Long, long ago . . . in a distant age . . . there was no karaoke (cue twang of shamisen and cymbal flutter).

“My uncle played guitar at a place like this before karaoke kicked off,” says Toshiaki Chiku, now in his 40s, at a cozy shitamachi (downtown) snack bar in Sendagi, east Tokyo, as he relaxes in the midst of a solo Japan tour and giving his first interview in English.

“Before karaoke we had nagashi,” he says. “Musicians would play guitar in bars and customers would request songs. Then the guitarist, or maybe a shamisen player, would sing the requests, or the customers could sing along instead. My uncle got paid for this. Then he started teaching my brother how to play guitar. I was 12 then, and I learned too.”

Chiku ran away from home at 16 to escape the clutches of a religious cult (I know the name, but it’s best not to mention it here) that had brainwashed his parents. But within a decade the shy guy from Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture, had formed the band Tama (get it? Saitama) and become one of the biggest and most idiosyncratic pop stars in Japan.

Tama won the “Ikaten” amateur-band competition (think “X-Factor Japan”) on TV in 1990 with “Sayonara Jinrui” (“Goodbye Humankind”), which was the fourth biggest-selling single of that year. The band then clocked hit after hit until Chiku decided it was time to split in 2002. Then he became a wandering troubador, a kind of Japanese Bob Dylan.

“Tama met up at the beginning of 2002 and, as usual, we had to fix our annual schedule, and I just thought ‘this is not what music should be all about.’ I said I wanted to quit and they all agreed. It was harmonious. Unlike some of our songs. Ha ha ha!”

During his Tama years, Chiku appeared on all the top TV shows dressed like a bumpkin who’d just walked off the set of an 1950s costume drama — trousers hanging round his knees and geta (wooden clogs) tapping the floor. Does he lament the disappearance of old traditions such as nagashi?

“There are lots of very good traditions in Japan, but I don’t just like things just because they are traditional. I like tatami, and I would love to see people wearing more traditional styles of clothes like they do in the shitamachi areas. You know that back in the old days, when you wore kimono, you did not need to wear underwear? It was more natural, and if you wanted sex, you could quickly get on with it with the minimum of fuss. We call that ippatsuyaru. Quick, easy sex.”

I watched one of my favorite movies, “Ame Agaru” (“When the Rain Clears,” 1999), again recently, I tell Chiku. It’s directed by Takashi Koizumi from Akira Kurosawa’s final screenplay. The samurai, played by Akira Terao, is sheltering at the inn and in an early scene the patrons are having a party in the dining area and an old guy starts to warble a comic naniwa-bushi (an Edo Period [1600-1868] narrative ballad). It’s like rakugo with a twanging shamisen, and it reminds me of Chiku’s music — traditional, folkish, extremely idiosyncratic.

“I see your point and I like folk music. I’m not a big rock fan,” he says. “I went to a village in Pai in Thailand a couple of years ago and played some songs to the Japanese community living there, and both the Japanese and the Thais who saw me said my songs were genjumin (aboriginal) style.”

Like Dylan, his lyrics waver toward the surreal. Chiku sings about kids playing by rivers with balloonlike heads blowin’ in the wind. His songs evoke paintings more than stories. And, like a young Dylan, he keeps it simple with a guitar, ukulele and . . . erm, a kazoo.

“Uncool things are cool! That’s why I love the kazoo,” he says, flashing his famous, toothy grin (well, one tooth down now, since he fell over drunk; it’s a long story). “The kazoo suits my simple style. I can sing a song; I can make a funny and easy melody with it. It’s just all about singing and making some kind, any kind, of noise at the same time!”

It wasn’t just Chiku who embraced “uncoolness” in Tama. Drummer Koji Ichikawa was the spitting image of Bluto out of “Popeye” and stood, clad in a vest, behind a basic drum kit, banging away and looking like he’d just clocked off at a meat-packing factory. Yoichiro Yanagihara, the keyboardist who composed “Sayonara Jinrui,” was the “regular” guy — clad in a Beatles suit and with pop-star looks. Chiku was the total freak.

In his TV appearances, Chiku would shuffle around and stare at the floor like a toddler at a wedding who’d wet his pants. With his dodgy tooth and bowl-cut hair, he looked like a medieval Benedictine monk circa 1250 who had jumped into a time machine and found himself in 1965 getting into The Beatles.

“I dress uncool or do uncool things because I just do what I want to do and don’t think about what other people might say or think. I like cheap things rather than expensive things. It’s more natural for me to be uncool than cool,” says Chiku.

“Sayonara Jinrui” was a straightforward Japanese pop ballad, but although Yanagihara wrote it, it was Chiku who was the main inspiration of the band, and his zany song structures were soon to take over as he succeeded in not keeping his weirdness in check.

When you entered “Ikaten,” was it to establish yourself, make enough cash to live out of a closet, and then rebel against J-pop and mock the system?

“I didn’t enter it because I wanted to be famous and make money,” he says. “I just thought that some other group might enter the competition and do the same style as Tama because it was an easy way to do a J-pop song. So I wanted Tama to do it before anybody else jumped in and did it. But ‘Sayonara Jinrui’ is not my song. It’s a good song but I couldn’t write a song like that. For popular J-pop it’s good, but it’s not me. But I do like it because it’s a bit different from me. I like different things.”

That’s an understatement. Take “Ranchiu,” for example, which sounds like The Velvet Underground doing minyo (Japanese folk songs); with its droning repetitive accordion-driven melody and Chiku’s twisted and squeaky vocal.

I’ve brought my guitar along, so I hand it to him and ask him to show us how he tunes it for “Ranchiu.” He downtunes the bottom E-string and strikes it repetitively to give the song rhythm while constructing neat in-tune flourishes on the other strings.

“Well, I don’t tune it. I mean, I do tune it. But it’s my special beron-beron (messed up) tuning,” he says. “My own creative, original, unusual tuning.”

When I saw Chiku play in Shimokitazawa last December, he was telling his fans about his childhood and it seemed pretty tough, but he wasn’t melancholic and, at times, smiled, almost wistfully, which I thought was ironic.

So I ask him about his childhood?

“Well, I left home at 16 because my parents had joined this religious cult and I was being pressured into joining. I got so stressed that I had to escape.”

How did you survive?

“One friend from junior high school quit school even though he was a genius, and he got a job. He was living by himself in this tiny place, so I lived in his closet for a while. It was pretty cramped in that closet. I still went to school each day, but my teacher got a call from my parents who were worrying about me. I told my teacher to mind his own business, but then I explained to the teacher about this religious cult. The teacher talked to my parents and I returned home and wasn’t pressured to join the cult.”

Has success changed him? Does he now lounge around in his Jacuzzi living off the earnings of all those hit singles.

“Not really. Losing my hair changed me. I thought that is it — I can finally relax. I am now totally uncool. I don’t have to be self-conscious anymore. Like the way I tried to dress up at the Thailand show. When I lost my hair, I gave up all that ostentatiousness completely. Then again, there wasn’t much of it to begin with.”

But he looks quite young and cute here today, much better than when he had that monk-meets-Beatles crop.

“But if I had hair now, I’d probably try some weird hairstyle, but I haven’t so I can’t.”

“Well, thank God you’ve gone bald, Chiku.”

For Chiku’s live schedule, check www.officek.jp/chiku/ Simon Bartz’s Web site is at www.myspace.com/yojimbotokyo

Where the wild things are

Here’s where to start with Chiku and Tama — 1999’s “Live in New York” album.

You’re served folk, jazz and eerie pop, all fed through a Monty Python machine. Oh, mustn’t forget the wailing norito (Shinto religious chants), which, for those not in the know, sound like your grandfather dealing with major constipation issues.

“Atama no Fukureta Kodomotachi” (“Children with Balloon Heads”) is an X-rated (for Brits) “Magic Roundabout” soundtrack or (for Americans) the music in the background of a very dark “South Park.” “Mushi” (“Insect”) is the Teletubbies on E stealing Dillon’s (of the aforementioned “Roundabout”) stash and washing it down in one with a flailing bottle of gin.

You’ve wandered into a Gypsy camp in “Kingyo Bachi” (“Goldfish Bowl”), but it’s in the court of Henry VIII and akin to “Greensleeves” but sung by castrated dwarves sucking helium balloons, injecting crack cocaine into their eyeballs, and hovering 33 meters above Tokyo Tower.

At the grand finale, Tama’s Yoichiro Yanagihara forgets where he is, telling the New Yorkers: “See you next week in Kichijoji!” Class.

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