The complexities of living too close to Tokyo

by Ian Martin

Special To The Japan Times

While traveling in the northeastern part of Japan last month, I was struck by the way quirky, alternative and avant-garde music carves out a space for itself in parts of the country that are isolated from the major cultural centers.

Since moving on into the areas of the Kanto region that surround Tokyo, however, it has become clear that the challenges local musical communities must deal with here are in many ways the reverse of those facing more isolated areas such as Tohoku.

For musicians in a place like Iwate Prefecture, the problem is the ability of the relatively small and dispersed local population to support music that often has a niche appeal. In places such as Gunma, Saitama and Ibaraki, it is the very proximity of Tokyo and the vast gravitational pull it exerts over the local cultural landscape that local scenes must struggle against. For underground musicians in the cities of Saitama or Chiba, it’s far easier to simply play in Tokyo where there are dedicated venues and a ready audience for their kind of music than it is to forge and maintain their own local scene.

It’s probably no coincidence then that the parts of the Kanto region where the most visible local scenes seem to exist are also the most remote. The panprefectural triangle of northern Saitama, southern Gunma and western Tochigi has a network of cafes, bars and other live spaces, and exploring them took me on a breathless detective caper round an alternative musical ecosystem that seems to exist more or less independently of Tokyo.

It began with Sukekiyo Furukawa of Gunma-based hardcore band Sarushibai introducing me to the gorgeously dingy live bar Cool Fool in Maebashi. I met up there with Hiroyuki Imai, who does booking at the live venue LadderLadder in Chichibu. Imai’s old band, S-Explode, was released via Kumagaya record store Mortar Record’s in-house label. Mortar Record maintains a space for semi-acoustic live performances on its second floor, where eccentric Tochigi-based acoustic guitar- and violin-based avant-pop duo Teashikuchibiru occasionally play. Chasing down Teashikuchibiru’s live schedule brought me right back to Maebashi where I finally saw them perform live in a tea shop a short walk from Cool Fool.

It’s not quite independent though, and like much of eastern Japan, the links with Tokyo go two ways. LadderLadder would not enjoy the reputation it does without the respect Imai and his various musical endeavors have accrued within the Tokyo alternative scene. Similarly, many cool local music spots such as Mortar Record and Cool Fool only came into being when the owners returned home to put down roots after time spent in the capital and beyond.

Local record store and live/lounge space Lights Out Records in Mito is another example of this, having been started 15 years ago upon the return to Ibaraki of owner Hideaki Kikuchi after time spent living in Tokyo.

The aesthetic of Lights Out Records sits completely at odds with the drab stereotype of places like Ibaraki, with its mixture of indie-pop twee and 1960s garage/mod chic, looking like a place ripped wholesale out of the fabric of Kikuchi’s old home in Tokyo’s stylish western suburb of Kichijoji. Within moments of our meeting, he is spinning an album by a local band with the none-more-indie name of Anorak Joy.

In some ways, looking far afield from Tokyo can seem like a time warp, showing you a glimpse of how it must have been 30 and 40 years ago for the pioneers who built the foundations of underground music in the capital, back before there was an infrastructure and ready audience. In other ways, though, it may point the way to the future, with the trend toward musicians abandoning dedicated “live houses” and the associated costs they bring with them in favour of occupying cafes, bars and other unconventional venues.

Places like Mortar Record and Lights Out Records demonstrate how that trend dovetails with the hollowing out of record sales across the board, with record stores increasingly only able to survive as annexes to other businesses — be that live or DJ venues, cafes, book or merchandise shops, studios or whatever.

Back in Tokyo, I’m greeted by the news that one of my favorite dedicated local event spaces is set to close at the end of the year. Meanwhile the re-launched HMV record chain is opening a new flagship store in Shibuya that will push the bookstore side of its business far more heavily than before and encourage more in-store live events. It’s interesting to see the capital finally catching up with trends in Ibaraki and Saitama.

Read more about Ian Martin’s travels at