A talk with Jane Penny, TOPS’s vocalist, at her home back in Montreal
Always been curious about the music scene in other cities outside your own little cocoon? We assumed you were! So we feed your hunger for insights and secrets in the Scene Report. In the Land of the Rising Sun we dive into the neon-glimmering streets of Tokyo, home to the best photo booths ever. Kinuko Hiramatsu, who’s been making music as Sapphire Slows since the spring of 2011, is our guide
Text and photos by Kinuko Hiramatsu and friends, in Tokyo, Japan
When I was 18, I traded in Hiroshima for Tokyo. And although I still can’t believe I’ve been living here for seven years already, it both feels like forever and an instant. Although you might think Tokyo is a metropolis where new things and people always come together, the city is becoming more touristy, an artefact from the past, because nowadays it leans heavily on both outside influences and its cultural past. Still, people who really recognise the city’s allure consistently try to create cool and edgy culture, what is why the culturally engaged stay here.
When I first came here, I found the pace frenetic, with everything passing and changing very fast. It’s hard just to catch up with what’s happening in this city. But now I have a different understanding: there’s no need to know it all. Tokyo is the place where you can calmly face up to yourself and the world.
I’ve discovered many small scenes and alternative cultures here since I came to Tokyo, although some of them have already fallen apart or disappeared completely. Many of them disappear as fast as they appear. That’s why Tokyo is interesting: nobody can predict the fate of our scenes. When it comes to music, so many different things exist within a stone’s throw of each other, but many of them will never be connected. On the other hand, some of them have good relations even if they seem miles apart. The reason is simple: cool things work together when they sympathise with or respect one another. There’s the proud indie-music scene thanks to Big Love and Fish, the edgy techno music presented by mnml ssgs and Mindgames, the borderless underground electronic music gathered by label, distributor and promoter Melting Bot, and Sodom, the queer gothic ’80s darkwave party. A truly kaleidoscopic variety.
There are many record stores for both new and old releases, so Tokyo would be a satisfying market for record diggers. However, there are few stores that really inspire new cultures. Big Love is my musical home: a record label and store in Harajuku, which is one truly creative space. They support the local scene and young talents, and are a cultural hub for the global independent music scene as well. Various great underground cultures and people gather at the store.
If you come here for a few nights and want to party with friends, my recommended itinerary goes like this: get drunk at some cheap Japanese-style bars we call izakaya, then go sing karaoke with day-glo paints, make sure to get some pictures shot in our purikura, which are the weirdest photo booths, and go to Shinjuku Golden Gai, with its narrow alleys and passageways, filled to the brim with bars, clubs and eateries. Or go to Ni-Chome, which supposedly houses the world’s highest concentration of gay bars. Those are the areas to spend an exciting night. At 5 A.M. eat ramen, or if you still have enough energy have some fresh sushi and miso soup at Tsukiji fish market. You’ll be like a zombie when you go home so you can sleep like a log. The day after, go for some Matcha-Latte or Hojicha-Latte. This is a knockout way to have fun, but of course I don’t do this everyday. To be honest, I really like just staying home and relaxing.
You should also go for a good long walk. In spring, there are of course the well-known cherry blossoms. But the azaleas, hydrangeas, cosmoses and camellias are also truly beautiful here. Autumn covers everything in fallen foliage, winter covers the city in snow… I really appreciate the distinct four seasons in this country. Take a break in an easy-going café where you can take of your shoes and chill.
One final thing: regardless of whether they’re young or old, friends around me here try to be free, and they have pride and vision for their dreams or what they do. Friends who are photographers, filmmakers, passionate fashionistas, booksellers or activists who wants to change the Japanese conservative social system: they are all different yet trying to help each other even if there’s no outward show of cooperation. If you come here, at first you might feel like people are cold and exclusive, but they are just serious about what they’re trying to do. On the inside, the people here are actually very kind and warm. So, although it may not seem like this at the first glance, if you have true passion, Tokyo can be exactly the right place for you.
Essential Tokyo labels: Big Love, Melting Bot, Flau, Crooked Tapes, Sixteen Tambourines Essential Tokyo promoters and events: Fish, mnml ssgs, Mindgames, Dommune, Bondaid, Sodom Essential Tokyo venues: Vacant, Web, Orbit, Soup, Air, Kata, Liquid Room, Unit
Sapphire Slow plays Het Bos, Antwerp on 18 November. The show is free for members. Join here.