Last week, DiS found itself transported to the oriental pastures of Tokyo for five days of cultural enhancement, challenging culinary delights and musical discoveries. Here's what we encountered...
Japan may have a population not far off 130 million people, yet its musical exports can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The capital city of Tokyo accounts for over a quarter of that number, its ornate skyscrapers creating a multi-coloured backdrop to the culture clash between west and east which surrounds it. It's spotlessly clean up and down every road and street, save for the pungent smell of sewage that permeates the air, London this most definitely isn't.
When the folks at Club AC30 invited us along to DJ at the album launch party of latest signings Taffy, it was an offer DiS could not refuse. Not least due to the Tokyo based four-piece being a regular fixture on our playlist since the turn of the year, but also in a voyeuristic capacity. After all, why is it that Japanese music hasn't made the transition west in recent years?
Artists are everywhere... Take soft rock quartet Mr. Children for example. With over 50 million album sales in their twenty-five year career, they're one of the nation's biggest commercial artists. Their posters adorn shop windows and advertising billboards, yet their profile remains relatively unknown outside of their home nation.
And then of course you have the J-Pop phenomenon. Established in the 1990s, although musically rooted in the kitsch corner of the 1960s, artists like Sexy Zone - the Japanese equivalent of One Direction - or Manga influenced poppet Kyary Pamyu Pamyu currently rule the airwaves, forcing any underground movement to do exactly that.
Arguably the most vibrant of these would be the nascent shoegaze scenes in both Tokyo and Osaka. Spawning the likes of Honeydip (now sadly departed), Cruyff In The Bedroom, Luminous Orange and Civic among a host of others, recent tours by western artists such as Chapterhouse and Ringo Deathstarr have seen them play to huge, four-figure audiences. While numerous shoegaze-themed nights have appeared across Tokyo, two of which DiS finds itself at the centre of during our stay.
Without further ado, here's a blow-by-blow account of what we got up to...
Thursday 12th April
Eleven hour long flight completed, DiS checks into our hotel in the busy district of Shibuya, one of Tokyo's main tourist areas. Wandering around like obligatory fish out of water, we're taken aback by the ensuing surroundings. Shops with names like Nob selling purses and wallets emblazoned with the word "Fuck" stare back at us, while the aforementioned Sexy Zone glare back at us from giant advertising hoardings attached to the side of giant skyscrapers.
A tribute to My Bloody Valentine's Loveless featuring eleven Korean bands and artists is duly purchased, as is a Kiwi fruit smoothie costing approximately eight pounds. Everyone is so polite; ridiculously so in fact considering that none of the four Brits on this excursion can manage five words of Japanese between us. Later on we'll sip cocktails in the New York Bar on the 52nd floor of the Park Hyatt, home to many of the scenes where Sofia Coppola's Lost In Translation were filmed. Before that, we'll encounter our first experience of traditional Japanese food, Shabu Shabu, described by our host Hiroaki Hayashi as "challenging". Strips of beef and numerous raw vegetables are placed around the table ready to be cooked in large skillets of boiling water. It sounds arduous but actually ends up tasting delicious. Suitably refreshed, we head to the Hyatt hoping to spot a Scarlett Johansson lookalike waiting in our midst. She doesn't appear but a new lease of life does. Jet-lag casually forgotten, we head back into Shibuya's backstreets in search of late night entertainment. Several Sakes later, we find a club that plays some of the worst music we've ever encountered including at least three Black Eyed Peas songs, but slightly inebriated as we are, dance until the early hours anyway.
Not one for being superstitious and distinctly hungover, the formalities of breakfast kind of regale me from my slumber. Or maybe it's the mix of bacon, eggs, sausage, broccoli and curried meatballs (yes, CURRIED MEATBALLS!) staring back at me from my plate that fill me with a sense of sobering trepidation. Challenging? You said it.
Showered and in need of some fresh air, we head for the Harajuku neighbourhood, which reminds us of Camden High Street due to its rows of market stalls selling t-shirts, souvenirs and random goth accessories. With the sun beating down and temperatures soaring, it's quite a refreshing venture and a lot less quieter than the hustle and bustle of Shibuya. Raiding the Kiddyland toy store for gifts and general home-produced oddities, we stumble across a Japanese Barbie equivalent known as Licca, a mechanical humping dog, a bear with a detachable head labelled "Control Bear" and a odd-shaped rabbit with interchangeable mouths for feeding called Labbit. Later we spot some x-rated stickers of semi-naked girls playing with vibrators under the words "Jack off". In a children's store. Only in Japan!
Presents purchased, it's on to the main event soon after at Roppongi's Super Deluxe venue. Holding approximately 300 people, tonight's party to commemorate the launch of Taffy's impending long player Caramel Sunset having sold out several weeks ago. What strikes us initially is the lack of barriers around the stage, which is centered directly in the centre at the back of the room. Openers Sugardrop make an impressive noise, mixing a blend of Buzzcocks innocence with Urusei Yatsura guitar crescendos. Comprising of three members (two male, one female) including one of the most ferocious drummers we've ever seen, their set hits more peaks than troughs. The major downside being the length of their set, which impinges on the best part of an hour. However, bring them to Europe and give them a twenty-five minute slot showcasing their most potent half-dozen songs and the potential is huge. Ones to watch for sure.
For headliners Taffy (pictured below) tonight represents one of their biggest and most important shows to date. Although not strictly newcomers to the Tokyo scene, having played in various other bands and incarnations of Taffy beforehand, the buzz surrounding the impending release of Caramel Sunset has spread far and wide. As well as DiS, NME are also here while Nylon are filming the show for their online publication. Entering the stage to Frank Sinatra's 'My Way', they're a musically taut outfit from start to finish, encompassing a variety of genres from shoegaze and noise to the more eloquent side of Britpop. 'Candy Lane' and forthcoming single 'So Long' occupy the same ballpark as Echobelly or Elastica in their heyday, mainly courtesy of singer Iris' lilting vocal. Older material such as 'Tune In A Jar' and 'SSLOVE' doffs its cap to the Boo Radleys or Drop Nineteens, while the glorious five-minutes long vignette 'Indetermination' nonchalantly bridges the gap between both. Drummer Kensuke permanently grins throughout while guitarist Asano is a cartwheeling, pogoing bundle of joy - not to mention a karaoke legend, as we find out first hand two nights later. They even find time to throw in an audacious cover of The Cure's 'Boys Don't Cry', turning one of Robert Smith's earliest pieces into the sprawling Disintegration style epic its creator maybe intended.
Afterwards the band are both overwhelmed at the audience response yet disappointed, firmly believing that they could have performed much better (Full interview coming next week). Whether this was Taffy at the top of the game or not, DiS is wholeheartedly impressed. We play songs veering from shoegaze classics like Ride and My Bloody Valentine to more recent offerings from Selebrities and Factory Floor and are made to feel quite important indeed by those that stay til the end.
Starting the day with another helping of curried assortments washed down with buckets of grapefruit and orange juice, our plans to head into Akihabara's maze of weird and wonderful shopping emporiums are slightly marred by the perpetual downfall of heavy rain. Nevertheless undeterred, we find ourselves in gift shops displaying a dead ringer for Spongebob Squarepants called Smery and Friends alongside various characters from the Forever Sensible Motorcycle Club, who or whatever that means! One thing that does strike us is the popularity of music "sung" by cartoon animated graphics. The Miret Cafe seems to have devoted its whole design and layout to such pastimes.
Another popular pastime here are the amusement arcades, the football and horse racing management simulation games having to be seen to be believed for starters. The second half of Vissel Kobe v Urawa Red Diamonds in the J-League is caught on the hotel sports channel, a brilliant free kick goal by Brazilian midfielder Marcio Richardes for the away team somewhat overshadowed by a display of suspect goalkeeping at both ends of the pitch.
The second installment of our DJing escapades takes place in the solitude of Bullet's a cosy little bar situated in a basement just off Roppongi's main stretch. Organised by fledgling promoter Hisa A-San, this evening's shoegaze extravaganza is accompanied by what can only described as a blinding concoction of visuals that double up as an epileptic's worst nightmare.
Afterwards we're taken for our most challenging feed so far. The luscious Korean Barbecue veering between plates of assorted meats and seafood and a raw egg and horse meat combo, that actually doesn't taste anywhere near as bad as it sounds. Having exchanged pleasantries with our Japanese hosts and taught them some fine Nottinghamshire dialect ("Ayup Mi Duk"), we head back to the hotel for some much needed shut eye.
Another day, another bunch of sights to see. Thankfully the rainclouds have disappeared, meaning yesterday's planned visit to the lavish Asakusa Temple, or Senso-ji as it's called, can finally go ahead. Yours truly decides to have his fortune told and then wishes he hadn't, the reading declaring nothing but ill health and bad luck for the foreseeable future! Having promptly decided to leave as a result, we embark on the most civilised metro journey we have ever undertaken. Someone leaves a bag unattended for the entire duration and no one bats an eyelid let alone attempts to steal the thing. Maybe the Japanese can teach us Brits a thing or two about respect?
Our next stop would be the Ghibli Museum, home to some of the most startling animation visuals in the world. Unfortunately, the heaving mass of people means we don't quite fulfil the experience as we'd liked, spectacular as it is.
As the saying goes, When in Rome....Well a similar principle applies here as well, so taking up the offer from our Japanese hosts to participate in a spot of karaoke, we head to the local booth accompanied by assorted members of Taffy, their manager Hiroaki Hayashi and promoter Manabu Sekine. Several beers and badly performed versions of Backstreet Boys and Billy Joel "classics" later, DiS heads to its pit for forty winks before tomorrow morning's long haul back to Heathrow.
It's all sighs and long faces as we sit in Tokyo's Narita International airport awaiting our flight home. While it would be fair to say the past five days have been one of the most surreal adventures imaginable, they've also accounted for some of the most enjoyable this particular DiSser has ever encountered.
What's more, it would be fair to say Japan's music scene appears to be harbouring a vibrant wave of untapped talent just waiting to be unearthed. Europe, what are you waiting for...?
Coming next week: Drownedinsound's interview from Roppongi, Tokyo with Taffy