I would like to give credit where credit is due. Videos are from YouTube and other sources such as NicoNico while Oricon rankings and other information are translated from the Japanese Wikipedia unless noted.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Memorial Hall Visits Part 4: Hachiro Kasuga

At the end of the very first article I wrote about Hachiro Kasuga (春日八郎) on KKP 4 years ago, I featured this silly picture on google images of whom I thought to be quite a moderately stoic performer doing the "maru" sign. I was intrigued, and as the years followed I hoped to find it - possibly through a record or a video. And then in late April this year, I saw the grinning Hachi, and many, many other variations of him I'd never thought I would have the pleasure to see, face to face.

As mentioned in Part 2 of my Sugamo karaoke romp, there were some outstanding matters I wanted to take care of in Japan. Out of the those on my list, going to Kasuga's museum stood at number one, for reasons explained my recent articles on him, and also for fear that it might close before I got the chance to visit it - I got worried after seeing Yujiro Ishihara's (石原裕次郎) close down in 2017. It was also the first item crossed on my list as Mom and I visited it on our second day during this two week trip.

View from Nanukamachi, a town along the Tadami line we
explored before heading to Aizubange.

Hachi came from a little town in Fukushima called Aizubange, which sits towards the western end of the prefecture and not too far away from the neighbouring Niigata (another destination on this list on my to-do list). To get there (if you're coming from Tokyo), one has to take the shinkansen to Koriyama city, then take the local Banetsu line inland through farm country to the samurai town that is Aizuwakamatsu (where we stayed for 3 nights), AND THEN take the one-man operated train through more paddy fields on the Tadami line to finally reach your destination. I'd never train-ed so much in my life. However, the views of rolling rice plantations backed by snow-capped mountains, little hamlets, and occasion sakura trees in bloom were a rare sight and a feast for the eyes for a city kid.

To Aizubange

 As per usual, my anticipation was at a all time high but overcompensated with an overly aloof demeanor as we sat on the virtually empty train to Aizubange. Playing with a mischievous Abyssinian Eagle Owl in an owl cafe at the quaint town of Nanukamachi earlier did little to satiate the excitement. This old lady kicking her feet up on the train seats was an amusing sight, however.

When at last at Aizubange's decent station that's more than just a lonely platform unlike some others, I was greeted by Hachi's statue outside, and that cool facade cracked. It's not the best statue of a singer I've seen, but it ain't the worst either. Beside the bronze memorial of him, you can listen to the first stanza of his debut "Akai Lamp no Shuressha" (赤いランプの終列車).

Contrary to my belief, the First Enka Singer's hometown was not as empty and quiet and old as I'd thought a place like that in the boonies would be. In fact, it was quite bustling and there were lots of children running around. But, of course, many still stared at us funny for being the only two foreigners there.

The train ride was only half of the journey. The other, if you were like us with no car, was by foot. Half an hour (at the minimum) by foot. I was very glad that it was a clear and windy day. I can't imagine trudging through these farm roads, albeit nicely paved, in the rain. Still, it was pretty arduous, and the rice field scene riddled with brand new tractor showrooms and the occasion sign pointing in the museum's direction got tedious after about 15 minutes. This train and hiking experience was reminiscent of the "Local Sen" (Local Train Line) series on the Japanese travelogue on Channel News Asia, "Japan Hour", wherein a pair of celebrities try to find attractions at towns along local lines around Japan.

Around 45 minutes later and after loops of a line "Inaka no michi wa tsuzuku mono" from Hibari Misora's (美空ひばり) song "Hanagasa Dochu" (花笠道中) going around in my head for the nth time and Mom trailing some distance behind me, I reached the museum. I know it sounds dramatic, but I almost wanted to run towards it when I was near.

Couldn't get the full tree, so here's part of the
"Wakare no Ippon Sugi" sugi.

I saw the huge cedar standing tall amongst the shrubs and other trees in the park that housed the "Wakare no Ippon Sugi" (別れの一本杉) plaque. And every time someone steps near this plaque, the iconic enka starts playing and has the deep melancholic notes of acoustic guitar reverberating throughout the countryside. Just as I was about to reach the tree, I heard my mother exclaiming over something, and almost immediately after, a huge tour bus emerged from nowhere and pulled into the building's nearly empty parking lot. By golly, I didn't know local tour groups stopped by Hachi's memorial hall! There I was thinking that we'd be the only ones there! I was shook.

Unfortunately, the plaque's lyrics weren't painted in, so they were
hardly visible in the afternoon sun.

I made my way to the plaque to get a good look at the plaque and a good listen to the song before the swarm of elderly came. It didn't take long for them to realise that I knew Hachi and one of his hits, and as much as I wanted to go into the museum ASAP, I was stuck outside for a while and subjected to the usual muddled interview of what a Singaporean was doing in a place like this. At least I got to train my Japanese listening skills.

Anyway, on to the actual attraction. The building wasn't huge but it was well put together and spacious. From what I had seen from older pictures of the museum, its orientation and presentation of the items had changed for the better. The first section you'd see upon entering contains the singer's brief history on a plaque, his personal artifacts, his well-loved instruments, awards, song sheets, fan magazines, and photos of him with his family and other celebrities, among other miscellaneous things.


As expected, Michiya Mihashi (三橋美智也) was in quite a number of shots with Hachi - both were in the same record company after all. Others big names he was with included the legendary Masao Koga (古賀政男), Misora, Minoru Obata (小畑実) and Ichiro Wakahara (若原一郎 ).

One of the lyric sheets on display. This one is of "Nagasaki no
Hito" (長崎の女).

Here we have Kasuga with his wife Keiko Watabe, who played a big role in kick-starting his career - basically, without her, there'd be no "Akai Lamp no Shuressha" or Hachi... Thank you, Mrs Watabe - and 3 of their 4 daughters. The eldest, seen on the right above, Nobuyo Watabe (if I'm not wrong), served as her father's manager in his later days. 

According to the curator, Ms Watabe was to visit the museum later in May... I missed a chance to meet the person who would be as close as I can ever get to meeting Hachi himself - all the more so because she looks very much like him - by a few weeks. I AM ANGERY. Well, the curator said she'd mention our visit to Ms Watabe when she visits, and I did put my name down in the guest book, so I suppose I have that. Can't have the cake and eat it too, even though I wish I could. >:(

Anyway, those booklets in this picture here were his fan club magazines, "Mikasa". The cover that had him next to Mrs Watabe at the lower left corner had a smaller picture of him sitting in a corner showering. Considering that his fan base was predominantly women in his younger days, that's fan service if I've ever seen it. Speaking of fan service, there was also Hachi in swim trunks spear fishing (?) at the top left corner, and sitting atop his trusty piano was an extra candid photo of him in an undershirt and boxers. 

Well, OK then.

When he received the purple ribbon (circa 1989) - one of the honors
 for someone who had contributed a great deal to the arts in Japan.
With Yuriko Futaba, Muchi, Batayan, Michi, Peggy Hayama.
Needless to say, I love this picture.

The wall adjacent to all that featured more interesting photos (like the one at the top of this article), concert and movie posters, and records.

Apparently Hachi could walk on stilts. It baffles me as to how one can balance on such sticks.

There were the Sannin no Kai posters up on display too! It's like getting a 3 in 1 in this museum! I know this wasn't Yuzo Kayama's (加山雄三) museum, but "Shiawase dana....

I got my hands on the middle one via Miyada Records.

Sitting square in the middle of the museum was its merchandise shop which sold both Hachi merchandise, as well as local knick-knacks and food. Next to that was the karaoke section with a little TV playing original karaoke videos of a good number of the enka singer's works. Anyone can go up to have a go at their favourites; "Otomi-san" (お富さん) was the go-to choice for everyone. 

I didn't exactly have any intention to sing, and at the same time was rather self-conscious, so I initially declined when first offered to pick up the mic. However, when the tour group left and we were the only ones left, I decided, "Why not? Since I'm at the place, I might as well do so." I took this opportunity to try out some of Kasuga's songs I had always wanted to attempt, like "Nigate Nandayo" (苦手なんだよ), "An' Tokya Doshaburi" (あん時ゃどしゃ降り), and of course, "Akai Lamp no Shuressha". 

When it came to "Akai...", much to my surprise and slight horror, another full group of local tourists came in just as it started - the human traffic coming in and out of this place was far more than expected. Oh, the pressure was intense, but I think I pulled it off pretty well. When I saw the happiness etched on to the faces of these old folks and hearing them sing along with me... I don't really know how to describe how I felt at that moment. It differed greatly from my Sugamo stints - it was more emotional here than the simple highs of pride and unbridled joy I got in Tokyo. 

For me to sing the debut song of one of the key foundations in enka in his very museum; to have relayed it to his fans who saw him as their youth and get their seal of approval; to show that old enka like this is far from being forgotten... I guess I felt... very, very honored to be in that position. It was truly an incredible feeling that I'd never felt so strongly until then.

Well, moving on, I couldn't leave the place without any merchandise (it'd be a crime if I did), so I got a surprisingly modern-looking T-shirt with a caricature of Kasuga on it, as well as a couple of key chains, including one that had his autograph. What impressed me was that the items were all very well-stocked despite being in such a far flung area. I suppose with all the tour groups coming for a look-see, it has to be. In fact, the moment we arrived, so had the new stock! Take that, Takashi Hosokawa (細川たかし)! ... ... I'm sorry, Hosokawa... I mean, you've got senbei with your name on it...? 😌 

When all was said and done, it was near closing time. Having heard of our trek all the way out into the countryside, the curator took pity on us and decided to give us a quick ride back to the station before the scheduled train arrived. Earlier, I talked about the segment on the show "Japan Hour", well, hitching a ride from kind locals was what always happened in most episodes, so we did indeed have the full "Japan Hour Local-sen Experience" all in one day. I am eternally grateful for this lady for saving us the hassle of calling for a cab and for shortening our journey back to the station by 40 minutes.

Compared to the other museums I had been to thus far, Hachi's definitely felt the most surreal and dreamlike to me. Perhaps it was the combination of being in such an environment I had only seen on TV, standing in the memorial hall of a singer I'm absolutely crazy about, and that intense karaoke bit with his fans. I remember that after the immediate euphoria of entering the building and snapping photos, I actually had to take a breather to actively remind myself that I wasn't dreaming.

Needless to say, after all the travelling the day before and the amount of activity done on this museum pilgrimage, I felt like a piece of tofu on the following day. But it was all worth it.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Tokyo Ensemble Lab -- Lady Ocean

Yes, indeed, welcome to summer! It wasn't too hot here, though...just around 23 degrees for a high today but there are 89 more days to go in the season.

Considering it is the first day of summer, I couldn't have found a better song to start things off, and again, it was all thanks to the usual browsing around YouTube. Just saw this video on the right that was recommended with the name Tokyo Ensemble Lab, and since I've had great success with Tomita Lab(富田ラボ), I decided to give it a try.

Well, lightning did strike twice. Tokyo Ensemble Lab's lone single "Lady Ocean" is fabulous fusion. It was released in June 1988 and was performed by this group of musicians led by trumpeter Shin Kazuhara(数原晋). I can't pinpoint specifics since I'm no musicologist but this is the one 80s summer instrumental that just represents the times. It's just so bright and brassy and summery, and probably reflects all those Bubble good times in Japan by the beach. The video could almost be the opening credits for a detective show in Hawaii like "Magnum P.I." or "Hawaii Five-0". And as the actual credits say at the end, Toshiki Kadomatsu(角松敏生), one summery guy himself, handled the music and arrangements. As one fellow put it as a comment, Vaporwave enthusiasts probably swooned.

Tokyo Ensemble Lab had their time in the sun between 1988 and 1992. Along with their single, there were two albums "Breath From The Season" (1988) and "Sidewinder" (1992) of which the former included "Lady Ocean". Incidentally, one of the saxophone players is Makoto Hirahara(平原まこと)who is the father of singer-songwriter Ayaka Hirahara(平原綾香).

May be going shopping again pretty soon.

Masaru Matsuyama -- Koi no Sendo-san(恋の船頭さん)

When I was translating those travel articles, some of those included those for river tours out in the regional areas of Japan with the traditional boatmen steering their wooden boats skillfully through the rougher patches of the waterways.

It was those scenes that came to mind when I heard the enka ballad "Koi no Sendo-san" (Boatman in Love). This was actually sung by the enka legend known for decades as Hiroshi Itsuki(五木ひろし)but his 3rd single from August 1965 was released under his first stage name Masaru Matsuyama(松山まさる).

Written by Toshio Oka(丘灯至夫)and composed by Gento Uehara(上原げんと), the delivery by the singer who would later be known as Itsuki has that youthful smoothness for the lack of a better expression, but the lad was only 17 years old at the time. Still, considering that he was still three years away from being officially recognized as an adult in Japan, his voice is still remarkably rich and steady as if it were from a singer a decade older.

The lyrics by Oka relate the story of a young boatman, having taken on the duties formerly performed by his father, falling for a beautiful passenger who takes a ride under his charge. He then spots her at a festival and falls for her head-over-heels. There's no report on whether the song inspired any movie but the setting sounds like a perfect source for a screenplay. I also don't know how the song did in terms of sales but of course, the best was yet to come for the man who was born Kazuo Matsuyama(松山数夫).

Checkers -- NANA

Can't quite remember when exactly Checkers(チェッカーズ)made that transition from doo-wop teenyboppers with a New Romantic fashion sense to a more jazzy rock n' roll sensibility along the lines of a Peter Gunn soundtrack, but perhaps their 11th single "NANA" was one of the early examples.

Released in October 1986, the lyrics were written by Checkers' vocalist Fumiya Fujii(藤井郁弥)and the music was taken care of by his brother and band saxophonist Naoyuki Fujii(藤井尚之). Looking at the cover of the single above, the fellows kinda look like they would invade any of the watering holes that Gunn would regularly visit.

I was surprised that it's taken so long for me to put "NANA" up since it was a song which was performed pretty often on those videos of "Best 10" or "Top 10" that I used to borrow from Nippon Video. Watching the guys perform on those music programs was also interesting since Checkers were singing this 1950s nightside stuff while dressed in something more New Wave.

According to the J-Wiki article on "NANA", vocalist Fujii related that when he was coming up with the title, he decided to go with a name that could span the worlds of enka and the nightclub life. Who am I to argue? As for his lyrics, they are about how hot some guy is for the titular lady and apparently, the lyrics themselves got so hot that NHK went "No, no" on "NANA" so that Checkers couldn't perform it on the Kohaku Utagassen that year, instead going for the much less salacious prior single "Song For U.S.A.".

It was just as well since "Song for U.S.A." did better on the charts anyways. "NANA" was no slouch, though, by scoring a No. 2 ranking on the Oricon weeklies and a No. 48 ranking for 1986 singles. "NANA" was also a track on Checkers' 5th album "GO" from May 1987. The album was a No. 1 hit.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Poplar/MIQ -- Yodobashi Camera no Uta(ヨドバシカメラの歌)

A couple of years ago, I did an article about some of the catchy jingles that represented the various superstores in Akihabara including the one that I focused on, the kiddieland-friendly "Hello, Sofmap World".

Well, although I did mention the massive Yodobashi Akiba, I never got around to its theme song. Incidentally, before I go ahead with that song, I have to say that since the building was erected, it was the place for me to take friends from Toronto whenever they visited during my life there. Even when I visit Japan as a mere tourist now, I still make sure that I drop by the place just to take a look around at the goods and also to visit one of the many restaurants on the higher floor. I'm not exaggerating too much when I say that a visitor wanting to explore all that Akihabara has to offer can easily spend an entire day in this Yodobashi branch. It would basically be one day for Yodobashi Akiba and then another day for the rest of Akiba.

As I cited above, the jingle for Sofmap is a tune that would have folks envision a fantasy land for kids. The one for Yodobashi Camera is jazzier...and familiar, especially for Americans. Yup, once you hear it, you'll know it's completely based on "Battle Hymn of the Republic" by William Steffe and Julia Ward Howe from the mid-19th century.

According to the J-Wiki article, the initial version had been just an instrumental march with some male chorus in the background, but then in 1986, the singer Poplar(ポプラ), who has focused on theme songs for anime and dramas as well as commercial jingles, gave a slightly rock version of "Yodobashi Camera no Uta" (The Yodobashi Camera Song).

But then in 1990, anison singer and vocal trainer MIQ (pronounced Miku) performed the jazzier take that has been usually heard in the stores nowadays. I tried to find out who came up with the Japanese lyrics but apparently they differ depending on the branch whether it is in Tokyo, Osaka or Sapporo, for example. So I can only figure that someone in an advertising company or the marketing division of Yodobashi itself has been responsible for those. However, the lyrics for the branch in Shinjuku West were created by the actual founder, Terukazu Fujisawa(藤沢昭和).

The above video is approaching three years old and so the format has changed since then (according to my visit there last year), but you can take a gander at the restaurant floor for Yodobashi Akiba. I don't have any recommendations; they all seem scrumptious!


It's been a couple of months since I've covered a BEST compilation, and this time will be the first time that I've covered a second BEST compilation by any singer or band. The honour here falls on that pop group which automatically heralds the hot season, TUBE. I'm writing this here on the day before summer's official arrival but in Japan, it's already June 21st so the timing couldn't be better.

"TUBEst II" was released on shelves in April 1996, about 6.5 years following the release of "TUBEst" in December 1989. As such, the album covers the period of TUBE's singles in the early 1990s.

Now, a bit of a confession here from me. And I would like to preface things by bringing up a couple of famous sayings: "Familiarity breeds contempt" and "You can get too much of a good thing". I'm not sure when I bought "TUBEst II"; perhaps when it was first put into the CD stores. But I listened to it once....and that was it. It was returned to my shelf and there it sat for 22 years...except for one time that I took it out to be photographed as a thumbnail picture. I actually put the CD itself into the stereo for the first time yesterday since Bill Clinton was POTUS!

For TUBE fans, perhaps my confession would come across as the equivalent of approaching lead vocalist Nobuteru Maeda(前田亘輝)and slapping him with a huge red snapper. But to be honest, and I again reference those sayings in the above paragraph, after listening to "TUBEst II", I just thought I was getting too much TUBE music. It just seemed as if the band had been releasing singles once every few months and as you know, TUBE is all about the summer sound. I guess I finally got tired.

In any case, I will let you know the conclusion of my estrangement from The Boys of Summer after focusing on some of the tracks. For now, allow me to introduce the lineup.

1. Ah--Natsu Yasumi (あ~夏休み)
2. Shonan My Love(湘南My Love)
3. Sayonara Yesterday(さよならイエスタデイ)
4. Natsu da ne (夏だね)
5. Glass no Memories(ガラスのメモリーズ)
6. Natsu wo Machikirenakute(夏を待ちきれなくて)
7. Datte Natsu janai(だって夏じゃない)
8. Natsu wo Dakishimete (夏を抱きしめて)
9. Koi Shite Mucho(恋してムーチョ)
10. Melodies & Memories
11. Yuzurenai Natsu(ゆずれない夏)
12. Ano Natsu wo Sagashite (あの夏を探して)

Bonus Tracks
13. Shonan Bon Odori(湘南盆踊り)
14. Yõ Yõ Yõ
15. Umi e Ikou(海へ行こう)

All of the tracks were written by Nobuteru Maeda and composed by TUBE guitarist Michiya Haruhata(春畑道哉).

First off, I will begin with "Glass no Memories" (Glass Memories), TUBE's 15th single from July 1992. It's actually close to the middle of the order but I wanted to start here since this is the song that I most remember from "TUBEst II" because of that keyboard flourish. Also, it's perhaps the first time that I ever heard of a TUBE song that sounded like it originated in a place other than the familiar beaches of Shonan. Maeda and the guys may have decided to high-tail it to Acapulco for their muse.

"Glass no Memories" peaked at No. 5 on Oricon and was the 23rd-ranked single for 1992.

Speaking of Shonan, there is "Shonan My Love", a love letter to the place where the band members had spent their salad days. I have to admit that on hearing this again, the nostalgia nerves were pressed although I would hardly ever consider myself a lover of sea and surf. This was TUBE's 12th single from May 1991 which reached No. 7 on the weekly charts and finished the year at No. 64, going Gold.

"Natsu wo Machikirenakute" (Can't Wait For Summer) takes things nearly into B'z land with the guitars and power. Dusting off the disc after so long and listening to the album, I have to say that this particular single was the one that got me thinking "Perhaps I was a tad too harsh in my assessment". For the lack of a better way to express things, it comes off as being rather cool and dramatic as Maeda sings about making a broken relationship right again. TUBE's 16th single came out in May 1993 and hit No. 1, becoming the 33rd-ranked single and going Double Platinum. This was also the single that got the band their first invitation to NHK's Kohaku Utagassen that year.

TUBE's 19th single "Koi Shite Mucho" (Fall In Love A Lot) from July 1994 takes things back overseas for some spicy salsa. I wonder if Orquesta de la Luz and TUBE ever collaborated during one of the latter's concerts. In any case, this also broke the Top 10 by reaching No. 6 and becoming the 71st-ranked single of the year. Looking at all this concert footage, I wonder if I did miss out by not only not catching Kome Kome Club(米米クラブ)but also TUBE.

My final part here is the reason that I have also put up the enka label for TUBE, strangely enough. I could only find the Apple excerpt as a decent sample, but I just had to include the Bonus Track known as "Shonan Bon Odori". Just a traditional festival dance the TUBE treatment, but it does make a wonderful example of Japanese musical kismet. "Shonan Bon Odori" was the coupling song for the above-mentioned "Glass no Memories". Nice way to take it back to Japan.

"TUBEst II" did even better than the inaugural BEST album by peaking at No. 3 and becoming the 19th-ranked album of 1996. It even broke the millions barrier. It was good listening to all of the tracks this time around, and I can provide yet another expression "Absence makes the heart grow fonder". All I needed was some time away (perhaps not as long as 22 years) to appreciate the good times of summer Japanese pop again. Perhaps this could even get me to try out some of TUBE's more recent fare...yep, they're still going!

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Izumi Kimoto & Kyosen Ohashi And The Thoroughbreds -- Dokoka de Dareka ni(どこかでだれかに)

In terms of generations and Japanese TV, I was perhaps at the very tail end of the Kyosen Ohashi(大橋巨泉)era. For those fans of the medium over there who know about veteran hosts such as director Beat Takeshi(ビートたけし), Tamori(タモリ)and Sanma Akashiya(明石家さんま), before all of them, there was Kyosen Ohashi with his many commercials and his long-running stints as hosts of late-night program "Wide Show 11PM" and the quiz show "Quiz Derby". I don't remember seeing him a whole lot during my time in Japan but he was enough of a presence that his beaming and bespectacled face is something that I can still identify.

I read on his J-Wiki bio that although Ohashi had never dabbled in singing, he was involved somewhat in the recording industry. However, I'd had no idea that his name was actually connected with a group.

Still, tonight I discovered this lovely Japanese bossa song titled "Dokoka de Dareka ni" (Somewhere With Someone) that was performed by Kyosen Ohashi And The Thoroughbreds(大橋巨泉とサラブレッズ)with the vocalist Izumi Kimoto(木本いず美). Not sure how Ohashi and The Thoroughbreds got together but I think that the latter may have been the house band on "11PM". In any case, according to Kimoto's website, the group coalesced in 1969 with Kimoto as the second vocalist.

"Dokaka de Dareka ni" was the B-side to their 1970 single "Onegai ga Aru no"(お願いがあるの...I Have A Favor), and I do have my soft spot for bossa nova. And "Dokaka de Dareka ni" hit that spot rather nicely just when I was going to call it a night on the blog. With Kimoto's lovely and lilting vocals leading the way, I ended up listening to it twice. Ohashi himself came up with the lyrics (and was even in the chorus) while band saxophonist Atsushi or Jun Sugihara(杉原淳)composed the melody. According to one site, Ohashi, The Thoroughbreds and Kimoto released a few more singles afterwards.

Not a bad way to end the day and a pleasant surprise from a longtime veteran of the Japanese TV industry who passed away in 2016.