Return to Japan: “It’s Endless”, part 1 

The Japanese 'banjo'...Okinawan shamisen ('jamisen').

Back in 2013 I made a trip to Japan that quietly transformed my life. I had brought my fiddle with me to sit in with a local Hokkaido bluegrass band and came home reinspired, rejuvenated, and motivated to jumpstart my own musical pursuits and discoveries after having a baby, Sachi, born in 2012. Many of the Japanese musicians that I met had dedicated much of their professional and personal lives to the pursuit of music, which helped me recognize my own passion for music and to see new possibilities for myself. Fast forward 2 years and I was setting the dates for a return visit for summer 2015 to see friends and family of my Japanese husband. A full schedule of performances began to come together, and I couldn’t resist accepting the many kind invitations to play. Here I chronicle these experiences as a two-part series, first starting in the northern island of Hokkaido and next the Kanto (Tokyo) and Kansai (Kyoto/Osaka) areas of Honshu. 

With Stove in Sapporo, Hokkaido

We flew from Asheville to Hokkaido just two days before my first scheduled performance with the bluegrass band Stove, so named because it is so cold in the winter that one does best with a wood stove in the house. By that time I was still jetlagged but comfortably settled at the home of Tery and Yoko Watanabe, who have been involved with bluegrass scene in Hokkaido since the early 60s. Jetlag is even more challenging in Hokkaido because it is so far north, being at the same latitude as much of Canada. Also there is no daylight savings in Japan, so in July, sunrise is early, starting around 3:30am, and slowly becoming completely light around 4:00; sunsets are similarly protracted, finally getting dark around 10pm. Because of the heavy snow in winter, architecture looks more Scandinavian than Japanese. 

Our home in Hokkaido. Note Crooked Road sign in front window.

Tery drove me to downtown Sapporo for a show with Stove at a hamburger restaurant named Risa. Many venues in Japan are very small by American standards, and Hamburger Risa is no exception. It is simply too expensive to maintain the staffing and rent for a lot square footage since many businesses are run by just one person or couple. The original Hamburger Risa opened after the war in the 1956 in Fukuoka. Risa’s son had moved operations up to Sapporo, but the battered original sign was still hanging outside on the patchwork-sided wall in a small, inconspicuous alley. 

Hamburger Risa, Sapporo.

There were just three items on the menu, hamburgers, fresh juice, and beer, handwritten on a chalkboard near the entrance. The hamburgers were delicious: the tomato and lettuce were really red and fresh with fantastic flavor, the pickles were homemade using a crunchy variety of cucumbers they grow in Japan, and the hamburgers were seasoned with Risa’s original recipe. If you want to have a successful business in Japan, there is this idea that you should keep doing it the same way over and over, don’t ever change anything. The customers will be happy because they will know exactly what to expect and will always come back. If you keep trying new things and changing, your customers won’t be loyal and you won’t have a good business. I saw that again at a tiny store where they made a pounded rice dessert called mochi. They called it “baby skin mochi” and indeed it was soft like a baby's skin, powdered and supple, and packed neatly in a thin wooden box (never plastic, said the owner). “We’ve been making it this way for over a hundred years,” she said. 

Tatami mat jam with Takako and Yanagi, Ebetsu City, Hokkaido

While I would love to include pictures of Hamburger Risa, the owner was firm about not wanting pictures of his restaurant posted on the internet. This was also very Japanese—Hamburger Risa was obviously very personal for him. Other restaurants were welcome to have a trendy menu with lots of choices and brazenly broadcast themselves across the internet, but he was going to modestly carry his family legacy forward in his own quiet way.  

For you Engrish lovers out there...Hokkaido concert poster. A 'live' is a concert.

It was great to see the Stove band members again. With Tery's help, I had been practicing the words for their songs. Some are simply traditional bluegrass tunes translated into Japanese (“Carry me back to my Mississippi River home” changes to “tsuretete watashi no Bibi gawa no ie”). But some are original melodies written about modern themes and places, like one song about a coal miner from a depressed Hokkaido mining town. It includes familiar themes from bluegrass music like hard economic times and hard work, but combines the very Japanese concept of “gaman”—“to endure.” The lyrics say “To-chan, gambare!” which translates to “Dad, do your best!” which is something people say to you constantly in Japan, “Gambare!! (“gum bar de”, the slight roll of the “r” almost sounds like a “d”), “do your best!!” 

Spectacular seafood from Hokkaido's seaside, Shakoton. Note massive amounts of uni, sea urchin gonads, in the blue colanders

Even if the Japanese don't understand the words of the Stanley Brothers or Bill Monroe or Flatt and Scruggs and all the bluegrass greats they love to imitate, I think that the Japanese somehow identify with the “high lonesome” sound. So much of the classic bluegrass era dealt with themes of leaving home to find work, hard economic times, families being split up, being forced to marry for things other than love, themes that I think the Japanese can very much relate to. Japan has seen so many changes, from being a closed agrarian society to a defeated country after WWII, and the standard of living in many ways is still far below western standards, despite being incredibly advanced technologically. In any case, music is something that gives people a way to deal with hardship and to express their feelings about it, even the stoic Japanese. 

Hokkaido izakaya's hard to know what to order. I guess I'll take one of the things at the bottom...

Stove also does some songs in English, and I always thought it was funny that Japanese musicians set up music stands and sometimes even iPads in front of the stage. But trying to sing songs in Japanese made me realize just how hard it is to memorize songs when they are in another language!! 
The following day, with jetlag continuing to ease, we headed into the mountains outside Sapporo for the Lucky International Music Festival. Music festivals in Japan are generally small and the performers are not professionals, but actually the attendees of the festival itself, who all pay to attend! The sets are about 10 minutes long, so each performer or group plays about three songs before scurrying off the stage to make room for the next group. There was a broad age range, including university students that were members of bluegrass clubs on various college campuses. 


University students at the Lucky Festival outside Sapporo, Hokkaido

The festival was small, maybe 200 people, and took place at a campground that had a small store and restaurant. The restaurant served “Jingisukan” (Genghis Khan), a Hokkaido tradition of barbecued lamb, which was a popular meat to raise in Hokkaido at one time. In fact, Hokkaido is famous for its wonderful food, fruits and vegetables in addition to dairy, meat and seafood. Using chopsticks, we turned the thinly-sliced meat and vegetables over a small portable grill that looks like a ceramic bucket with a cooking grate on top that is supposed to look like a Mongolian helmet. We also drank “nama” (draft) beer (Sapporo, of course). 

Mom eating some genghis khan

Lucky Festival stage

I had been experimenting recently with playing my fiddle and singing at the same time, and had a few tunes I played that way, including a Japanese song called “Akatombo” or “red dragonfly.” It is about the hazy childhood memories of someone whose sister was married off at 15 and moved away from the village and never came back. It is generally sung in the Enka style, a slippery, lounge style singing with lots of vibrato and voice-flipping, kind of like yodeling, and cheesy orchestral string accompaniment. It is actually pretty amazing, technically, but my friend Sab Watanabe, the banjo player from the band Bluegrass 45, had suggested I try to sing it in an Appalachian style.  So I had been working on playing drones on a crossed tuned fiddle while simultaneously singing this Japanese “ballad.” 

Japan 2015, Hokkaido, Day 2-3 from tobuconqueso on Vimeo.

It was cool for July, and the evening’s drizzle had turned to a steady rain. Cold streams of water slipped over the edges of an enormous white tent that mixed with the smoke from the Ghengis Khan grills. The people inside sipped beer at long tables and laughed and chased kids and talked and bowed to each other while they enjoyed the rapidly-changing entertainment. A group of men jumped up at one point and began a ridiculous group dance, something resembling drunk praying mantises. In Japan there seems to be a marked split between extremely polite behavior and complete, uninhibited silliness. People might strictly follow rules to the letter, be on time to the minute, stiffly and repeatedly bow and call each other by their last names followed by “san,” and then turn around and let their hair down and giggle like children, especially the men. This playfulness is unexpected and delightful, with a lack of self-importance, vanity or pompousness that is a breath of fresh air, very entertaining and fun. 

Fifth grade mayhem, Chitose Elementary

The following week, my friend from Stove, Nakahara-san, invited me to do an elementary school performance for his music class in a small town near Sapporo. First I met the principal, who wore a suit and tie, bowed and solemnly handed me his business card, unreadable in kanji. The secretary also bowed and quietly served cold barley tea while we went over the program, which included an English language segment (“Hello, how are you? My name is ___, nice to meet you!”) that the students had been working on for months. I was struck by the formality, but also gained a better understanding for the reason behind it: it’s important to approach all situations with respect, especially meeting someone for the first time. That principal probably has to greet staff and students hundreds of times every morning when he walks into work, bowing and saying "ohaiyo gozaimasu" over and over. Respecting the rules of greeting people properly improves the function of the system, and the importance is much deeper than simply “greasing the wheels.” Extreme politeness and respect are societal norms in Japan, so it’s no surprise that they learn how to properly introduce themselves in English! 

Selfie with Nakahara-san and students holding up 2 fingers 'peeee-su!' (peace!)

They also sang “Down by the Salley Gardens,” a song that apparently every school child in Japan learns. It comes from a Yeats poem that was set to music about 100 years ago, and sounds a lot like “Down by the Willow Garden.” There is an interesting selective porosity of music into Japan. Some songs of ours that have made it over and become entrenched in their culture have been almost forgotten in ours. Or the meaning has been completely transformed: for example “Auld Lang Syne” is the song they play in most stores at closing time. 

Japan 2015, Down by Sally Garden from tobuconqueso on Vimeo

I started with an acapella ballad called “Pretty Saro.” As I scanned over the faces of these 75 or so fifth graders, I noticed that one little girl had tears running down her otherwise placid face. This completely broke down any sense of foreignness I might have felt, either of age or language or nationality, and was instantly the most memorable moment of any performance I would give throughout the entire trip. Before we left I gave her shoulder a little squeeze, in solidarity, for so completely “getting” something about the world we inhabited at that moment together. 

School lunch. Rice, miso soup, carrot and radish salad. Personal squid. AND chocolate milk.

Then it was time for lunch. School lunch is served in the classroom, which they eat at their desks, and that day, included a personal roasted squid for each student, chocolate milk, and a bowl of rice neatly arranged on a melamine tray. Nothing was thrown away; everything was meticulously cleaned or composted or recycled, even the wrappers on the chocolate milk straws. We were treated with the utmost celebrity status, the teachers had to sternly scold the students as they shoved their notebooks and handkerchiefs at me to be autographed. They all accompanied us down the steps in a noisy cloud and crowded around in the play yard. They held up two fingers for the pictures, flashing the sign for “peee-su” (peace), something that has become popular for all Japanese to do in snapshots.   

An article about the visit to the school was published in the Hokkaido state newspaper!

While I was in Hokkaido I had an opportunity to reconnect with Kentaro Hiratsuka. Kentaro cut his teeth in Nashville in the late 70s, studying to be a luthier by day and a multi-instrumentalist by night, at the Station Inn and elsewhere, with some of the greatest names in Bluegrass. He has a purposeful, exciting, strong classic-bluegrass playing style, and his repertoire, licks, and fills are just are exactly what I like to hear. However, his English is only slightly better than my Japanese, so after 30 or so minutes of awkward conversation, we set to playing -- for hours. 

With Kentaro Hiratsuka at his guitar shop in Ebetsu City, Hokkaido.

Once we sang through five or six tunes, we really started getting our vocals in sync, finding that emergent voice that was neither his nor mine. We both just closed our eyes and spent a few fleeting hours in that world where time stops and everyone else disappears, including an earnest group of college students that were hanging around the back door of his instrument shop. They were members of the bluegrass club on the Rakuna Gakuen University campus and had come to help Kentaro with some weeding and, hopefully, get a few tips for their playing. It was interesting to see this very Japanese “sensei-student” dynamic applied to learning bluegrass! Tery had driven me to Kentaro's and was there to listen with the most joyful, peaceful expression I have ever seen on someone's face. He felt badly for them and went to the “conbini” (convenience store) to buy them onigiri (rice balls filled with pickled vegetables and fish) and some bottles of Japanese tea. I was reminded that an important part of learning is having the opportunity to observe and listen. 

Members of the Rakuna Gakuen Bluegrass Club waiting outside Kentaro's shop

With our host and guide Tery Watanabe

After 10 short days in Hokkaido, I flew to Tokyo to do a workshop with Bluegrass 45's Sab Watanabe and radio/TV personality Peter Barakan, then on to Kyoto to play with Japanese-Americana band Pirates Canoe and attend the 44th annual Takarazuka Bluegrass Festival! Stay tuned for part 2 of "Return To Japan: 'It's Endless'" coming next month!

More soon! (Requisite photo of Fushimi shrine, Kyoto)


Add comment