Jay Gregg, a resident of Kyoto since 1980, starts each day with a “bowl of matcha and a few tunes.” The music drifts through his living space, across his Kano School art collection, and brings back memories of his banjo-strumming university days at Colorado State.
Gregg observes his 30-plus years in Kyoto through the lens of Irish music in Japan. When he first arrived, according to Gregg, “there was no Irish music scene in Japan. Most of my work in music was with the banjo.”
Today, Gregg asserts, “the Irish music scene in Japan is stronger than even parts of America. There are so many talented Japanese musicians playing Irish music. Every weekend in Kyoto there are live music and jam sessions throughout all the Irish pubs — at least 10 thriving clubs.”
Similar sessions play out in many other major cities across the country, and Gregg himself tours Japan frequently and plays locally at the Gael, a popular pub in Kyoto’s Gion area, with his band, MacFiddles.
Yet Gregg has not only witnessed the Irish music boom as a player or a fan. As the owner of a music company specializing in bringing Irish music to Japan during the 1990s, Gregg helped ignite the fuse.
Gregg’s introduction to music started by accident — literally. After a ski misadventure as a teenager left him with a broken leg and six months off his feet, he started playing the Irish fiddle. Growing up in Colorado in the 1960s, Gregg became fascinated with bluegrass, folk music and other roots music. Traditional Irish music, as a predecessor of roots music, naturally attracted his interest.
“Irish music can be traced as the basis of rock and roll, bluegrass, even jazz,” he says. “You can hear all of those genres in Irish music.”
Coming to Japan was also a lucky accident. After graduating from Colorado State in 1979, a friend from university persuaded him to come to Japan to teach English. He arrived in 1980, but teaching English didn’t work out. “Irish music is my passion, and everyone wants to work in what they are interested in,” Gregg explains.
Since there was no Irish music in Japan at the time, Gregg worked at a variety of odd jobs — as a banjo player, narration work for television and writing or rewriting text in English.
A chance in music came when his playing attracted the attention of popular Japanese folk singer, Takaishi Tomoya. “He is a great guy and really helped me out and kept me busy in those early days,” he recalls. From the early ’80s to the early ’90s, Gregg traveled all over Japan with Takaishi, playing banjo.
His work in the music industry in Japan inspired him to open his own company, J. Planning, with the idea of bringing Irish musicians over to Japan.
The timing was good. The town of Takashima, Shiga Prefecture, contacted Gregg in the late 1980s. “They had built a hall based on an Irish church, and they wanted to celebrate by having real Irish music in their music hall.” Although a different company handled the complicated licensing, Gregg worked hard to help bring over the Irish band The Chieftains in 1992.
“That was a big turning point for Irish music in Japan. The Chieftains toured the country and were very successful,” he says. Gregg and his company later brought over a variety of professional musicians from Ireland. Gregg even brought his favorite American Irish band, the Suffering Gaels.
Later, with the popularity of Riverdance, a production featuring Irish musicians and dancers that toured Japan in 1999 with five subsequent successful tours, Irish music found a place with Japanese audiences.
Gregg remembers: “It started slowly with a few Irish pubs opening up in Kyoto, and the jam sessions and live music starting. We watched all the talented Japanese musicians learning Irish music and many of them even went to Ireland to study. The pubs opened, the music kicked in, the demand for Guinness beer led to the import of traditional Irish alcohol. The Irish pub scene is a whole culture unto itself, a real social atmosphere.”
Gregg believes the culture may be one reason Irish music has caught on so much in Japan, more so than other Asian countries. Other musicians have talked about the similarities between the bodhran, a traditional Irish drum and the Japanese taiko, or the Irish flute and the shakuhachi, but Gregg wonders if it isn’t more simple: “There is a community atmosphere in Irish pubs attracting people who want something a little different, and the mix of beer and music is always good.”
Gregg worked for five years at Universal Studios in Osaka as a musician, and he relishes the time he has now to catch up with the many musicians he has played with throughout his years in Kyoto. “Playing music is a great way to interact with Japan, its people and its places. I eventually got to play with most of my musical influences, from Dale Russ to Lawrence Nugent, both prominent Irish musicians, and of course, all my Japanese colleagues.”
Music also accidentally led to Gregg’s discovery of one more love in Japan, his appreciation for the art and antiques. As an early side job to support his music career, Gregg started a small Japanese antique shop in Seattle, Lyric, with a college friend. Combing the antique fairs of Kyoto, learning about traditional textiles and art instantly fascinated Gregg, and they successfully ran the business together for more than 20 years.
“Our shop started as an experiment. I sent over some antiques I found in my neighborhood, and it just grew from there. I instantly fell in love with Japanese art, but I had to work hard to learn what had value and what did not.” Nowadays, Gregg focuses on his music, pursuing art merely to add to his own collection of Kano School prints.
On a day-to-day basis, Gregg firmly focuses on perfecting his art. He says that at 60, “I’m the perfect age now for a fiddle player. It’s a full-time job since the fiddle is such a complicated instrument. I practice every morning.
“Japan is just such an interesting place,” Gregg continues. “After 25 years playing here, I’ve made some really good friends, and it’s great to get together and play again, since we have so much history together. I have so many connections, up and down Japan, and it’s a great way to learn new things and plug into this country.”