Dancing Bears in Sakura-Nomiya: A Band Journal

Osaka | Fall 2004 | 20 years old

Osaka is a metropolis with a justifiably cosmopolitan reputation among Japanese cities. A commercial hub throughout Japan’s history, Osaka has exercised a considerable attraction for foreigners interested in Japanese culture and economy, and there is an impressive amount of gaikokujin currently living and working in Osaka. The majority of these foreign residents are Korean, as is the case with the rest of Japan; nevertheless, strolling outside Umeda station on a sunny weekend afternoon, it’s not uncommon to hear a group of kids chattering in German or a brigade of Caucasian businessman discussing venture capital. As my homestay mother put it, quite succinctly: “Foreigners in Kyoto come to see the temples. Foreigners in Osaka work.” In other words, the foreign population in Osaka is a part of daily life, more than just tourist dollars or window dressing.

Despite the prevalence of foreign faces on the streets of Osaka, the segregation of these foreign residents, especially non-Asian foreigners, from the rest of Osaka culture in many regards is evident even to the most casual observer. A quick trip into one of Osaka’s many Irish and British themed pubs on a Saturday night gives an interesting picture of how Osaka’s gaijin spend their leisure time. Although there are always a few Japanese faces, the discussions are often based on British football and English is the lingua franca.

Overall, the atmosphere is a well-cultivated “home away from home” for the predominately expatriate clientele. The need for such an atmosphere is better understood after one experiences the difficult to understand menus and complicated rituals of some Japanese bars, and contemplates the near-insurmountable nature of these obstacles for foreigners with still-developing language skills. The end result of such divisions is the almost total lack of white faces in most Osaka night spots.

It was within this context that I came to understand my stint as the drummer for Hei Hei Bon Bon (Japanese for “extremely normal”), a band of American international students that ended up playing in a few of Osaka’s smaller rock clubs during our year-long stay in the Kansai area. After joining a rock club at Doshisha University, a private Christian school near the old Imperial Palace in Kyoto, we met Yasubon, the sound manager of GaraGara, a small Osaka live house. In the wake of one of the club’s showcases he invited us to open a bill one Saturday night, and we agreed, with some nervousness. Our meager language skills and lack of practice were obvious liabilities, but we held a band meeting and decided the opportunity was too good to pass up.

We made our way to Osaka on the JR rail line, and out to Sakura-Nomiya, a part of Osaka famous for its cherry blossoms and love hotels, carrying our heavy gear. We were met by Natsue, another of the club’s staff, and she guided us through the winding streets. The club itself was flanked by a large warehouse, and on the bottom of the front chalkboard were the words, “Hei Hei Bon Bon, USA.”

The importance of the appended USA is best explained through the characteristics of Osaka’s club scene. While concerts by American rock bands are certainly not uncommon, the world of thirty dollar professional gigs is far removed from the reality of small clubs like GaraGara, which translates to “totally empty.” The performers at GaraGara are often unpaid amateurs, and the money the club draws is pulled from the friends these performers can bring to the show. Without the potential of payment, the chances of a foreign band being interested in these small clubs are minimal. So, for GaraGara to put “USA” under our name was in itself a substantial draw for the curiosity seeker.

Thus, as we sheepishly entered the club and made awkward attempts to introduce ourselves, we were unwittingly becoming the first American band ever to set foot in GaraGara. The staff seemed eager to help us but unsure of how well we could communicate; thus, we began a long dance of a sound check wherein the staff would ask us basic questions that grew more and more complicated as we proved our competence in Japanese. “Do you want three mics?” mutated into “Do you want a mic for harmony vocals?” before finally ending up as “Does the lead vocal mic sound too thin?” Throughout this process we could notice the confused stares of the other bands as they shuffled in through the front door. Just like us, none of these bands had any clue who they would be playing with before arriving, and were understandably shocked to confront three American youths playing very fast, spasmodic rock and roll.

The awkward introductions we had made with the staff were doubly awkward with the other bands. Our collective nervousness and low-level competitive instinct made it difficult to navigate odd language mishaps, and there was a disbelief all around – familiar to most foreign residents who try to speak Japanese – as to our ability to speak any Japanese whatsoever. After sharing cigarettes, we lay back for a barrage of small talk. “You look like Frodo,” the lead singer of Lenny J Groove, the funk-rock band that followed us in the lineup, told our guitar player. “And you look like Matt Damon,” he said to me. We guessed each others’ ages, with the members of Hei Hei Bon Bon consistently underestimating and the members of Lenny J Groove operating under the misconception that we were straddling thirty. (At the time of this gig, none of us could legally drink in the U.S.)

After Lenny J Groove’s sound check Jacky Three, the headlining band, strode confidently into the room, played an extremely loud and blistering three songs of Led-Zeppelin style rock, and then split to eat dinner. Their guitarist stayed behind to make some arrangements with the owner, and we were able to talk to her for a few minutes. We stammered some, and she seemed to find us personable. She invited us out for drinks after the show, and we agreed, unwary of our last trains. Then we left the club to get some air and water.

By the time we returned the audience had started to arrive. Our American friends sat at small tables, eyeing and being eyed by the rest of the paying customers. Occasionally a spark of conversation would fly between these two camps, but it usually died for lack of fluency or interest. We tuned and took the stage, totally unsure of what might happen.

Our Japanese stage introduction was greeted by a smattering of laughter, and after our first song, a two minute, four-section number with a quick ending, there was a ten second patch of silence that seemed to go on for ever. Doug looked at me with an expression of terror. Then laughter erupted, and applause, and another round of laughter as Doug thanked the club owners for allowing us to play. We played a short set, so as to not overstay our welcome, and to glide as best we could on the “dancing bear effect.” In short: it’s not that the bear dances well, but that the bear dances at all.

Taking our seats, we could tell that alcohol had softened the atmosphere somewhat, and our more talkative friends were chatting up the usual patrons in remarkable fashion. Perhaps we had given them something to talk about. The other bands congratulated us, and we acknowledged lots of bemused faces. Lenny J Groove, who had seemed strangely nervous during their sound check, acted like wonderful fools onstage, throwing off charm as if it was as inexhaustible as air. The lead singer of Jacky Three threw her microphone cord wide like Roger Daltrey, and the band behind her was so tight it was no surprise when we later discovered they were professionals who were slumming that night as a favor to the club’s owner. Watching our friends interacting naturally with complete strangers, it was heartening to realize that the obstacles that often segregate Japanese night life and make it difficult for Japanese and foreigners to have friendly, casual interactions are not insurmountable. The members of Hei Hei Bon Bon quickly forgot about our performance and soaked in the joyful atmosphere.

Luckily, the club’s owner, Ushi, shared our appreciation. “You should come back here and play in December,” he said, paying us our money back for the drinks we’d bought. We nodded, fully aware that he wanted us back for the people we brought, not for our music. Pleading curfew to the members of Jacky Three, we settled on a later date to go out drinking and, knowing how to quit when we were ahead, slipped back out into the Osaka evening to catch the Kyoto-bound train.