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Bluegrass in Tokyo

Posted by MiG-19 on Saturday, January 14, 2012

I'm on temporary assignment for a couple of weeks in Tokyo, so to fulfill one of my New Year's resolutions, I brought my KM-1000 with me and have been using it to wile away the hours in my hotel over the MLK Weekend. However, I haven't been constrained to my hotel all of the time. I arrived here yesterday (Friday). Before leaving Okinawa, I had asked a friend where to find Bluegrass in Tokyo, and I was recommended to a bar in the Ginza called Rocky Top. I printed the directions from google maps and after checking into my hotel on the outskirts of the city, took a long commuter train ride on the most crowded train I've ever been on (Friday night commuter train in Tokyo, go figure!). Arriving at Tokyo Station, I switched to the Tokyo Metro subway and one stop later I emerged from underground into Friday Night in the Ginza. Wow, the Ginza is a pleasure district in Tokyo that is all neon lights, bars, restaurants and shops. I must confess that at this point my google map directions became extremely vague, telling me to walk to someplace spelled out in Japanese kanji characters, and the address was only a numerical one: 7-8-19 Ginza. Before embarking on this adventure I asked myself "how hard could this be?"   Right....... so I began walking down the main drag, which has towering buildings with numerous bars and clubs on every level, the neon signs outside each building look like neon totem poles. I soon reasoned to myself that Rocky Top probably isn't on the main drag, and started going down side and back streets, which had every bit as many buildings and bars as the main drag did, only on narrower streets. I soon broke the cardinal man-rule and stopped to ask directions from a lady in a pastry shop open to the sidewalk. She had never heard of Rocky Top (not a good sign), and as I was thanking her and leaving, a Japanese Salaryman asked me in excellent English if I needed assistance. As I tried not to ogle the young Eastern European girl he had on his arm (that's a story for another blog and another time), I handed him my google directions. He said he didn't have his glasses, but by the address, he assumed it was north of where we were standing at the time. I thanked him profusely and sallied forth. I wondered down some more crowded back streets and finally found a Lawson Mart, which is the Japanese equivalent of a 7-11. Here, the girl working the counter pulled out a plot map of her block which showed every business, and by sheer chance, I was just around the corner from Rocky Top! I made my way there, and saw the sign indicating that my quest was located on the 3rd floor, so up the elevator I went and when the doors opened, I was greeted by a great rendition of "Blue Kentucky Girl" so I knew I was in the right place. I opened the door and entered a bar that could pass for the set of Hee-Haw, which made me feel right at home. The place was the size of a two-car garage, with several tables, a stage and bar. The walls were lined with photographs of famous performers who had been there, and had pictures of several local bands as well. There was a continuous loop of the movie "High Lonesome" showing on a monitor. There were many salarymen in their ubiquitious dark suits smoking and drinking as they listened to bluegrass on their way home from another weary day in the office. The band was fantastic! They were called "The New Apple Seed", and consisted of a mandolin, banjo, dobro, guitar, stand-up bass and a female vocalist. I took a seat in the back, which was only a couple of tables and maybe 20 feet from the stage, ordered a bourbon and water, the Rocky Top salad and the Rocky Top Chilli Beans. I was the only geijen (foreigner) there, but you'd never know that "The New Apple Seed" were not from my neck of the woods if you shut your eyes and just listened. They were fantastic! They played a lot of Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, JD Crowe, and the Osborne Brothers. For some reason, the whole place (to include the musicians themselves) cracked up everytime the banjo player used his Keith Tuners to change tuning in a song, which he did masterfully. During the break, the band came down to talk to me and when they found out that I was a Kentuckian, I achieved instant celebrity status. It turns out they attend the bluegrass festival in Owensboro every year and perform. When they went back to the stage to begin their next set, they asked me to play, and in a mild state of panic I managed to convince them that would not be in anyones best interest. They then asked if I would join them to sing, and I again demured much to their disappointment. However, they were just so darn nice in addition to being fantastic musicians, and if I'd had a few more bourbons and branch water in me, who knows?. The Salaryman sitting next to me, hearing my conversation with the band, told me he played dobro and was just crazy about bluegrass. We talked for a good while and instantly became facebook friends as he looked me up on his smartphone and plugged me in. Knowing I was facing another crowded train ride to return to my hotel, I left as "The New Apple Seed" finished their second set with a promise to return while I'm in town. The night was another lesson in how much universal appeal bluegrass music has. If you get a chance, check out Rocky Top Ginza on YouTube. You may also check out "The New Apple Seed" band on YouTube, you won't be disappointed. 

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