Sunday, August 16, 2015

VISIONS FESTIVAL (Various Hackney Venues, 08/08/15)

If you like queues, Visions is the festival for you. If you do not like queues, you may want to proceed with caution. To be fair, what I saw was very good, especially Jens Lekman's twee dance party in St John-at-Hackney Church and Holy Fuck's much sweatier dance party down at Oval Space, but overall I spent almost much time moaning with my fellow punters outside venues than actually watching bands.
FUNKADELIC (London Camden Ballroom, 07/08/15)

I'm going to be honest here- Funkadelic have never quite lived up to my expectations live. I love their chaos, I love their character, I love the goddamn funk but sometimes they're just too messy to truly groove. And despite being in a venue with a decent soundsystem for once, the turgid sound-mix did not inspire me to get off my ass and jam. Plus, they didn't play The Best Guitar Instrumental Of All Time, an act worthy of Sir Nose D'voidoffunk himself.
SON LUX (London Rough Trade East, 07/08/15)

Usually I don't review in-stores, but Son Lux truly is something special. From their unusual sound- a hybrid of trip-hop, R&B and indie-rock, to their strange, poised energy their live performances are some of the most spine-tinglingly brilliant I've seen over the last few years. And whilst you might get the impression from their albums that Ryan Lott may be somewhat of an unapproachable, humourless type, on stage he's quite the opposite- down-to-earth and appreciative of even this modest audience. They deserve to be much bigger.
THE MYNABIRDS (London The Islington, 05/08/15)

Pleasant enough show from Laura Berhenn, who at times sounds like the missing link between Carole King and Beach House. But after two energetic gigs earlier in the week, this was a tad too sedate for me.
ANAMANAGUCHI (London XOYO, 04/08/15)

A short, sweet and oh-so-sweaty set from the chiptune masters, whose glistening synth-pop and neon aesthetics are the musical equivalent of downing three gallons of sherbet. And yet even they seemed relatively reserved compared to the utterly bonkers Kero Kero Bonito, who vibe is best described as halfway between "Harajuku" and "CBeebies".
ROY AYERS (London Ronnie Scott's, 03/08/15)

The vibraphone wizard is still a force to be reckoned with at the age of 74 and although his vocals aren't as powerful as they used to be, two-and-a-half hours of premium jazz-funk ain't to be sniffed at.
THE EARLIES (London Shacklewell Arms, 31/07/15)

When I was at Uni I discovered a wonderful half-Texan, half-Mancunian outfit named the Earlies, who combined 60's West Coast harmonies with psychedelic prog (and roughly several hundred instruments). Their live shows were always blissful, and I was deeply saddened when they disappeared into obscurity somewhere in the middle of '07. So you can only imagine my delight when I discovered they had not only reunited for a one-off tour, but that their London date coincided with my 30th birthday.

And what a show it was. Not only did they manage to get the whole 11-piece live band back together (quite a feat given the dimensions of the Shacklewell stage) but they still had that old magic, despite their self-depreciating stage patter. I actually have a greater appreciation of their more outre, abrasive material now than I did in 2006, but it was the likes of "One Of Us Is Dead" that really underlined to all present what a criminally underrated band they were. If this is truly the end for the Earlies, it was a fine note to bow out on - but if it isn't, let's hope we don't have to wait 'til 2023 for the next time.
EZRA FURMAN (London Abbey Road Studios, 30/07/15)

It's not like I'm obsessed with everyone's favourite transgender Springsteen-channelling Jew, but this is the fourth time I've seen him perform live in 2015. Tonight's show is a bit of an oddity as it's actually a recording for a live EP at the prestigious Abbey Road Studios, and as a result it's much more mannered than your typically unhinged Boyfriends gig. But despite Ezra being frazzled by an uncomfortable radio interview earlier that day, the band still put on one hell of a performance, dusting off under-appreciated gems from their back catalogue as well as "Lousy Connection" et al. The perfect pick-me-up on an otherwise awful day.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

SONS OF KEMET (London Lloyd Park, 18/07/15)

Shabaka Hutchings may appear to be involved with every other band in London at the moment, but Sons of Kemet may well be the best. Sax, tuba and two drums (one played by the mighty Seb Rochford), and a down and dirty post-jazz vibe that gets the whole of Walthamstow dancing. Awesome stuff for Awesome-stow.
PIKA (London Brixton Windmill, 16/07/15)

Fresh from eviscerating my eardrums with the mighty ACID MOTHERS TEMPLE a couple of weeks back, Pika's solo show is also worth a gander. Her solo guitar material is rough-edged yet kawaii, but its her noisy improvised sets with assorted other musicians that proves the real draw.

Review: HERE (Photo: Kimberley Ross)
EZRA FURMAN (w/ Guildford Boileroom, 08/07/15)

Once again an awkward, queer Jewish guy channeling Lou Reed and Bruce Springsteen puts on one of the scintillating live sets you ever will see. True, the Boileroom more than lived up to its name, but the oppressive humidity didn't put a dampener on Ezra and the Girlfriends' peerless energy and verve.
ACID MOTHERS TEMPLE (London Dome, 03/07/15)

Ancient and venerable psych-wizards once again declare war against my hearing, now with auxiliary support from Afrirampo's vivacious drummer Pika. Victory was ultimately theirs.
SEA OF BEES (London St John on Bethnal Green Church, 30/06/15)

Review: HERE
FFS (London Troxy, 29/06/15)

Despite their protestations that collaborations don't work, Franz Ferdinand and Sparks turn out to be a match made in heaven. Ron Mael still is the most terrifying man alive, Russell Mael has more energy in his late 60's than I do in my late 20's, and the whole set, from the Sparksified version of "Michael" to the camp majesty of "Achoo" is an arch, tongue-in-cheek delight from start to finish.
BOREDOMS (London Barbican, 27/06/15)

DID YOU KNOW: sitting a few feet from 88 people hammering cymbals in unison may be something you may want experience with earplugs wedged firmly in your earholes? In truth, this wasn't the greatest Boredoms show I've ever seen- it was overlong at 140 minutes, and cymbals are pretty limited as an instrument even in that sort of quantity, but goddamn, when it was good, it was truly transcendent. Particularly enjoyed the bit when it all went a bit Geinoh Yamashirogumi in the middle. DOOM! DOOM! DOOM!
NATALIE PRASS (London Islington Assembly Hall, 24/06/15)

Natalie Prass is a top songwriter and supernaturally charismatic, but the instrumentation tonight seemed a little weaksauce for someone known for her lush arrangements. Nice cameos from Jessie Ware and Ryan Adams though.
ALDEN PENNER AND MICHAEL CERA (London 100 Club, 23/06/15)

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The Ability To Hit A Note. Michael Cera is fine when playing bass guitar, or playing some socially awkward man-child, but he really should have left the songwriting/singing to the Unicorns frontman. They didn't even play "Careless Whisper". :-(
BLUR (London Hyde Park, 20/06/15)

As someone who was massively disappointed by Blur's last Hyde Park, I'm delighted at how much of a joy this was. Great staging, perfect balance of new stuff and hits, and the circle pit for "Song 2" was one of the most fun things I've been involved with for yonks.
THE STROKES (London Hyde Park, 18/06/15)

Julian Casablancas may have been on a heroic amount of drugs and the rest of the band rather workmanlike, but a bona fide greatest hits set is still not to be sniffed at. More enjoyable than it had any right to be.
THE GO! TEAM (London Village Underground, 17/06/15)

I first saw The Go! Team in 2005 and they were shit, so I'm glad to report they've improved immensely over the last decade. That might because maestro Ian Parton wrote the new albums to fit the live set-up better, but it's also because Ninja and co. have finally matched the energy that made the likes of "Huddle Formation" and "Ladyflash" so infectious in the first place.
DAN DEACON (London Oval Space, 16/06/15)

Review: HERE
LIIMA (London Village Underground, 15/06/15)

Electro-klang. Yeah, they're not as good as Efterklang were at their best- they're still a little loose and unfocused at times, but there's definitely promise here. And Casper and Rasmus remain two of the most endearingly enthusiastic people in music.
LITURGY (London Electrowerkz, 12/06/15)

Review: HERE

(Also, more importantly: Circuit des Yeux's haunting, Nico-ish songwriting was a lot more compelling than what I was sent to review. Very dark and atmospheric)
PERFUME GENIUS (London Royal Festival Hall, 11/06/15)

Glad to see Mike Hadreas has got over his stage fright, and his darker, more dramatic new material does have its merits, but for some reason, Perfume Genius still hasn't really clicked for me. At least I didn't fall asleep halfway through this time.
HEALTH (London Tufnell Park Dome, 10/06/15)

John Famiglietti whips his hair back and forth, their drummer looks like Zangief, and several hundred eardrums implode under a relentless electro-noise-rock barrage. HEALTH haven't changed a jot in the last seven years, and who would want them to?
KIKAGAKU MOYO (London Lexington, 09/06/15)

Japanese psych hippies bring mesmerising riffs, long hair and electric sitars to Pentonville Road. General vibe: "Bo Ningen at Woodstock".
FIELD DAY (London Victoria Park, 06/06/15-07/06/15)

Patti Smith performed one of the best albums ever with more energy than most a third of her age, Mac de Marco crowdsurfed halfway across Victoria Park, Savages and Ex Hex out-rocked half-a-dozen generic garage rock bands, Owen Pallett did his loop-pedallin' thang, Toumani Diabate and son laid on the Malian grooves with aplomb and I didn't get arrested for grievous bodily harm against the confederacy of fuckwits Field Day calls an audience. A not entirely disastrous weekend
PHARMAKON (London Tufnell Park Dome, 04/06/15)

Pharmakon: the sound Milo Yiannopoulos hears every time a woman opens her mouth. So apocalyptically intense that a speaker literally burst into flame.
NIGHT ENGINE (London Blackheart, 03/06/15)

Night Engine's Talking Heads-meets-Franz Ferdinand vibe works fantastically in small doses, but over the course of a full-length set reveals its limitations.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

MATT AND KIM (London Heaven, 28/05/15)

I suspect I'm a little too old to be attending Matt & Kim gigs now I'm approaching the big three-o, but their frantic synth-pop parties nonetheless provided a much-needed injection of unflagging energy into my ageing bones. Thought better than trying to crowdsurf though...
BATTLES (London Tufnell Park Dome, 27/05/15)

The avant-garde Brooklynites are a bit out of practice after a couple of years off the road, but there's nothing like watching John Stanier pummel the literal fuck out of a drum (not to mention his absurdly lofty hi-hat) to reinvigorate one's love of live music. As my Swedish friend once succinctly summed them up, "FUCKING BATTLES! BOOM BOOM BOOM!"
THE JULIE RUIN (London Electric Ballroom, 26/05/15)

Not everyone can carry off the "sparkly leotard" look, but then again not everyone is as much of a boss as Kathleen Hanna. Yeah, the rest of the Julie Ruin are pretty cool with their frenzied synth-heavy feminist punk-rock, but it's the ever-effervescent presence of one of the original Riot Grrrls that makes this show so damn fun.
EZRA FURMAN (London Lexingon, 21/05/15)

If Jonathan Richman and Bruce Springsteen were somehow genetically spliced during a catastrophic teleportation accident, Ezra Furman may be the happy result. His voice is nasal, his persona nebbish, but what stage presence! What energy! What songs! And that closing cover of Jackie Wilson's "Higher" was one of those sublime communal experiences that I've perhaps experienced only a dozen times over 1000 gigs. Simply brilliant.
LUBOMYR MELNYK (London Cafe Oto, 17/05/15)

Lubomyr Melnyk is a pretty odd guy, perhaps a little too in love with his self-professed genius to truly connect with, but there's no denying an master on the ivories. There's moments where his performance threatens to descends into self-indulgence, but the closing 45-minute piece "Windmills", making the utmost of his shimmering "continuous playing" style is one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard in concert.
IBEYI (London Islington Assembly Hall, 12/05/15)

Immensely soulful Yoruba-tinged R&B from the massively charismatic Cuban-French Diaz twins. They're only 20 years of age yet they've already got audiences eating of their hands- one can only wonder what heights they'll ascend to in the future.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

HAIKU SALUT (London St Pancras Old Church, 07/05/15)

The seats in the Old Church may have been almost as painful as the political news that awaited us on our departure, but for just under an hour we were able to forget the woes of the outside world with a typically delightful set of glitchy, twinkly multi-instrumental loveliness from the Derbyshire three-piece.
BRAIDS (London ATP Pop Up Venue, 01/05/15)

Review: HERE

Sunday, May 03, 2015

CALEXICO (London Shepherd's Bush Empire, 28/04/15)

Review: HERE
WILL BUTLER (London Scala, 23/04/15)

Will has always been the "fun" member of the ol' Arcade Fire, and this aspect certainly comes across in his solo shows. In truth, his songwriting and vocal skills are a little hit-and-miss, but his energy and enthusiasm made up for the odd duff track.
SCREAMING FEMALES (Brighton Hope & Ruin, 19/04/15)

Few bands are good enough for me to bother to travel to the south coast for, but Marissa Paternoster and the two other guys no-one really cares about are one of that rare breed. They only played for 50 minutes all said and done, but they packed it with enough guitar riffage to last a lifetime.
COLIN STETSON AND SARAH NEUFELD (London Islington Assembly Hall, 17/04/15)

As previously recounted , it is my sincere belief that Colin Stetson is some kind of wizard and we should probably burn him on the stake before it's too late. What he does with just three saxophones and some strategically-placed microphones falls somewhere beyond the laws of nature, coaxing out sounds and timbres that shouldn't be possible. And with the addition of the moderating influence of Sarah Neufeld's warm, complex string arrangements, his compositions are lent an emotional heft to match their technical prowess. Incredible.
TRUST FUND (London Sebright Arms, 13/04/15)

Ellis Jones' scrappy lo-fi indie pop is great fun on record, but doesn't quite click with me in the overheated environs of the Sebright Arms.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

BROKEN RECORDS (London Borderline, 09/04/15)

I last saw Broken Records in 2009, and to an extent, I wish that was still the case. They're still good at what they do, but having ditched their more orchestral elements for bog-standard indie-folk, plus taking into account my own changing tastes in music, they're no longer really for me.
CHILLY GONZALES (London Rough Trade East, 09/04/15)

I don't normally blog about in-stores but bloody hell, this was a good 'un. Even though it was "just" an early evening freebie, we got no less than 70 minutes of prime Chilly tinkling the ivories and imparting unto us compositional theory with his trademark flair and humour. This time he's partnered with a string quartet, who both ornament his own material, and provide colour to his explanations of how music actually works, covering everything from the violin techniques utilised in Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" to the use of arpeggios by musicians from Beethoven to Daft Punk. Brilliant, illuminating and always worth your time.
TWEAK BIRD (London Corsica Studios, 08/04/15)

I like my pretentious, beard-strokey music as much as the last ponce, but sometimes all you really need are riffs that could level cities. Amazing what a racket two guys can make, even if one of them does sound a bit like Steve Buscemi on helium.

Monday, April 06, 2015

卿は、私はこの国から抜け出すためにあなたを必要とするつもりだ- Or "Adamu Erumahadi Vs. The State of Japan"

In April 2014, I spent a fortnight being a stereotype in Japan. A year later, I decided to write about it.


What's a guy to do in Tokyo whilst horribly jetlagged, in dire need of a shower, yet unable to access the sweet succour of a hotel bedroom for another four hours? According to my vague knowledge of Japanese pop-culture, the answer is obviously "hara-kiri", but being completely devoid of honour or respect for my fellow man, I decided to have a wander instead.

Shinjuku is quite an experience, even for someone accustomed to the madness of Times and Leicester Squares; an astoundingly dense, exuberant warren of flashing neon, immaculately dressed teenagers and businesses crammed into every square inch of real estate. One building I passed had a veterinarian on the ground floor, a jazz bar on the first, a ramen restaurant on the second and a clothes shop on the third and that was one of the tamer examples (let's just say elements of the district have a certain...Soho-esque vibe about them). The station is even more crazy - not only is it, by some distance, the busiest station in the world, but it exists somewhere in the midst of an eight-storey department store that makes Westfield look like a Costcutter.

My hotel for the night (the rather swish Granbell Shinjuku) was in the Kabuki-cho ward, an area built originally to be a fancy theatre district but soon fell under yakuza influence and is now famed for its pachinko parlours and illicit brothels. In fact, I'm pretty sure I spied a gangster boss doing his rounds in his black Mercedes- as the chubby, sixty-something figure in golfing gear popped into various slightly suspect buildings, a myriad dodgy looking characters bowed deeply around him as his bodyguard looked on. Even though Japan's organised crime gangs are well known for being essentially harmless to Westerners (as long as they don't get involved in anything dodgy), it was still slightly intimidating so I'm happy to report I'm still in possession of all my fingers.

But that's not to say Shinjuku is just a den of sin and consumerism (sadly). The Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is one of the city's most beloved parks and it's easy to see why, especially during cherry blossom season - which due to a benevolent quirk of weather endured slightly later than usual in 2014. The Garden combines French, English and Japanese styles, and in my sleep-deprived state, it felt like the most beautiful place I'd ever seen.


The next morning after experiencing the wonders of Tokyo's subway system at rush hour, I jumped on a Shinkansen (the proverbial "bullet train") and made my way to Kyoto. It's nicknamed "The City Of Ten-Thousand Shrines" and over the course of four days I managed to visit roughly half of them.

My hotel wasn't exactly the most high-class establishment, reeking of cigarette smoke and having the most compact bathroom known to man, but it did have the advantage of being literally next to Kyoto Station. And I spent a surprising amount of time there, for Kyoto Station, whilst inevitably being denounced as a carbuncle on the landscape by all and sundry when it was remodelled, is a bloody cool building. At the western edge of the station, there's an 11-story staircase that leads up to an open-topped plaza that provides great views of the city, and lights up with fancy pictures and messages at various points, because it's a giant staircase and can do what it damn well wants. (Also, there's a Mr Donut on the first floor, and Mr Donut may rival Mr Kipling as a vendor of sugar-filled confectionaries). I even watched a vocal harmony group cover Queen there, because that's just how Kyoto rolls.

My first port of call was the Buddhist temple of To-Ji to the south-west of the station. To-Ji was built in 796 AD and once lay at the eastern edge of the now demolished gate known as Rashomon (immortalised in a Kurosawa film and a throwaway joke in The Simpsons.) It has the tallest wooden pagoda in the country, and once a month plays host to a famous flea market- which happily took place the day I was there (the teriyaki stall is really good if you ever get the chance to sample it).

I then slowly meandered my way to one of the city's greatest landmarks via a number of lesser known temples. Two that stick in my mind are the Nishi Honganji, a dark, intimidating piece of temple architecture where a choir of monks were practising their mesmerising hymnals, and Renkoji Temple, a charming oasis of understated serenity down an anonymous side-street. But none could quite top the hill-top sanctuary of Kiyomizu, which despite being a bit of a tourist trap, is pretty breathtaking (even though half of it was under scaffolding due to restoration works). One famous feature are two "love stones" (no tittering at the back) placed 20 feet apart- if a pilgrim can successfully traverse between the two with their eyes closed, then they will find true love. I didn't, and I'm still single so I guess it's probably true.

I ended the day exploring the Gion district, historically associated with geisha but for me associated with an average Indian meal. To my surprise, curry houses are as popular in Japan as they are in Britain, and because the staff normally speak some English, are useful for avoiding accidental seafood-related death. I also saw this cute sign, because Japan.

Tuesday was the day I realised to my cost that Kyoto is a lot bigger than it looks on the maps they give you at the information desks (I still don't think my legs have recovered yet). Much of Kyoto was rebuilt after WWII in a rather anonymous, functional style, and if you don't know where you're going, you might wonder what all the fuss is about. Thankfully Ni-Jo Castle, the Kyoto residence of the first Tokugawa Shogun (one of the most influential figures in Japanese history) more than made up for the 45 minute walk past identikit office blocks I endured to get there. With its incredible "karamon" gate and ancient tapestries it's a marvel, although its famous nightingale floors (which squeak to alert guards of potential ninja assassins) do get slightly irritating after a while. 

After a detour to the Kyoto Imperial Palace Gardens (with its impressive blossoms), Shimigano Shrine and the myriad random side roads and residential districts of north Kyoto, I accidentally stumbled on the wonderful Daisen-In zen temple, a stunning example of that austere school of architecture, and one unusually well-provisioned for English speakers. No photos were allowed inside, but the traditional rock garden, symbolising the order and chaos of life was "pretty deep man", I'd be saying if I was a dickhead.

And then to Kinkaku-ji, the legendary "Golden Temple". In truth, it's not the original building (which was burned down by an unstable Buddhist monk in the 1950's), but its gold-leafed facade, suspended above a lake is impressive regardless. It was also the first (but certainly not the last) moment of my journey where I partook in the classical temple refreshment of a bowl of green tea, and a small sweet - in this case filled with red bean paste, which for those that are curious, tastes like marzipan but with a less sweet edge. It's no Wispa Gold, but it'll do.

My third day in Kyoto involved venturing out of the city proper and into the western suburb of Arashiyama (which according to Wikipedia, translates to the awesome-sounding "STORM MOUNTAIN"). Its centerpiece, Tenryu-ji Temple, is one of the finest temples I saw in Japan, with a spectacular garden designed by 14th century monk Musō Soseki. For almost half a millennium, the priests of Tenryu-ji came to an arrangement with Ming dynasty China that allowed them to facilitate much of the legitimate trade between the two great Asian powers, and that no doubt explains why this compound is so pimpin'.

To the north of the temple is an impressive bamboo forest, and to the north of that are the Okochi Sanso Gardens. Denjiro Okochi was a B&W-era film star specialising in period dramas who bought a hideaway in the hills of Arashiyama at the height of his fame, and after he died in 1962, the grounds were opened to the public. Although it costs 1,000 Yen (£7) to enter, it's a subtly wonderful place with some amazing views, a different aspect for each of the four seasons, and the price of admission includes a free bowl of green tea. Plus, not too many gaijin plague the place, so it's pretty serene to boot.

And then there was Arashiyama Park, with its rather intimidating hill. I conducted a intense internal debate with myself whether it was worth climbing to the top, but I realised I'd regret it if I didn't and was rewarded with this. So that was nice.

I then made the biggest mis-step of my trip: I went to Osaka. Osaka is the Los Angeles of Japan, full of obnoxious tourists and flashy American chains and whilst I'm sure it has its charms, I managed to avoid most of them. I got lost in the god-forsaken labyrinth of unadulterated chaos of Osaka-Umeda station and ended up 15 miles out in Kobe whilst trying to find the aquarium and ended up on a giant ferris wheel on top of a shopping mall because I think I was mentally hoping that it would collapse and at least I wouldn't have to experience Osaka any more. And that's all I'll say about that.

I was at a bit of a loss to do on my last day before heading to Kanazawa, but I felt that I should take full advantage of my JR Pass and explore the region at large. So I went to Uji, a small town associated with green tea, the "Tale of Genji" (an ancient and legendary story of a young prince navigating the politics and boudoirs of 10th century Japan) and the thousand year old majesty of the Byodo-In Phoenix Hall. There's not much there except green tea flavoured Mr Whippy's and the temple, but damn, if that temple isn't one of the finest in the county. Plus, unlike many of the other fancy religious establishments, it's actually fully open to the public (although sadly, I wasn't aware of that at the time).

On the same train line as Uji is the ancient Japanese capital of Nara, so I decided that, in the absence of any other plans, I'd check the place out. And my God, that was one of the better ideas I've had in my life. Not only does it have some of the most breathtaking sights the country has to offer (the Todai-ji was the biggest wooden structure in the world for many centuries, and the 15 meter high bronze Buddha within is one of the most incredible things I've ever seen), but the place is essentially ruled by deer, who will destroy you without a second thought:


And then because I'm an idiot I went back to Osaka because I REALLY wanted to see the aquarium (by this stage I was starting to get shrine fatigue and needed something a bit less 16th century). Needless to say I got lost in a random industrial estate for an hour and a half but finally made my way there. I'm not a big nature buff, but it wowed me nonetheless- and has the advantage of being open quite late, so fits in well between the "temple-exploring" and "getting rat-arsed on Asahi" parts of the day.


Kanazawa was a surprise to me. I went there purely to meet up with my friend Gabi, and was expecting a small provincial town constructed from the same architectually dull mould as central Kyoto. Little did I know that Kanazawa is a bustling, modern, ambitious city which I suspect will become a big deal once its new Shinkansen line opens this year. Whilst a lot of the city is shiny and fancy and new, it retains a small samurai district (lacking actual samurai, unfortunately) and its justifiably renowned 17th century garden, Kenroku-en. If you do find yourself there, I recommend the stupidly named Hotel Trusty- it was the second cheapest, yet most comfortable hotel I stayed in  Japan.


In truth, I only visited Nagano because it was a convenient point to break up my journey back to Tokyo - my guide book didn't even bother to cover it except in the most cursory detail. But in truth, it may well have been the ultimate highlight of my trip. Nagano itself is a bit of an odd place- it has top-level infrastructure (including a Shinkansen line) plenty of English-language signage thanks to the Winter Olympics taking place there in the 90's, and a cool hipster-ish vibe that reminded me a bit of Boulder, Colorado. 

The lampposts are kawaii, there's an "British pub" called the Red Dragon that serves real ale, a converted Routemaster posing as a restaurant, and the only burrito joint I saw in Japan. (Also, its traffic lights randomly play a Robert Burns ditty for reasons as yet unascertained.) But despite being quite "Western" in many ways, its ski-slopes and holiday resorts remain mostly patronised by the Japanese, meaning you won't encounter that many people that speak English. But that's no real obstacle, as some of the friendliest and most helpful people I met during my trip were in Nagano.

I only had 24 hours in the city, but was determined to make the most of it. I heard there was a series of mountain-top shrines accessible by bus, so with the aid of some hastily scrawled diagrams from a friendly bus station assistant, I found my way to Togakushi. I sadly only had time to visit the lower and middle shrines (I'd have missed the last bus back if I'd trekked to the upper shrine and wasn't particularly on board with being eaten by a mountain bear) but their straightforward simplicity and isolation was a pleasant tonic for the ostentatious, tourist-filled temples I'd seen elsewhere. Also, even though the temperature was a very acceptable 23C down in Nagano proper, the middle shrine was still half-covered with snow. I'd make a pun about it being "pretty COOL", but even I have some standards.

And of course, there was Zenkoji Temple. It was 8 in the morning, the weather was mild with a light breeze, cherry blossom still adorned the trees and a church choir was practicing in the distance. The temple buildings were festooned with flags of all colours, the smell of incense wafted through the air, and in truth, I don't think I've ever experienced anything so perfect in my life. Beneath the temple is a pitch-black sanctuary, in which the holiest of truths is supposed to reside and that was special enough, but just to explore and appreciate the natural beauty of the trees and gardens in conjunction with the grandeur of the temple itself was an experience I'll never forget.

After all the excitement of the previous week, my return to Tokyo was a bit of an anti-climax. The Tokyo Imperial Palace Gardens seemed a bit ordinary compared to what I'd explored in Kyoto and Kanazawa, and many of the other places I wanted to visit were closed (my hotel for the week, the Bellclassic, come highly recommended though- it's next to a very well-connected station which sells the most delicious cheesecake known to man). But I did get to visit the New Dug jazz kissa, a tiny bar hidden under a non-descript building near Shinjuku Station that appears in Murakami's "Norwegian Wood". There, I listened to rare jazz records and supped on whisky sours and got chatting to a Japanese hipster named Misato about Bo Ningen and Savages and Young Fathers, because of course that had to happen. So it wasn't all bad.

Monday saw the start of Golden Week, a series of bank holidays that essentially acts as a week-long break for many Japanese people, and therefore heralded MASS TRANSPORT CHAOS as everyone journeyed out of the city to enjoy the sunshine and nature and so forth. I chose that day to visit Kamakura, because going to one of Japan's most popular coastal tourist attractions on a bank holiday was clearly a sensible and well-thought-through idea. I will say that the Great Buddha lived up to its name, I did get a certain glow from visiting Kamakura Beach after recalling it was a focal plot point in Otomo's batshit, but brilliant satire Roujin Z, and I was amused that the first awful-looking kebab house I saw in the country was about 20 foot from one of Japan's most holy relics. But overall it was a humid, crowded, stressful experience and I came back from it a little disappointed.

Tuesday was the inevitable trip to Akihabara, Tokyo's (in)famous geek district and simultaneously the most awesome and creepiest place I've been to in my time. I spent almost £200 purchasing some incredibly nerdy stuff (including a Persona 3 art book, a Shinra Corporation tea-towel and Xenogears "Perfect Works", which I've lusted after for 15 years) and admired the sheer range of video game/anime memorabilia, but the slightly sinister concept behind maid cafes and the astounding amount of floor-space given over to hentai (and more pertinently, hentai of a lolita-ish bent) was, to frankly, rather disturbing.

Then to Asakusa, one of the city's most colourful temples, and the Tokyo Skytree, a half-mile high communications tower built specifically to taunt vertigo sufferers. Spending upwards of £20 to explore an observation deck isn't normally my bag, but I was bored, I had the cash and in the event, it was damn impressive even though I did feel like I was going to die at any given moment.

As I was walking back to Ueno just after sunset, I passed the Shitaya Shrine near Ueno. I was happening to be listening to this track by Geinoh Yamashirogumi (the veteran musical collective responsible for the Akira soundtrack), and it was just the most atmospheric moments. Sometimes it's the smallest, most unexpected moments that stick with you.

On Wednesday, I headed to Nikko, the burial place of the Tokugawa Shogun (the same guy who behind the Niji-jo Castle in Kyoto.) It was absolutely pissing it down, but it's an absolutely breathtaking complex- most notably, it's home to the wooden carving of three monkeys that inspired the phrase "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil".  It's just a shame that I was too drenched in rainwater to want to explore the place with the attention it deserved.

After drying out my clothes and eating my customary Saizeriya pizza (all chain restaurants should serve parma ham as a side), I went to the fancy district of Ebisu to check out my first gig on Asian soil- American twee-popper Peach Kelli Pop. They were enjoyable enough, but the real stars were Miila and the Geeks, a post-punk delight punctuated with squalling saxophones.

Thursday was the day I decided to tick off all the miscellanea off my to-do list- exploring the mindblowing food hall of Seibu Ikebukuru, escaping a giant Gundam, visiting a tiny avant-garde gallery (Pragmata) recommend by the hipster at New Dug and operated by a former Londoner of Greek descent, and accidentally stumbling on the Bridgestone Museum of Art, which had a delightful exhibition on Japanese artists working in the Western style but influenced by Chinese subjects. I also attended the UFO Club, a cross between the 100 Club and Cafe Oto, where all the patrons smoked roll-ups and wore berets, and the bands were very pretentious. Comfy sofas though.

On Friday, I decided on a whim I wanted to at least try to see Mount Fuji before I buggered off back to Britain. Unfortunately, the cloud cover scuppered that plan, but Hakone and Lake Ashi were scenic enough to mitigate my disappointment. There's also a sky-car that takes you up to the volcanic peaks, if you're into the all-encompassing smell of sulphur.

Then I rushed back to Tokyo to make the most of my appointment at the Studio Ghibli museum, which as anyone who knows me will know, was one of the major reasons I wanted to visit Japan in the first place. And what a wonderful place it is, in the truest sense of the world. It's as perfect a reflection of Miyazaki's modus operandi as it's possible to build in this imperfect world, a modest, magical building that left me beaming ear to ear for the whole two hours I was there. I feel loathe to spoil the surprises and quirks the museum holds, but for anyone who has the slightest love of Ghibli films (or animation in general), it's an absolute must.

And then I went to the Robot Restaurant back in old gangster-filled Kabuki-cho, because I'd been told it was the kind of thing you'll only experience in Japan. And they were fucking right about that.

Fully aware that I'd be guilt-tripped into oblivion if I didn't buy some souvenirs for the people who have the misfortune to be related to me, I spent my final morning at "Oriental Bazaar" in the colourful Harajuku district, best known for girls who dress as illustrated (thankfully for all concerned, I decided to stick with my trademark "tatty jeans and band t-shirt" combo, or else I'd be languishing in  jail for crimes against humanity). And as terrible as it may sound, you will not find a better place to buy reasonably priced crap for your relatives - I was particularly proud of the weird nodding cat clock I got for my sister.

After escaping the eye-popping Harajuku fashions, the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography provided an excellently high-brow way to while away the afternoon with a superb exhibition of Robert Capa's wartime photography (augmented by flawless English captions throughout), whilst La Folle Journee wrapped up the best fortnight of my life with a performance of Beethoven's 5th (DUH-DUH-DUH-DUHHHH) at the Tokyo International Forum. Culture!

And then I went home and slept for two days. The end.