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.
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.
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!
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 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.
Part 2 coming next: Akasaka, Roppongi, Takadanobaba, Misato, Setagaya.
Hello, Haneda. Photo by Leimomi Bong.
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.
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.