Alternative Kyoto: how Japan’s culture capital became a hotspot for live music

Alternative Kyoto: how Japan’s culture capital became a hotspot for live music

Published May 5, 2023

12 min read

This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

An Irish pub is, perhaps, not the obvious place to find yourself in the cultural heart of Japan. It’s with some trepidation, then, that I settle into a corner table at Fieldan Irish pub above an udon restaurant in downtown Kyoto, where the door sign advertises that classic combination of ‘draught Guinness, good Irish music, and curry bread of Noharaya’.

My apprehension turns out to be wildly misplaced. Over the next couple of hours, a succession of fantastically talented Japanese musicians takes to the stage, putting the fiddle, flute, banjo and tin whistle to a series of riotous jigs, reels and slides that wouldn’t be out of place in the pubs of Dublin. “Europeans and Americans living in Kyoto started the Irish music sessions in pubs in the 1990s,” manager Hikaru Sato tells me between tunes. “A few curious Japanese joined them, and the Irish music scene was born.”

The genre was seized upon with aplomb by subsequent generations of Japanese musicians, who’ve taken it up with the passion, verve and skill typical of this nation of hobbyists. “Japanese people often believe that mastering something leads to enjoyment, both in work and in hobbies,” says fiddle and tin-whistle player Ryo Kaneko, fresh from a rousing rendition of Egan’s Polka. There’s even a word for it in Japanese: ikigai — the sense of motivation and life force generated by the pursuit of one’s passions. “Hobbies are huge here,” confirms my guide, Van Milton of InsideJapan. “And when you find one, you go for it, full throttle.”

The modest Irish folk scene is just the tip of the iceberg. The guidebooks speak of Kyoto with reverential awe: a city frozen in time, where robed monks sweep around hushed temples, and an opaque silence hangs above the perfect angles of Zen gardens. But there’s another side to the place — one that’s modern, rumbustious and irreverent to the core. By night, Kyoto is turned upside down. The city’s counterculture has long been brewed in the city’s music venues, locally known as ‘live houses’. In the 1970s, members of the Japanese Red Army, a female-led militant communist group who aimed to overthrow the monarchy, were said to have hidden out amid the swirling smoke and dark-wood walls of Zac Baranone of Kyoto’s most famous jazz bars.

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My own descent into the Kyoto nightscape continues at Urban Guildthe city’s leading avant-garde music space. Fractals project off the walls. A man in a bucket hat with a ducktail beard smokes a large cigarette of dubious legality. It’s a full house here tonight, spectators packed onto wooden benches — yet there are even more people standing around the stage, waiting to perform, than there are in the audience. A young man goes through some warm-up stretches; an elderly man with knee-length dreadlocks, topped with a rasta cap, repeatedly bends over and pounds his knees with his fists. They’re limbering up.

The need for physical preparedness becomes apparent as the night proceeds, a marathon of modern jazz improvisation that unspools through several hours with more than 30 performers, many of whom return to the stage time and again. The evening unfolds in an amorphous phantasmagoria of music and light. There’s a circus feel, with children running amok across the stage, ducking beneath drum risers, synthesizers and microphone leads. The decibels rise; they stick their fingers in their ears. A salaryman sleeps on a corner bench.

One of the repeat performers is vocalist Fuyuco, who I chat to in between sets. She explains that Kyoto’s smaller population — around half that of Osaka, and 10 times less than Tokyo — and less well-known venues have helped a different kind of music scene flourish here, compared with those found in bigger cities. “Kyoto is a small, deep city,” she says. “People’s connections are spread like roots; you can make a community easily here. The cost of living is also cheaper than other major cities, which is why so many experimental musicians live here.”

The next day, I meet ambient music producer Ferdinand Maubert in Cavalier, a darkly stylish cocktail bar. As I quiet the embryonic thud of a hangover with Hibiki whiskies, he explains that Kyoto is at the vanguard of Japan’s nascent electronic music scene. It long faced a unique stumbling block: a 1948 law, introduced to counteract the corrupting influence of US culture, which banned dancing after midnight. For long periods the police turned a blind eye, allowing nightclubs to operate semi-legally, but a series of high-profile raids in the 2010s, known as the ‘War on Dance’, shuttered an already stifled scene even further. Protests followed and Japan’s archaic dancing ban was finally lifted in 2015.

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Ferdinand tells me things are moving forward here, even if progress is slow. “When I was in Europe in the 2000s, it was all about underground raves; now everyone wants them here in Japan,” he says. “Ten years ago, we were in the 1980s in Japan. Now we’re in the 1990s.” The ambient music scene in particular is growing, boosted by a 2022 multimedia exhibition held in Kyoto by Brian Eno, the British musician and record producer who popularised the genre in the 1970s and 1980s.

Ferdinand agrees with Fuyuco that Kyoto makes a good home for those who don’t fit so easily into mainstream life in Japan. “These people choose to live a little on the margins of society,” he says, “and you can do that in Kyoto — it’s more affordable, and it’s also close to nature.” The latter is particularly important to Ferdinand, whose debut album, Made in Kyotois infused with field recordings made in the bamboo forests outside the city.

Kyoto also provides a handsome setting for music venues, with its historic architecture having been spared bombing during the Second World War. Rock ’n’ roll bands shake the wooden rafters of Jittoku, a former sake brewery said to be the oldest music house in Japan, while live swing music echoes against the mosaic tiles of Sarasa Nishijin, an attractive 1930s bathhouse that’s now a cafe.

(How to spend a day in Kyoto, Japan’s culture capital.)

Rebel Music

‘The nail that sticks out will be hammered down’ — this traditional Japanese proverb is trotted out by foreign observers so often that I’m surprised to hear it repeatedly from Japanese people themselves when describing the country’s collectivist, conformist society. Music, though, is a vehicle of escape for Kyotoites of a more individual bent. Walk among the canalside shophouses and cherry trees of Kiyamachi Street and you may be greeted by the striking sight and sound of Chanko Ponchi, an ex-sumo wrestler, rapping and beat-boxing in nothing but his mawashi (loincloth). Another individual of the Kyoto music scene is Taiji Sato, a guitar-wielding firebrand with a magnificent mane who has earned the sobriquet ‘the Japanese Lenny Kravitz’ and become a prominent fixture in the city’s live houses.

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Nowhere is Kyoto’s fierce musical individuality more evident than in its upholding of the proud tradition of Japanese punk rock, spearheaded in the 1980s by acts such as Boøwy and Shonen Knife. Among those carrying the flag today are Kyoto legends Otoboke Beaver, whose brand of searing guitar punk and satirical lyrics — often damning of the narrow conservatism and familial pressures of Japanese society — has generated interest in Europe and the US and won acclaim from rock royalty Dave Grohl. “It was only after we started getting attention overseas that we were labelled as a punk band,” singer Accorinrin tells me, “but maybe our attitude is punk.” Perhaps, she says, this has something to do with being from Kyoto, where, as with the wider Kansai region, “people are known for being direct and outspoken”.

Even here, in the modern punk scene, the influence of Kyoto’s traditional arts makes itself known. Accorinrin points to manzai, a classical comedy form. “Kansai is the birthplace of the comedy scene in Japan, so we don’t consciously think about comedy; it’s just a part of us,” she says. “Manzai is a traditional type of stand-up comedy, usually two people in a conversation — it has a rhythm, a slow and fast speed. The changing tempo fascinates us and this influences our songwriting.”

As luck would have it, the band are playing a homecoming gig in Kyoto during my visit, so I duly show up at Socrates, a grungy dive bar, with my guide, Van, in tow. Sweat drips from the walls as the band rattles through a set of pulse-quickening punk, with sweet pop melodies alternating with bursts of spiky rage over spidery guitar riffs. The band’s bugbears are evident in the song titles — I Won’t Dish Out Salads; I Am Not Maternal; Dirty Old Fart is Waiting for My Reaction — and in the righteous fury of the lyrics, barked in Japanese and English, with lines like: “A tenacious sulky troublesome ass/Looking for a one-night stand/Creepy old fart.”

“This is what happens in Japan,” says Van, nodding approvingly, “when the mask comes off.”

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