Viewed from the hothouse of the Tokyo music scene, the northeast of Japan can sometimes seem like a mysterious land. A gray, frozen, sparsely populated expanse: a cultural wasteland.

“You’re traveling east?” say my friends, with a raised eyebrow of suppressed incredulity. “Hmm … I guess there’s a lot of hardcore bands.”

The idea that the northeast is a musical backwater is a crude stereotype with a grain of truth to it. Sendai and Sapporo are the only really large cities northeast of the Kanto area, and most of Japan’s major music hubs spread out along the major expressways and shinkansen routes, bookended by Tokyo at the eastern end and Fukuoka in the west.

Nevertheless, as part of a yearlong project to visit every prefecture in Japan, learning what I can of the local underground music scene there, the far northeast is where I chose to begin, starting in Hokkaido.

Hokkaido has a venerable rock and pop heritage, having given us influential alternative and punk bands like Eastern Youth and Bloodthirsty Butchers, as well as more mainstream artists like Sakanaction and pop star Yuki. Preparing for this trip, however, it was memories of a prior visit to the prefecture that came to mind. On that occasion, my first impressions seemed to confirm my friends’ suspicions that punk prevails in the frozen north.

It was at a tiny venue called Cru-Z in the town of Otaru, and the band on stage were doing some savage stop-start hardcore to a crowd of a dozen or so people. Their name turned out to be Fret, and they hailed from the nearby prefectural capital of Sapporo.

There are two types of bands in Sapporo, the assembled musicians and staff agreed as they gathered round for post-gig drinks on the floor of the venue. First, there are those bands whose window to the world looks outward toward the rest of Japan but who rarely tour within Hokkaido itself. The second type is the informal network of (mostly punk and hardcore) bands who tour extensively around the island, often in similarly sparse venues, sleeping on the floors of other bands’ homes.

The small gang at Cru-Z clearly saw themselves in the second category. The following night in Sapporo, I passed on the juddering thrills of legendary punk venue Counter Action and turned instead to the cramped basement venue 161 Soko. There, the more cosmopolitan side of the scene was on display, with visiting bands from Fukuoka and Tochigi playing alongside local psychedelic folk troubador Hasymonew and one-man synth-pop performance artist Kage Inari.

The show’s organizer, Kiteretsu Records, described itself as a “theoretical record store” that sold no records but compiled fictional charts purely based on what it imagined the music scene was like elsewhere (Tokyo-based singer-songwriter Kensuke Ide’s self-titled debut album sits at No. 1 at the time of writing).

This binary classification into what you might call inward-looking “patriots” and outward-looking “dreamers” is obviously a crude measure to divide the approaches of an undoubtedly varied music scene. Still, it forms an interesting microcosm of the loose divide that exists in Tokyo between those bands who gaze longingly West and those whose focus lies inward within Japan.

Returning to Hokkaido after a year, these conflicting (if often unconscious) needs to support the region’s identity and retain a line to the outside — between locality and broader music culture — were still starkly present.

In a healthy music scene, both approaches are necessary, with the dreamers providing a channel for the entry of external influences into the place’s musical gene pool and the patriots ensuring local music retains some grounding and roots in its local identity — the occasional synthesis of these two elements being a key factor that helps push music forward.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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