We are leaving Thursday morning for a brief, one-stop weekend show in Tokyo. It’s been almost two years since Allister was last in Japan and, although we’ll spend almost as much time in the air as we will on the ground, I am extremely excited. People frequently ask me what it is that makes Japan so special; why it is that we tour over there more than we do in the U.S. The obvious answer, I think, is because we can. We’ve toured there enough that we are able to sell out small clubs, drawing a few hundred kids to our shows and making it financially worthwhile for us to continue to play and release records there. The more subtle reason, though, is one built more on friendship, camaraderie, and an appreciation of cultural differences.
In 2006 we did a three month tour of Japan with the Japanese band, Ellegarden. To this day, I think we still hold the record for the longest Japanese tour by an American band. We played in every major city from Sapporo, on the northern island of Hokkaido, down to the far southern city of Fukuoka, and the rarely traveled islands of Kyushu and Shikoku. We played in a myriad of small towns and completely immersed ourselves in a climate and culture that was vastly different from the one we were used to. Although it wasn’t the first time we had been in Japan (it was perhaps the fifth or sixth time), it was the first time we truly got to experience the people and the culture. And as contrived and cliched as it sounds, that trip changed my life.
Most bands that tour Japan play shows in only three or four major cities before they turn right around and fly home. They barely have time to take a breath before they get back on the plane. Sure, they’ll most likely be taken out to local restaurants to sample traditional cuisine, or get a chance to ride the bullet train from one city to the next, but they’ll never really get to know the people or the local customs. Our tour in 2006 allowed us to actually spend time getting to know the more traditional parts of Japan, as well as getting to know the people.
Ellegarden, at the time, was THE biggest band in Japan. Japanese radio was playing them non-stop and their record was flying off the shelves, yet they were some of the most humble guys I’ve ever met. With the exception of maybe six or seven shows, every venue we played held no more than four hundred. Kids were lined up for blocks outside the clubs, most without tickets, just for a chance to get an autograph or a picture with them. While the band could have played every night to three or four thousand, Ellegarden chose the intimacy of small venues because they wanted to be able to connect with their fans. It was a breath of fresh air in the world of “mainstream” punk rock and it was an attitude I respected a great deal.
They traveled with a crew of about twelve people, none of whom we had met prior to the tour. Slowly, over the course of three months, we got a chance to know all of them. We spent a good portion of every day working with them and, at night, I found myself quite often at the local izakayas (bars) drinking beer and sampling various flavors of Sake with them. The mutual respect we had for each other was evident as they did their best to speak and learn English, and we did our best to speak and learn Japanese. We would stay up well into the early morning hours, drinking and telling stories by drawing pictures or looking up words and phrases in our pocket dictionaries.
We also shared quite a few new experiences. We conquered the Japanese tradition of Wanko Soba together in the town of Morioka, a few of us got tattooed together by a Japanese tattoo master in Shikoku, and, perhaps most poignantly, we toured the WWII museum together in Hiroshima, collectively moved almost to tears by the magnitude of destruction caused by the atomic bomb.
Throughout those three months, we learned quite a lot about our new Japanese friends’ lives and culture, and we developed an extraordinarily close bond with some of them in a relatively short time. We discovered that many of them shared some of the same ideals and beliefs that we did, whether it was about music or life. Their generosity and hospitality was unparalleled. Not once during that trip did we ever feel like outsiders. In fact, the bond was so strong between us that almost the entire band and crew drove us to the airport on our last day. There, in the middle of the airport, stood twelve grown men, crying and hugging goodbye.
Inside Tokyo’s Narita airport, there are escalators that descend to the departure gates. Above these escalators is a line of tall glass windows. It is customary for people to stand behind these windows and wave last goodbyes to their loved ones as they disappear down to the lower level. I will never forget the image of our new friends that day, waving and saluting goodbye to us as we rode down those escalators. I suppose this is one of the main reasons I love touring in Japan. That intense feeling of kinship and camaraderie always seems to get rekindled every time I return. And I don’t think this time will be any different. Kampai!