Life in Japan, food, music, whatever…

Kippers and Custard 16 November, 2011

Filed under: customs,food & drink,music — johnraff @ 2:08 pm
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It’s probably another of those “you’ve been in Japan too long when…” things when you start liking enka. Let’s face it – there’s plenty not to like. The melodies all sound the same, there are usually only two or three chords, the singers get hyper-emotional and the lyrics are mostly about broken love affairs. Still, when you think about it, all that could be said about the Blues, one of my favourite kinds of music since Clapton was reading the Beano on the cover of that John Mayall album. Enka’s another of those hybrid music forms (like reggae, rai, bhangra…), a sort of crossing of Japanese folk tunes with Western instruments, usually lots of keyboards, drums, an orchestra somewhere and a screaming lead guitar in the distance. The singers use the same kind of vocal embellishments you hear in min’yo folk, and some of them are actually quite good, once you get used to the sticky sentimentality of it all.

There’s even an American enka singer called Jero. I think his grandmother’s Japanese, but he’s a real native-English-speaking American, backwards baseball cap and everything. Really good singer though, in perfect Japanese. Now, what I’m getting to is: the other day on the car radio someone put on an enka song sung in English – not by Jero as it turned out, but by a Japanese singer. It’s on Youtube if you want a listen. It’s horrible. Doesn’t work at all. OK there might be some problems with the English translation itself, or possibly with the guy’s pronunciation, though it doesn’t sound that bad, but the basic issue is that enka just sounds wrong in English. Doesn’t work.

It’s the same with food. There are many kinds of soy sauce made all over Asia – Thai light soy and Indonesian sweet kecap manis are delicious, for example – but if you want to eat sashimi, raw fish, then nothing but Japanese soy sauce will work. It will just taste wrong dipped in anything else. Now, I have to agree that Koreans also have good raw fish, eaten with garlic and chilli paste as well as soy sauce, but if you regard that as a separate dish then my case still stands. Also for location. Now that sushi (different from sashimi btw) is popular worldwide there are “sushi restaurants” everywhere. The other week on TV there was a restaurant somewhere in Europe maybe, dark wood panelling, customer sitting at a small marble table being brought sushi on a tray by a dark-suited waiter… NO! NO! That’s ridiculous. You have to eat sushi sitting at a counter in a small place where the man who makes it is standing opposite you choosing the choicest morsels of fish from the glass case between you. Preferably while sipping sake, though beer might be grudgingly permitted.

João Gilberto once said that bossa nova had to be sung in Portuguese. Some things just don’t go.


Daihachi Ryodan – really 30 years? 14 May, 2010

Filed under: music — johnraff @ 2:38 pm
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第8旅団 Daihachi Ryodan. When I first met these guys it was a band playing on a street corner in Nagoya in 1980: wild-looking people playing some kind of one-chord dirge with atonal guitar, sort of rock beat and incomprehensible off-key lyrics. I knew immediately that this was the band I wanted to play in…

Thirty years on, (although there was a 10 year break in the middle) we now use three or four chords – sometimes more – and like to think we’ve improved in various other ways, but basically it’s still the same band. Stardom is still just round the corner, but meanwhile we’re plugging away playing mostly original stuff with somewhat odd arrangements. I like to call it “latin-jazz-rock-reggae-psychedelic-enka-punk” but who cares?

If you’re in Nagoya on Sunday 16th May, come and check us out at Tokuzo!


Kyoto 4 November, 2009

Filed under: music,places,Uncategorized — johnraff @ 2:57 pm
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Last week there was no farm report because the band went to Kyoto for a gig. We left early but didn’t hit the traffic jams expected on a 1000yen highway Sunday and arrived with several hours in hand, so walked around a bit. I don’t need to tell you about all Kyoto’s fantastically beautiful temples and shrines, but most of the town itself is somewhat unremarkable; the central shopping streets could be anywhere in Japan – not a patch on Paris, for example. The joke runs that while the Americans refrained from obliterating Kyoto in the war, the Japanese did the job for them afterwards.

Even so it’s not an unpleasant town; the North, where our lodging house was, has some fairly quiet tree-lined streets – and lots of bicycles. Every corner seemed to have a bicycle shop of some kind. They must be the best way to get around – Kyoto’s narrow streets, like Tokyo’s, make for some grim traffic jams. Here in Nagoya they made a fresh start after the war with a new grid layout of /wide/ streets, appropriate for an economy heavily dependent on Toyota Motors…

The “live house” where we played, Taku Taku, is a really nice place in a big old wooden building with beautiful warm accoustics. (They do have noise problems though, being right in the middle of a residential area, so it all has to stop at 9:00 on the dot.) Our previous gig there was nearly 30 (yes thirty) years ago! It took them that long to get over it, but finally we were allowed to play again, and this time it went OK I think. During the intervening period they seem to have had some quite famous people playing, so I really wondered what we were doing there, but the audience were great. Sometimes it seems as if Daihachi Ryodan might be more suited to Kansai than Nagoya!


out demons out 3 February, 2009

Filed under: customs,music — johnraff @ 2:13 pm
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Anyone remember the Edgar Broughton Band? Back at university it seemed like they’d be there at any festival, event or concert with those Beefheart vocals and wild distorted guitar. I hated them at the time, them and another bad penny, the Third Ear Band who went in for interminable atonal wailings. (Subsequently changed my mind completely about them, and probably would have liked the Broughtons too if I’d heard them a couple of years later.)

Anyway every year I get reminded of Edgar Broughton’s anthem “Out Demons Out”; today is Setsubun, the coldest time of the year which, as everything contains the seed of its opposite, means the beginning of Spring. You’re supposed to throw beans around the house shouting “Demons out,  luck in”  or something. (Demons, or oni represent evil influences, generally, and have horns just like the Western variety.)  I wonder how many people actually do it now – maybe another generation and most of these customs will have died out…

You can check out Edgar Broughton’s rendering of “Out Demons Out” here – real 60s stuff! I keep meaning to have a go with Daihachi Ryodan but it will have to wait till we have a gig at the beginning of February some year. (Probably noone would enjoy it but me anyway.)


Where you’re coming from 31 January, 2009

Filed under: music — johnraff @ 2:17 pm
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An Indian guy, now based in the US, comes into Raffles’ sometimes (he likes Malaysian food), and the other day when he was here I put on some old Bollywood music, thinking he might enjoy the nostalgia. “EEH – didn’t expect to be hearing this sh*t here in Japan!!” was the sort of reaction I got.

Hmm… I guess that music has quite different resonances for us. For me, apart from enjoying the technical level and imaginative arrangements, those sounds are redolent of the India I visited some 30 years ago before coming to Japan. Even earlier, some of you might remember the head shops of the 60s/70s with their burning incense, Indian god posters and Indian music in the background. India was cool in those days – and still is, for me at least.

For my customer, though, it was the stuff that was on the radio all the time when he was a kid – nerdy, worn-out, definitely uncool. As if someone had been enthusing to me about Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Perry Como; sure that stuff’s OK, but…


Osaka revisited 8 October, 2008

Filed under: music,places — johnraff @ 2:11 am
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Last week we went back to Osaka for another Daihachi Ryodan gig. The last time was the Haru Ichiban festival in a beautiful Spring park, but this one was at a funky place called Rain Dogs in the Umeda “entertainment district” – a zone of cheap eating and drinking places, interspersed with various disreputable-looking establishments offering some kind of “service”… Very much an Asian city scene packed with neon signs, strolling customers, hustlers,sounds, smells… and much bigger than any equivalent in Nagoya. Osaka is big – with 6 million people, and then Kobe and Kyoto close by, this is an urban conglomeration to rival Tokyo/Yokohama.The Osaka expressway is quite something – this maze of overhead highways snakes to and fro between high-rise buildings just like something out of the comics that were around when I was a kid. The difference between that view of the future and the reality it’s turned out to be is that the people in those pictures looked happy and relaxed as their futuristic vehicles flew here and there – now everyone’s late for a meeting or something and stressed out. Why do we have to spend so much of our time going from one place to another these days?

Topping the bill at Rain Dogs was Noboru Abe and the Magic Animals  (I wish I’d thought of that name!) who were really good, in an odd sort of way. No spectacular solos or anything, but an original groove and interesting vocals. One of those bands that creates their own world. I suppose they’re a sort of cult band – they don’t even have a web page. Abe san is a dai sempai who in 1998 was hanging out with Mickey Hart when I was just starting College, and one of the moving spirits behind the Haruichiban festival.

Kansai (Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto and district) is kindof cool these days and you can hear kansai ben on NHK where before it was all standard Japanese, a bit like the increase in regional English on the BBC. Osaka is sometimes compared with Birmingham in the UK, but the people remind me more of Londoners – quick talkers, great sense of humour (Osaka’s the centre of manzai ), on the lookout for a quick profit but friendly and kind. They make good audiences too, and Daihachi’s performance went over quite well I think. A nice outing.


Weekend Sunshine! 21 September, 2008

Filed under: music — johnraff @ 2:23 am
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Listening this morning to “Weekend Sunshine” I got all nostalgic listening to early Pink Floyd, grooved on Malians Rokia Traore and Issa Bagayogo… finished off with Herbie Hancock and Joni Mitchell… If you live in Japan and don’t know this NHK FM radio programme you’re in for a treat. Check out this week’s playlist. Of course the DJ Peter Barakan is a fellow UK citizen, about my age  and arrived in Japan about the same time, so I suppose it’s not so odd there’s some musical affinity, but when I discovered this programme two or three years ago Japan was a better place to live.

Saturday morning 7:15 to 9:00 is not a time I’m usually too active, so I use our video recorder to record it. They have built-in timers, usually hi-fi sound these days (in fact these days everyone except us has got a dvd recorder) and you just have to connect an fm tuner to a “line in” socket at the back somewhere. (I’m sure the same would work with a dvd recorder.)  Anyway there’s a good quality sound recording on the  video cassette and I can copy stuff I like onto an audio cassette (yes we’re pretty retro round here) or maybe some day I’ll figure out how to get it into the computer as an mp3 file or something. Anyway, it’s great music.

With online stores and illicit downloads from the web radio programmes might seem a bit outdated but I still think there’s a place for a DJ who can turn you on to things you might not have found otherwise. I’ve discovered so many excellent musicians thanks to Peter Barakan’s show. Keep up the good work!

While on the subject, another NHK FM programme I like is Masakazu Kitanaka’s World Music Time. A bit variable, but sometimes you get a great collection of sounds from some country you knew little about.


Haru Ichi Ban! 7 May, 2008

Filed under: music — johnraff @ 5:16 am
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I got back from the Haru Ichiban Festival in Osaka delirious with enthusiasm – and fired up to finally get this blog off the ground. We in Daihachi Ryodan were already pretty psyched up as it was maybe our most major appearance since the “No Olympics” concert in Nagoya all those years ago.

Anyway from the time I arrived on Sunday afternoon it was magic. All the music was so nice, there were no ego trips on display and everyone seemed to be one big family – I was taken back to a Grateful Dead concert in the Europe 72 tour. Probably responsible for a lot of that was the impeccable organization – things worked perfectly, the sound system was excellent, the schedule went on time and everything seemed arranged so that there would be no pressure on the musicians, who responded with some great performances. I have to respect the huge team of volunteers who have obviously got it down to a fine art over the years they’ve been putting this festival on.

I certainly hope we get to play again next year, and recommend Haru Ichi Ban to anyone within range of Osaka around Golden Week. It’s pretty much a Japanese scene, i only saw a couple of other foreigners, so if you don’t read the language you might ask a Japanese friend to help you figure out the data.
It’s worth it!


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