I just got back from an adventure in one of the biggest cities in the world, Tokyo, Japan. It’s gargantuan, but Tokyo is an incredible city. I spent about a week there with my wife for vacation. We did our very best to experience all that the city has to offer, walking and riding on the train to all the different neighborhoods. Each neighborhood is different from the other. Japan is a unique country, and not just because of the architecture or the industry or the neighborhoods, it’s the demographics. Japan is one of the “oldest” cities in the world. “Oldest” because more then 20% of the population is over the age of 65, which is a huge number when you think about it. The country will have a massive drop in population over the next 30 or so years. The younger lot aren’t getting married nor are they having children, and the older ones will eventually pass on, leaving a large void in the population. But there are still many young people there… I digress, I’m not here to give you a lesson on the demographics of Japan. The reason for the statistics in this post is how they relate to the local music of Tokyo.
There’s a proverb the Japanese have: 出る杭は打たれる。It translates roughly to, “The stake that sticks out gets hammered.” You won’t walk into a restaurant in Japan and hear a bunch of people talking over each other or calling attention to themselves in any way. The Japanese are fairly quiet, and other than their advanced fashion senses, they don’t try to draw attention to themselves very much. Because of this, one might think that all the music would be similar but it’s not. You walk into a cafe run by an older lady, and you might hear American jazz music, but you walk into Tower Records in Shibuya, and you might hear an eclectic mix of J-Pop, K-Pop, and C-Pop.
We ventured out to Shibuya (think Times Square x 1,000) to the last of a dying breed of big box record stores, Tower Records. It stands tall amongst the office buildings and high-end fashion stores. Prominently displayed out front, just below the main sign, is another sign that says simply, “No Music. No Life” (in English by the way). My thoughts exactly. The building houses 9 total floors with 6 floors of shelves and shelves of music and music listening stations. Remember those? The first thing we did was explore the first floor which held all of the featured music. Your Justin Beibers, Lady Gagas, Pearl Jams, and so forth. There were also some of the more popular European artists and Japanese artists as well. The 2nd floor was books, magazines, and a cafe. The 3rd floor was my favorite, and where we found the music I’d like to share with you today.
There we found aisles and aisles of J-Pop and J-Indie. It was there that I spent most of my time going from listening station to listening station, checking out as much cool Japanese music as I could with the time that I had. I could have bought about 10 CDs (yes, CDs), but I narrowed it down to 2 discs and 17-inch record. My wife picked one of the CDs.
The first band I listened to was Galileo Galilei. Their newest album “Alarms” was featured at one of the listening stations. I walked up, pressed what I thought was the play button (the CD station buttons are in Kanji but the sideways triangle is kind of a dead giveaway), and immediately, I liked this band. Their sound is best described as indie pop but you can tell they are steeped in classic ’80s new wave. The very first track, also called “Alarms”, is probably my favorite song on the disc. Since the rest of the tracks listed on the back are in Japanese, and I’m not yet able to translate, suffice it to say I also like track 4 as well. Unfortunately, we have limited access to this band in America, but I was able to find one example of Galileo Galilei’s music on YouTube. Here’s a track called “Lonely Boy” from the album.
I meandered around a bit more on this floor of Tower Records and found one of the only displays with vinyl. I saw what looked like a hand drawn illustration on the cover of a 45. Below it was the listening station for who, I found out, is Sokabe Keiichi, who has actually been writing songs for quite a while. Best way to describe Sokabe is singer/songwriter, but this particular record has the feel of a smooth, 1970s AM radio hit. Of course, he does sing in all Japanese, but that’s what makes it so cool. And by the looks of his website, Sokabe really likes noodles.
Finally, my wife ran up to me at some point during our exploration and dragged me by the arm over to a listening station to check out what she described as “sort of like Purity Ring”. The artist she was describing is called Cuushe. Cuushe is the project of Mayuko Hitotsuyanagi, and her album, “Butterfly Case”, has been spinning in our car CD player ever since we got back from Japan. The tracks on “Butterfly Case” swirl around you like clouds with washy synths and pulsating bass lines. I guess you could use the word “chillwave” to describe the music but that would be too easy, right? Mayuko’s barely-there vocals are sweet and airy. She mostly sings in English on the record, but the vocals blend so well with the music, it’s hard for the listener to discern what she’s trying to convey. But no matter, Cuushe’s music makes for great tunes to listen to when you want to relax. I’ve posted a link to a piece from one of my all time favorite music blogs, Gorilla vs Bear. They are always on top of the new stuff. Check it out here.
My time in Japan was well spent eating and exploring, but spending a few hours wandering around Tower Records was one of the best parts. It’s fun to go into a small Indie record store and search out that rare find, but to be quite honest, I occasionally miss the classic big box stores like Tower. Tokyo is one of the coolest cities on the planet, and spending time there was life changing. The places we walked and the people we met were so different, and to find some music I may not have ever found here at home was just icing on the cake. If you ever get the chance, please visit. Arigato Tokyo.