Bluegrass in Japan--Anya's Article "Bluegrass Accident" to be published in Japan's Moonshiner Magazine

I didn’t plan to bring my fiddle to Japan, just wanted to spend a few months with my in laws, learning Japanese and introducing my daughter Sachi, 14 months, to her cousins, aunts and uncles. However, when my mother in law was planning our stay in Hokkaido, she told me that there had been some performances scheduled. Her old friend from Berkeley California, Osamu Hiroyama, founder of the famous Japanese hand tool shop Hida Tool, and his wife Koguma, offered to host us at their café in Naganuma, called simply “Kogumaza.” Koguma-san contacted her friends Tery and Yoko Watanabe who devised a plan for several live performances with Stove, a bluegrass band based around Sapporo. So in addition to one suitcase with two months of clothes, a second suitcase full of omiage gifts, a child’s carseat, two backpacks, and a baby, I dragged the fiddle from airport to airport all the way to Sapporo, Hokkaido.

I don’t know what I expected of the bluegrass scene in Japan. I knew that many great bluegrass musicians had done tours in Japan, that there was wild enthusiasm from the audiences, and that performers were surprised by the die-hard fans that they encountered. I vaguely recall an interview about Hazel and Alice’s tour in Japan, and how amazed they were that people could sing along to every word of their songs. Before we left Asheville, I communicated with Tery several times and he sent me YouTube links of performances by Hokkaido’s Kentaro Hiratsuka and a signed CD of duets by the Ozaki Brothers. I began to get a sense of the depth of talent of the pickers and the history of picking in Japan.

When we arrived at Tery and Yoko’s house, we were surrounded by an archive of music history. Especially interesting were the reel-to-reel tapes Tery had stashed away. I mean, who has a reel-to-reel tape player in their living room? He played me old episodes of Occupation Radio (later becoming Far East Network), which was popular in Japan after WWII. Yoko, who has been singing and playing autoharp and guitar for some 50 years, explained that those radio programs gave her generation the connection to country music, and that, for her, it became the sound of her childhood. Tery also had some “mixed tapes” from Hokkaido’s Stanley Brothers Tape Club that had been created by Keiko Shimada in the early 1970s. The tapes, which were passed around by tape club members, included selections from classic recordings by the Stanley Brothers and are a reminder of how difficult it used to be to get access to music in the analog age -- no matter where you were living. Mr. Fumio Sekino also had a record shop in Sapporo with a country music corner where Tery and Yoko would collect records, especially from the County label.
Perhaps my favorite recording was the tape of Kentaro Hiratsuka that was made during the 80s when his friend Roland White had come to Japan to attend Kentaro’s wedding. The trio, with Kentaro on guitar, Roland on mandolin and Don Branum on banjo, was magical. Their passion for the music was intense, the tapes were practically smoking. Tery and I sat on the tatami floor together and watched the reels turn around and around. Tery had a beautiful smile on his face. He had made the recording himself, creating a rich reverb somehow by recording a third tape from two identical tapes played at a slight delay. Each day, Tery would share another little carefully selected tidbit from the past, play me another track from a record pulled out of a tall stack, or show me a photograph or book or file or CD from his massive collection of old stuff. All of this helped me appreciate the depth to which the Japanese love bluegrass music. It’s more than just the picking. The feel has to be right, the emotion. Authenticity is critical.

Just days after landing in Sapporo, Tery drove us from Ebetsu City for miles through rice fields, potato fields, and wheat fields until we reached Naganuma. Sitting on the ends of empty Kirin beer crates outside Kogumaza, we began to work up material for our show for that evening. It was a trio that night, with Naohiko Nakahara on guitar, Kenji Komatsuzaki on banjo, and Takeshi Kaneichi on mandolin. Nakahara-san is friendly and outgoing with a wonderful sense of humor that makes him the perfect front man for Stove.  He also writes bluegrass songs in Japanese, which seems to strike Americans as such an odd combination, but after working out my harmonies to his beautiful songs with such touching imagery and meaning, it seemed perfectly natural. I am still singing his songs to myself, like “Yubari Tochan” about a struggling but hopeful family in an abandoned Hokkaido mining town, and “Tenko sitteita Miyo-chan 2011” the story of a young girl who has to go to a new school after being displaced by the Fukushima nuclear accident.
It was a beautiful evening in mid June, but the rice had only just been planted in Hokkaido. Yoko, Stove and I performed in a corner of the café, competing for attention with Kogumaza’s busy decorations that ranged from kewpie dolls to a WWII pinup girls postcard collection. The audience filtered in from distances of an hour or more and filled the floor cushions and low couches of the café. I bypassed the microphone to stand very close to them and sing the 250-year-old hymn “When I can read my title clear” a capella, which moved one audience member to later write a beautiful essay, another to make a DVD of the entire performance, and another to offer to show me around Hokkaido. I had underestimated the power of something that was so natural for me, something I practically took for granted, but so new and compelling to them. It reminded me what a wonderful opportunity I had to use music as a vehicle for connecting to new friends and sharing our cultures with each other. After the show, we ate Osamu’s chirashi sushi and BBQ and drank nama beer with the sounds of water flowing through the irrigation canals of the rice fields that surrounded us.
This performance was followed by another one with Yoko Watanabe and Stove, this time including Mayuko Minakami, a wonderful songwriter and vocalist, at her café Hiiragi in Sapporo. This time Stove had the full band including Naoki Hiroyoshi on fiddle and Naoki Hoshi on bass. In order to fit the band and about 30 audience members, they had to move all the tables into the hall. We rehearsed for a few hours with a lot of laughter and joking around. This was a band that seemed to value fun above all else, which made the music wonderful and the audience, including students from Hokkaido and Rakuno Gakuen Universities’ bluegrass clubs, had a great time. I was sad that it was our last show together, especially since I had finally learned my parts in Japanese! Nakahara-san kindly assured me that any time I was in Hokkaido I would be a Stove member.

Maybe the most touching performance was at Nakahara-san’s 2nd grade music class in Hiroshima City. Nakahara-san asked me to wear my cowboy boots in the classroom, and he cleaned the soles off for me in the genkkan. The children were wildly excited to have a foreigner visiting their school, it was like the Beatles landing in America. After I played a bit for their music class, Nakahara-san invited me to join them in katakana practice. Seemed like a nice exchange. The student’s stiff backpacks were neatly lined up on the wall, the children all sitting at their desks bathed in the angled Hokkaido sunlight. Nakahara-san played guitar, wrote Japanese characters on the blackboard, and served lunch all with a deep joy and kindness toward the children. They love him. When it was time to leave, it was a sad farewell. The music had somehow allowed us to feel we had shared something magical, and that they weren’t kids and we weren’t grown-ups, but all wonderful friends. As we drove away from the dusty playground, the children hanging out of the second floor windows waving goodbye, tears sprung to my eyes. It was a purely beautiful afternoon.

Later with Kentaro, we looked at the 107 Songbook of The Natasha Seven, one of the first folk groups in Japan to put Japanese lyrics to folk songs. This was the music that inspired Kentaro’s generation to play acoustic American folk music and, and for him, bluegrass. During a long evening over a plate of sushi, Kentaro slowly revealed his some of his story, how as a student at Rakuno Gakuen University, he devoted every ounce of time, every penny he had, to learning to pick and sing bluegrass music. He left school and set his compass to Nashville with fearless determination.

While he appears reticent at first, when Kentaro gets a story going, it spills out like water. He told me about his incredible year or so in Nashville, maybe the most formative year of his life. About just after his arrival in the US, how he ordered the cheapest thing on the menu without having any idea what it was, and it was simply gravy. About how he had the humble job of chopping wood at the instrument shop where he eventually apprenticed until they agreed to teach him to be a luthier. About his rustic living quarters, torn clothes, beard and long hair. About playing at the Station Inn with Roland White and other well-known Nashville pickers. And other stories, stories of when Roland came to Japan for his wedding and his newlywed wife took care of them as they played music day and night for a month (captured on Tery’s reel to reel tape recording). Remembering Bill Monroe’s visit to the Hokkaido Frontier Museum where Bill cried when he saw the display of early 20th century farming techniques that featured the exact same mule drawn plows that he had used on a Kentucky farm in his youth. Remembering how Larry Sparks liked soft cream. Sitting with Kentaro and Tery and Yoko as they reflected on practically 50 years of picking, promoting music, performing, and creating a music community together, their dedication to music was remarkable.

At the Yakumo Bluegrass Festival in southern Hokkaido, thanks to Mr. Hangai’s generous invitation, I finally had a chance to perform with Kentaro. We discussed which songs we would play, me trying my best to play guitar while kneeling Japanese-style on the floor of a camping tent while Kentaro, sitting cross-legged, effortlessly played his mandolin. After running through a few tunes our voices began to blend well, even as the blood flow was slowly cut off from my feet. It is an amazing experience to knit two voices together, to unite them to create that wonderful harmony that becomes its own voice.  The vibration, the focus, the way your brain feels when you get it right, without saying a word, you are connected to that person forever. The next day, a fantastic young guitarist named Kenta Haga from a tiny southern Hokkaido town called Imakane joined me on stage for a few songs, including Norman Blake’s “Lord Won’t You Help Me.” His playing was so expressive and delicate that the songs took on a trance-like quality, although it might have just been lack of sleep! That night Kenta joined us at the Horinji Temple in Imakane where we spent the night. He and the resident monk, Achiwa Ichido, a guitarist, banjo maker and songwriter, are picking buddies. I was completely amazed to hear a Buddhist monk playing banjo by night and chanting by day. Oh Hokkaido, your delights and surprises seemingly have no end. After three remarkable weeks, the goodbyes were sad. It was like leaving family. At the airport we waved and waved.

As soon as we landed in Kansai, though, I was right back into it with Bluegrass Night at Another Dream in Osaka. I met up with Yoko and Masafumi Hisanaga (Daisy Hill) to work out the songs for our set. They love the good old stuff, and so we had a lot in common. When we put it all together with Koji Onoda on banjo and Shin Akimoto on mandolin, it was just so sharp from the first note, I just couldn’t help jumping up and down as we played. I love how each person’s playing perfectly reflects their personality. Shin has a wonderful old Monroe style of mandolin playing with a lot of drive and character that fits his wily but understated nature. While Shin was a man of few words at first, he later invited a freeze-dried version of the Shin Akimoto band back to North Carolina with me in my suitcase, which of course I was happy to accept. Koji is a humble master of his instrument, with clear and impeccable playing and the ability to perfectly execute something he has never heard before. And just a hell of a nice guy. Yoko and Masafumi are such veterans and can play and sing with just the right feel to make a group of pickers sound like a band. They are all so talented that the hardest part was having to speak Japanese between songs!

At Another Dream, I finally met Toshio Watanabe of the famous Bluegrass 45 that I had heard so much about. He explained how he had lived in downtown Floyd Virginia right around the same time that I was born in the next county over. Many years later, I played at the Floyd Store jam, collected CDs from the County Sales record store, and finally was married at the Floyd courthouse all on the same block where he had been living. We marveled about how such important moments in our lives were shared in such a small and quiet place in the mountains of southwestern Virginia.

I also met Bosco Takaki who invited me to old time night at Irish Pub Field in Kyoto. I had heard of Bosco from friends who know him from the fiddler’s conventions that are held every summer. I rode a bicycle to the jam with the baby on the back and the fiddle over my shoulder. There was a nice group assembled, including Yuriko and Yuiko Inoue, that were really studying the old time music. Many of the tunes would have even been obscure in a jam in Virginia or North Carolina, and clearly Bosco liked to find the old crooked songs. My mind awkwardly struggled to comprehend being in this historic city of Kyoto where women might still shuffle around in kimonos and geta while the joyful sounds of fiddles and banjos wafted out of the second floor windows above. How can these wonderful but wildly different things exist in the same location? I pondered this question as I rode home through the hot and thick “mushiatsui” July evening along Kyoto’s narrow streets. The answer is, simply, thank you.

The highlight of my trip to Kansai was the Takarazuka Bluegrass Festival. Sab and Yuriko Inoue kindly made arrangements for us to stay in the Canadian Lodge, which was delightfully funky, like a hippie commune in a ginger bread house.  The roof was a patchwork of shingles and music flowed out of the many dormer windows. Outside was a bright blue swimming pool and, of course, a vending machine, reminding us that we were indeed in Japan! The festival was a comfortable size so it didn’t take long to find our way around, and the mountainside provided a natural amphitheater for the stage as well as a good workout. Sab had kindly invited me to perform on Saturday night and Masafumi, Koji and Shin agreed to join me again on stage.

Before our set, Koji had convinced me to sing the Ola Belle Reed tune “Undone in Sorrow” a capella, which I had not tried before. When we headed to the stage area I took the sleeping baby out of her carrier. She objected loudly to this so I no choice but to strap her back on. The confusion of all of this caused me to completely forget the words to the song before I went on stage even though I had sung that song countless times! Staring out into the darkness at the crowd from behind a line of reassuring miniature conifers that were part of the stage decor, I just willed the words to come to me. And thankfully they did. I was relieved when the guys joined me on stage for some infectious fun playing “Goin’Down,” an old-timey tune I wrote for the Dehlia Low “Ravens and Crows” album. Photos of the performance revealed that we did, in fact, look like a Japanese version of the Beverly Hillbillies what with the baby, Shin’s overalls, Masafumi’s hat, Koji’s banjo and our large grins. It seemed like the music went on all night long, especially judging by the looks on Sab, Toshio and Shin’s exhausted faces the next day after running sound and emceeing the stage all weekend. I promised them I would come back again, a promise I plan to keep.

My final week in Japan I went to Kawamo to stay with Sab and Yuriko Inouye. Of course I knew about the famous Sab from Bluegrass 45, but because he was so busy at the festival, I was excited to get some more time to talk with him and his family. We ate homemade gyoza and drank Korean lager, staying up late to talk about the old days, music, business, mutual friends. I was so happy to finally hear the legendary stories of how Sab and Toshio had gotten involved with bluegrass music as teenagers, how that lead to start Bluegrass 45 and to tour the US, their chance meeting with County and Rebel Records owner Dave Freeman, and the formation of their company Bluegrass and Oldtime Music, Ltd (BOM). I had visited County and Rebel and knew the Freemans from when we recorded our Dehlia Low album on Rebel a few years back, so I was familiar with their history and business model.

The next morning we walked over to BOM. It looked exactly like a smaller version of County Sales in Floyd with many shelves of CDs in a dark room. County’s staff consists of several ladies with strong Virginia mountain accents; their Japanese counterparts were Shin and Toshio, who were sitting behind computers and enormous stacks of papers and CD samples. I told Toshio that we had been talking about Bluegrass 45 and the history of BOM. He peered at me from across the room over his reading glasses and simply said, “it’s all an accident, see.”

His comment made me freeze. Toshio is a quiet and patient person, kind and modest with a slightly reluctant sense of humor that one later discovers is simply exquisite timing. I asked him to explain what he meant and I came to understand that he was talking about serendipity. But the slight difference in meaning took on a deeper and more profound significance to me. Music brings us together and allows us to make connections to each other in a very special way, across language barriers, across political beliefs, across cultural differences, across generations. It is so powerful that these accidental meetings can come to define our lives in meaningful ways. Sometimes these accidents result in the famous BOM and Bluegrass 45 and the bluegrass scene in Japan. Sometimes they result in the creation of a bluegrass festival. Sometimes they result in a band or a recording, Sometimes they result in friendships that last a lifetime. These connections might not seem especially significant at first but can grow to become some of the most important things in our short lives.

And perhaps that is what answers the common question Americans have about bluegrass in Japan: “why would Japanese people want to play bluegrass music?” It is of course the reason that anyone would want to play a form of music that allows us to pick, jam, hang out all night long, laugh, and enjoy one another.
So I left Japan with a renewed enthusiasm and appreciation for making music and sharing music, thank you, all of you, and may we meet again someday! Sayonara! 


  • Toby King

    Toby King Asheville / temporarily Matsuyama

    What a beautiful reflection!

    What a beautiful reflection!

  • Wayne Courtney

    Wayne Courtney Pennsylvania, USA

    I wanted to know why the Japanese like bluegrass music and found your article when searching with google. And when I saw the first name Anya which is rather uncommon, I thought to myself that this couldn't be Anya Hinkle of Dehlia Low who has marvelous videos on You Tube. Much to my surprise when reading the article half way down I was shocked when you referred to Dehlia Low. I really get a kick when watching Japanese musicians on you tube performing bluegrass with such enthusiasm and excellence.

    I wanted to know why the Japanese like bluegrass music and found your article when searching with google. And when I saw the first name Anya which is rather uncommon, I thought to myself that this couldn't be Anya Hinkle of Dehlia Low who has marvelous videos on You Tube. Much to my surprise when reading the article half way down I was shocked when you referred to Dehlia Low. I really get a kick when watching Japanese musicians on you tube performing bluegrass with such enthusiasm and excellence.

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