When I was 16 I got to go on exchange to Japan for just under a year. Without exaggeration, it was one of the most magical periods of my life, one that shaped me in ways I am still discovering to this day.
Recently–and it feels like almost by accident–I got a chance to visit the country again for the first time in at least fifteen years. In the process, I’d get to fulfill a lifelong dream of playing live music there. It wasn’t Hotels–the Prince tribute band I am in, Purple Mane, and it’s original counterpart that everyone but me is in, Trick Candles, got offered a 6-date tour through the countryside and Tokyo proper by our friend, a booker named Hiroki.
It’s laughable now that I hesitated for even a second in saying yes to this, but, well, a lot happens in fifteen years. For one thing, I was convinced–due to my colitis–that I could probably not eat real Japanese food again. Ever (more on this later). I mentioned logistical concerns, but really I was scared and uncertain, and probably overwhelmed underneath it all. This place has a way of doing that to me.
What follows is not so much a detail-by-detail account of my time there, but a few important reflections I felt I needed to get down for posterity, before I turn back into a pumpkin, you know? Right now I am riding an unbelievable wave of gratitude, joy, and motivation–all three rare states for me if I’m being honest–so I’m hoping to communicate all that in these words.
I mean real talk–I don’t want to start off my travelogue with some controversial BS that makes you think I’m an anti-vaxxer or something–I know that MEDICINE is the best medicine. BUT… if we talk about general well-being, and we recognize and admit that it’s tied to mental/ emotional well-being, AND we read Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” (if you didn’t already in high school), we realize that sometimes how we define our lives and our purpose goes a long way.
Back in America I have colitis, I have sleep apnea, and I have a ton of anxiety. And wouldn’t you know they all feed back into each other. And unfortunately, I play the victim and let these things define me from time to time–I feel I am sick person. And I smoke a ton of weed because I am a sick person, which makes me feel a certain type of shame, which makes me have more anxiety, and makes me feel more like a sick person.
That’s not who I was in Japan. For one thing, I wasn’t a pothead; I literally couldn’t be. Strict pot laws in Japan guaranteed that. Before the trip, I had visions of myself breaking down. At the very least I feared for my stomach. Mostly, it just wasn’t a big deal. I was more concerned with my purpose: being a musician on an international tour. As small as it was, that purpose was undeniable to me and I felt it in my bones. It was real: we had flown thousands of miles to get there. People–extremely generous people–drove us places, fed us meals, made sure we were at soundcheck and checked our sound; they wanted this purpose to be real seemingly as much as we did. On our off days, we still had purpose: soak up as much experience and surrounding as we could.
The long and the short of it was: I felt a peace and happiness like I hadn’t felt in years. I slept better than usual, despite conditions being less ‘comfortable’ than they would be back home. And I ate basically everything–sometimes out of necessity, but sometimes by choice, too–with my stomach being really no worse than usual. I’m not claiming a new-agey mind-over-matter cure here. I still slept with a C-pap for my sleep apnea, and I did have some stomach issues, sure. Also, there are probably decent explanations for why things weren’t so bad: in the case of sleep, I was so exhausted all the time, I was happy to get whatever I could however I could, and with the food, I believe the food standards there are entirely different/ better (but that’s for a different blog post). The big thing is the fear, the anxiety, the depression that exacerbates all of it wasn’t present. So my issues were minor and I could just focus on enjoying my time there and doing my job.
Speaking of purpose, when I finally got home, I had a moment of exhausted clarity while walking my dog: earn this. Make it semi-regular. Make it deserved. Make it a real job. I don’t really like terms like ‘bucket list item’ or ‘dream come true’, at least not for something like this. It implies that it’s all a fluke, one-of-a-kind, a novelty. It’s an opportunity we were lucky to have, for sure, but it’s only a fluke if I don’t back it up, if I don’t act like I’ve been there before or intend to be there again.
It’s clear to me now: I want to be a music professional. At this point in my life, there’s nothing I’m more qualified for. I want to earn more opportunities like this, if not in Japan, then in other parts of the world. I always talk about the plan B I will eventually need, but there really is no plan B; there never has been. It’s up to me now how much I want to embrace plan A, how much I really want to dig in and grind for it, despite all the ways it sometimes doesn’t make sense.
I say ‘music professional’ because I want to be clear that I’m not (that) delusional; it’s not about me, my ego, ‘my band’, me performing my music on stage for my gratification–this tour certainly wasn’t about that. It’s about doing a musical job that people value. Maybe that’s performance. Maybe it’s teaching lessons. Maybe it’s providing completely anonymous background music for something. Maybe it’s playing someone else’s tunes. It’s probably all of the above. At any rate, I want the challenge, now more than I’ve ever wanted it in my life.
The Japanese bands we played with were inspiring on multiple levels. First, there were a couple of bands that were straight up good songwriters and/ or in my wheelhouse. Bands like Yu-No and NEIGHBOURHOOD (featuring a vibes player!) tickled my art-rock sensibilities, and there were some great shoegaze and synthpop acts on the bill with us at Liveholic in Shimokitazawa. I know I shouldn’t be surprised that there are genuinely interesting bands in other parts of the world, but sometimes I get jaded and think the world is only full of bearded dudes playing acoustic guitar, you know?
The second thing that impressed me about our counterparts was that they all had fucking chops. I don’t know if the ‘sloppy but charming’ thing is an American music thing, but it’s definitely not a Japanese musical thing. I would guess the ‘technical precision’ thing fits with everything I know about Japanese culture. All these bands were tight as hell and had really worked on their stagecraft as well. One band we saw, Nebula, just dropped all of our jaws to the floor and made us rethink our lives. I dunno if I would call their music anything more creative than ‘hard rock’, but the way they performed–like an explosive machine, like three dudes who would die if they couldn’t hit this stuff so hard and live in it–was completely consuming and inspiring. In terms of earning it–I need to be SUCH a better musician. I’m thankful to them for showing me that.
Finally, the Japanese live music scene is much different from America’s. I dunno if I can say it is definitively better or worse because there are tradeoffs all around. Pros: shows start and end earlier so people can get home on trains, shows are very well-run and produced, everyone gets full soundchecks, everything is backlined so you’re not schlepping shit everywhere, and the bands have a camaraderie which is always encouraged by a preshow meeting and a private afterparty at every club. The cons: shows are super expensive to attend, making them sparsely attended in general, which is probably the difference between a band being paid at all (rare) or a band having to pay to play (often). Thankfully, we did not have to pay to play, and even made money at one show. I don’t think all the bands we played with were so lucky.
Again, I’m not sure what light I should see all this in, if I should decide it’s ‘better’ or ‘worse’. Instead, I’d like to focus on the musicians again; if they were paying to play those shows with us, then my god–they are so much more dedicated than us! And gracious, too. I’ll just speak for myself in saying that their attitude in that environment makes me feel spoiled and entitled and far from the soul of music. Not saying I want to go back to gigs for ‘exposure’ or paying to play, but I want to be able to exhibit grace and enthusiasm whenever I play, because it IS always a privilege and opportunity to share this stuff with people, to do what we do. To a musician–every single one–people were gracious and excited to be there and no one showed even the slightest hint of being jaded or hipper than thou. Some people even had to leave right after they played to go hit another gig! We all talked after the gigs, and they are like us: they want to see the world, they want to come and play in America, they’d love to make money to do all of it… We’ve just all got to figure out how to do it, how to earn it.
It’s funny I think in a bottom line sense, the music scenes actually aren’t a ton different. If you can pack a club with people to see you, you’ll probably make some dough, probably move some merch, and it bodes well for your future. If you can’t, you’re playing for scraps, or food and beer, or for free, and just happy to be there. I guess it’s just more obvious and upfront there.
After the tour, we had a few extra days to kill before flying back home. The rest of the crew wanted to stick close to Tokyo for shopping and sightseeing, but I knew I had to go see my host family, the Inabas.
They’d visited New York once when I lived there in the early 2000s, but that was the last time I had seen them. I took a bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto to meet my host brother, and from there we took an old line back in to Nara to meet my host parents. My host brother and I commented on how marriage had widened both of us out a tad.
At the Yamato Takada station, my host parents met us and we all went straight to the ramen shop–the same one we used to eat at when I lived there 20 years ago–and slurped the hell down. How thankful I am that these people know me and are so accommodating! We went back to the old house, looked at photos, reminisced, drank tea and ate cake. They’re house is/ was always cold, but something about it is the right kind of cold, you know? Difficult to explain. Side note: my host father is 79 and still kickin’; my host mother’s age I didn’t ask because I know better, but apparently it isn’t a thing in Japan like it is here. At any rate, they both look damn good and virile.
We were only in Nara for a short while before we headed back to Kyoto to meet up with the whole extended family–my host brother’s wife and children and his brother’s wife and children–for an epic yakitori dinner. I thought I had an appetite as an American but food just kept coming and coming long after I had tapped out.
Along the way, the parents kept prodding the clearly embarrassed children to speak English with me, but they were too shy. My host father wanted to talk about the same James Dean and Audrey Hepburn movies we talked about twenty years ago. It was perfect.
I stayed with my host brother and his family in Kyoto that night. The next day we took a walk through the Shimogamo shrine, then alongside the Kyoto river for a while. We had lunch at the train station, and I took the bullet train back to Tokyo, listening to Y.M.O. songs on repeat. I don’t necessarily recommend traveling to and from Tokyo on bullet train on consecutive days, but if I was only going to have one day back “home”, I think I got everything I could out of it.
Perhaps you are aware that Hotels produced an album called “Night Showers”, that was based–at least in part–on the idea that some people–myself included–like to shower at night. Before, during, and after this album was being made, I would say something like, “I’ve always liked to shower at night; couldn’t exactly tell you where it came from.”
To which I now respond, it came from your time in Japan, you dummy.
For some reason I had forgotten about the Japanese tub/ bathing tradition known as the ofuro. (I forgot to take any pictures while in Japan, and now every one I look at online looks like some fancy white people Pier 1 Imports version of it).
Ofuro is hyped as some heavy Japanese traditional tub, but upon close inspection, a good definition might be: ‘a tub, just designed not poorly’. Ofuros are shorter but deeper than regular tubs: good for one person sitting knees up, but the whole body gets covered, Jack. It’s like a hot tub for one. The traditional part is that a whole family shares one at the end of each night, and before you say “gross”, know that everyone showers before they take their individual turn in the ofuro; that way the water stays clean. There’s usually a cover to keep the water warm between uses, but newer ones have reheating functions built-in. It’s just supposed to be for relaxing at the end of a long day and that’s it. In the family usually the senior member goes first. I kept trying to get the band to do it. In Tokyo we actually had one night where four or five of us did it. I was so happy and proud, and if you think that’s weird, well, go piss up a flagpole; I’m just trying to get some unity with my band through a unique experience.
Also on the subject of “Night Showers”, I was speaking to Yachiko from Neighbourhood about other bands we were in and I mentioned Hotels. She immediately found us on Soundcloud on her phone and somehow immediately landed on “Itsumademo”, the last song on the album. “Itsumademo” is a Japanese word that means “forever”, but she wanted to know what it meant in this context. At this point I should state that I’ve had my fair share of laughs at the extent of Japanese artists who incorporate English words/ phrases into their music poorly. South Park lampooned it well, but it’s kinda easy; you still can still hear it regularly in Japanese pop music. But as I struggled to express why I used a Japanese word for the title of my song, saying it was meant to be ‘expansive’, and ‘epic’, I felt foolish, and wondered if I didn’t look exactly the same way to a Japanese person–someone incorporating their language poorly into a song. Oh well. I’m still proud of the song. Listen to it here.
If I am being honest, I’m a little sad to be back. Although I was grateful to see my host family, I thought we stayed a few days too long. I really missed my wife and my dog and wanted to get back home. Which I am extremely happy to be now. But for sure I miss that experience, and I feel something missing from my heart.
For one thing, I like doing things with groups of people–being a team–when it comes down to it. It’s not really a secret; I’ve said it before, but I like to remind myself often. I’ll tell you the first meal I had in two weeks that was completely by myself, in my own home, with no background noise going on felt like some kind of psychotic episode. What mad person eats like this? I thought. Almost every country but America has figured out that meals are supposed to be longer community affairs. We had a bunch of ’em in Japan. I miss them.
I miss the food, the people, the look of the countryside, the glow of the city. I miss the unflinching kindness of the Japanese people and feel I have some long work ahead to repay it. I miss it all. But I don’t want to grieve the ending and chase the memory forever. I want to make new memories, maybe even better ones. It’s not about only Japan; it’s the world. I miss having that defined purpose, but the purpose now is to make more experiences like that happen. To live it, to make it not a fluke.
To earn it.
Thanks for reading.