Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Hidden Tokyo: Sing It Out

The subcultures, musical minorities and oddities in any society cannot survive in the major congestion zones. The niche-ness of their audience cannot generate enough income to rent land in Shibuya, Shinjuku or Marunouchi.So they move to the sidelines of the city. Like Iriya.

Most specifically, the minyo osakaba (folk song bars) of Iriya. Off towards the post-Ueno end of the Hibiya line, it was not a place I ever expected to get out of the station. However, when you get an invitation to go hang out with one of the great ethnomusicologists specialized in Japan, you do not say no.

So out of the station I skipped, just to be confronted with the soaring bulk that is the Skytree, which shines and looms over the area like a futuristic redwood, half-hidden by the clouds. The first stop on this adventure was Asakusa Oiwake, perhaps one of the most famous and accessible minyo bars. After beating a drum to announce your presence, you crawl up a flight of stairs into a tatami room with a tiny stage area, surrounded by shamisen, drums and plaques with the names and allegiances of the various musicians (who also double as waiters).

I got to hang out with several of my graduate school professors, along with a random bunch of other people. The show itself was great, a mix of folk songs from Tohoku, along with a couple dances (naturally performed by the youngest, cutest lad in the troupe) and some serious tsugaru shamisen showing-off. But the really neat part is that patrons can then come up to sing their favorite minyo live, accompanied by the musicians. As there are several thousand different songs, with various regional variations (and no scores) it is a pretty impressive feat.

After a couple hours and rounds of sake, it was time to move on to Midori... which even D-Sensei said was more of a 'cultural experience'... intriguing! Down a block and several slalom-ing side streets, only distinguished by a small board, Midori is owned by one of the best minyo musicians and singers in Japan, and named after his wife, who is also an astounding singer.

I am pretty much incapable of singing minyo (with the exception of Okinawa's Asadoya Yunta), as the amount of vocal fold destruction necessary makes my operatically-trained soul shiver, but I must admit it is a fascinating bit of culture, all the better as it comes served with tasty side dishes (spicy eggplant) and endless rounds of beer and sake.

Unsteady on our feet, and seeking a taxi to Uguisudani, we came across the oddly named place above (which roughly translates to: Under?stand). After much deliberation, we came to the consensus that it is either a question store, or a place people go to listen to incredibly convoluted diatribes about nuclear physics... or the cleaning habits of muskrats... or zoroastrianism. Mysterious Iriya.


  1. Tsugaru shamisen in Iriya? ほん?とうに!

    I know the area - it is in the shitamachi, after all (grin!) - but I never knew it had such deep rural roots.

    PS: I've just spent a few minutes having fun and watching the videos on Oiwake's site.

  2. So after reading this post, I immediate went to google and youtube to hunt down some Asadoya Yunta and minyo lol Really great stuff. And now I know that the appropriate term for the music my mother-in-law sings in karaoke is probably minyo and not enka (though some of the pop tunes are enka).
    I really like the Okinawan style of minyo. I feel like the beach is right outside my window when I listen to it..! ~w~)

    1. Well, there is a debate whether Okinawan songs are actually minyo... but I agree, it is such lovely chill music.
      If you ever make it to Tokyo, there is an amazing Okinawan restaurant we should go to!