June 24, 2011
To explain for the newer readers, Dr Rob is the other key contributor to Test Pressing alongside myself. He lives in Japan and here writes about living in the country post-earthquake. If you didn’t know the good doctor has a radio show and you can stream it here.
When the Tohoku earthquake hit I was in Sakudiara, a small town in Nagano that has sprung up around a handful of warehouse-sized shops and a cinema multiplex. That has to be at least 500 kilometres from Aomori, Iwate and Miyagi. The areas closest to the centre of the quake. My kids had the day off school and as a soft option I had tried to lose them in Toys R Us. I had been feeling unwell all day and as I stepped out of the blare and demands of the shop I felt myself become unsteady. My first thought was maybe I actually have the flu and I checked around me to see if everyone else was OK. They seemed unaffected and I felt then like I might pass out but I noticed that the pylons around us were twanging like steel nipples. Earthquake. In Tokyo you get used to them but part of the deal with moving to Nagano is/was that they never happen here. We`ve got the volcanos to worry about instead. I asked a taxi driver “does this happen often?” He said “never”. When we got to the shinkansen station everybody was being ushered off the platforms and into a waiting room. The TV warned of possible tsunamis up to 1 metre in height. Within 5 minutes this was up to 10 metres. Trains were suspended. All mobile networks went down. We were lucky enough to live so close as to be able to stretch to a taxi home, though totally unprepared for what would greet us there when we switched on the TV.
When an earthquake of any scale hits in Japan, television broadcasts are interrupted by a colour-coded map highlighting areas worse effected and if tsunami are expected then evacuation voice overs in Japanese, English, Spanish and Chinese. These normally last for a few minutes. In the case of the Tohoku earthquake they started around 3pm on Friday March 11 and continued for a little over two weeks. Early on we didn’t get to see the tsunami footage. I guess it wasn’t available. No one able to retrive it. But news announcers were wearing hardhats in shaking studios as ceilings collapsed around them. I couldn’t understand a lot of what was going on but one of the sights that will stay with me was that of Chiba burning. It looked like they would never be able to put it out. It really did look like the beginning of the end of the world. And the quakes just kept coming. They are still coming. We had another one last night (16.05.11). I can`t quite remember the figure but there have been over a 1000 earthquakes in Japan since March 11. Over 100 of them grade 4 or over.
Where I am, in the mountains, is pretty much bang in the middle of the widest part of the main island. The safest place in terms of tsunami. This didn’t happen by accident. I once visited a beautiful coastal resort called Shimoda. Blue sea surrounded by lush green mountains. I had always dreamed of living on a beach somewhere, but the warning signs in Shimoda changed my mind. In the event of a major earthquake, leave the area immediately. So you survive a major earthquake. Your home falls down at midnight. You`ve then got around ten minutes to try to outrun a giant wave. Forget it. I am no longer dreaming of California. I have made my home in the mountains.
While the earthquakes kept coming, every ten minutes in some places, attention quickly focused on the damaged nuclear power plant on the Fukushima coast, around 250km south east. I called the British Embassy for advice. “My children and I are in Nagano (a long way away) what should we do?” “Stay inside, close all windows and doors.” “My wife is in Tokyo (a lot closer – maybe 180km to the South of Fukushima) what should she do?” “I`ll have to call you back. In the meantime check our website.” I did and some attractive young lady showed me how to pack a handbag with a bottle of water and my passport.
Friends from Ibaraki came to stay in my living room, because their roof had collapsed and they were just to close for comfort. Three adults, three children. Each adult monitoring news from a different source. The BBC, Japanese TV and direct news feeds to mobiles. It was impossible to work out what was going on and the seriousness of the situation. Japanese authorities trying to avoid panic. Overseas advising evacuation. Those British nationals living in Tokyo and the north of japan should consider leaving the area.
I kept a diary. It goes without saying since it is clear that I am that vain. And I thought about asking Paul to post pieces everyday, just to highlight the situation. But I am so far away from the real trouble. My anxieties are trivial. Largely unreal. There was a report detailing the adverse psychological effects the continual news coverage was having on young children. Constant re-runs of lives being washed away. Confused like the children I did not know if the footage was archived or was this still happening.
Every morning at 5 AM I would check the only English speaking channel for news. I would check the IAEA three times a day for updates. I remember my panic at learning there is a Unit 5. Every night I would go to bed fully clothed, In case I had to get the children up and out. Sea-sick on dry land. Can`t trust my senses Earthquakes would be detected by laundry, unable to be dried outside, dancing in the lounge. My youngest son and I watched dead Koi float in an ornamental pond. Like fallen crescent moons. Mum called to check if I have picked up any Uranium tablets. Tiny bombs. I learned to fear the rain.
We tried to send food and clothes North, but there were no routes open. The British Embassy advised that I should consider leaving the area. So I did. I packed a suitcase and got some money together but I didn’t really think about going. There are an awful lot of people an awful lot worse off, who have lost everything and have nowhere to run. And it quickly became apparent that the power plant situation was chronic. If you did run, would you ever come back? I did realize that I was beginning to lose my mind. Where I live, out of season, is deserted. I could walk for 20 minutes and not see anyone. I would wonder if there had been some public announcement in Japanese that I had missed, and everyone else had gone. I knew I had to get a grip.
In all honesty, Nagano has been largely unaffected. I don`t think the earthquakes we experienced were over grade 3. Anything higher must be terrifying. Food deliveries, the equivalent of something like Ocado, stopped and as yet haven`t fully resumed. The swimming pool closed to save on electricity. In the supermarket (we only really have the one) we suffered runs on tinned fish, milk, bread, bottled water. Toilet roll. All shortages seemingly caused by panic buying and hoarding rather than supply. Fuel was rationed to 10 litres per car and the kerosene we use to heat our home (we were still in the -20s at night) limited to 18 litres per household per week. Fuel rationing has consequences for a community that needs tourism to survive. The government lifted tolls on roads over Golden Week and the place was busy. But not as busy as last year.
In the third week, once emergency broadcasting had stopped, I made the conscious decision to ignore all media. None of it was really telling me anything I could use. Information on the IAEA is along the lines of “Today we tested radiation levels in 15 prefectures”. Which ones? “And levels ranged from 1,000, 000 to 0.1 mbq/m2.” Where is it 1,000,000 and where is it 0.1? Everyone seemed to know something you didn’t. “Oh you are safe in the mountains they will shield you”. “Oh you need to get out of the mountains, the winds will carry the radiation to you first”. But it seemed to me that nobody knew anything. I decided to ignore everyone. I decided just get on with things. But I have stopped boozing in the evening. I never know when I all my faculties may be called upon.
I called friends in Tokyo. Anyone thinking of heading further south? No. They were all staying put. So I figured maybe things weren’t as bad as they looked on TV. But when I did go back into Tokyo I was shocked. I travelled in to play at Lone Star, like most parties here now, for the indefinite future, for charity. I`d watched fellow shinkansen travelers don facemasks as we went through Omiya and arrived in Tokyo at around 8:30 pm on a Saturday night. Expecting to have to squeeze my record box, standing, onto a busy Metro train, I practically had the carriage to myself. To get to the party in Harajuku I travel through Omontesando, a busy shopping area, normally packed with hot women trying to look cool under weight of too many purchases. No one was on the platform. Changing lines, wheeling my box through deserted walkways, eerie is the word. Tokyo is never quiet. Convenience stores were dimly lit and empty. Shops and restaurants closing. Saving power.
At the party, it was understandably quiet. It became clear that many of the young foreigners we know had left the country. Gone home. It turned into one of those nights where the aging DJs are left drinking with a handful of close friends. Going for it with the bravado of Shakespeare kissing plague victims. Bravado which of course eventually slipped. By 3 am everybody, to me, looked worried out of their minds. I heard rumours of radioactive caesium in the breast milk of Tokyo mothers. Stories of protestors at the TEPCO headquarters being beaten up by plain clothes police. I realized once again, how lucky I am.
I do get the feeling that as figures for accumulated radiation begin to be made available that the situation may be worse than the Japanese government was willing to admit (I guess their standpoint – to avoid panic – has been we can neither confirm nor unconfirm until tests have been done and numbers are available) and as bad as overseas authorities have predicted all along. But now, I kind of ignore the earthquakes because we have made the decision to stay. I cook my kids` food in bottled or filtered water. I don’t let them get wet. This has become the new normal. Not so bad. Maybe easy to forget, save the pink Spiderwort in the window box. And maybe I should keep my mouth shut since I am still here sitting amongst most of my possessions. With my family. Japan doesn`t need any more scary stories. She needs support from the rest of the world in terms of visits from friends. Artists. Tourism and trade. But the other night at 2 AM I took these pictures off the TV, as cameras followed a man back to his former home in Miyagi. A solitary white radiation-suited figure on a science-fiction landscape. Completely flattened. Absolutely nothing as far as the eye can see. Stopping. Taking a moment to burn incense. To mourn. Beyond hope. The sound of bird song deafening.
November 4, 2010
I’m back in Tokyo for the weekend. DJing on the Friday at Right Right Right. About to enter its 5th year. Goodness knows how we’ve made it this far. Sleep is scarce but done in a small hotel in Hibiya, called R.E.M. The more I stay here the more I love it. The rooms are tiny but it’s far from a capsule. There are no real amenities but it’s cheap, clean and modern. I got tired of staying in flea pits on the wrong side of Shibuya quite quickly. Don’t let fancy foyers fool you.
A big plus is the Muji restaurant on the second floor of the hotel. This means I can eat alone cheaply and healthily and not have to resort to the typical gaijin (foreigner) thing of living off McDonalds and 7-11 sandwiches all weekend. I’d never dream of going to McDonalds back home. As The Dead Kennedy’s once prophesised “Give me convenience or give me death.”
Another big plus are the hotel’s other customers. R.E.M. is opposite a theatre called Takarazuka. A theatre where all roles are played by women. It does look strange. Posters with middle-aged women in tuxedos and pencil moustaches. But it’s far more serious than panto and prinicipal boys. The street outside the theatre is always jammed with women of all ages.
Likewise the hotel is packed with well dressed women. Those in town to catch the show. and actresses so stunning that I have often had to laugh out loud at the impossibility of it. Koyuki Katou is a graduate of the theatre’s school. I eat my breakfast like a pig in shit. Surrounded by beauty. A Hugh Hefner Playboy Mansion moment to start the day. I never see another man, which is probably why they always give me a room on the top floor. Up and out of harms way.
When I’m in Tokyo for the weekend I try to set myself a mission. Set my sights on somewhere I haven’t been before. To be honest, the DJing and associated bad habits can get in the way of the stuff I`m finding more enjoyable these days. Will power where art thou. I’m cool about fluffing asking for directions in Japanese, but not so cool abut doing it when I still stink of booze.
This month I checked out an exhibition at the Mori Tower. I never had the time to go to the Mori when I lived in Tokyo. Distance and school pick-ups were against me. The entrance to the gallery is on the 3rd floor, but the exhibitions are up on the 53rd floor. If I had realised I had to go all the way to the top I might have thought twice about entering. It didn’t click until I was carefully ushered into a lift. My ears popping three times between the 30th and top floors. I ain’t never been very good with rollercoasters and the like. Except in times when all seemed lost. While now maybe I’m found.
The current exhibition is called Sensing Nature. Snow storms made of feathers. Tables cast from light. Pure white oblivion oozing blood on an operating table. PET bottles mapping the Milky Way. One of the exhibits consists of a series of short films taken in the artist’s neighbourhood shown on huge screens in cavernous darkened halls. A tapir in a local zoo. A lake. An underground car park. Each film 10 minutes in length. People standing transfixed for the entire duration. I was wondering how many people would take as much time to watch a real landscape.
My favourite piece is Kuribayashi Takashi’s “Wald aus Wald”. A forest made from white paper mache, which you are invited to explore both above and below. Below, everyone scurries about, bent double, on all fours, looking for a way to find the light. The light, provided by head-sized holes through to the forest above. Poking your head above into the forest you are greeted by four or five other human “bunnies” doing the same. I couldn’t stop laughing. Trying to snap people as they popped up. A bit like that arcade game where you have to club the moles with a mallet.
When I was taking photos, I noticed that the pictures only really looked interesting when they caught both the model of nature and part of the modern world of the gallery housing it. And I think this is what the exhibition sets out to illustrate, something the Japanese call Shizen or Jinen. The co-existence of man and Earth. That everything is nature be it a snow-capped mountain or 53-storey skyscraper.
That night, before another evening of DJing, R.E.M. and dreams of beauty, I take dinner in a tree-house in the heart of Harajuku.
With Shizen, Tokyo makes a lot more sense.
September 9, 2010
A hirsute Jonny Nash wrote a short essay on his favourite Tokyo record shops. Handed it to me as he left Japan. Both a blessing and a curse. This was back when I only had two kids and I made it my mission, once a week to head into central Tokyo and find these places. A good excuse to get out, try to get to know my way around and practice the language. I think EAD was second on the list. One Tuesday morning I somewhat stressfully traversed Tokyo’s Metro system, from my language lesson in Harajuku to the shop in Koenji. The journey mildly ambitious for a beginner. The shop was closed. Shutters down. A message daubed something about being closed for the summer. In December. I later learned that this message had been written at least five years before. It took a phone call from my wife to the shop to discover that generally there was no point trying til after 1 PM. I was left to wander the second hand clothes shops and struggle with café menus for the next couple of hours. No such thing as “just a coffee” in Koenji. You have to state your beans.
When I first visited at the end of 2006, EAD excelled in original pressings of New York disco classics. Loft and Paradise Garage playlists. To back this up there was a photo on the wall of Mancuso going through the racks. Does Mancuso still go digging? Would have thought there’d be an army of people doing it for him these days. Humbled when he plays a tune they’ve found. Anyhow, EAD, not cheap, but considerably cheaper than the basement of Disc Union in Shibuya, which was the other place you could find this stuff. I ended up mainly buying favourites I already had, like Melba Moore`s Standing Right Here. Replacing bootlegs.
Back then behind the counter was the owner Yozo and the lovely Nagi, from Dazzle Drums. Nagi DJing alongside Nori at Smoker, at ten years plus Club Loop’s longest running weekly night by far. G had a D-Train 12 in his hand and Nagi told us a story about being at Francois Kevorkian’s birthday party and James Williams singing ‘Happy Birthday’. She seemed to like G. Think it’s because he looks a little bit like Danny Krivit.
After about a year, we’d do a regular tour of shops. Always making sure to hit EAD last. First, and we’d have no money left to spend anywhere else. But it was here that we would plot. Yozo providing hot tea in the winter, umbrellas in monsoon. Restaurant recommendations when we were hungry. Politely correcting my Japanese.
With time, Nagi left (too busy with DJing and production) and the shop’s stock began to change. First, a load of Cosmic-related stuff appeared. I heard a rumour that this was Chee Shimizu getting rid of things he’d learnt and assimilated. Legend has it that he sold all his Italo once he’d been exposed to Baldelli. Then selling the Cosmic to settle on his own sound. Chee now running his own supremely obscurist on-line shop – Organic Music. I think I hovered up most of his cast-offs.
Now, in its 13th year, EAD is still the first place to try if you need a reasonably priced classic 12, but driven either by 1) a mellowing brought on by the birth of Yozo`s son, 2) regular visits to Shelter in Hachijoji (Chee again – DJing his unique mix of fusion and yoga instruction records), 3) the need to supply his customers with new discoveries or 4) the lack of decent dance spots left to dig in New York, the shop is floating towards a more spiritual plane. ECM-like jazz, rare prog, experimental electronics, free folk. It was Yozo that turned me on to the Batteaux LP and got me a copy of Conrad Schnitzler’s ‘Electric Garden’.
In 2008, Jez from Innersounds was over looking specifically for Japanese music. Yozo shrugged. EAD stocked none. Both Me and Yozo told him to go to Recofan. But things have changed again. My Osama Kitajima collection all comes from EAD. And my buying there these days is divided pretty much equally between spiky post-punk dubs and Japanese artists. I don’t know if Japanese music will ever be in vogue, but interest seems to be on the increase and it is something we are both trying to research and promote.
I don’t get into Tokyo so often these days, and when I do I can usually only hit one spot per visit. So once a month, each shop in rotation. Each shop maybe once every four months. But every weekend I get some “Daddy`s time”. Around 4 PM on a Saturday afternoon. The kids watching TV after a trip to the pool. I sit down with a pot of coffee, switch on the PC and go over the records Yozo has just put up. A quick caffeine-fuelled call while making dinner and I’m sorted. I wouldn’t/shouldn’t say it’s a weekend high-light but you could set your watch by it.
At the beginning of the year, I promised Yozo I would write about EAD. It has taken so long even I was wondering if it was just a hollow promise aimed at obtaining discount. I asked him for a list of his top ten Japanese records, again for not entirely unselfish reasons. This was one of them.
Haruomi Hosono – Hotel Malabar Upper Floor, Moving Triangle
June 22, 2010
Joe Hisaishi – Play On The Sands
I got up to work on a radio show, but “Sonatine” (ソナチネ) is on Channel Neco. It`s one of my favourite Kitano films. There’s no need for language or sub-titles since its practically a silent movie. Simple in its violent beauty. A small group of hoods in hiding in Okinawa attempt to entertain themselves while they wait to die. An allegory for life. Or at least that’s how it seemed to me when I first saw it. “Beat” looks so young. His eyes these days are cold and animal.
Joe Hisaishi’s Reich-ian score plays while gentle humour endeavours to mask the inevitable. It takes some courage to play and laugh at practical jokes, relive childhood games while you pass what’s left of your time. Too easy to sit and worry your nails to the quick.
As it was with all the books and films, the sentimentality, I took my code from, revenge is swift and with no quarter. But like the final scenes of “The Wild Bunch”, ultimately in vain. Pointless bar honour.
The last shinkansen rattles the house.
Sunflowers dance on a beach.
Kitano’s new film “Outrage” opened in Japan on June 12. Not seen it yet but it doesn`t look like an easy ride.
April 21, 2010
We arrived in Karuizawa to six feet of snow, and a tiny old house with no central heating or air con. Saved by a kerosene heater that mockingly sings ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight’ before it shuts down if you have it on longer than three hours. Kerosene’s quick easy flame. Still, it’s so cold I can taste the blood in my nose when I wake.
So cold, the water in the fish tank froze in the kitchen. 6 AM the fish was a silvered petal floating. At midday I watched in amazement as its tail flickered into life, as the water thawed.
The washing machine is a manual cold water only twin tub. One side washes, the other spins. The likes of which many people may never have seen but I can remember keenly from my childhood. It was my mother’s burden. Mum would break it. Dad would fix it. Mum would break it. Dad would fix it. One step from a rock, a bar of soap and the stream that runs out back, with three kids, I was standing by the fucking thing all day until I discovered the launderette.
I hadn’t been to a launderette since I was at university. Stoned in Leeds Hyde Park. Comforted by the warmth of the tumble-dryers. Hypnotised, dreaming of some Nick Kamen-esque lingerie meets boxer shorts liason. Never happened.
That place was broken old machines and inhabited mainly by the local drunks. This place is more like ‘My Beautiful Launderette’. Spotlessly clean rows of washers and driers. Music, TV, magazines, coffee from Starbucks. Posters advertising classical concerts. But no champagne. No passionate embraces from Daniel Day-Lewis in a Benny-hat. Strangely enough, coincidences and all that, I’m sat there re-reading my copy of The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, wondering if I am Tereza, when I want to be Sabina.
Cutting firewood and burying last night`s ashes at 5:30 AM. I forget to complain. I am transfixed by the mountains. I guess once you’ve been here a while you might take them for granted. They are everywhere I look. I am surrounded by their wonder. At night the wind howls round the basin, while a murder of crows fill the daylight with their laughter. The sound of Hopeton Brown attempting to rid the world of the evil curse of the vampires. Mists unfold and the mountains disappear. Nothing on the horizon. It is as if everything apart from Nagakura has ceased to exist. The world ending at Lawson’s.
I’m just popping out to get some milk. I may be some time.
Shiki. I’m out here talking to an architect about building a house in the mountains. Or rather I’m talking to my wife, and my wife is then talking to the architect. I’m trusting that record storage is not being sacrificed for Jimmy Choos.
To reassure me that they understand, the head architect has brought me to the local jazz kissa, Bunca. Up a tiny un-signposted staircase to the second floor of a residential block. Above a small florists. You’d never know it was here. Into a space like a darkened corridor. A library. Around the walls are 40,000 Long Players. I get my camera out, and the architect smiles.
I don’t know much about hi-fi, but when I showed these photos to my Japanese mates, who are the kind of guys who read text books on acoustics and sound engineering on the commute into work, they all nodded sagely and muttered noises of agreement. Two speakers stand from floor to ceiling. Then there’s the Macintosh stack. Wanting to demonstrate the quality of the equipment, the owner’s wife, asked me to try to lift one of the components that was set aside for repair. I could lift it, but only just. Which, since I can easily lift my 9 year old son, and he’s a big lad, means it must be over 40 kilos. There are 4 components in the stack. Greater than 160 kilos. The owners have the same set up at home.
I’m given the best seat in the house, with the kind of courtesy I have always received in Japan, and have never received in the UK. They switch the system on. A record by the Dudley Moore Quartet goes on the turntable (I was not allowed close enough to photograph the deck properly) and it’s the most fantastic music I have ever heard. For a few moments I even think about trying to find a copy to play at home. Everything takes some time to warm up, but while I’m eating my pork curry, it sounds as if the band are playing next to me in the room.
The only problem with this place is that it’s a good 20 minute train ride outside of central Tokyo. Too far for some people. The owner of Ebisu’s Bar Jam just laughed when I tried to convince him to meet me here for lunch. It is frustrating. I’d really like to plot here, sink a good few and test the system and test that 40,000 strong collection. But the school hours that currently define my day have so far prevented me from doing so.
Visiting Bunca has further complications. The owner is bipolar and suffers from bouts of severe depression. Often leading to him barricading himself in his house, leaving his wife to open up the café. During these periods he will spotted making trips to buy more records. Spied stepping out of taxis weighed down with bags. Being something of a vinyl compulsive/obsessive myself, I wonder quietly if his record collection is a symptom or possible cause of his condition. 40,000 records filed and cross-referenced by alphabet, label and lead instrument. He knows where everything is.
Since the owner requires so much care, the café opens sporadically. You need to call first to make sure they’re gonna open. And if so, for how long. Still I try to spread the word. And the place is a centre for young Japanese jazz musicians. Sometimes they are given the opportunity to play, but they have to be prepared for the voluble consequences of the owner’s displeasure. If he deems it not to be “Jazz” then there will be trouble. Shouting and ejection are not unheard of.
No arguments here. This guy can play.
January 14, 2010
Weatherall’s on the radio.
1 – 3 AM.
Sir Alan (Russell) of Green Tights on the knobs.
I’m lying in bed, drinking cheap wine. Listening on my headphones. I’m in a rented room in a shared house on Carmichael Road. Round the back of South Norwood station. I’m surrounded by all I own. A cheap clothes rail. Two metal shelving units, the ones that look like Meccano (do they still make Meccano?), that I’ve pinched from work and that are leaning Pisa-like from the weight of the records I’ve put on them. Books are stacked up on the floor between the window and the bed, and there’s a small leather suitcase of photos pushed under the bed. It’s a Wednesday night and I’m just straight enough to think about the weekend again. Drum Club tomorrow, then Friday’ll be Sabresonic at Happy Jax. A cold cave beneath London Bridge with upturned oil drums for tables. No more dressing up. Blims in an old Benneton sweat-shirt. Weatherall playing a mixture of Detroit Techno, European Trance, and pitched-down Drum ‘n’ Bass. As far as I can remember, there are no women there. Only stick-thin geezers with ponytails and boils. It has gone a bit dark. Surrender to the void. My membership is No. 303, which I am quite pleased about.
I am unable to relax because I’m taping the show and obsessively attempting to remove all the ad breaks. I can stretch out and reach the pause button from my bed, but I can’t just lie there and listen.
Jazzadelic are on a play-list that takes in Asia-Born, Central Fire, Model 500, Mad Professor, Tenastillin, Aphex Twin and Effective Force.
Weatherall shouts out to those bugling ’til dawn.
This dream of a better world.
Jazzadelic: Better World