Gūzen: Happenstance, or Going with the Flow in Tokyo (Part 1)

Words come in and out of trend frequently in the English language. I'm sure in other languages this is also true, but for the USA a lot of these words are related to food, technology, and slang. "Organic" is one of them, of course. The funny thing is, "organic" is how Nick Kurosawa described our recent trip to Japan; a full three weeks of going with the flow and doing what felt most natural. I totally agree. There were, on almost every single day, so many coincidences that happened to us it's been a task to recount every one of them. I'm sure there're still several I've forgotten, lost to time and memory. "Gūzen" is the Japanese equivalent to coincidence, or what our whole trip felt like — happenstance after happenstance, we were in a state of flow so natural (organic?) that we kept looking at each other throughout the trip, laughing, bewildered, wondering what the hell was going on. Because we did so much during our time in Tokyo, I've decided to recount the majority of our memories by locations: Tokyo neighborhoods with the exception of Fujisawa, a surf-friendly city about an hour's train ride south of Japan's capital city. At the least, I hope you enjoy reading this recount of memorable times we shared in Tokyo (I'm definitely going to forget to write some stuff here, simply because of the amount of the things we did along with jet lag and exhaustion). At the most, I hope it compels you to listen to Nick's 6-song debut EP and grab a physical copy of Your Song Is Good's EP, which we released in collaboration with Kakubarhythm. And if you're in Honolulu on June 28th, Nick is organizing a night of live music with his band and a photographic recap of our Japan trip. It's happening at ARS Café from 6-9pm, free entry. Read part two here.
Hello, Haneda. Photo by Leimomi Bong.

Higashi-Nakano

We booked a three-story AirBnb in Higashi Nakano. Why? Three-stories, because we would at one point have eight people (full grown adults) staying under the same roof, we all needed some level of privacy and space, as well as a place to hang out and cook meals together. Higashi Nakano, because our friend Jun Saito lives in the area, so we wanted to be close to him and, on occasion, be privy to his best recommendations for food and drink in the neighborhood. Me, Leimomi, and Nick took the same flight from Honolulu to Haneda on ANA Airlines. We would be flying out on the same flight home three weeks later, too. My friend from high school days (skateboarding days, too), Justin Nakasone, would be arriving just short of two hours after us. Upon arrival on Wednesday, April 18th, I messaged Jun about the band's rehearsal (Jun is the leader of Your Song Is Good), hoping we could meet them at the studio before rehearsal time was up — Nick needed to meet the band and run through "We're Not To Blame" at least once before the live concert on Sunday. This would be his first time meeting the band, and the first time singing the tune with a full band. Our AirBnb was located relatively the same distance from three different train stations — Ōkubo, Shin-Ōkubo, and Higashi-Nakano. The evening we landed, we took a taxi from Shin-Ōkubo station to the spot. Justin's flight would be landing almost the same time we were hopping into the car. How much time did we have to get to the studio before YSIG finished rehearsal? Not much, but just enough to wait for Justin to arrive at the AirBnb. Turned out he couldn't hail a cab for the life of him, so he walked a good 10-15 minutes from Shin-Ōkubo. Sweaty but happy to see us (and meeting Nick for the first time), Justin joined our trio to form a quartet bound for Sasazuka, a station entirely foreign to us. We trusted Google Maps would find our way for us, and it did — not without us first making a pitstop at FamilyMart. This would be our first drink of alcohol in the country. And because you can drink practically (literally?) anywhere in Japan, Nick and I giddily grabbed chu-hi's and gulped them down on the train ride over. Justin had never heard Nick sing before. We arrived at YSIG's rehearsal with five minutes left of practice time — just enough to introduce Nick to the band and go over a few notes on the charts. We remember getting into it, me Lei and Justin taking photos somewhat frantically, and seeing Justin snapping away with the hugest smile ever. This was the first time he heard Nick sing, and I'm pretty sure he fell in love right there. Who wouldn't? We helped the band pack up their gear, then Jun took us to an izakaya near our AirBnb. "It's an ordinary izakaya," he told us, "futsū". Nothing special. But we hadn't been in Tokyo for more than 12 hours, and we couldn't care if this place was futsū. We already knew it was gonna be good. Later that evening we walked down some back streets and found ourselves home, the first night of 21 total. In the morning, our quartet stumbled upon a quaint coffee shop, Jack's. We definitely fell in love with the cafe right away, with its charming decor of miniature bicycles and slight zig zagging bar with wooden stools, siphon coffee, and Jack himself (I'm actually not sure what his real name is). Jack was amicable and humorous — Justin took his photo and Jack joked, "Please, no pictures. I'm a wanted man." We laughed. Turns out Jack opened the coffee shop some 40 years ago. Turns out, Jun's wife's grandmother loves Jack's cafe, too. Gūzen? I mean, what are the odds that of all the coffee shops in Higashi Nakano we would choose to step into this one (and we almost didn't!) Our goal that morning was to grocery shop. We found Summit on the main street. We got there around 9am, but it didn't open until 9:30am or something like that — which we're not used to, since most grocery stores in Hawaii open real early. No matter, we hung around until the doors opened, at which point about a dozen locals were waiting with us for Summit to welcome us in. The two things I will remember most about Summit are the five dollar brick oven-fired pizzas — I bought one, but should've bought more in retrospect — and the cabbage. We got back to the house and cooked fried rice, and goddamn was the cabbage tasty. I'm not used to that in Hawaii, usually our cabbage is pretty weak on flavor. This changed my perception of what cabbage could be. (I didn't take any pictures of the cabbage, because I didn't need to. The memory will be with me always.) Later that day the rest of the Higashi Nakano crew would be arriving: Mark Kushimi, Hideki Yamamoto, Aly Ishikuni-Sasaki and Travis Sasaki all landed on April 19th and, with the exception of Hideki, collectively made their way to the spot. We weren't home when they arrived, instead we were making our way to Tokyo Cultuart by Beams in Harajuku. We're going to miss that spot in Higashi Nakano, spacious enough for eight to sleep, cozy enough for everyone to hang out in the living room together like family. Our last night there, a few nights after the weekend's Soul Time gigs, we had a shabu shabu party where Jun brought over the most delicious meats as well as this Suntory draft beer thing you attach to a beer can, allowing you to create foam while pouring as if it were on tap. We all got really drunk. Nick invented a joke about getting barreled at Makapuu — "Makapu-ppu-ppu-ppu!". The joke lasted the rest of our trip, and never failed to arise whenever we were drinking. Japanese ingenuity is marvelous.

Harajuku

This year and last year, we honestly didn't explore much of Harajuku. There's Takeshita-dori, sure, a hyper-crowded, hyper-colorful version of the old International Marketplace. We'd walk through it just to get to the other side, since there's not really a quicker way to get to Tokyo Cultuart, the art gallery which hosts the opening parties of Soul Time in Tokyo. I sense that Harajuku, despite it's reputation, has a lot more to offer, we just haven't really gone looking for it yet. Mark Kushimi tipped us to a saag paneer-style eatery, Yogoro, where the pork curry sells out too quick. Lei and I made it there with Yoshi Ogawa of Tokyo Cultuart on one of our last days of the trip. The pork sold out that day, same as when Mark went a couple weeks prior. We were standing outside in the drizzle and just before three seats opened up the owner taped a sign to the entrance door, "pork sold out". We entered and enjoyed our meal regardless, but I do wonder.
Roger in Harajuku.
Around the corner from Tokyo Cultuart.
While roaming the streets on our first day in Harajuku, Nick mentioned that a Hawaii friend of his works at a coffee shop in Harajuku. Kid you not, immediately after he mentioned it, we look to left and see Ryan Lau standing behind a coffee bar. Ryan is the friend Nick mentioned. Turns out, I skated with Ryan a bunch of times back in the day. Crazy timing, small world. Gūzen. At Tokyo Cultuart on our second day of the trip, we installed the artwork for our second annual Soul Time in Tokyo. This year, I suggested we invite visual artists from Hawaii and Japan to re-interpret artwork from releases in the Aloha Got Soul catalog (with the exception of Na Mele A Ka Haku, available via EM Records). From Hawaii, Gabrielle Sanehira, Kūha'o Zane, Mark Kushimi, and Travis Sasaki contributed their album interpretations, some ending up bigger than others (Mark's piece was a 30" by 30" framed photograph). From Tokyo, artists Joji Nakamura, New Co. (Yoshizawa Masatomo, Daijiro Ohara), Ran Tondabayashi, and Satomi Yamauchi shared their inspired artwork. The releases selected as inspiration were: Chucky Boy Chock & Oahu Brand, Eddie Suzuki's New Hawaii, Tender Leaf, and Na Mele A Ka Haku. On that second day, Hideki, Travis and Aly arrived at Tokyo Cultuart after settling in at the AirBnb. For the rest of the afternoon, we hung out, installed artwork, took breaks on the balcony, and found ourselves blowing up this palm tree inflatable thing that Jun bought in Hawaii in hopes of using it as a beer cooler for the event. It worked perfectly, the following day we had cases of Kona Brewing Company beer to give away for free at Soul Time. That night, Jun (busy guy that he is) had a radio interview to record with Tokyo FM World. "Wanna join me?" he asked us. Yes, of course. After eating the fastest meal ever — maybe 3 minutes tops to finish everything — we cab-pooled in a hurry to the station. Jun and the program's hosts, Ryusuke Kelly and Angie Lee, interviewed me, Hideki, and Nick across a mid-sized table topped with microphones in the middle of a massive, deadened-sound studio. Moved by Nick's voice (he sang on air), Angie asked why he hadn't quit his dayjob earlier. We could've all benefited from his music instead of having to wait so long, she told him. If only! Nick quit working a regular job last September (I left mine last December). Angie was thoroughly impressed. We laughed in agreement. So true, why don't we do these things earlier in life? It's okay, all was happening as it felt it should. We were tired but happy to be here. Our third night in Japan was the Soul Time in Tokyo party, at Tokyo Cultuart by Beams in Harajuku, and at a-bridge in Sangenjaya. The gig was a dream come true: DJ Muro joined us at the turntables with an all-vinyl set focused on Hawaiian records. I never ever thought that when starting this blog years ago in 2011 — my first blog post a successful attempt to reveal the tracklist behind Muro's "Hawaiian Breaks" mixtape — that I'd be DJing with Muro (let alone DJ... seriously!). The same feeling was for DJ Yama, too. He's one of the most active DJs on Instagram who sheds light on rare Hawaiian records. He told me that this was a dream come true to DJ together, us three. Word, Yama! DJ Notoya and Yama back-to-back, myself and Hideki back-to-back, Muro, and Nick Kurosawa played music for everyone in that audience that evening. It must've been the most packed Tokyo Cultuart has ever been! Coincidentally, I was sweating hard what song to play first for our set. "Sunny" by Buddy Fo came to mind first, but I wasn't sure — I hadn't cleaned the record before, so I worried about it's playability. Juggling between "Sunny" and something else, time was running out and I thought, screw it, this feels right. At that moment, as the tunes lyrics fed into the space, our friends Hasan "Sonny" Scott and Rechung Fujihira from the BoxJelly walked into the gallery with champagne in hand, wigging out to the serendipitous timing of the song — this was Sonny's song! They had just arrived in Harajuku via Narita Airport, and what a way to kick off their trip! Earlier in April, Lei and I spent a late evening with Rechung and Sonny at the BoxJelly, where we operate our new online radio station, Central Pacific Time. For weeks we had been trying to convince Rechung to join us in Japan, not just to party and have fun but to see what Aloha Got Soul is all about outside of Hawaii. Rechung, no matter how hard he tried, wasn't able to convince his cousin to join him in Japan — his cousin was flying in from the mainland for a much-needed vacation. By chance, Rechung's cousin received a job offer and had to cancel his Hawaii vacation — freeing up Rechung to join us in Tokyo. What are the odds, really? That evening at CPT Radio, over a couple jugs of kava from Fiji Kava (we finished one-and-a-half), Rechung, Lei and I convinced Sonny to take a day or two off from teaching and come to Tokyo with us. After playing out some scenarios in his head (would it be okay to miss a day of teaching? Yeah, can), Sonny said yes, let's do it. This would be his first time in Japan and Asia. Welcome aboard, Sonny!

Sangenjaya

An hour after moving the Tokyo Cultuart party to Sangenjaya's popular rooftop bar, a-bridge, our other friend from Hawaii, Gotaro Oshitari, found himself hard-pressed to find the bar's entrance. He was in Tokyo for a short business trip, coinciding with our Soul Time party. Nice timing, right? On the phone (on the LINE?), I guided Gotaro with a bird's eye view from the bar's outdoor rooftop lounge — or, at least I tried. He was still lost, but revealed that he had run into another guy with an Aloha Got Soul cap on. Perhaps not quite gūzen, but still a neat situation to find oneself in. Complete strangers, Gotaro and what turned out to be Kona Brewing's Japan rep started following each other in hopes the other person would know where to go. "Stay put", I told him, "I'll be right down". A-bridge is a fantastic place — Rechung's spirit animal, I learned that evening — we couldn't be happier with their hosting Soul Time in Tokyo two years in a row. "A-Bridge charms with recycled furniture and an anti-commercial ethos fitting of its neighbourhood. Catch the sunset in the evening, or head over at night for a DJ show or gig," writes Time Out. Rather, catch the sunrise, because Soul Time went until 5 in the morning that day. Most of us stayed up all night, some of us took power naps to recharge. DJs Notoya, Yama, Compuma (who remixed the Haku album a couple years ago), Hiroshi Kawanabe and JxJx, and myself and Hideki spent the night spinning boogie, funk, disco, balearic and house music for an eager crowd ready to dance till morning light. As the sunlight shined through the windows adjacent to the dancefloor, we rounded up the remaining attendees and took a group photo. I was happy to see Kakubarhythm's leader, Wataru Kakubari, there with us. And the bar's proprietor, Tachi, was per usual in a great mood. We funneled into the elevator and poured slowly into the alleyway down below, the elevator ride an adventure in itself — each floor we passed boomed with club music. How the hell is the rest of the building still going? The doors opened on the third floor, some bleary eyed guy, obviously drunk, looked at our packed elevator car and, stumbling, decided against joining us for the ride down. Lei always has the best ideas. On the ground, she suggested we take portraits in the alley of everyone who's with us. Five AM is no joke for Hawaii. Few of us ever do it, but it seems like a regular thing for Tokyo club-goers (the neighborhood of Roppongi serves as an excellent example of nightlife that isn't nightlife, where drunken crowds pour into the streets at all hours of the morning until 11am!). I'm glad Lei suggested it, because now we have a fun and candid collection of photographs our our friends. Part-way through taking these portraits, some drunken dude rolled up on his bicycle, wearing sunglasses and a beanie and smoking a cigarette. He tried to befriend us, but no one had any idea what he was saying. After the last portrait, the dude all of a sudden fell over on his bike — crash!. Jun looked at him, looked at us as said, "Let's go."

Shibuya

Is Daikanyama part of Shibuya? It is, I Googled it and Vogue.com also tells me that Daikanyama is "the Brooklyn of Tokyo". We didn't spend much time explore the neighborhood, but it did feel like a cool place to be, kinda like how Kaka‘ako is the cool place to be in Honolulu right now. (Hanako magazine once made a similar statement about Kaka‘ako being the Brooklyn of Hawaii.) Daikanyama is where UNIT exists, an approximately 300-person capacity concert venue several floors underground. This is where the concert portion of Soul Time in Tokyo was held, featuring Nick Kurosawa, VIDEOTAPEMUSIC, and Your Song Is Good. I briefly recapped the concert here. We knew that UNIT would be a chance for some of our other friends from Hawaii to meet up with us. Specifically, Tamara and Courtney of Paiko Hawaii, a boutique botanical store in Kaka‘ako. I remember ushering them into the concert when Your Song Is Good was performing, I recall them being amazed at what was going on — the place was packed and everyone was having a great time!
Nick Kurosawa at UNIT.
We didn't know Daikanyama, so when we popped out to the streets an hour before start time to look for a place to grind, we made a few circles in the vicinity and settled on an Osaka-style Chinese restaurant, the name escapes me right now. Twenty minutes later, the YSIG band entered in, looking for a quick meal. They had no idea we'd be here, so we greeted each other with some surprise. Five minutes later, Rechung and Sonny arrived — totally unexpected. In fact, Sonny was supposed to be on a train to Narita Airport right then, he had left UNIT at least 30 minutes prior to find his way. But, I guess, they had enough time to grab food and, coincidentally, wound up at the same place the rest of us found. The food was delicious. After the concert, we walked towards Ebisu in hopes of finding a late night meal. There were six or seven of us, following the lead of DJ Notoya who suggested Ebisu for its late night grinds. Along the way, two English-speaking strangers came into earshot, talking about American politics or something. Somehow they knew we were from Hawaii, because it turned out one of them was from Hawaii, too. Turns out, in fact, they knew our buddy and bass player Wil Talofo, who we'd be seeing in a matter of days at the Mori by Art+Flea Japan market in Roppongi. Happenstances like this not only make the world feel small, it makes me feel like Tokyo is a very small city despite its 9 million-plus population. Shibuya has a lot of record stores. We stopped into Recofan the morning of the UNIT concert, but in my opinion it's not that great, so I left the group for Diskunion, their basement floor home to a slew of solid Brazilian finds and jazz, funk and soul records. I pulled a bunch of Far Out releases only to hear the shop music changeover to Tender Leaf "Countryside Beauty". I looked up and the guy behind the counter smiled at me. Man, what a feeling to hear the compilation played in a record store thousands of miles from Hawaii! The rest of our entourage found their way into the basement and were pleasantly surprised to hear this music playing, too. The guy's name was Ryozo Obayashi, he leads a funk band and recently released a 7-inch produced with DJ Muro. It was dope, so I bought a copy and we took a photo. Somewhere towards the end of our trip, probably on our last day, Lei and I had free time to revisit the streets of Shibuya. By this time I had picked up a neat little Ricoh half-frame film camera and would be happily snapping pictures at anything that struck my eye. Hanging outside Daiso, I glanced to my left and saw this guy walking up the street wearing an Aloha Got Soul shirt, the one from last year's Soul Time in Tokyo party. I said thank you and took his photo. We returned to Shibuya on one other occasion: to met with Jun and Rui Fujita at the Kakubarhythm office. Lei and I, in the mood to meander, stopped off at Lighthouse Records and then took some random back streets towards our destination. Coffee was on my mind, I needed some. Several blocks before reaching Kakubarhythm, we saw a pair of JBL speakers, a couple shelves of vinyl, and a roasting machine inside this floor-to-ceiling glass windowed café called Heart's Light Coffee. Lei and I popped in. I happened to be wearing my YSIG long sleeve tee that day, and at precisely the moment the barista asked me if I was a YSIG fan, Jun walked in. Did he know we were here somehow? Nope. I thought maybe he saw Lei's Instagram story she had posted thirty seconds earlier, then maybe ran down the street to find us. "Gūzen" he told me — pure coincidence. I think that was my favorite coffee shop in Tokyo. Jack's comes in at a close second. Later that evening, we walked past a restaurant with a ton of stickers piled onto its exterior. I spotted a Fitted sticker, "Aloha Served Daily". I felt the need to slap an AGS logo sticker next to it, in reference to our collab mixtape and t-shirt release several years ago.

Fujisawa

We won't deny any chance to be near the ocean. Fujisawa afforded us that opportunity, thanks to the help of our friend Karu, who runs Hair California on-site at 8hotel not far from Fujisawa Station. The city is about a 90-minute train ride south from Tokyo. We were so stoked to going. (By this point of the trip, Justin had returned home to Honolulu, Rechung and Sonny were back on Oahu, and Aly and Travis were north in Fukushima, building wooden infrastructure for the upcoming Art+Flea event at Tokyo Midtown in Roppongi.) Before leaving Tokyo, though, we stopped in Akasaka for an interview with Jun and Ozeki on Radikaku — Kakubarhythm's weekly radio show for Alpha Station on FM Kyoto. I'll write more about that in the second part of this blog post, under the Akasaka and/or Roppongi neighborhood recount. Fujisawa, the air was different, the people more relaxed and friendly, the pace much slower compared to Tokyo. We all felt a little more at home here, it seemed. 8hotel is a surfer-friendly spot where a few of our friends frequent, thanks to Karu. We saw photos of John Hook and Todd Pinder in the hotel lobby just outside of 8lounge, the hotel's hip bar/cafe/restaurant where we'd be DJing the following evening with local DJs cat-b and Toromatsu. Nick Kurosawa played two sets to open and close the night. He closed it out. By the time Toromatsu started DJing, the entire lounge was bustling with Fujisawa locals grooving to boogie, funk, and disco records. We were impressed! — a Wednesday like this? Who knew. Kumbaya, Fujisawa style. It's hard to say it was the best party of the trip, but considering the people, the local, the "vibes" of the place, it really could've been the best party of the trip! Wednesday nights out here probably are usually like this. Regardless, we had a great time. The next day, Karu and his family took us surfing a block from their house. Nick, Mark and I jumped in the freezing water without wetsuits, everyone else stayed on the beach. (Karu went surfing too, but with a wetsuit.) The water was cold but refreshing, partly because we were hungover, but more so because we were stoked to be in the ocean, surfing in Japan! A lot of people at 8lounge the night before were already on the water, it was pretty random though because the beach stretched for a least two miles and there were hundreds of surfers out on the water, but of all the spots we could've been, we were here, running into new friends we'd made twelve hours prior. We took the tram to go sightseeing in Kamakura, to the big Buddha (Daibutsu) and a couple of temples in the area. The tram ride took us along the coast, it was a beautiful day. My only regret in Fujisawa, though, was that Mark went to Hard-Off before I did and found a pristine Columbia GP3 portable turntable for a fraction of what you'd pay online. The powers of gūzen just weren't on my side that time. It's okay, we had so much fun up until this point of the trip. Two more weeks to go. Part 2 coming next: Akasaka, Roppongi, Takadanobaba, Misato, Setagaya.

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