I didn’t intend to take quite to so long to post the second interview in this series but when I asked Alan, it turned out he was just about to go to Japan again, so we waited until he was back for extra Japan chat! I’ve known Alan for many years, through his expansive Birmingham-based record label Bearos, and we recently discovered our shared love of Japan and JPop via Facebook.
Alan at AKB48 Cafe & Shop
Who are you and what do you do?
Hello, I’m Alan; NHS psychiatrist by day and rabid Japanophile by night! I used to run the Birmingham Independent label Bearos Records, mainly helping local bands release their first singles. We did reasonably well and made some good contacts with Rough Trade, various weeklies, fanzines and radio stations and enjoyed a fair few curries with John Peel on his regular record hunting trips to the Midlands. I’m also on Facebook as Otto Chikan regularly posting classic and contemporary Japanese pop and indie tunes.
How did you become interested in Japan, and how did your first trip there come about?
As a boy I’d loved Asian imports such as ‘Monkey’ and ‘The Water Margin’ and animes such as ‘Marine Boy’ in the late 60s/early 70s and ‘Battle of the Planets’ a decade later. I saw ‘Akira’ the day it hit the UK and again the following day starting off a 90s fascination with badly dubbed manga.
When Bearos Records went dormant around 2008, I had a fair bit of time on my hands. I did a load of survival training (including a trip to Namibia with Ray Mears) but my wife wanted something we could do together! She’d almost done Japanese at university (but settled on Russian) and I’d already done a lot of travelling around China and South East Asia in the early 90s. Japan was always on my list of places to visit but must admit that I was initially dubious, assuming it to be exclusively modern and punishingly expensive compared to other eastern countries – wrong!!
Tell us a little about each of your trips to Japan
Our first trip was October 2010, a little early for the autumn colours but we did enjoy some unseasonably scorching weather! We started in Tokyo, travelled down to Kyoto and then back via the mountain town of Takayama. In Tokyo we stayed at mid-range tourist hotels in Shibuya and Shinjuku and found a really great traditional guesthouse (ryokan) in Kyoto (though it did have its own toilet and bathroom). My wife is vegetarian but luckily she doesn’t mind ignoring the odd bit of dashi stock which smells savoury rather than of the fish or seaweed it’s made from! Personal high spots were the bamboo forest and monkey park in Arashiyama outside Kyoto and the huge collection of traditional farmhouses in the open air museum in Takayama.
We returned the following Autumn and caught up with an old university friend I’d found on Facebook who’d lived in Osaka for 10 years with his Japanese wife – I thought I hadn’t seen him around for a while! That was our real introduction to quality cheap eats, backstreet bars and Chu-Hai, Japan’s lethal alcopops that range from the cheery 4% to the soporific 9% – a great cure for jetlag. We’d also been watching travel programmes on NHK World, a free channel on our SkyHD box, and found out about places not in the Lonely Planet guide. One of these was the train museum in Sataima where we spent the morning on recently retired training simulators, trying to stop the Yamanote train at the right stations! We also spent a few days in Hiroshima, a friendly, thriving town overshadowed by its tragic past. The Atomic Dome (the main surviving building) and the Peace Memorial Museum are powerful places never to be forgotten.
Our next trip was Spring 2013. We revisited Tokyo and Osaka and also headed down to the southern island of Kyushu. Fukuoka’s a wonderful city to chill out in with a great day trip to Kumamoto, home of a great castle and Kumamon, Japan’s number one giant bear mascot! We’d seen the start of some cherry blossom in Kyushu but were not prepared for the explosion of white and pink that was waiting for us back in Tokyo – when the wind blew it was like walking around in a snowstorm!
Cherry Blossom in Tokyo along the river at Nakameguro
I’d also rediscovered some friends in Tokyo and stayed a week longer than my wife hanging out in Cheap Korean BBQ joints and insalubrious drinking dens in Golden Gai including a Philippino transvestite karaoke bar – this is not in the tourist guides for a reason, it’s really dodgy so don’t attempt this unless you’re with someone with a lot of local knowledge – loads of the bars don’t welcome foreigners though the warning is usually written in Japanese! I also spent a day north of Tokyo surrounded by the opulent temples in Nikko and a few days on the coast down at Kamakura (which is now my favourite day trip from Tokyo) and the hot-spring resort of Ito where I experienced my first minor earthquake!
This year I made my first solo visit and braved the traditional salarymen’s hotels that only set me back about £35 a night for a double room (I’m 6ft 5 and don’t fit comfortably in a single bed!) They’re around half the cost of a tourist hotel and they throw in breakfast. I started with a week with friends in Osaka and finished with a week with my other friends in Tokyo, staying in Ikebukuro a less popular area for tourists but lively and safe and well connected to the rest of Tokyo and surrounding areas. To say those weeks were crazy would not be an understatement so I was grateful of my middle week in a tiny guesthouse on the Izu peninsular visiting shrines, temples and doing long walks in the hills. Most people visit Izu as a day trip or just for an overnight stay but there was plenty to keep me busy for my five nights of calm and repose.
Traditional guesthouse in Ise – it looks even more Ghibli on the inside
How much Japanese do you speak and what resources did you use to learn?
We had ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’ and ‘thank you’ memorised from our guide book for the first trip. We couldn’t read anything but that didn’t stop us from having a great time and many people spoke some English. When we got back we started learning Japanese at evening class. Being able to read two of the three alphabets is great and expanding our vocabulary with phrases like ‘where is…?’, ‘what time?’ and ‘is this the right train for…?’ were very useful.
You’ve been to see a few shows in Japan – what’s been your best experience and how do they differ from UK gigs?
Places like Tokyo and Osaka are full of venues; if you’re in Shibyua your possibly never more than 100 yards away from what they call a ‘live house’ but you’d never know it as they can be in basements or on the 8th floor of a shopping/restaurant block – we once had three men and a dog helping us find a venue in the backstreets of Shimokitazawa! Tokyo Gig Guide is useful but not as good as it used to be and for Osaka/Kobe/Kyoto you have to search through all the separate venues’ websites. It’s well worth it!
Gigs are not cheap, starting at around £15 and you always have to pay for your first £4 drink as you walk in There’s usually 4-5 bands and the sound quality and air-con are great though some of the smaller paces can get a bit smoky – they can also be unbelievably loud so take some ear plugs especially if, like me, you are hanging round the speakers to get some good pictures! They are geared around people getting last trains out to the suburbs so start around 6pm and are usually finished by 10.30pm – we made the mistake of turning up at 8pm for the Retro Honpo gig in Kobe and missed half the bands though catching the last train back to Osaka was really easy. Women often outnumber men in the audience!
It’s great that people don’t natter at gigs and the beer’s too expensive for people to get really drunk. Usually they are quite reserved but get the right band and all hell breaks loose – people were crowd-surfing and hanging off the balcony at a BiS gig (the Japanese band, not the Scottish one) I went to in March this year.
Tickets for larger gigs, including the big idol shows, are virtually impossible to get though I did get lucky for the Babymetal concert at The Budokan and turned up in the afternoon just as they were releasing a tout-busting block of seats – what an amazing show!
Can you recommend five Japanese bands/singers we should check out?
That’s really difficult, I’ve so many favourites. I also have no idea what’s cool and what’s not cool so I tend to like what I like and end up with some very strange compilation CDs!
Kinoco Hotel: Hammond-driven dirty 60s rock from four women dressed as majorettes! Amazing musicians and Marianne’s an impressive front-woman on and off stage.
Perfume: Perfect electro-pop from this trio from Hiroshima. Yasukata Nakata is the creative genius who plucked them from obscurity around 8 years ago and also writes everything for Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and Capsule, his own excellent project, who are well worth checking out.
Moscow Club: Lo-fi indie popsters who also flirt with funky 80s pop – there’s a free download link to their debut album on this video link. Other bands to check out include The Paellas, Post Modern Team, The Pop Office and Boyish.
Momoiro Clover Z: Six years ago a failed wrestling promoter was invited to pick a band from an agency’s ageing child stars. Their ‘try anything’ mentality and collaborations with producers/writers/musicians from The Go!Team, Metallica, TV theme composers and underground post-rockers make them one of the most interesting idol bands in Japan. It’s also worth checking out Dempagumi Inc (if only for their version of the Beastie Boys ‘Sabotage’) and amazing newcomers Death Rabbits – three teens and a stormtrooper!
Homecomings: Kyoto based refugees from the school folk-club creating wonderful indie guitar pop. Other great female led indie bands include Taffy, Old Lacy Bed and Hearsays.
Do you have plans to go back to Japan? What would be your dream itinerary for your next visit?
Yes, we’re back in November when I’m presenting at a medical conference in Tokyo. The weather will be on the turn so as well as meeting up with our friends in Tokyo and Osaka we’ll be heading south back down to Kyushu with the plan to ride the old steam trains down to Kagoshima. Kagoshima is in the shadow of a very active volcano!
If I could teleport you instantly to Japan for one hour, where would you want to be dropped off and what would you do?
I’m torn between record shopping (Disc Union in Shibuya, the monthly temple market in Tenoji in Osaka or the Kobe arcades) or chilling out around the temples and hillside walks in Kamakura – I’ll have to get back to you about that one. My wife makes a bid for Tokyu Hands, the department store that sells everything, yes EVERYTHING!!
The shrines are huge – this one’s the Meiji Shrine near Harajuku in Tokyo
What did you bring back from Japan and what do you miss?
I’d like to bring Japan back! Regular homemade Japanese food helps remind us of holidays so I’m always stocking up on ingredients in supermarkets and convenience stores. Books on music and films that I can’t read also pack out my case for the return journey as well as cheap CDs, DVDs and second hand vinyl.
What do I miss? Convenience store snacks, Bad TV and 9% alcopops!
Anything else you want to add?
Japan can be really expensive but don’t be afraid to eat and stay in cheap places leaving you plenty of money to treat yourself once in a while.
Thank you Alan! Look out for more interviews in this series soon.
All photos by Alan Farmer.