I experienced another one of those smack-me-in-the-head moments when I heard "Yanagase Blues" for the first time in years. The haunting saxophone, guitar and the chorus immediately set off those neurons in the medial temporal lobe....yep, this was another song from my toddler days. But the head smack occurred when I realized who sang it....Kenichi Mikawa（美川憲一）!
All those years in Japan and I knew Kenichi Mikawa for being that enka singer with the effeminate style and a tart-tongued tarento on TV (alliteration, gotta love it!). And even for his enka career, I had only known that one song that has become his trademark, "Sasori-za no Onna" （さそり座の女...Scorpio Woman）which he occasionally sings on screen. Little did I realize that he had also sung this tune long ago in my memories.
The above is another video for "Yanagase Blues" but with photos of Mikawa back in the early days. The Hideo Usa（宇佐英雄）-penned song was his 3rd single, and it marked his direction away from the teen pop of his first 2 singles and toward the genre of enka/Mood Kayo. And boy, is it Mood Kayo! The right instruments, the right type of melody and the lyrics of crying into one's sake over another lost romance are all in there. It not only made the 19-year-old Mikawa into a star but it also put the commercial district of Yanagase, an area within Gifu City, Gifu Prefecture, on the map. People came from all over the nation to check out the area just because of the song.
Released in April 1966, since there was no Oricon at the time, the success of "Yanagase Blues" couldn't be measured in terms of rankings (and the song didn't show up in the very first yearly rankings for 1968). However, in terms of sales, there was no doubt that it was a hit. It sold over 1.2 million records and probably could have been in the Top 3 if Oricon had existed back then.
Mikawa would continue to score hits with his brand of geographically based enka. He also sang "Niigata Blues"（新潟ブルース） the following year and then "Kushiro no Yoru"（釧路の夜...Night In Kushiro） in 1968. Incidentally, he was born in Nagano Prefecture in 1946 as Yoshikazu Momose（百瀬由一）.