Every night after I finish my shift at Smith’s School of English, Kyobashi, I head on back to the station in a somewhat brisk walk. Usually, the little snacks that I carry with me to work disappear rather quickly, so by the time I’m ready to head home, I’m famished. The only two things on my mind on that 5-8 minute walk to the JR Kyobashi station are: “What should I cook for dinner?” and, “When can I eat?” When it comes to food, I have a one-track mind. However, as I begin to approach the wide square – live with activity – in front of the station, my thoughts of food are replaced by the sounds of music.
While most people are on their way home, piling out of the izakayas in groups, or rushing to escape from a late night shift at work, aspiring Japanese musicians take control of the streets, squares, and compete for attention in front of the train stations. This musical activity is not only popular, but it is also a regular occurrence that most people come to expect. I’ve stopped quite a few times to enjoy some really talented vocalists and guitarists as they pour their hearts into the pieces that they’ve composed. Quite frequently, I’ve had to pause for a moment or two to glance from one singer on the right hand side of the Kyobashi square, and then consider three people making up a band on the right. Which side should I loiter around for the next song? Should I move closer to the young lady crying out in a soulful voice about the heavens? Or do I feel more like getting into a more upbeat rock song from the miniature band?
Music is everywhere in Japan
Sometimes, it’s difficult to decide what I want to listen to and when but I’m most assuredly guaranteed some free quality entertainment regardless of where I plant my feet for a time. I’m actually surprised every time I hear a new singer, or watch a new band perform on the streets of Japan. It never ceases to amaze me just how focused and serious these talented artists take their music. Granted, there are beginners as well who take their trombones and guitars to the local parks to learn how to play them properly. But when it comes to the areas around train stations, there don’t seem to be any amateurs. Only as-of-yet undiscovered musicians hoping to be spotted by an agent in a chance encounter. Or maybe just sell a few homemade CDs which are well worth the opportunity to sample such raw, unique tunes.
The musicians and bands that perform at Kyobashi, or along the very popular and highly crowded bridges joining the main intersections at the center of Umeda, are always changing. You’d be hard pressed to run into the same performer twice. Even at my own station, I am forever seeing a different guitarist or singer set up between the train station and bus terminal. It’s like music runs through the veins of Japan like a natural inbred function.
I’ve been to various other locations in Japan but have been mainly restricted to the Kinki region so far. I wondered if maybe it was only this area that is so musically inclined. Gradually, such doubts vanished as I repeatedly stumbled upon youtube videos displaying musicians performing in Tokyo and the Kanto region, heard similar tales from as far as Hokkaido or Kyushuu through friends, and even encountered a travelling musician through a mutual friend.
Karaoke as an influence
The more I think about the Japanese people and music, the more I wonder if perhaps karaoke has something to do with the large number of street performers. After all, karaoke did originate in Kobe, and the people who attend karaoke with their friends and co-workers must have completely adapted to being able to sing in front of groups unabashedly. Maybe karaoke serves as a springboard to street music, eventually catapulting the singer into an audience full of strangers. Even outside of the karaoke establishments, the idea of replacing the vocalist’s voice with that of your own is an idea that is also supported in CD sales. Most CD singles come with a track which has had the vocalist’s part removed so that you can sing along in his/her place. So if you don’t have the time to meet your friends for some karaoke, you can practice in the comfort of your own home! And if you want to be professional about it, you can even buy your own karaoke machine complete with microphone, giving you the power to turn your living room into a high-wattage stage.
Come to think of it, nearly all of my Japanese friends (plus the musically adept or daring friends that I know from other countries) regularly find the time to end a night out with a few hours of karaoke. A lot of the students at Kyobashi also seem to be quite addicted to karaoke and eagerly announce their plans to meet up with some friends for some singing to maintain harmonious vocal chords.
L’arc~en~Ciel and Morning Musume
What do L’arc~en~Ciel and Morning Musume have in common? Nothing… as far as I’m aware of anyway. I’ve been interested in Japanese music for the past 12 years, long before I finally ventured to Japan to explore the land and culture. One of my two favorite Japanese music groups is L’arc~en~Ciel, going way back to 1996 when I first became entranced by their hit song, ‘Honey.’ My second favorite Japanese music group unfortunately disbanded for the second time back in 2004 (if I remember correctly) and seemed to be more widely known overseas than in Japan itself. Or that’s what I’ve been forced to believe after everyone I’ve mentioned the name ‘Weiss Kreuz’ to looks back at me with a blank stare. While it was sad to see Weiss Kreuz go their own separate ways, I’m still very much content to follow up on what L’arc~en~Ciel and their main vocalist, Hyde, is up to. Hyde is a very impressive singer with an incredibly large range of octaves at his command. One of the reasons why this group first caught my attention was during an NHK concert I listened to Hyde drop to a very low octave and then yank it straight up to an octave on the other end of the spectrum without blinking an eye. His unique voice has me hooked on his music.
Much the same as me, another Canadian friend of mine is very enthusiastic about a Japanese music group, but his taste in music is slightly different than mine. He’s been in Japan for the past few weeks on a desperate mission to experience everything Japanese before his vacation comes to an end, just after Golden Week finishes. Before he even arrived, his intended agenda was very clear. Sightsee, shop, eat, and (no matter what obstacles may drop into his path) attend a live concert with Morning Musume. This may come as a shock to Morning Musume but he may just be their biggest fan yet!
For anyone who isn’t familiar with Morning Musume, they are both extremely popular and successful as an all-girl J-pop group. While most people won’t have a clue what I’m talking about when I mention ‘Weiss Kreuz’, and quite a few more will ponder over my bad pronunciation of ‘L’arc~en~Ciel’ (I truly cannot pronounce this accurately), after hearing ‘Morning Musume’, bells go off in people’s heads. It isn’t just the music either. Morning Musume, and the girls that make up the group, are well associated with glamour magazines, talk shows, makeup, accessories, apparel, musicals, and… they even have their own Playstation 2 game! So, my friend, who is very appreciative of the Morning Musume phenomena, has had absolutely no problem stocking up on a wide variety of goods since arriving in Japan.
I’ve seen Morning Musume performing at the NHK New Year’s special, alongside L’arc~en~Ciel and Glay (another well liked band of mine), and can understand how they’ve managed to achieve such popularity and hold it over the years. According to my friend, their songs are really catchy, as are their attractive outfits and well organized performances. It’s too bad that we’re not into the same music groups because it would’ve been more convenient to attend concerts together. However, while he is all excited about going to see Morning Musume in concert (possibly with another friend that he roped into joining him), I’m still unsure if I’ll have the time to attend L’arc~en~Ciel’s latest concert this summer. It’d probably be a good start to stop procrastinating and see if there are any tickets left to buy!
Sometimes, in the middle of a lesson at Kyobashi, one of the students will be trying to describe a person or place that I’m unfamiliar with but just can’t seem to find the right words to paint the appropriate picture in my head. Maybe they’re trying to describe their favorite actress because we’re discussing movies from the ‘Let’s Talk’ curriculum but I’m unsure as to who they’re referring to because names don’t sink in well for me. Most of the times, the students will resort to singing a line or two from either the theme song from a drama that the actress has been in, or a commercial jingle that she has appeared in. Because Japanese theme songs and commercial jingles are really catchy, a light bulb goes off in my head by the time the student is finished. And since these students love to sing, they manage to successfully imitate the original tune the first time.
While most of the students that I’ve met have openly admitted that they love to sing or regularly hang out at karaoke clubs, a good number of them are also very fond of musical instruments. One businessman is so involved with playing the trumpet that he is frequently seen sneaking it into Smith’s. His two favorite hobbies are learning English and playing the trumpet and he finds the time to enjoy both after a hard day at work. Another student plays the flute and will be holding his own concert with a group of friends at the beginning of this summer. And yet another student plays her shamisen for a rather large audience once a month, practicing for hours every day in order to maintain her level of expertise.
It’s really nice to find myself in such a musical country where all I would have to do is open my balcony door at night to hear someone from a neighboring building playing a relaxing wind instrument, or loiter around the station to hear some rock tunes. As for the neighbor, I have yet to identify the instrument which he/she plays but I do know for certain that he/she takes practicing very seriously. Whenever I hear the comforting notes carrying across the air, I have no need to check my clock for the time because I know that the practicing always begins just after 11pm and ends at a little past midnight. It makes great background music for reading a peaceful novel or just lazing about. The free rock + guitar solos in front of my station take place in much the same manner. They usually begin around 9pm and continue until the station closes up for the night.
And everything else that sings
Maybe because ‘everyone’ else enjoys singing, the birds in my area have also decided to take it upon themselves to join in. While I do enjoy the various musical elements of Japan, I am still undecided as to my opinion on the ‘singing’ birds. The little chirping birds by the river sure are pleasant enough to listen to but the crows could probably do with taking some singing lessons from their human counterparts. I don’t know why the crows have been cawing outside my window for the past few days, as early as 5:30am and continuing well into the afternoon. Perhaps they too have become infected with the urge to join the musical movement. If only they wouldn’t practice so enthusiastically so early in the morning…