Wednesday, September 30, 2009

October is Spookey Month!

October, the month of Halloween. It's the creepiest, kookiest, scariest month of the year. You might even say it's the spookiest. And the coolest, grooviest band in Hamamatsu is Spookey, the all-girl punk/pop trio that rocks my musical socks lately.

That's why in conjunction with myself over at my comic book blog, When Comic Books Ruled the Earth, I've decided to declare October "Spookey Month."

Spookey shows you how to rock Halloween:

I'll try to keep all my posts here related either to music or to the paranormal aspects of living in Japan. Let's celebrate Spookey and Halloween together, shall we?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

"We Hope This Gets You Lai-"

These guys are awesome. Between this and the Spookey video, my Wednesday is shaping up to be most pleasant. They need their own TV show, including the dog as their sidekick. Now use their advice and go forth and multiply.

Spookey: A Blast of Awesomeness From Right Here in Hamamatsu!

Spookey. An all-girl punk/pop trio with a Go-Go's vibe. Kind of lo-fi, cheeky and fun. Hamamatsu is a very musical city with a lot of bands, but Spookey has to be the coolest of the lot. They get extra points for having a Rickenbacker guitar in the line-up. I love Rickenbacker guitars!

I have yet to see them live, but I ordered their latest CD release, Shakin Pop'n Roll from It ships "within 1 to 2 months" according to Amazon, so I should have it just in time to put it into a heavy Christmas rotation here in the musical capital of my world. Spookey seems to hit the road lot (especially in Europe), but according to their MySpace blog, their planned October-November tour didn't come off. Well, they'll no doubt be rockin' across the world soon enough.

Once again, this is why I came to Japan.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Shibuya's Krispy Kreme Restaurant

Imagine my surprise to find Krispy Kreme has established yet another outpost in its War of Sweetness. Which could be either a war against sweetness or a war supporting sweetness, I guess. Rest assured, I mean the latter.

This Krispy Kreme restaurant is just a short walk of maybe 4 minutes from Shibuya Station's Hachiko exit. Just keep Shibuya's cylindrical tower of girly-youth fashion, 109, on your right as you walk up a gentle hill. Eventually you'll smell doughnuts.

It's actually underneath a large building. Unlike the Krispy Kreme I usually visit, which is in Shinjuku, just south of the station, this restaurant has a dining area with lots of tables. On this particular Saturday night at the end of a steamy August, young couples occupied most of those tables. I walked right in-- the hot doughnut light was out, unfortunately-- ordered my three doughnuts and sat at a long bar at the window.

This place looks better with people in front, don't you think?

I'm not sure what it's called in Japanese, but in English most people here refer to it as simply "Krispy Doughnuts." I have no idea why the "Kreme" part gets dropped. Maybe there's some assonance with Mister Donut, which is probably Japan's favorite between these two giants of deliciousness. Krispy Doughnuts' fluffy offerings tend to run a bit sweeter than most Japanese enjoy their snack treats. But that hasn't stopped Krispy Kreme's rapid proliferation in Tokyo, not one little bit!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Bear Attacks Are Rare in Japan

But I'm not saying they never happen.

Happy Belated Birthday, Ami!

Actually, her birthday was a few days ago, September 18th. Yes, I'm talking about Onuki Ami, half of the Japanese pop-rock duo Puffy, better known as Puffy AmiYumi in the United States. Seems by the time their music hit America, someone had already taken the name Puffy. Despite my having missed it, I'm sure Ami had a very joyous birthday surrounded by friends and family.

What you may not know about Puffy AmiYumi is Ami personally keeps the fans up-to-date on their various musical projects and her own happenings and feelings in a blog hosted on the band's MySpace page. It's in English, as well. When she's not directly updating everyone on Puffy's latest gigs or TV spots, she's expressing her thankfulness for having loyal, supportive fans and promising to do her best to keep them entertained and happy in the future. Ami also posts interesting little tidbits and anecdotes such as the story behind Yumi's recent cracked rib and how excited she was to buy the Beatles' new re-mastered box set (I'm not sure if she bought the mono edition or the stereo). And also all about her dream job-- working in a book store where she can stock to her heart's content.

I guess it's not surprising Ami would take the time to do this now that we're in the Twitter Age, but few celebrity blogs or Tweets pack as much charm and positive energy as one of Ami's blog entries. They're just so... nice. Niceness is a very underrated quality. The follow-up comments from fans are usually fun, too. When I've had a bad day, an Ami post really perks me up.

From Melt-Banana to Puffy AmiYumi-- my musical tastes really run the board, don't they?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Melt-Banana's Fall 2009 US Tour Itinerary

10/29 Visalia, CA at Cellar Door

10/30 San Francisco, CA at Slims

11/01 San Diego, CA at Casbah

11/03 Tucson, AZ at Plush

11/04 Phoenix, AZ at Hollywood Alley

11/06 Denton, TX at Haileys

11/07 Austin, TX at FFF Fest

11/08 San Antonio, TX at White Rabbit

11/09 Houston, TX at Walters

11/10 New Orleans, LA at Republic

11/11 Pensacola, FL at Sluggos

11/12 Birmigham, AL at Bottle Tree

11/13 Athens, GA at 40 Watt

11/14 Gainesville, FL at Common Grounds

11/15 Tampa, FL at Crowbar

11/16 Orlando, FL at Back Booth

11/18 Columbia, SC at New Brookland Tavern

11/19 Chapel Hill, NC at Local 506

11/20 Washington, DC at R and R

11/21 Baltimore, MD at Ottobar

11/22 Philadelphia, PA at First Unitarian Church

11/23 New York, NY at Bowery Ballroom

11/24 Boston, MA at Middle East

11/25 New Haven, CT at The Space

11/27 Buffalo, NY at Mohawk

11/28 Detroit, MI at CroFoot

11/29 Cleveland, OH at Grog Shop

11/30 Chicago, IL at Bottom Lounge

12/01 Minneapolis, MN at Entry

12/02 Madison, WI at High Noon

12/03 Iowa City, IA at Picadur

12/04 Sioux Falls, SD at Nutty's

12/05 Omaha, NE at Waiting Room

12/07 Denver, CO at Bluebird

12/08 Salt Lake City, UT at Kilby Court

12/10 Missoula, MT at Badlanders

12/11 Seattle, WA at Chop Suey

12/12 Portland, OR at Berbati's

12/14 TBA

12/15 Pomona, CA at Glasshouse

12/16 Los Angeles, CA at Troubadour

Melt-Banana is touring the United States this November and December, playing sets with Melt-Banana Lite. They're really one of the most amazing bands you can ever experience live. And look at all those dates. That's one mammoth tour, and more than likely, they're coming to a spot somewhere within easy driving distance of where you are... right... now. That is, if you're living in America. If you don't go, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But soon and for the rest of your life.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Twilight Connection and Noriko's Hamamatsu Rumor...

Yesterday, events reinforced for me the inescapability of Twilight mania. I'd been able to ignore the warning signs-- students shyly asking me from time-to-time about vampires and American high schools and movies with vampires in American high schools-- but yesterday brought another revelation. Soon I must deal with this glittery media-born monster, and hopefully on my own terms. Because one of my Bentenjima students has ordered the Twilight movie on DVD from Amazon. Not only is her daughter suddenly way into Twilight but... wait for it...

She actually knows the people who live in Bella's house in Forks, Washington.

Actually, I'm not sure which house it is. There seems to be more than one, but I don't know enough about Twilight the book series or Twilight the movie to know exactly which house my student was talking about. But whichever house or location it is, this student did one or more homestays in that general vicinity years ago and got to know quite a few people in Washington state and the Vancouver area of British Columbia. Once her daughter got bitten by the Twilight bug... or vampire... she did a little research and viola! She's actually been to these locations. Perhaps she even stayed at Bella's house. I'll have to ask her again in a couple of weeks when I see her again just to confirm it.

It's like my own interest in visiting places mentioned in Murakami Haruki and Banana Yoshimoto novels, or eating a Jackson Burger just like Hachi does in the Nana manga, or in finding the exact spot Noriko and Shuya ran away to in Shibuya at the end of Battle Royale. It's exciting to have a direct, personal connection to some fiction universe you enjoy, to have an opportunity to slip onto the screen or between the pages or into a comic book panel and walk around, and so I feel compelled by personal experience to support fannish inclinations.

To a point.

The student told me her daughter, who has long been interested in retracing her mother's homestay footsteps in America, wants to visit the high school in Forks. I told her to tell the girl there are no young, gorgeous vampires in American high schools. She laughed and nodded; they're used to my asinine sense of humor in Bentenjima. I then added, "I can also promise her there are no old, ugly vampires in American high schools, either." And my student laughed harder.

Also, this week I learned there's possibly a Hamamatsu connection to the Sakai Noriko drug scandal. Apparently-- and keep in mind this is merely rumor and so probably isn't true in the least-- Noriko occasionally did some of her "experimentation" at a bar here in Hamamatsu. Most of the people who told me this did so sort of comically, as if they weren't completely convinced of it. And it reminds me about a year or so ago when people told me repeatedly a famous singer-actor was living in an apartment in Bentenjima for the summer, yet no one had actually seen him for themselves. So to say I'm dubious about this new rumor is an understatement. True or not, now Hamamatsu is famous not only for unagi, but also for the ease with which one might buy drugs here.

Nice to be known, huh?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Eye on the Bulldozer

Here are photographs of Hanatarash's infamous "bulldozer" performance. I'd heard the legends, but I had no idea if they were true or not. Looks like they are! But correct me if I'm wrong-- isn't this actually a backhoe?

And in video form, with soundtrack:

And you wonder why I'm in Japan!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Even More Melt-Banana: August 29, 2009 at Shibuya O-Nest

Nothing much to say about these. Melt-Banana's performance was energetic as usual, there weren't that many people there, not a lot of moshing or stage-diving. Most of the audience were just your ordinary music-loving youngsters, but there were a few more extreme types in the crowd. They did some swirling dance moves in ront of the stage and added a little excitement:

But mostly the evening was all about Melt-Banana:

They're touring the United States in November and December, so if they come within your travel-range, you need to go see them. A Melt-Banana Christmas? Maybe you'll get to see and hear them do their famous "White Christmas" cover. Why not?

Monday, September 7, 2009

Mary Blair Exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, July 18th-October 4th

I really dig Mary Blair's art and it's hard to overestimate her influence on graphic arts. I seriously doubt we would have had The Powerpuff Girls without Mary Blair. I'm sure we could make a long list of animation designers, graphic artists and illustrators who have at least tried to cop her deceptively simple, somewhat geometric style and superior color sense. But I was late discovering her work, much to my embarrassment.

How'd I finally come around? Well, a couple of years ago, the art museum here at the Hamamatsu Castle Park held a Disney show with lots of recently rediscovered hand-painted backgrounds from actual Disney movies, cells, pre-production artwork and sketches dating back to "Steamboat Willie." The standout artist of it all was Mary Blair; seeing her paintings up close just about popped my eyeballs out of their sockets. You know, in a good way. I even bought an expensive hardcover art book so I could scrutinize the woman's colorful, fun work. When I was in Tokyo a week or so ago, I noticed these big train station advertisements for a Mary Blair show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo:

No great feat that. They're pretty big and fun to look at. A gorgeous photo of the artist-- herself quite striking in an South American-style peasant blouse-- and a bright-colored Alice falling past a mirror. Pure visual joy. I hope to see this show in person before it closes. It'll be a near thing. My entertainment expenses are tapped out thanks to Melt-Banana. Not that I'm complaining; that show was worth every yen and the toe-blisters, too.

But Mary Blair? Her artwork in a show with planning support by the fabulous Studio Ghibli, home of Miyazaki Hayao, maker of Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro among other animated enchantments? Actually, I may already have seen at least some of these paintings; she was well-represented at that Disney show. This might be something I'll regret not at least trying to see, though. A day trip? Why not!

Oh, and while you're here-- go see Ponyo!

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Sweet Streets: Art Inspired by Japanese Street Fashion - MELT-BANANA's MySpace Blog |

I'm not really intending this to be a Melt-Banana fan blog, but it sure looks that way, doesn't it? Well, I am a fan and they have so much going on lately, so here's this:

Sweet Streets: Art Inspired by Japanese Street Fashion - MELT-BANANA's MySpace Blog

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Melt-Banana has a song on a compilation CD that comes with Hi-Fructose volume 12 and apparently has something to do with the current show Sweet Streets: Art Inspired by Japanese Street Fashion at Gallery Nucleus. I don't pretend to know what's going on (okay, sometimes I do), I'm just excited by this seeming collision between several things I love. Moments like these place me in danger of going all solipsistic on you.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

More Melt-Banana News and... Covers...

According to their MySpace blog, Melt-Banana's US tour kicks off in Visalia, California on October 29th. That's just in time for Halloween. They haven't updated the blog or their website with a full list of tour dates, but if you're reading this in the States, they'll probably be playing someplace nearby this fall, including some dates as Melt-Banana Lite. You really owe it to yourself to see Melt-Banana live.

Speaking of live, they've got a few Tokyo shows going on in September before the international touring starts all over again (they just never let up!). I looked in to getting a ticket for their September 22nd show at Shinjuku Loft but couldn't figure it out. They're playing as Melt-Banana Lite on September 27th at Shin-Okubo's Earthdom live house; I saw the full unit there in September 2007 and it was an incredible show with a sold out house and full-on pit action. I'd truly love to be at that show to see what the heck Melt-Banana Lite consists of (the band plays coy about it in their e-mailings), but you have to visit Earthdom in person to pick up your tickets and that's a far piece for me to go and expensive!

Also it's on a work night for me. Better luck next time, I suppose.

They also promise a Melt-Banana Lite live album for later this year, so my curiosity will be answered eventually. Look for their split singles-- one 7" with Young Widows from the Temporary Residence label and the other a 7"/3" CD from Init Records which will be available on their US tour. I picked up the 7" with Young Widows at Shibuya O-Nest, plus a split CD single with Fat Day. The CD's plastic sleeve features incredibly cute cartoon astronauts announcing, "We are Devo," which is appropriate because this is the CD where Melt-Banana covers Devo's "Uncontrollable Urge."

Melt-Banana frequently covers unexpected tunes in their sets. Since their own sound is so idiosyncratic, doing covers gives them a chance to display their musicianship in more accessible ways while showcasing influences or just having fun. Past favorites have included Blondie's "Heart of Glass," The Who's "My Generation" (I'd love to hear Rika's lead bass on that one) and even Der Bingle's "White Christmas." "Uncontrollable Urge" is unique among Melt-Banana cover versions in that it's a relatively straight ahead rendition of the song. This is in contrast to their noise deconstruction of Queen's "We Will Rock You" and their anarchic take on the Beach Boys' "Surfin' USA."

I'm especially fond of the Beach Boys number because of Yako's playful vocal delivery; she approaches the song mischievously, first singing the overly familiar melody in a sloppy, out-of-tune voice, then the chorus in a childlike whisper before launching into a more Yako-esque high speed delivery. At one point she sings the chorus in a drawn-out, contemptuous way. Along with his sonic squeals and riffing, Agata dares to play a real guitar solo and just rocks it. My only disappointment is how Rika's bass seems buried in the mix except for one tantalizingly brief break in the action. That qualm aside, this is how you handle nostalgic covers.

"We Will Rock You" uses an obvious drum machine to make an ironic comment on the mechanical quasi-fascistic nature of the original's beat and substitutes Agata's blistering noise attack for the traditional and tasty Brian May guitar solo.

"Uncontrollable Urge" is recognizable from the start as Yako shouts, "YEAH YEAH YEAH YEAHYEAHYEAHYEAHYEAH!" The Melt-Banana treatment consists mainly of Agata's appending his noise-guitar flourishes to the song's sped-up Led Zeppelin riff (which he also nails). Melt-Banana matches Devo's detached sci-fi roboticism with high energy. You want to buy this little CD if you spot it on the merchandise table after the show.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Sakura Hotel Hatagaya

When I went to see Melt-Banana the August 29th weekend, I stayed at the Sakura Hotel in Hatagaya. The Sakura group has hotels, hostels, apartments and guest houses all around Tokyo. I usually stay in Ikebukuro because of the area's easy access to pizza buffets, but that hotel was booked solid so I went back to Hatagaya where I'd stayed a couple times before. Actually, I'm pretty sure the Hatagaya Sakura was fully-booked by the time I arrived, too. I was lucky to get my reservation in!

Hotel Sakura Hatagaya is two stops from Shinjuku on the Keio New Line subway. Just Hatagaya, Hatsudai and you're there, in Shinjuku where you can catch the Yamanote Line to Harajuku, Shibuya or any other ward on its loop; or you can catch the Chuo Line to Akihabara and Ginza. The hotel itself is a quick 2-minute stroll from Hatagaya Station's south exit. It's in a quaint little neighborhood with not much action, just an AM/PM convenience store and a Mos Burger. But I was there on a personal musical mission and didn't have time to do any exploring.

Maybe you can find the hidden gems of sleepy little Hatagaya...

But don't let that put you off. The staff are all very friendly and speak excellent English. They seem to be pretty young and they foster a kind of community atmosphere by not only offering free tours and advertising for lots of fun, artsy activities in places like Harajuku but also maintaining a staff blog full of interesting Tokyo info and cultural notes. I didn't avail myself of any of that, but if you're of a mind to, you can probably make friends there very easily. Just knowing that makes me feel part of something positive, or right at home whenever I stay at a Sakura hotel.

I don't like hostels, so I can't tell you anything about that aspect of the Sakura experience. I imagine if you're a young, go-go backpacking type in search of a nice social experience in Tokyo and a cheap, clean place to crash, the Sakura hostels are tough to beat. I always stay in their business hotel rooms because at the end of a long day of walking around Tokyo and sightseeing, I really just want to be left alone and veg on the bed with a book. The business hotel singles are typically small (it is Japan, after all), but feature just enough amenities-- TV, room refrigerator, a desk, a comfortable bed and a private bathroom/shower, a clean and comfy pull-over sleep shirt. There are vending machines and washing machines available, too.

They even have a free breakfast. It's mostly just toast, coffee and juice but it's a nice way to start your day and mingle a little with the other guests and maybe make some new friends. A year or so ago I had a pleasant morning just hanging out, eating some toast with jam and eavesdropping on a very relaxing and heartwarming conversation as a young guy made an acquaintanceship with a middle-aged married couple and they traded business tips and sightseeing stories.

That's the kind of stuff I need when travelling. Nice people when I want them and a simple private room. I don't mind the cramped quarters, although the shower was a little claustrophobic; the curtain kept intruding on my personal space! There was a funky stain on the rug near the refrigerator, but I assume that's just where someone spilled some food and it wouldn't come out completely. Other than that, the room was more than adequate, especially considering the price.

While I still have fond memories of all my stays at Hotel Kent in Kabuki-cho, I've been making the Sakura Hotels my new Tokyo homes-away-from-home and I've been very pleased each time I've stayed at one. Don't expect luxury or floor space to do your at-home exercise routine. These aren't American Holiday Inns. Small rooms are par for the course in most Japanese business hotels. With the Sakura group, double rooms are within the price-range of a single in some of the more centrally-located hotels, so you can always go that route. I'm very tempted to try that myself and pretend I'm Bill Murray in Lost in Translation.

Sakura Hotel in Hatagaya is a pretty sweet little place to rest your weary bones when you hit that exciting megalopolis we like to call Tokyo. Because that's its name. Tokyo.