaped luggage in rush hour that when a middle aged woman smiled at me a moment ago I got a complete shock and didn’t know how to respond. Guitar on my back, pack on my front, shopping bags slung over my wheelie suitcase full of effects trailing behind me, occasionally tipping over. The same suitcase got loose on me in Tokyo day 1- also in rush hour, at the top of the escalator, tumbling four full turns with my laptop inside and almost dominoing a tidy line of suited commuters before the man at the top turned to catch it just in time…


Anyway luggage… Japan is no place for it… smelly sweating people, Japan is no place for them. The only large Japanese man I have seen sat innocently on the subway train opposite me while the woman next to him kept making revolted faces and covering her mouth with a handkerchief, looking him up and down and then looking away. For a culture that reveres sumo wrestlers some people have no tolerance for the abnormal amongst them. It amazes me that people here are capable of keeping completely to themselves, sleeping side by side with strangers in a train, at an onsen, squashed up in rush hour, face to armpit, yet the slightest burr on their straight edge can rock the boat and they will certainly let you know you have caused offense. Is this OCD and eating disorder territory? I guess you get that everywhere. And some people are incredibly helpful, going out of their way to help a lost westerner out of further potential disaster.


I feel a certain amount of relief that despite assurances Tokyo is safe I am moving further south to Fukushima. I have been eating far less than I normally would as I am still not sure about the food. More importantly though I feel very sad about this beautiful place, full of charm, independence and uniqueness, a preservation of culture and nature like nowhere I have seen, being at the mercy of a nuclear power plant and its generations of destruction.


Last night a British expat, Julie, who I met on couch surfing came to my show in Takadanobaba. She had been volunteering in the Fukushima district and ended up doing aromatherapy massage for the elderly people who had been displaced. Their biggest concern was for their children and grandchildren. Their family land that had been contaminated and they could no longer tend their gardens or pass on the land to their loved ones.


It will be a year or more before the complete shutdown of the Fukushima Power Plant and even then resources will be contaminated far and wide, radiation leaching into soil and sea and the power which services Tokyo will be limited. Already Tokyo city’s bright lights are not what they were 18 months ago. This show of colour faded and an awareness left that there is more to glitteratzi than meets the eye. Escalators at stations have been stopped and we have no choice but to use good old fashioned stairs. I feel sorry for the elderly even though each day I see 80 year olds biking around the city. 20-30kms from the plant, on the periphery of Fukushima, schools still run as usual but when the radiation levels increase children are told to limit their outdoor playtime to one hour per day. The top soil in these playgrounds was discovered to be contaminated to a dangerous level so they scraped it off. When there was an uproar about dumping it, with limited options it was left in a pile in the playgrounds with a plastic cover over it and children were advised not to climb on it.


The sad thing is that we, the international community are concerned with what the government is telling us and what is being done to food we might be importing or how travel plans we might have made are being affected. All that can be done is being done. Let us not forget that 30,000 people have died in a tsunami and millions more will continue to be effected by a nuclear meltdown. Workers at the plant are getting paid $5000USD per day for sacrificing their lives. Children have been orphaned by waves that stole their parents. Food is scare and contaminated. On my second day in Tokyo I made the mistake of looking at a nuclear radiation map… so much contaminated food has been found in and around Tokyo and other parts of Japan. The short term effect is not for us tourists to worry about. We should be giving our thoughts to the Japanese people who will not be leaving their homeland. Whose businesses won’t survive because air con is restricted and the world is afraid of their country.


On a different note, last night I played my first show in Japan, in fact the first show of the Asia/Europe Tour. It was a challenge. I had spent the morning finalising details for the European leg and got on the train to Ikebukero instead of Takadanobaba as I hadn’t eaten all day and obviously wasn’t thinking straight. I had in tow a guitar, 12 kgs of effects and leads and a large bag of parcels that I thought I would have time to post back to NZ on the way- I cannot stress enough the emotional trauma of travelling laden with bags on public transport in Tokyo. So I was a half hour late to sound check and when I plugged in there was a buzz as always accredited to my guitar pickup conflicting with the lights…. why does no-one else have a problem with this sound? We tried everything, different cables, guitars, DIs and unable to resolve the matter I made do with the high frequency mix and slight buzz. My effects that I have trappsed halfway around the world with were diluted in the mix and when I asked/mimed for the wet channel to be turned up the result was an incredibly high pitched sound with little additional reverb or delay… This is not to say it was not a professional set-up. It was a very professional set-up I just couldn’t get my point across in English. The efficient female sound engineer who also appeared with 6 AA batteries for my space echo as I had forgotten to bring my Japanese adaptor for the 9V power was impressive. I filled out a form upon my late arrival, listing my song order and the mood and preferred lighting for each… The sound engineer was also a lighting whizz, later adding fantastic purple, pink and orange tones to the young Japanese pop king in a pink shirt on keys who played last, sweating profusely and making the girls in the front row swoon with his evocative lyrics and disheveled (by Japanese standards) look… you are my dream, I am your dream… I love you and our love is true… the finale song was sung to a club backing track.


Most of the acts (sadly I couldn’t retain their names) I played with were Japanese originals sounding very much like renditions of radio pop music from America which was quirky and intriguing. I was pleased I couldn’t understand the lyrics, Julie (couchsurf hook-up) told me afterwards that one of the songs was about the singer and his father who worked a lot and on the weekends they would play catchball. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of performances each in their own right doing their own thing, and the vocals not all nasal, some even sultry.


My favourite act was ‘First of December’ who I am meeting in Fukuoka for a show tonight, 1100km from Tokyo. Just as well the Shinkansen travels at nearly 300km per hour as even though I left my hotel at 7am I will only have 50 minutes to get to my hotel in Fukuoka, unload and make it to set-up and soundcheck. Tomie and Shimada are with Apple Paint Factory who I recorded with last week. Their influences include The Beatles (like all Japanese people I am told), Simon and Garfunkel and Chemical Brothers. They are so well rehearsed, they end each note in unison. Shimada plays electric guitar with (shock horror) a pedal board and through a nice amp- ah if only I had an amp that would eliminate interfering light sounds! They play to backing beats and they did a spectacular rendition of Nirvanas  with sweet clipped vocals, smoke machines and well rehearsed lighting guidelines. I was absorbed, also in part with Tomie herself, petite, mushroom bob (latest fashion with the alt crowd), square red glasses and serious musician demeanor.


Miyata (Apple Paint Factory) suggested to me the live houses are the best option for international performers or Japanese performers wanting to access a market which will financially support them. He says only second or third rate artists play at free live houses and art spaces. These live houses are set-up with refined production teams, such as at Cafe Mono Takadanobaba and charge $300NZ each artist if enough people don’t come through the door to pay their production costs (I was expecting to pay this but they didn’t charge me and I wondered if I misunderstood the $300/artist thing or if they say this as a security measure… so much is lost in translation.. but in fact I later found out I should have paid only the owners were good friends with the record label I recorded with and so waived the fee out of the kindness of their hearts).


I think live houses of this kind may not be for me. I am yearning for an indie underground scene that I hope to find further down the tour track here in Japan. Everyone in the audience at the last gig was a friend or relative of the performers, there was no promotion so no-one else would have known about it and young people just do not go out to live shows in Japan. The idea that artists will be taken seriously is dependent on artistic merit in my mind and audience appreciation for such… rather than the sheep mentality referred to… you need a big budget to access this mind set. While I appreciate the concept I do not know if this is the right arena for me… this is a pop market and I’m not sure its my scene… or my country. However I put this out of my mind because I came to Japan to make a recording with a pop label for the experience and with a curiosity of what the translation of my songs could result in.


The recording project was much more low-key than I imagined. After tripping over so many mis-communicated emails along the way, meeting Miyata face to face was a relief. He could have been a small indie label owner in west Auckland. We walked for 10 minutes almost in silence to his recording studio from the train station past topiaries in a residential area. While we communicated at snails pace through excite- an i-phone translation app, so much more can be said and more importantly understood with body language. Through mime, some English and excite we recorded eight songs, with live guitar and vocals and overdubbed backing vocals in two days, giving me two extra days off and too much time in Tokyo for shopping. I managed to use the word “experiment” when we came to recording BVs in order to portray that I did not have designated harmonies for any of the tracks and he read experiment as a run through so we did both. I laid down BVs off the top of my head and he was usually happy with the first take… I was all overcome with being polite and understanding instruction and decided not to be too critical of myself as we played back each track.


The space was small and I had to keep folding my chair up for recording and folding it down for playback or to have a rest. The first time I used the toilet and went to wash my hands I accidentally turned the shower on instead of the tap and soaked my luggage, includng my laptop that was in the bathtub for lack of space. Welcome to my world as an unco westerner. The nerves only make it so much worse.


So the plan as I understand it with Miyata and Apple Paint Factory is that we make the pop album (I have stressed I would like it more like Catpower and less like the Beatles- fingers crossed) and with any luck I might get accepted for summer festivals and sell albums. I’m not sure how invested my interest in Japan is in its current state… I guess a tour of Europe to put it in perspective and time will tell. I passed up recording with BMG NZ in 2004 so I was determined not to pass up this offer of pop market testing in a country as unique and inaccessible as Japan.


Still, I am looking forward to the comparatively relaxed style of shows in Kyoto, Oji and Osaka where I am likely to get as many people and not have to pay a premium if everything fails. Kyoto will be at Urbanguild- an experimental artspace, from what I’ve seen they sometimes have noise bands or musicians who play bowls of water with strangely configured electronic DIY set-ups and exciting things like that. I’m sharing the show with Ryotaro and Biroudo-Neko (Velvet Cat). Oji- in a garden restaurant, bar and guesthouse called Yougendo in a small town run by an English man and his Japanese wife. Osaka with Sugami, at a relaxed live house called Musica Japonica where I will meet a film crew who documented my Kyoto live show in 2009.


I know there are appropriate underground arenas in Japan that might be good to access but I have no idea how to access these other than by luck or by returning with a band… I know they exist because I released my first three albums through Dubstore a reggae focussed distributor in Shinjuku. I visited them in 2009 and drooled over original Gladiators and Burning Spear vinyl. Dubstores Yoshimi spent a few years in Temuka at high school and is friends with Dubwize NZ. And Japonica where I played a personal performance fail show in 2009 (yes you can be too tired to play) in Kyoto is a ‘cool’ hub where they make their own albums with screen printed covers and sell Recloose and similar NZ artists. Recloose actually played there the day after me. Another underground venue I played in Koenji in 2009 is Patika-Mura in Tokyo. It turned out to be a great african inspired venue with a shrine to Lee Perry and excellent fusion DJs and live madness but has closed down since my first visit. The high price of leasing premises and running a business can be overwhelming in NZ let alone Tokyo.


Almost in Osaka now… better start looking at the scenery and unloading my luggage for the mad dash to the next shinkansen. Oh and I resolved my issue with my Harajuku platforms that I realised were going to add 2 kilos to my luggage. I am wearing them everywhere, teetering down 300km/hour aisles has never been so much fun. And if I ever thought I could make an impact being nearly six feet tall, Japan is the place to do it.




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