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Video: ups and downs – How I Joined a Japanese Choir

It’s been many months and summer is almost here. Cherry blossoms have bloomed and fallen. During the holidays and into the spring, a few bumps along the way led to headaches and delays. Beneath all that however were the trips, festivals, and most importantly the people there to push you through those times. In Nagasaki, one such group does that through the magic of music.

A special thanks to The Nagasaki Foreign Settlement Glee Club. I love you all and couldn’t have done this without you!

Sorry for the delay. Had to borrow a friend’s computer to do this! Thanks so much Matt!

Music:
Hold Me Down – Foreign Fields
いざ起て戦人よ – Sung by the Nagasaki Foreign Settlement Glee Club
ふるさと – Sung by the Nagasaki Foreign Settlement Glee Club

 

For camera nerds:

Sony a6000

Sony 50mm F1.8 (most used in this video)

Sony 16-50mm F3.5-5.6

Rokinon 12mm F2.0

Premiere Pro CC 2015

Check out my previous episode on traveling to Yakushima and Tanegashima, and taking video of the stars above Japan.

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Video: under the stars – Filming the Night Skies of Japan

A trip to the islands of Yakushima and Tanegashima at the beginning of fall provided an opportunity to visit one of the most picturesque landscapes Japan has to offer. My favourite photos however whether back home in Canada or in Japan, are taken simply by pointing my camera up into the night sky.

My longest video thus far with over 1500 km driven for footage around Kyushu and about 2 months to film everything, hope you enjoy!

For camera nerds:

Sony a6000

Sony 50mm F1.8

Sony 16-50mm F3.5-5.6

Rokinon 12mm F2.0 (most used in this video)

Premiere Pro CS6

Check out my previous episode on Nagasaki and my summer adventures.

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Video: summer lights – The Highlights of Summer in Japan

Summer is over and school is starting again. Here are a few of the highlights experienced during the last 2 months.

This video definitely took a bit longer to make than I hoped. School starting up and just generally being busy has made it especially difficult to find time to simply sit down and edit. Hopefully it’s entertaining and stay tuned for the next episode which I assure you will be filled with a few surprises 😉

For camera nerds:

Sony a6000

Sony 50mm F1.8

Sony 16-50mm F3.5-5.6 (most used in this video)

Rokinon 12mm F2.0

Premiere Pro CS6

Check out my previous episode on Omura and first moving in.

SUMMER MUSIC FESTIVALS

Summer Music Festivals in Japan

It’s summer now, and for those musically obsessed of us out there, that means SUMMER FESTIVAL SEASON! Japan, which boasts a recording industry second only to the US, has about as many music festivals as there are people in the country. There’s just so many! What this means is that there’s just about something out there for all tastes.

Sadly, by the time of this posting, some events may have already passed, but hay! There’s always next year, right?

July

DEAD POP FESTiVAL

deadpopfest

Where: Kawasaki, Kanagawa

When: July 11th & 12th

With a goal to “Knock Down the Wall,” this festival’s line-up is all across the board. From comedy bands, to rock, to punk, to ska, to the very border of metal, walls are definitely getting knocked down.

Sekigahara Live Wars

sekigahara

Where: Sekigahara Battlefield, Fuwa-gun, Gifu

When: July 18th-20th

This festival is particularly fun. It is a yearly “battle” between day 1: women (though, women fronted, not specifically women ONLY), day 2: men, day 3: idol groups. These divas will definitely relight the fires of war at this festival.

JOIN ALIVE

Where: Iwamizawa, Hokkaido

When: July 18th & 19th

JOIN ALIVE aims to be a very chill festival, going so far as to offer free admission to junior high school and under kids. And seriously, looking at that line-up, I would KILL to have gone to this festival as a junior high schooler. Also, there are rides! How cool is that!?

Fuji Rock Festival 

Where: Yuzawa-cho, Niigata

When: July 24th- 26th

One of the biggest yearly festivals in Japan, Fuji Rock Festival takes places at an off-season ski resort, and as such, one of the main draws (aside from the concerts) is the fact that you can camp it. Though an even bigger draw to it is that it features a huge line-up of non-Japanese bands. And these aren’t a bunch of nobodies. These are HUGE acts! Because of this, the website is FULL of handy information in English. Enjoy!

Punkafoolic! Bayside Crash

Where: Tokyo

When: July 25th

This is a nice little punk rock fest that takes place deep in the heart of Tokyo, pretty close to Tsukiji Fish Market. BUT! It’s just before orientation. Sorry incoming people. Maybe next year.

Tokai Summit

tokaisummit

Where: Nagashima Spa Land, Kuwana, Mie

When: July 26th

Tokai Summit holds the claim to fame of being the first outdoor festival dedicated to Hip Hop. Even better, it takes place in my home prefecture! YEAH! Though it’s only a one day event, NagaSpaLand offers an amusement park and outlet shopping to fill the rest of the music-less hours of what should totally be a weekend affair.

August

Rock in Japan Festival

Where: Hitachinaka, Ibaraki

When: August 1st & 2nd then August 8th & 9th

Rock in Japan Festival is put on by music mag “Rockin’ On” and is one of the biggest festivals of the year. It’s so big that not only is it a given that it’s going to sell out, but you can’t even just expect to buy tickets for it. No, you have to enter a raffle just to be allowed to throw your money at it. It also takes place on two separate weekends, all the way up in Ibaraki, so unless you’re placed in a surrounding prefecture, good luck seeing the entire festival. With one of the most diverse line-ups, there is easily something for everyone here…and not gonna lie, probably 10/10 of my favorite current artist list.

Zushi Fes

zushi fes

Where: Zushi, Kanagawa

When: August 7th-9th

MTV, yes THAT MTV, invites you to get your party on in your swimsuit at this resort festival featuring quite a few Japanese DJs, R&B singers, hip hop groups, and everything in between.

Rising Sun Rock Festival

risingsunrockfest

Where: Ishikari, Hokkaido

When: August 14th & 15th

This is a music fest for people who love Japanese music and hates sleep. Concerts go on ALL NIGHT LONG, and the festival prides itself on only featuring Japanese artists. Ishikari, next door to tourist hotspot Otaru in Hokkaido is a gorgeous area, and being able to enjoy amazing music as the sun comes up on a new day is definitely an experience to check out.

Sonicmania/Summer Sonic

Where: Chiba and Osaka

When: August 14th-16th

Summer Sonic is a MONSTER of a festival. Technically the fest begins on the 14th with Sonicmania, a one day EDM festival that, though run by the same people, is considered a separate event with a different name. Summer Sonic itself takes place in both Osaka and Chiba at the same time, often with artists playing one city one day then the other the next. Not only is it geographically huge, but it also draws some major foreign artists, as well. Generally, if you go to one summer music fest in Japan, for most people, it’s this one.

MONSTER baSH

Where: Yoshino, Kagawa

When: August 22nd & 22rd

Not to be confused with the OTHER Monster Bash, the International Classic Monster Conference, Film Festival and Expo, this MONSTER baSH is the original outdoor music festival of Shikoku. Its aim is to bring people together, year after year, to smile and enjoy amazing music. I can definitely get behind that sentiment, though they chose a rather odd name for that kind of goal.

Sweet Love Shower

sweet love shower

Where: Lake Yamanaka, Yamanashi

When: August 28th-3oth

Taking place in the shadow of Mount Fuji, Sweet Love Shower is celebrating its 20th year in existence. It is presented by none other than Space Shower TV, who once deleted my youtube account for hosting too many of their videos, which explains the slightly odd name. The festival itself has a lot of great artists, mostly if you’ve seen them on SSTV, you’ll see them at the fest.

September

Sunset Live

Where: Itoshima, Fukuoka

When: September 4th-6th

Taking place in Kyushu, Sunset Live promises a laid back, very chill music fest in the late summer heat. The artist list features an eclectic line up of rock, folk, jazz, and electronic artists. Looks to be a very chill event, where you can catch the sun setting below the ocean horizon. A very nice coda to the summer.

OTODAMA

otodama

Where: Izumiotsu Phoenix, Osaka

When: September 5th & 6th

Looking at this setlist, this festival looks amazing and insane at the same time. It looks like the first day is super laid back, very chill, and the second day, all hell breaks loose. A very nice collection of really great, yet not terribly known groups. I really want to go to there.

Inazuma Rock Fes

Where: Kusatsu, Shiga

When: September 19th and 20th

This festival is a highly popular gathering of major pop acts, such as two of the ridiculously popular 48 groups and TMR. If you are wanting to hit this festival, better get in quick. Tickets are already selling out.

Punkafoolic! Shibuya Crash

shibuya crash

 

Where: Shibuya, Tokyo

When: September 20th

Another punk rock festival presented by Punkafoolic! For one glorious day, punk rock from all over the world takes over O-East and O-West (am I the only person who still thinks of them as On Air?). Those of you who had to skip out on Bayside Crash will definitely be able to make this one.

Kansai Lovers

kansailovers

Where: Osaka Castle Music Hall, Osaka

When: September 23rd

At only 1000 yen (drinks for an extra 500), Kansai Lovers is a great chance to bid farewell to the summer and enjoy some great up and coming musicians. I, for one, am highly tempted to drag myself all the way out to Osaka for this one day festival.

 

While this is quite a long list of various music festivals all over Japan throughout the summer, it is by no means exhaustive or complete. I hope, though, this will inspire some of you to hit up a festival or two. They’re no comparison to seeing your favorite artist at a one-man show, but they can be a great way to expose yourself to some great new bands you’d never heard of before. Great way to find new music at a pretty decent price. Enjoy!

kawaiirethink

Rethinking “Kawaii”: 4 Unique Idol Groups

Typically, I am not the biggest fan of idols. I find them highly exploitive of both their consumers and their working members (more about this will come in a later post, but as my profile blurb states, I did my final research in university exposing the links between human trafficking and female idol groups specifically). However, in honor of LADYBABY’s first (very, very unique) YouTube debut on July 4th, I’ve decided to put the spotlight on some of the more unique idol groups I’ve run across in my research. While many idol groups thrive off the holy nectar of all things kawaii (“cute,” and typically very effeminate), these shiny new groups all push the boundaries of what idol groups can bring to the table.

LADYBABY

First up we have the group of honor: LADYBABY. Now who is LADYBABY? The most prominent figure you may notice is no other than Ladybeard, Japan’s resident cross-dressing Australian entertainer extraordinaire, flanked by Kaneko Rie and Kuromiya Rei, both winners of the idol contest Miss iD 2015. Their first music video (complete with English CC), shown above, for their debut single (set to go on sale July 29) is about all things fabulously Japanese. Clearly, this is a group that’s trying to go for the kawaii factor and twisting it all around at the same time just by the mere presence of Ladybeard. With such a dramatic debut, it’ll be interesting to see what they come up with next.

BABYMETAL

For those already in the loop of out-of-the-ordinary idol groups, the strange mash of cutesy hard rock of LADYBABY may make you instantly think of BABYMETAL, a group that debuted their first album early in 2014 (despite forming way back in 2010). The three members (nicknamed Yumetal, Moametal, and Su-metal), each being tasked with some combination of “scream,” “dance,” and “vocals,” rose quickly on YouTube to international fame (and confusion) for their unique blend of metal and kawaii. Like most female idol groups, the average age for the members here is quite young (currently around 14 or 15), but despite their youth, they have dominated the rock genre in Japan, ranking in the top 10 of the Oricon charts on multiple occasions.

Macho29

One of my bones to pick with female idol groups especially is how they have a tendency to sexualize and commodify their members from a very young age. (Quick comparison: “Arashi sexy” vs. “AKB48 sexy.”) Well, I can’t say it’s progress in the realm of feminism, but now it’s not just skin-bearing girls being ogled by the media—there’s now a whole idol group dedicated to shirtless, muscular men, complete with their own binding contract (à la AKB48’s “no love” rule) prohibiting them from drinking alcohol and smoking, among other things. The group was formed after the massive success of the one-day event “Macho Cafe” in Shibuya earlier this year. This group definitely doesn’t fit the bill of kawaii, but it also doesn’t fit the sleek and sophisticated image of most male idol groups either.

KBG84

This last group may be considered kawaii, but definitely not in the sense you may assume. 33 Okinawan grannies singing and dancing around? That sure sounds pretty darn kawaii to me. KBG84 (in contrast to AKB48), with the grotesquely punny media slogan 天国に一番近いアイドル (Tengoku ni ichiban chikai aidoru, or “The closest idol group to heaven”), stands out in this list since the required age to become a member is 80, and the average age of all its members is 84 years. As for the oldest member? That honor goes to Yamashiro Haru, at the grand age of 97. The group hails from the tiny island of Kohamajima in Okinawa Prefecture (KBG stands for Kohamajima Baachan [old lady] Gasshoudan [choir]). They are currently working on a special, mega-hit tour, and just recently performed in Tokyo last month.

 

This is by no means an exhaustive list of rule-bending idol groups, and who knows what the future will bring? What other groups have you found that break away from the tried-and-true kawaii?

RIP Seba Jun

An Intro to Japanese Hip Hop

So after my last post comparing the mane or “imitation” faction of Japanese Hip Hop to the recent Rachel Dolezal case, a couple people commented saying they’d like to see a post that offered a good intro to Japanese Hip Hop in general. Now I’m pretty sure that these guys were asking for a list of my favorite artists or a couple good playlists more than anything else, but instead I decided to do the post as a short introduction to the history of Hip Hop in Japan. Of course a huge number of artists are going to come up along the way and I’ll link to all of them when they do, but primarily this is going to be about the spread of global Hip Hop culture to Japan, its idiosyncrasies in the country, and the role Hip Hop has played in Japanese society as a whole.

(I did end up caving though and created a short playlist with some of my favorite tracks, for anyone interested in a soundtrack to accompany their reading)

Please keep in mind that there is a lot of history behind Japanese Hip Hop, and for the sake of space I’ll have to stick more or less to the more general outline of its evolution. If you want to know more, I recommend checking out the work of MIT professor Ian Condry, which you can cop for free in PDF form here. I rely a lot on Condry myself, as you’ll see if you read him!

graffiti near Yokohama's Sakuragichō Station

graffiti seen near Yokohama’s Sakuragichō Station photo by • • TRUE2DEATH • • https://www.flickr.com/photos/true2death/2085128307

But first, before I begin talking about Japanese Hip Hop, I want to clarify my terms, as I think the particular meaning I associate with Hip Hop might not be shared by all of my readers.

When the average person thinks of Hip Hop they probably imagine it to be just a genre of music or a fashion style. Of course there is also the corporate perspective, which views Hip Hop as a highly profitable product to be commodified and marketed to the general population. These stereotypes are widespread and not completely without substance, but to characterize Hip Hop in this way is to completely misunderstand its essence and inherent value.

Far from being just a style of music, Hip Hop is a culture–a way of living that is fundamentally socially-critical, anti-mainstream, and profoundly creative. The shared approach to life that is called ‘Hip Hop’ is the origin of a number of artistic forms such as DJing, MCing, breaking, and modern grafitti art (together its ‘core four elements’), but it doesn’t necessarily follow that wherever these elements are found Hip Hop is also present.

The true essence of Hip Hop culture is found in its “unique collective consciousness; the creative, causative force behind Hip Hop’s elements,” prompting many Hip Hoppers to stress that Hip Hop is not something one does, but rather something one lives (krs-one.com).

It never ceases to amaze me that something like Hip Hop, with its very specific modes of expression and even more particular cultural/historical context could take off so quickly universally, but it has exploded onto the world scene in the years since its birth. There is perhaps no country on Earth today without its own, unique Hip Hop culture. But what exactly does Hip Hop look like when separated from its original context in America’s inner cities? For the relatively wealthy, Japanese urban youth with no experience of racial persecution, can Hip Hop really be relevant or understood? These are some of the questions I think we should keep in mind when looking at the history of Hip Hop in Japan.

But now without any more prologue, let’s get into the actual history.

yoyogi breakdance1

Photo via Tokyobling • https://tokyobling.wordpress.com/2011/03/28/donate-for-japan/

Interestingly enough, Hip Hop first came to Japan not through rap, DJing, or fashion, but instead through breaking. Professor Ian Condry of MIT describes the introduction of Hip Hop to Japan in the following way:

The seminal moment for breakdancing in Japan was 1983, when Wild Style, a low-budget film featuring the first generation of U.S. rappers, DJs, and breakdancers, was shown in Tokyo theaters. Performers who appeared in the movie, such as the breakdance team Rock Steady Crew, came to Japan at the same time and performed in Tokyo discos and department stores. ECD, now a key figure as [a Japanese] rapper and producer, recalls one of these shows: “Actually, when I saw those guys, I didn’t really understand what the rappers and DJs were doing. In terms of what left a lasting impact, I can’t remember a thing except the breakdancing…Another hip-hopper, Crazy-A, relates being reluctantly dragged by his girlfriend to see the movie Flashdance but then [becoming] spellbound by the breakdance scene. [Today, Crazy-A is] the leader of the hip-hop outfit Rock Steady Crew Japan.
 (A History of Japanese Hip Hop, 228)

(for anyone interested, here is the trailer for Wild Style as well as the breakdancing scene from Flashdance that Crazy-A was describing. From here on out if a film is referenced I’ll link to it directly the first time its title appears)

I managed to find some somewhat grainy footage of the 1983 tour of the American Rock Steady Crew throughout Japan to promote the release of Wild Style. For those who don’t speak Japanese, the commentator in this video begins by explaining the concept of rapping to an audience that is likely encountering it for the first time. Here’s one more video I managed to find from that tour for anyone interested.

Busy Bee on the Wild Style Japan Tour http://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/gallery/17043/13/wild-style

Busy Bee on the Wild Style Japan Tour • http://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/gallery/17043/13/wild-style

As is clear from ECD’s comment above as well as the commentator’s explanation in the video, Japanese people at this time knew next to nothing about the history of Hip Hop and were merely impressed by its energy and style. Once breakdancing got a foot in the door here though, it would take off almost immediately. The location for its inevitable rise in popularity? Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park, and the “pedestrian’s paradise” [歩行天] area of Harajuku where traffic was shut down every Sunday and people would gather to break. Crazy-A describes this early breakdance scene in his interview with Condry, saying:

“I [Crazy-A] suggested that maybe we should start [breaking]…and from the next week on, every week, we danced. At first we did it with a radio cassette and cardboard laid out on the ground. Sometimes there was a turntable and PA system. It was like a block party, a natural phenomenon [自然現象]. And then people like B-Fresh started up too.”

That began in the winter of 1984. By the next year, Crazy-A was dancing on television on a weekly music show and also as a back-up dancer for a teen idol. This exposure, along with another movie, called Breakdance, released in 1985, is credited with initiating the first of several breakdancing booms [ブーム].
(Condry, A History of Japanese Hip Hop 228-229)

It’s harder to find early videos of the breakers in Yoyogi park/Harajuku, but here is the oldest footage I could find of Rock Steady Japan. In addition, here are a couple videos of the B-Boy “Chino,” a member of Rock Steady Japan and later of the B-Rock Crew, both from the 80s: Chino 1 + Chino 2. These videos give a pretty good glimpse into what the vibe of the early Japanese Hip Hop scene would have been like.

A recent photograph of the 歩行天 (pedestrian paradise) area of Harajuku http://webronza.asahi.com/national/articles/2011021400011.html

A recent photograph of the 歩行天 (pedestrian paradise) area of Harajuku http://webronza.asahi.com/national/articles/2011021400011.html

By the late 80s/early 90s, the popularity of breaking in Yoyogi and Harajuku had given birth to some of Japan’s first DJs and rap groups as well. Japanese legend DJ Krush started out playing behind B-Fresh–Japan’s first rap group to record with a major record label–in this same sort of environment (Condry). Krush is still popularly known as the first Japanese artist to use a turntable, and for any of you who speak Japanese there’s a really fascinating interview of him in 1996 talking about his work and approach to music-making. Also really interesting is his explanation of how to DJ from 4:03, targeted at a Japanese audience who overall still knew very little about Hip Hop.

DJ Krush went on to become a respected artist outside of Japan as well, working with a few artists you might have heard of like: Black Thought and Malik B of The Roots, Mos DefAesop Rock, and so on. Needless to say he’s collaborated with nearly every major Japanese artist in the game and he’s still going strong today. The story goes that Krush (aka Hideaki Ishi) was originally a yakuza member but left the organization after one day finding a severed finger on his desk that he later learned belonged to a friend.

So what initially got him into Hip Hop after leaving the criminal underground?

You guessed it, Wild Style.

In one interview Krush recalled the sudden popularity of Hip Hop fashion after 1983 saying, “at the time my friends laughed at me because I used to wear stylish suits and nice leather shoes and short hair, but after I saw Wild Style, I started wearing a Kangol hat, an adidas track suit and sneakers” (DJ Krush Interview, Condry).

Now 52, DJ Krush continues to play at sold-out venues worldwide http://houselist.bowerypresents.com/tag/dj-krush/

Now 52, DJ Krush continues to play at sold-out venues worldwide
http://houselist.bowerypresents.com/tag/dj-krush/

While artists like Krush and B-Fresh were busy emerging onto the scene from these outdoor/public performances behind Tokyo B-Boys, there was a different strain of rap developing simultaneously in Japan’s club scene. In his interview with Condry, MC Bell of B-Fresh explains that:

When you talk about Japanese hip hop, you definitely have to recognize that there are two streams. One is that of Itō Seiko and Tiny Punx, what might be called the classy [oshare] style that started with the people who frequented clubs, The other stream started with Hokoten (“pedestrian paradise”) in Harajuku. At Harajuku’s Hokoten, it started with break dancing. If you consider that hip-hop culture developed in stages, the first way we [B-Fresh] took up hip hop was in Breakdance. (229-230)

Partly for the sake of space–but also because I tend to think the strain of Hip Hop in Japan associated with breaking is the more authentic one–I’m not going to really talk about this club rap trend. It is important to know the difference between the two, though, as many later artists would refer back to the B-Boy roots of Hip Hop culture in Japan in order to appear more legitimate through their connection with the “true” tradition.

Take for example the 1998 single B-Boyイズム (B-Boyism) by the group Rhymester. The video is shot in much the same sort of spontaneous outdoor breaking environment that characterized early Japanese Hip Hop, and the lyrics stress the connection even further:

Forget the numbers,                                   数はともかく
we’re a minority at heart                          心は少数派
Broadcasting on a special wavelength     俺たちだけに聞こえる 
That only we can hear                                 特殊な電波

How many times I gotta say it?     何度でも言うぞ 
My name is Yellow B-BOY                        俺の名前は黄色いB-BOY 
Number one, not fuckin around               ハンパナク、ナンバーワン

From lyrics like this we get the sense that the B-Boy faction of Japanese Hip Hop is not really concerned with making music that’s popular or well received so much as staying true to its roots. The club strain, on the other hand, almost by definition would end up being tailored to what the public wanted to hear.

Like I said, there’s so much more to tell about the history of Japanese Hip Hop and its evolution through the 90s and 2000s, but I’m not trying to write a book about it at the moment. So here I want to kind of change direction and talk about another aspect of Hip Hop in Japan–graffiti.

落書きは犯罪

A poster from Kanagawa Prefecture reminding citizens that “Graffiti is a crime!” and urging them to call 110 if they see someone doing it

Up until now we’ve talked about breaking, DJing, and MCing in Japan, but what about graffiti? Does this expression of Hip Hop culture also turn up in Japan?

Just by looking at the sign above we see right away that the answer is, of course yes, and instead of talking too much about it I’d rather just show you the Mecca of graffiti art in Japan until 2010 (when it was painted over by the government)– the legendary Yokohama graffiti wall

Pretty amazing right? Just a shame Japanese public opinion has yet to come to that realization, otherwise it might still be around today.

Of course there’s a lot of graffiti around Tokyo as well, as I’m sure there is in any big city in Japan. Here are a couple of photos I took around the Shimokitazawa neighborhood of Tokyo last year

1376599_10151984612377930_186905466_n1381824_10151976861407930_1207851923_n 1378022_10151976875602930_653630739_n
Right now though, some of the most provocative and fascinating graffiti in Japan is coming from a mysterious artist who goes by the name 281_Anti Nuke. A lot of people have called him the Japanese Banksy, and the parallels are apparent almost immediately.

Anti Nuke is eminently camera-shy, and his website description of himself simply states: 281_ Artist, Japan, anti nuclear power plant, born on 3/11/2011

After making an original, Anti Nuke turns his art into stickers that can be put up by anyone all over Japan. Even though he’s received any number of death threats over the years, he remains bold and unafraid in the face of the ultra-conservative elements of Japan’s government.

Anti Nuke's signature piece depicts a girl in a raincoat with the subheading "I hate nuclear rain"

Anti Nuke’s signature piece depicts a girl in a raincoat with the subheading “I hate nuclear rain” http://www.fatcap.com/graffiti/172688-281-anti-nuke-tokyo.html

281 2

He uses his art to speak out against the agenda of Japan’s ultra-conservative politicians http://www.fatcap.com/article/281-anti-nuke.html

This sticker depicts the Tepco logo along with the bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to spread the message that "The Third Bomb Can't Be Thrown Away"

This sticker depicts the Tepco logo along with the bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to spread the message that “The Third Bomb [i.e. Fukushima] Can’t Be Disposed Of” http://www.flickriver.com/photos/tags/281antinuke/interesting/

Anti Nuke covers his face as he poses with one of his originals

Anti Nuke covers his face as he poses with one of his originals http://waspinthelotus7.tumblr.com/post/89243869532/after-3-11-japan-is-not-that-silent-you-can

Now I’m sure some of you at this point are thinking “this guy is cool and all, but does he really have anything to do with Japanese Hip Hop?” My answer is that this guy embodies Hip Hop. Here I want to go back to the words of one of Hip Hop’s original pioneers, KRS-One, who I quoted in the beginning of this article. When talking about “cultural literacy,” one of the necessary traits to any true Hiphoppa, KRS-One says:

Cultural literacy, from a Hiphop perspective, can only be achieved by authentic Hiphoppas; it is a sensitivity toward the further growth and collective well-being of your social group. Such literacy is created by the principles of the culture itself; YOUR culture. This is what you are literate of when you are culturally literate—you are hip to your hop. You understand the ingredients of your social group; you can read its blueprint in an effort to enhance (yourself) it.
(krs-one.com)

Anti Nuke is like a doctor who has diagnosed the many illnesses plaguing Japanese society–in the face of threats on his own life and on his family’s, he remains singularly dedicated to the mission of forcing his fellow citizens to own up to these problems rather than simply pretending they don’t exist. In an attempt to change Japanese society as a whole, Anti Nuke is harnessing his own creativity as a tool to hold the mainstream culture accountable for its actions. In my mind, this is Hip Hop in its most essential form.

Anti Nuke himself describes his work in the following way:

[Japanese people] only vote for the winner; they only think about the winner. They have no concept of real strength. They feel satisfied just knowing that the party they voted for won… Maybe it’s true that there’s no political party you can count on, but it’s more than that. It’s fear. It’s Japanese people never doubting their leaders. Looking out at Shibuya, I’m sure that nobody out there remembers the idea of radiation anymore. People abroad know more about the crisis in Fukushima than the Japanese. The Japanese are trying to forget. I want to make them remember.

Anyone who wants to learn more about 281_Anti Nuke and his art should check out this short documentary about him put out by VICE Japan in 2014, and now I’ll stop trying to convince you of why this guy is, in my opinion, such a great representative of Japanese Hip Hop (he is though)

remember 311

Image via http://www.widewalls.ch/artist/281-anti-nuke/

Graffiti is actually a pretty good place to segway into one of the final areas I want to look at in this article–the relationship between Japanese and other countries’ Hip Hop cultures.

In 2010, Japan lost one of its major Hip Hop leaders in a car crash in Shibuya. After Seba Jun (AKA Nujabes–his name spelt backwards) passed away, there was a worldwide mourning for the artist that took on many different forms. One of those forms was graffiti.

in memory of nujabes

The gif above is a short from a 2010 video uploaded by Indonesian graffiti artists KOMA (INDO) and OLDER+ who paid respect to the fallen legend through their art. Other graffiti artists would show their love for Nujabes by drawing characters from the popular Samurai Champloo anime series that Seba had helped to create the soundtrack for:

This piece depicts Mugen, a character from the Samurai Champloo series https://wpzr.wordpress.com/2010/09/21/nujabes/

Even when it was not graffiti art per se, thousands of Nujabes’ fans worldwide created works of art in tribute to him. Any quick search on google for “Nuajbes art” will turn up hundreds of such drawings:

nujabes1

http://thegreyninja.deviantart.com/art/nujabeS-staeB-nI-tseR-157991701

nujabes2

http://paradigmtradition.deviantart.com/art/Another-Reflection-201999296

nujabes3

http://infinity-joe.deviantart.com/art/Tribute-to-Nujabes-287289348

The music community was quick to pay their respects to Nujabes as well. I personally own four tribute albums to him, but I’m sure that there are at least three times that many floating around out there. Some of those that come to mind right away include Australian producer Taku’s album 25 Nights for Nujabes, as well as compilation albums Tribute to Jun, Tribute to Jun II, and Modal Soul Classics II.

In my opinion one of the coolest tributes to Nujabes after his death came out of South Korea, where one local elementary school teacher organized his students into groups to cover Nujabes’ track Aruarian Dance as a class project (here is the original song for reference)

In November of the same year he passed away, some of the many artists Nujabes collaborated with in his life gathered together to remember him at an event they called Eternal Soul. On the occasion of this gathering, Japanese rapper Shing02 described Nujabes in the following way:

Living in America I’ve had the chance to interact with people from all over the world, and among people in their 20s, the love for Nujabes is so strong it surprises even me. Nujabes was, how can I put this, some sort of phenomenon… Honestly, even now I find it hard to believe that I was there with him…

I think what was most unique about his work was the way he strung sounds together, his sampling methods… Somewhere in his music there’s this sort of intense feeling of nostalgia, like you’re looking back on something, looking back while always keeping your eyes straight ahead…

The Nujabes “phenomenon” that Shing02 is describing here is so strong that you can even find T-shirts online sporting the message “Nujabes Changed My Life”

nujabes changed my life

https://www.flickr.com/photos/jacobira/5929089764

Basically, Nujabes love runs deep.

One of the most interesting ways that Nujabes embodies the connection between Japanese Hip Hop and the worldwide Hip Hop community is seen in his frequent depiction alongside American Hip Hop legend J Dilla, who shares the same birthday as Seba and also passed away in his 30s from a rare blood disease. The two are often drawn together with the message “Rest in Beats”

nujabes dilla3

http://oecn.deviantart.com/art/Rest-In-Beats-196590939

nujabesdilla3

https://www.pinterest.com/pin/384002305699706375/

Nujabes dilla

http://hiphopfightsback.com/post/77630445354/j-dilla-nujabes-both-passed-away-in-february-and

nujabes dilla2

http://paloma-demanet.tumblr.com/post/42529775617/j-dilla-nujabes-quick-drawing-gonna-do

nujabes dilla 2

http://glarbinator.deviantart.com/art/Nujabes-and-J-Dilla-40th-Birthday-Poster-432568051

Nujabes may be gone, but his legacy only grows stronger as time passes. He is certainly not the first Japanese artist to start a wave of international Hip Hop collaboration/connection (see for example DJ Yutaka, early member of Afrika Bambaataa’s Universal Zulu Nation), but for an ever-increasing number of non-Japanese people, Nujabes continues to serve as a doorway to the much larger community of Japanese Hip Hop. I speak from experience, too, as Nujabes was my both my introduction to and motivation to learn more about the culture.

Anyways, let’s try and wrap things up.

Rest in Peace.

http://reflective-vibes.tumblr.com/image/10607727878

So I already spent a lot of time talking about artists like DJ Krush and Nujabes, but to close this article I want to introduce a few more of my favorite artists/groups in Japanese Hip Hop. Hopefully if anything, they’ll serve as a good springboard off of which anyone interested can start to get to know the greater community as a whole.

First off, I want to talk about my favorite Japanese rapper, Dengaryu 田我流.

Last February I was able to see Dengaryu and his collective Stillichimiya live in Shibuya, and beyond killing the show the dude was nice enough to hang around and talk for about 45 minutes afterwards. We talked a lot about the state of Japanese Hip Hop and society, and I want to just briefly introduce his thoughts on both.

talking with Den

talking with Den

Dengaryu described how leaving Japan for a couple of years to live in the US helped him to realize many of the problems present in Japanese society; he also stressed the point that for those people who never leave Japan–a nearly homogenous country that encourages conformity–it can be almost impossible to become aware of these issues. Dengaryu went on to talk about the role that he felt Hip Hop should play in calling these societal problems to light, and as an example told me how much he was impacted as a kid by listening to the 1998 song Hoo! Ei! Hoo! put out by rapper You the Rock as a social criticism of the law banning dancing after midnight. (This law just got repealed by the way! But more on that in a second)

In his own words, Dengaryu said that he felt Hip Hop to be ‘a global culture not dependent on your skin color or birthplace, but more on your experience of the world.’ For him and other Japanese people living in Japan, it is correspondingly wealth, and not race, that plays the greatest factor in the difference between individuals’ experiences of society.

When I asked him if the Japanese Hip Hop community had a different societal experience than that of the mainstream Japanese culture, he responded: “It depends on the person, same as in the US. One of your friends might be fuckin’ poor, one of your friends might be fuckin’ rich. That’s the difference. The world is like that, same situation.”

Clearly though in Dengaryu’s own life, coming from what he describes as 超田舎 (middle of nowhere) and never having much money, he has felt some discrimination from mainstream Japanese society. In one of his songs, Dengaryu raps:

Hello from the lower classes of society               下流社会からこんにちは
Is it all right if we just exist                                     俺ら生きてていいっすか、
Mr. Big Shot?                                                           お偉いさん?

On this same note, Den commented on the gangster/thug aspect of American Hip Hop music, calling it the music of the those ‘living at the bottom of society’ and saying:

It’s really important. I love gangster music because it’s straight. Our happiness is like this—drinking, making a lot of money, but at the same time we feel a lot of pain. It’s simple… I can see the reality of their lives through their lyrics.

Dengaryu has little sympathy for those Japanese rappers who try and affect an appearance that makes them look more like black American artists, calling them “fucking whack” (again, see the other article I wrote on imitation in Japanese Hip Hop). He explained this further by telling me that “in Japanese we have a saying
(十人十色)– each individual has his/her own mind, originality, identity—ten different people, ten different ways—and we respect that…But most Japanese artists…just wanna be like black people. ” Dengaryu clearly sympathized with and respected the African American struggle without feeling the need to emulate them or even necessarily like their music (though he stressed there are many American artists he listens to regularly).

Shot of Den eating ramen from Stillichimiya's "Welcome to Yamanashi" series on youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jdlZGY4bD8Y

Shot of Den eating ramen from his”Welcome to Yamanashi” series on youtube
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jdlZGY4bD8Y

While I wouldn’t go so far to say that Dengaryu represents most of Japanese Hip Hoppers, he is certainly a member of a large (and always growing) group of conscious, culturally literate Japanese artists. Another member of this group that I definitely want you guys to check out is the artist Shing02, whom I mentioned earlier in connection with Nujabes. These two artists worked together a lot before Seba passed away, and their most famous collaboration is probably the Luv(sic) series–he also sang the theme song for the Samurai Champloo series that I linked to above.

Shing02 never ceases to amaze me in that he is fully bilingual and wraps in both Japanese and English. One great example of his songwriting genius is his song
愛密集 (“Love Concentrated”). The title of this song has a double meaning, as its pronunciation in Japanese is Ai Misshu (i.e. I miss you). You can see the lyrics (with English translation) and grab either the original version or the remix (which I personally prefer) here, if you’re interested.

Beyond just rapping though, Shing02 also has a pretty awesome art career going as well. Last year he came out with a video called Bustin’ to make a statement about the no dancing after midnight law, and he’s also done exhibitions built completely around his old drafts from the songwriting process. When the dancing-ban law finally got repealed a few weeks back, Shing02 posted the following on his Facebook page:

The Japanese “Dance Ban Law” that was in effect since 1948 is officially reformed. The new law will require “clubs” to comply with certain lighting and space restrictions, but knowing only a few years ago dancing after-hours could lead to arrests (see: http://e22.com/bustin) and court cases actually debating over what constitutes a dance, this is a HUGE improvement and a positive step towards recognition of our culture. With freedom comes responsibility.

Shing is a great artist but also just a great dude in general, so I highly recommend checking him out.

Shing02 (left) with Uyama Hiroto, who also collaborated extensively with Nujabes post via r/Nujabes subreddit

Shing02 (left) with Uyama Hiroto, who also collaborated extensively with Nujabes
post via r/Nujabes subreddit

The third artist I want to recommend is EVISBEATS (but if you checked out the Dengaryu song I linked to above then you’ve already been introduced to him). When I asked Den about EVISBEATS, his response was “man, that dude is the Buddha!” He told me that their collab had drastically changed his way of thinking about life, and that EVISBEATS had given him a number of books about Buddhism that he still treasured to this day.

If you’ve ever heard anything by EVISBEATS before, this isn’t such a far-fetched story either. He’s all about making relaxing beats, and his lyrics definitely convey his Buddhist worldview as well.

If you’re interested in checking him out, I recommend you start with either いい時間, Just a Moment, or ちょうどyeah

snagged this photo from Evisbeats' blog, which you can check out here: http://amida.blog27.fc2.com/

snagged this photo from Evisbeats’ blog, which you can check out here: http://amida.blog27.fc2.com/

The last intro I have for you guys is actually a group, and full disclosure I owe this recommendation 100% to my conversation with Dengaryu. Still feel a little embarrassed that I didn’t know of them before he mentioned them to me…

In my opinion it’s hard to find anything better than Nitro Microphone Underground out there in Japanese Hip Hop, and their single Still Shinin’ will always remain the single greatest Japanese rap song ever made in my mind.

(Don’t take my word for it though, check it out for yourself and see if you’re not bumping it on repeat for a week.)

The group’s status as one of the classic Hip Hop groups of Japan was set in stone long ago, and many of the members have gone on to have successful solo careers as well (e.g. see Dabo). Calling any one of the Nitro members on stage/album for a performance is a guaranteed way to spike your legitimacy

NMU performing live in 2009 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dmj7yT5j6Ps

NMU performing live in 2009
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dmj7yT5j6Ps

So anyways, there are a million more artists I could recommend to you, like Tha Blue Herb, 般若, Norikiyo, SD Junksta, or AKLO, but I think it’s probably about time I stopped writing. If you read this far I really appreciate your time and attention! There is just too much to talk about in an article like this and so I inevitably had to skip over a lot of history, but I hope that I did at least an OK job at offering a look into the world of Japanese Hip Hop. Let me know what you think in the comments–

Until next time!

0001-30698180

Robots at Tokyo’s Miraikan

Interactive Science Museums

Ever since I was a kid, I have loved going to interactive science museums. I have fond memories of Oklahoma City’s Science Museum Oklahoma (formerly known as the Omniplex) in particular. It was there that I saw and experienced everything from the traveling exhibits about ancient Egypt and the Titanic, to hands-on giant bubble blowing machines, to the Omnidome, which is a huge, panoramic movie screen on site.

There was also a much smaller, but nonetheless entertaining, interactive science museum in Tulsa. It was near 41st and Yale, but unfortunately, it closed. I still miss that walk-through “this is what it’s like below the streets” area that made my clothes turn weird colors. Nostalgia is probably making it seem more impressive than it really was, but every now and then I think about that little museum, especially when I’m driving in the area.

Miraikan

So imagine my excitement when I was looking for things to do in Tokyo last summer and I found the Miraikan, also known as the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation. The English name is more descriptive, but I love what the Japanese name roughly translates to: Museum of the Future.

After taking the subway and train to get to Odaiba, I disembarked at Fune-no-kagakukan Station and walked to the museum. The line was longer than I expected, and I saw quite a few families, as well as what looked like several school trips. Once inside, I located a map and took the escalator upstairs. The museum has five floors, so there is lots to see.

IMG_4437

Including the Geo-Cosmos, which is “the symbol exhibit of Miraikan,” according to Miraikan’s website.

The first thing I saw when I entered one of the exhibits was a sign about androids and humans. I started geeking out really hard, and that was before I even saw the robots. I am going to focus on them for the remainder of this blog post, but there are so many other great things to see, such as the space habitation module.

IMG_4411

Unfortunately, this really awesome exhibit, whose name amused me because of its similarity to the famous “2+2=5” quote from George Orwell’s 1984, is no longer there.

The Androids and Robots

This was by far my favorite part of the museum. There were scheduled demonstrations throughout the day where you could see, and in some cases interact with, the androids and robots.

IMG_4380

Otonaroid

This is Otonaroid. Otona is the Japanese word for adult (大人), but her name was written in katakana as オトナロイド. She is so incredibly lifelike that she launched me into full-on uncanny valley mode. There was a booth nearby where a museum staff person spoke into a microphone, and Otonaroid acted as if she was the one speaking. It was so amazing, and watching her was both mesmerizing and creepy. In addition to being able to move her mouth as if she is speaking, she can blink, tilt her head, and raise her arms.

IMG_4382

Telonoid

This is Telonoid (テレノイド). A nearby sign said, “What are the bare minimum, fundamental requirements for human appearance? An android with minimal appearance, the TelonoidTM was created to understand this question.” Based on the signs I saw, I think you could make an appointment to hold Telonoid.

IMG_4408

Kodomoroid

This is Kodomoroid (コドモロイド). I’m guessing the “kodomo” part of her name comes from the Japanese word for child, 子供. She is designed to be a news announcer. Imagine my surprise when she started out with the voice of a girl, and then switched to a man’s voice!

IMG_4432

InterRobot

InterRobot (インタロボット), according to its description on the sign, is a “system for supporting human communication” that is “designed to effectively draw people into conversation.” As you can see in the picture above, there are two places for people to speak into – one on the left side with the single robot, and one on the right side with the three robots. When you speak into the microphone on the right side, the robot on the left side nods, and when you speak into the microphone on the left side, the robots on the right side nod. The robots do this in order to give people feedback, helping engage them in the conversation. The signs for InterRobot talked about practical applications, including helping students learn more effectively.

I tried speaking into the microphone on the left and it was cool to watch the other robots nod their heads in response. I talked about studying abroad in Yamaguchi to them, my year in school, my major, and whatever else popped into my head. Afterwards, I talked to the staff member in charge of InterRobot. It was moments like this that made me feel like studying Japanese was really worth it. Being able to apply what I had studied was exciting, and I felt like I had come so far since when I had first arrived in Japan.

Paro-chan and ASIMO

One of the chapters in the textbook Tobira for my Japanese classes had an entire chapter dedicated to Japanese robots. So imagine how fun it was to see the following robots after reading about them:

IMG_4419

Paro-chan

This is Paro-chan, a therapy robot in the shape of a seal with soft fur. She is so adorable, and you can touch her :) She can move and blink her eyes.

IMG_4425

Paro-chan getting a nice chin scratch

My favorite robot at Miraikan, however, is ASIMO.

IMG_4392

ASIMO in his room

ASIMO is a robot created by Honda. When he is not resting in his home pictured above, he gives impressive demonstrations to a crowd attentive to his every move.

IMG_4472

ASIMO during the demonstration

I am glad I got to the demonstration area early, because it was very crowded by the time ASIMO came out. I was in a great location to see him and get some good pictures, as well as a video. He was a very polite and cute robot. He walked out of his room and introduced himself to everybody and chatted to the crowd for a bit. Then he ran forwards and backwards. He also hopped on one foot, both forwards and backwards, then on both feet. After that, he danced and sang for us. He took a bow while we applauded, then returned to his room and bid us goodbye.

Closing Thoughts

I ended up staying at the museum much longer than I had originally planned, and it was completely worth it. I didn’t expect to see robots I had only read about in a textbook before. I didn’t know there was a space habitation module that you could walk inside of.

IMG_4441

Also, the module had been signed by a number of astronauts, including America’s very own Buzz Aldrin.

This museum blew my expectations away.  I want to visit again soon! I would highly recommend it to science enthusiasts, families, kids, and kids at heart.

Museum Information

If you would like to visit, the following information is all from Miraikan’s English website, http://www.miraikan.jst.go.jp/en/:

Address: 2-3-6 Aomi, Koto-ku, Tokyo 135-0064

Phone: +81-3-3570-9188

Admission: 620 yen for adults, 210 yen for 18 years old and younger

Hours: 10:00 to 17:00 (generally closed on Tuesdays)

 

Cherry Blossoms

6 Cherry Blossom Pictures You See Every Year

The petals are falling, the blue tarp is being put away and school is about to begin again; yep, it’s post-hanami season. Whether or not you enjoyed the viewing of Japan’s most famous flower this year, chances are, if you have enough ALT friends, you’re already pawing through dozens upon dozens of cherry blossom pictures on Facebook (former ALTs, welcome to the annual gut-wrenching reminder that you’re no longer in Japan). If you pay close enough attention, you’ll notice without fail some combination of these 6 photos in numerous “Hanami 2015” albums:

6. The “Close-up” 

close up

C/O Holly Nwangwa

The star of countless phone backgrounds and cover photos, nothing screams “iPhone photography PhD” quite like this favorite. It has all the makings of an instant classic: the sharp focus of the petals in the foreground; the ones in the back juuust out of focus enough to create that whimsical, dream-like air many get when strolling through the trees; and the pale blue sky to really make those pink petals pop! If this isn’t the star of your hanami album I’ll doubt you actually went in the first place.

5. The “Light-up” Shot 

light up 2

c/o Teresa Chin

Countless parks and other Hanami sites boast not only daytime drunken fun, but guaranteed smartphone bait once the sun goes down; light-up time. The crowds drag themselves from their now-sticky tarp camps to gaze at the same sakura they’ve been staring at all day, but with a twist: INCANDESCENT LIGHTING! Extra-frivolous focus efforts are needed, because nothing is sadder than a blurry light-up picture. Except maybe for number 3.

4. The “Petal-Selfie” 

selfie

c/o Lauren Frederick

What is it about sticking a branch directly in between yourself and the lense that solidifies the legitimacy of the hanami experience? The sly smile that usually accompanies this shot comes from….what exactly? Is there something you’re hiding, besides half of your face? Have you discovered the simplest method of harnessing the mystical powers of sakura? A staple of this selfie is of course the tranquil “smelling” pose, but since, hilariously, sakura lack a strong scent, you’re inhaling nothing but “likes” and photo comments from distant relatives (“Wow! Looks like fun! These flowers are gorgeous. Uncle Ted says hi”).

3. The “Cascading Petal” Shot 

cascading

c/o Eryn Geller

People. We only get to obsess over these pretty pretty things for about 2 weeks a year (or less if it rains, which it always does). This makes it extra disheartening to see ya’ll frantically shaking sakura branches, causing the delicate petals to be violently ripped from their blossoms while you stand underneath the carnage with a huge grin on your face, urging your friend to press the shutter in time. Be that as it may, these photos usually end up pretty nice and I may be guilty of doing this foolish, foolish thing year after year (they’ll grow back…)

2. The “Floating Lantern” Shot 

lantern

c/o Holly Nwangwa

Let’s be real, Sakura are only as pretty as the things put around them; if your Hanami spot doesn’t have expertly planted trees, all is forgiven. But if your local park is lacking these bulbous badboys, it may be time for a layout change. Most, if not all these photos, will be taken in the daytime; the color contrast between the lanterns and the flowers is nicer with daylight, and the more sun you have, the easier it is to see the can of asahi beer you have thrust into the foreground of the photograph. Which brings us to number 1….

1. The “Canal” Shot 

c/o SF Brit

c/o SF Brit

If you’re lucky enough to either live by a canal/river, or have convenient access to one, chances are that the banks will be lined with copious amounts of Sakura trees. Mostly forgotten about the other 11 months of the year, they steal the show once in full bloom, making a sort of canopy over the water. Add this to the fact that fallen petals floating on the surface of the water is one of the most peaceful things you’ll see all year, and it’s no wonder you’re dodging other smartphones trying to get “the shot”.

Joking aside, it’s easy to see why the country goes into a frenzy each sakura season, and why the subject of every single graduation and entrance ceremony focuses on the blooming and corresponding wilting of these flowers. They represent spring, new beginnings, growth, and change.

The themed Starbucks drinks are also a plus.

image4

How I Became the Drift Hunter

Kiite, kuru zo!”  (Listen, they’re coming!) a youthful voice to my left excitedly exclaims as monstrous wails and screeches echo across the valley.

I glance down at my camera, making sure my settings are dialed in. Manual focus, check.

As I bring the viewfinder up to eye-level, a bright yellow light radiates from around the corner a hundred feet away. Suddenly, the light disappears as a piercing screech fills the air, only to suddenly blind me a moment later as a Toyota Cresta rounds the bend in a perfect drift, right in front of a patchwork Nissan 180sx, a Panda AE86 and a roaring Silvia S15.

The smell of burning rubber fills the air and a chill runs down my spine as I instinctively take a step back. As if a stampede of a thousand bulls is underway, the ground beneath me trembles and one by one, the four turbo-powered drift missiles thunder by, mere inches from my lens.

***

For as long as I can remember, I have been into cars. I had the stereotypical Lamborghini Countach poster above my race-car bed. Before I had my license, I honed my driving skills in Gran Turismo and sank my part-time earnings into the Initial D arcade machine at the mall.

Yet, I never could have foreseen that one day I would literally be on the same mountain roads where Initial D takes place, riding shotgun in an AE86 Trueno, one hand firmly grasping my camera, and the other bracing myself against the passenger door for dear life.

112214drifting7Going for a spin in this AE86 has been one of the highlights of my Japan adventure.

 

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s back up a bit even more. This article is about how I came to Japan. It’s also about how my documentary Drift Hunter came about once I got here. But more importantly, it’s about chasing your dreams.

Your Dreams Matter

In university, I was studying to be an accountant. However I can’t say that I grew up dreaming of becoming a bean counter. Accounting, like law, medicine, or engineering was just one of the only acceptable fields according to my Asian-immigrant parents. Though I graduated with a degree in Economics, the prospect of searching for a corporate desk job straight after graduation like the rest of my peers felt like the last nail in the coffin of some of my crazier dreams.

At the time, I had three “crazy” dreams.

  1. I wanted to travel the world and live somewhere different for awhile.
  2. As an avid fan of shows like Top Gear, Initial D, The Fast and the Furious, etc., I also wanted to drive a sportscar on famous roads like the Nurburgring in Germany or the Mazda Turnpike in Japan.
  3. I wanted to make movies and be a filmmaker.

These dreams felt silly to consider in the face of reality and the enormous pressure to conform to the norm and follow established ‘life scripts.’ Graduate university and find a job. Work hard and get a promotion. Climb the corporate ladder. That was the script that I was sold from childhood, and what all of my friends were pursuing.

Yet, I had this belief that if you take one step towards a dream, just one, then you massively increase the odds of fulfilling it. The difference between 0% and 1% is an infinite. And after you take the first step, just take a couple more steps. Keep going, even if you have to work on your dream on the side; keep putting one foot in front of the other, and soon you may find that your dreams have taken on a life of their own and you are just along for the ride.

And so, in my last year of university, I decided that I would take at least one step towards that first dream of seeing more of the world. Sure, I would continue to study hard, keep my marks up, and apply to jobs in corporate finance, but on the side, I would try to find a way to do something completely different.

I opened up a browswer and googled: “How To Live In Japan”.

Let’s Go To Japan!

The story of how I ended up in Japan is actually an increasingly common one. After my initial bout of research, I decided that I would fulfil my wanderlust and dreams of travel by teaching English abroad for at least a year after graduating university. I applied through The JET Programme, and if you’re reading this article you’re probably familiar with it—perhaps you even made the exact same Google search I did to end up here!

With JET, you can put down some preferences for where you want to live in Japan.  However, I knew not to put too much stock into those requests, so I was not surprised when I didn’t get any of my choices and was instead told that I would be going to Gunma Prefecture (which, to my chagrin, seemed to consistently come last in nationwide ‘beauty-rankings’).

mapgunmaGunma, right in the middle of Japan

Upon consultation, my JET alumni senpai (seniors) informed me that Gunma was known as an inaka (countryside) placement and even Japanese people had trouble placing it on a map.

Undeterred, I did some research and discovered that there is a lot to love about Gunma. It is home to some of the best onsen  in Japan, it’s a hotspot for outdoor sports, and it’s said to have the best cabbage in Japan (yay!). However, there is one more reason why Gunma is a particularly compelling place for car and anime enthusiasts. It is the real-life locale of one of my favourite anime and manga series – Initial D.

It was as if fate had spoken to me.  I was being sent to live in the place where my childhood obsession was based on, the place I spent countless quarters as a kid simulating on arcade machines, the place that, perhaps, unconsciously made me gravitate towards Japan in the first place. Upon realizing this, I immediately resolved to fulfill my next long-standing dream: to drive a sports car through the real touge (mountain roads)  featured in Initial D.

initialdcookiesAt a souveneir shop on Mt. Haruna, the real life Mt. Akina in Initial D, they sell AE86 cookies.

And so after months of preparation, I arrived in Japan in August of 2010, wide-eyed and full of wonder. In the blistering summer heat, I and around 1000 other new JET participants underwent multiple orientations where we were taught how to deal with culture shock and avoid getting kancho’ed. As the summer drew to a close, I settled into my new job as an English teacher in a junior high school.

However, I didn’t blaze into school, drifting around bends and spinning into the teacher’s parking lot.  I commuted to work in a mamachari the most common style of bicycle. Japanese people young and old ride them. Like many things in Japan – fax machines, squat toilets and kerosene heaters, they have remained a peculiarly unchanging fixture of daily life even as Japan charged into the 21st century.

mamachariMy mamachari and I.

Driving a Sportscar In Japan

While the mamachari was nice, I was still limited in the places I could go, and I wasn’t exactly living out my Initial D fantasies. In Gunma, most people get around by cars because there are much fewer stations than in the big cities. So, I squirrelled away half of my paycheque for the first few months and searched for a chariot with a few more horses on Goo-net.com, the Autotrader.com of Japan. Unlike most JETs who do the sensible thing and buy a cheap used kei car, I was determined to fulfill that second crazy dream.

Browsing Goo-net for an afternoon is enough to make any petrolhead green with envy. As an ex-pat living in Japan, the Impreza STi Ver. VI, S15 Silvia, R34 Skyline, these forbidden JDM (Japanese domestic market)  classics from the 90’s were actually within reach (well okay, an R34 was still quite a bit out of my price range). I trawled through listing after listing, finally setting my heart on a rally blue Subaru WRX Impreza STi Ver. V.

However, fate had other plans in store. A week before I had scheduled a trip halfway across the country to check out the rally blue Subaru, I found out that my next door neighbour Mizuki was looking to sell her car – the homely black Mazda Miata (known as the Eunos Roadster in Japan) that I passed by everyday on the way to work.

miata

Back in 2010, the worldwide Miata boom had not yet fully materialized and so my image of the humble convertible was “hairdresser car”. It wasn’t really on my radar. As Mizuki tossed me the keys to take it for a spin, I was certain that this tiny car would be too cramped and too slow to compare to a turbo-charged, all-wheel-drive Subaru. “You break it, you buy it!” she winked, as I pulled away from the parking lot of our apartment complex.

After getting acquainted with the clutch, I decided to giv’r  a little. ZOOM-ZOOM! The little roadster had some pep after all! It turned out that this one was a lightly tuned S-Special edition with a Bilstein suspension and a few aftermarket mods. While it was still down in power compared to even most econoboxes, it was low and the lightness of the chassis could be felt through the clutch and the small diameter MOMO steering wheel.

Although undeniably it was not particularly fast, it handled like a go-kart. You know in Mario Kart when you mash down the A-button before the light turns green to get a little speed boost? Stepping on the accelerator felt like that in real life. I was hooked.

However, it was once I got the car out onto the local touge 5 minutes down the road that the chassis came alive. Within minutes, the ethos of the Miata – the concept of Jinba ittai (horse and rider as one) truly became apparent. The 50:50 weight distribution and peaky engine were the ideal match for the narrow, winding mountain roads of Gunma. Though I had driven a manual only a handful of times before, the Miata joyfully danced around every turn and corner. Try as I might, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.

And then I put the top down and experienced open-air motoring for the first time. Blasting the heater as the chilly mountain air swept my hair back while I breezed down the valley, I felt like I had somehow been transported into the Autumn Ring stage of the Playstation game Gran Turismo. Was this real??

Though I tried to play it cool when I got back to the apartment, when Mizuki asked me what I thought with a knowing grin, there was only one answer: Miata. Miata, miata, MIATA.

I plunked down ¥200,000 (about $2000 USD) and sped off with my first car before she could change her mind. As an inaugural trip, I drove an hour all the way to the top of Mt. Haruna, the mountain range that is home to the main touge featured in Initial D.

First night the with the Miata on Mt. Haruna

 

Spending my days driving a humble Miata in Japan was the culmination of that second dream. Following that goal I set for myself opened the door to all sorts of interesting adventures and attracted like-minded enthusiasts to my life.

I befriended a group of sports-car-owning English teachers called the Gunma Hi-Octane Club. Together we went out for drives on the three famous mountains of Gunma; Mt. Myogi, Mt. Haruna and Mt. Akagi – all three of which are featured prominently in the anime Initial D.

 gunmacarclubThe Gunma Hi-Octane Club

 It was a spunky Canadian named Jeevy, in his little red turbo-charged Subaru Vivio that first showed me that the gutter technique used by Takumi in the anime was actually possible. And it was my friend Mike from England that introduced me to the awe-inspiring confidence of the AWD in his Mitsubishi Evolution. He almost made me regret not going AWD like I had originally intended. Almost. But, it was my mentor Darc who actually indoctrinated me into the underground drift scene in Gunma.

Darc was a fascinating fellow. A tall, rough-talking South-African, he had, through sheer force of will, made himself a fixture of the local drifting community in Gunma. Like me, he came to Japan with dreams of drifting and sportscar ownership and had bought himself an S14 Nissan Silvia. His car was what drifters call a “missile”, and his earnestness to prove himself eventually caught the attention of the local drifters.

He befriended them and went to track events, hung out at their garages, and got really good at speaking his own unique brand of unfiltered Japanese which was heavily influenced by the drifters’ macho way of talking.

albodarcharunaHanging out at Mt. Haruna with Darc.

Time passed and my adventures in Japan accumulated. Darc and I would swap stories over beers at the local izakaya (Japanese-style pub) . I’d talk of my travels and he would often regale of me of crazy stories with his drifter friends. “Though they exist outside of the cookie-cutter norm of Japanese society,” he mused, “they are some of the best people I have ever known.”

“Introduce me sometime.” I challenged one night.

Darc paused and set his mug of Asahi Super Dry beer down. He stared at me intently for what seemed like an eternity, clearly ascertaining whether or not I was ready.

“Alright,” he remarked as he took a huge swig and finished off his beer, “Meet me tomorrow at [redacted]. 10:00 p.m sharp. Don’t be late.”

I didn’t realize it yet, but he had just invited me to a secret drift meet deep in the mountains of Mt. Akagi.

Breaking Into The Drift Scene

Prior to this night, I had only briefly glimpsed that Initial D was real. Drift lines leading to damaged railings, the sounds of sliding tires off in the distance, and the Panda Trueno that parked beside me at the gym hinted at a hidden world right around the bend.

Well thanks to Darc, I was suddenly right in the thick of it. I followed his banged up Silvia up a winding mountain road that at the time, could not be accurately placed on Google Maps. Cellphone service was still really spotty that deep into the valley.

As I followed Darc further into the darkness, the wails of screeching tires got louder and louder, until after the N-teenth hair-pin turn, we arrived at a spot where a congregation of cars were lined up against the side of the road.

driftlineA row of about 8 or 9 drifter cars.

We pulled up and parked at the end of the line and I watched as tire smoke wafted up into the night. 400hp Skylines and Sylvias flew by sideways, an arms length away.

I was utterly mesmerized. To me, this was like seeing dinosaurs in the flesh. I hobbled over to the gallery, an area on the side of the road where spectators gather to watch the drifters and stood mouth-agape as I witnessed the spectacle of underground touge drifting unfold in front of me. It was like I was transplanted right into an episode of the anime I had watched so many years ago.

335068_923028333540_543322637_o

At the time, I was putting out videos on my youtube channel of my Japan experience semi-regularly, and I had made it a habit to carry around my DSLR camera everywhere I went. Here was an opportunity to capture some truly interesting footage, right in the birthplace of Initial D. Gingerly, I took out my camera and asked the people in attendance if I could take some movies. “Ii yo.'”(Go ahead.) I was told, and so I set about capturing a window into the scene. 

It was an incredible experience that still stands in my mind as a highlight of my Japan adventures.

I cut the footage from that night  into a short video and tentatively put it up on my Youtube channel.

On a whim, I sent the video to Kotaku where somehow it was featured and IMMEDIATELY went viral. 70,000 views overnight. Hundreds of messages asking me to produce another video. I was overwhelmed by the response.

Unfortunately, a couple of the drifters in the video were pros who feared losing their sponsorships and asked me to cut them out. I had to cut over 75% of the video. 

 

Drift Documentary Dreams

For months, I laid awake thinking about that night in the mountains. When my friend Darc moved to Tokyo to pursue his own dreams, I came to realize was that I was the only non-Japanese who had gained access to the real-life counterpart of the anime Initial D and actually had the opportunity and wherewithal to document it.

A unique opportunity had opened up for a brief moment in time. I decided that I had to produce a documentary, or at the very least, capture more tantalizing footage. It was a chance to full-fill another of my dreams of being a filmmaker. I asked Darc for advice and he pointed me in the right direction. With his blessing, I started going out “hunting” for more drift meets.

It wasn’t easy. Drifters constantly change meeting times and locations to avoid run-ins with the police. I searched along roads that still had fresh patches of burnt rubber along drift lines from the previous night. I followed those lines up and down winding mountain roads like a hunter following deer tracks, but they were always dead ends.

Frustratingly, I would hear the roar of modified exhausts and screeching tires echoing across the valley. They were out there. I couldn’t give up.

One night on my way home from another fruitless drift hunting excursion, I stopped by a 7-Eleven for a coffee. As I exited the convenience store, I heard the familiar whine of spooling turbos and saw a caravan of six or seven highly-modified Silvias, Skylines, Truenos and RX-7s speeding by. They were driving in the direction of one of the three famous mountains of Gunma. “This is it.” I thought, as I jumped into my Miata, cranked the ignition and sped off in pursuit.

car711 

When I first pulled up to the drift meet, it was admittedly a little bit awkward. It’s not every day that a random car joins your caravan and follows you deep into the mountains. But sometimes you just have to put yourself in awkward situations and see what happens. Knowing ‘how to roll with it’ is an important skill that anyone can and should learn.

And so I introduced myself.  With a big smile, and a mix of Japanese and English, I said that I was just a curious Canadian who was interested in the drift scene, but didn’t really know much about it. Maybe it was the fact that I rolled up in my Miata, or that I didn’t look like a cop or a typical Japanese person. But just like Darc said, drifters really are friendly people!

They opened up to me, asked me to hang around and over the course of a few weeks, I found that I got invited to more and more nights out on the touge. After a several meets had passed, I brought up the fact that I wanted to make a documentary to bring worldwide awareness to their scene. Surprisingly, the guys I talked to were really enthusiastic about the idea and were gracious enough to let me capture footage for my documentary freely.

Thus, for the past several months, I have been slowly breaking into the underground touge drifting scene in Gunma, Japan which is very literally the anime Initial D come to life. I had become a drift hunter, keeping an eye out for tell-tale signs of drifting, searching for new contacts and approaching drifters to be included in my documentary.  It’s been an incredible experience so far.

10534848_764338453660978_1992085891_n The best drive of my life on the Izu Skyline and Mazda Turnpike

The documentary, which I have titled Drift Hunter, continues to take shape every time I go out to film. Through Drift Hunter, I want to tell the story of the real-life counterpart to Initial D, and show people just where fact meets fiction. I want to convey the same visceral awe I feel when I’m out in the mountain, filming the drifters slide by at ludicrous speeds, inches from my camera. Filming this documentary has been a ton of work, but I’ve learned so much, met incredibly interesting people and had amazing experiences.

My third and final “crazy dream” had starting coming into focus, and I am grateful every day that I was not sitting at a desk job merely fantasizing about what could have been.  You can see the fruit of my labor and watch the first episode of the documentary here (make sure to subscribe on Youtube and sign-up for the email list to get notified when I release the next episode soon):


You can also check out the website I made for Drift Hunter at www.drifthunter.net

Guard Your Dreams

What I’ve come to realize in all this is that if you have a dream, you should give it a chance. You never know where your life will take you if you just take that first step. However the more your dreams are “out of the norm,” the more fragile they are.

Even after you take those first steps, until you have made some headway towards them, you must guard and protect your dreams. Be careful who you reveal them to because the world is full of naysayers and pessimists masquerading as ‘realists.’ Your family and even your closest friends, while they may have your best interests at heart, will introduce doubt into your mind and pressure you to follow society’s script and regress to the norm.  I know that if I had let people get into my head years ago, to introduce enough doubt into my mind, then I would never have come to Japan, never had countless life-changing adventures, nor started filming Drift Hunter, and created this site which you are reading right now.

Everyone has dreams – big and small. Whether its something like travelling somewhere you’ve always wanted to go, a dream job, or starting your own business – every single one of those dreams is precious. This is your life and no one else is going to pursue your dream for you. And when you do start to pursue them, you also meet other people who are pursuing their own and get inspired.

It is said that you are ‘the average of the people who you hang out with the most,’ so surround yourselves with high achievers and people who ‘made it’ in whatever domain you wish to succeed in, and you’ll gain momentum. You’ll also find yourself getting sucked into positive feedback loops where each little milestone motivates you more and you realize that failures are just learning experiences which take you one step closer to your goals.

Finally, when you chase your dreams, you inspire others to do so. Part of the reason I created The Jet Coaster and Drift Hunter was because of all the emails I get from people around the world telling me that I’ve helped show them that it’s possible to bring to life something you love.

So if you have a dream, chase it. Chase it before you are too old to regret not giving it a shot. Even if you have a family, responsibilities, a mortgage and bills to pay, if its something you really want, hack away at it on the side and see where it goes.  Or, in the immortal words of Robert Frost:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

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The Top 5 Local Dishes in Japan

Ooohh…this is bound to cause some controversy!

It is a well-known fact within Japan that each prefecture (and sometimes each city and town) has its own ‘famous product,’ or meibutsu (literally ‘famous thing’).  This information is propagated on TV and in the culture itself such that the more famous ones are universally known.  In fact, if you mention you live in a certain prefecture, one of the first talking points might very well be ‘oh, [local dish]! It’s so delicious!’

Meibutsu (名物) do not always refer to food & drink, but often do.  Throughout my journeys in Japan I have had the chance to sample a lot of these local specialties.  Some were underwhelming (it seems like every other prefecture is famous for fish), some were genuinely spectacular.  And though I cannot claim to have tried all that there is, I’ve had a decent sampling.  Here are the five I consider the best:

5. Fukui’s “Sauce Katsudon”

Fukui_sause_katsudon

Katsudon, or ‘pork cutlet bowl’ usually consists of a pork cutlet sliced up with onion, seasoned with soy sauce and sugar, and completed with a beaten egg over a bed of rice.  However, in Fukui, they usually place whole cutlets crisped to perfection in a special sweet sauce over the rice.  The result is spectacular and you’ll never eat regular katsudon with the same satisfaction again.

4. Aomori’s “Miso-Curry-Milk-Butter Ramen”

MisoCurryMilkRamen-SapporoKan-ShinAomori-201105-khoshi3-01

Definitely the most unique dish on the list, in Aomori City you can test your courage against a bowl of ramen with a miso, curry and milk broth, topped with butter.  While miso ramen is quite ubiquitous (and I’ve even seen curry and butter variants out there), adding milk and mixing it all together is really unheard of.  Indeed, nearly any Japanese person you mention this to will cringe (Japanese people like to keep their foods separated, and the thought of adding milk of all things to their beloved ramen is stomach turning).  Still, despite the odd mixture, this truly creative blend is absolutely delicious.  I couldn’t stop raving about it after I had it, and actually started to like the perplexed looks I’d get from folks I relayed the tale to.

3. Kagawa’s “Sanuki Udon”

Kama-age_sanuki_udon_by_sekido_in_Takamatsu,_Kagawa

OK, I might be a little biased here having lived in Kagawa the past 5 years, but Sanuki Udon is the real deal, and no other udon I’ve had in Japan comes close.  There is a reason Japanese people come from all over the country come to Kagawa literally just to eat udon and leave.  Handmade, Sanuki Udon is thicker and chewier than udon you get anywhere else in Japan.  Udon shops in Kagawa often offer a slew of tempura delights and oden to complete your meal, and the udon itself comes in a variety of styles, from hot in a bowl of fish broth to cold over a matted bamboo tray to slathered in curry; every shop has its specialty.  And it’s usually super cheap for the quality you get!

2. Tokyo’s (Tsukiji’s) Sushi

sushi

As I mentioned before, it seems like every other Prefecture in Japan is famous for seafood, but when it comes to sushi at least, Tsukiji really takes the Christmas cake.  There is a reason lines form in front of the famous sushi shops of Tsukiji before the sun even rises.  Tsukiji is famous for only serving top quality, super fresh and painstakingly prepared sushi, and it is easily the best sushi I’ve had in my life.  The price also reflects the quality, so if you’re hunting for the best sushi also be prepared to pay for it.

1. Fukuoka’s “Hakata Ramen”

Hakata_ramen_with_green_onion_by_ayustety_in_Tokyo

You don’t know ramen until you’ve had Fukuoka’s Hakata Ramen.  The noodles are thin and firm, the broth has a district, milky pork-garlic combination and the offering of toppings such as red pickled garlic and roasted sesame seeds complete the experience.  What’s more is that you can often customize your bowl by specifying exactly how you like your noodles and how bad you want your garlic breath to be afterwards.  Many restaurants are famous for Hakata ramen, but if you want a truly local experience, try grabbing a bowl at one of Fukuoka’s famous street stalls (yatai).  Wherever you choose to grab your helping, I guarantee you will not be disappointed.


There ya have it!  My personal list of runners-up include Kyoto’s yuba, Miyazaki’s chicken namba and Ishigaki’s beef.  Any other glaring omissions?  I might not have tried them!  Let me know in the comments, or better yet, give us your own take.  Otherwise, happy eating!