"A live house (ライブハウス) is a Japanese live music club – a music venue featuring live music. The term is a Japanese coinage (wasei eigo) and is mainly used in East Asia. It most frequently refers to smaller venues, which may double as bars, especially featuring rock, jazz, blues, and folk music." - Wikipedia.org
Welcome to the Live House Pleasuredome
When I first stepped foot in Shimokitazawa Shelter (one of Japan's Live Houses) around a decade-and-a-half ago it's fair to say my life was changed, giving me a rush that reignited my love of gig-going and making me feel totally at home in what was, after all, then an alien enviroment.
Since attending my first punk concert way back in 1977 I'd been to hundreds of shows, listening to music from just about every genre in venues in all corners if the world.
But it was in Japan that everything - well, almost everything - harmonised to produce a gig that offered all the excitement and thrills one could wish for. Only without the negatives so often found at shows elsewhere around the globe. I was pretty much instantaneously hooked.
For me, music had always been about progression, moving forwards. So, by the mid-1990s, when the adventure seemed to stall and people started looking back rather than moving forward, it seemed as though music was not to play a significant part in my life anymore.
But the Tokyo 'Live House' experience reintroduced it into my consciousness.
Video: Ed Woods at Sangenjaya Heaven's Door
Like nothing I'd ever heard before
Firstly, the music itself felt fresh. Not because it was "like nothing I'd ever heard before", but rather it was the familiar seen from a different perspective. It no longer needed to move forward because, at least to my ears, it had taken an equally interesting turn sideways.
But everything that went with the music was equally important. The live houses may have been designed at best with functionality in mind. Many could quite accurately be described as little more than black boxes - but they all seemed to be the ideal size. The shows generally started around seven o'clock and most commonly featured four or five bands finishing up around ten to ten-thirty.
An Insider's Guide to Tokyo's Live House Scene
By Miles Woods
The audiences are there for the music
None of the ridiculously late-starting shows that one often had to put up with back in Blighty*, or the hanging around for an hour or two wondering when the band one had gone to see would actually play. * aka Britain for the non-British - Ed ;-)
What's more, the audience were there for the music, so no one trying to carry on conversations with their mates as the bands played and in the process making themselves heard by everyone else. In Japan the izakaya is the choice place for drinking and chatting.
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Actually a surprisingly large proportion of the audience was, I soon discovered, made up of other musicians, who clearly didn't have the ego that often tended to drive their Western counterparts, and were extremely supportive of other bands.
Here and now
However, I'm not here to talk about the past, but of now, and what lies in wait for the visitor of today to discover.
By and large one might say that nothing much has changed. The odd Live House - most notably perhaps, Shibuya punk sweat box Gigantic - has closed, but many more new ones have opened.
Suggesting that while playing in a band or organising shows (something I've managed to have a fair bit of experience of over the past few years... but that's another story) may not be a profitable venture in Japan, then running a venue to host them would certainly seem to be so.
Undoubtedly the most welcome change is the disappearance of what was the most unsavoury aspect of going to gigs a decade or so back: Emerging with one's clothes stinking of nicotine. Thankfully the Japanese have finally gotten the message.
Just as at fastfood outlets Mos Burger and Mister Donut, where one can now snack and enjoy a coffee without getting smoke in your eyes, I find it's rarely a problem anymore. Far fewer people smoking at shows and some venues going so far as prohibiting it, at least in the stage area.
Video: Valentines at Namba Bears
The legendary annual garage Halloween Ball
As far as the bands are concerned, a fairly large majority that I saw when I first started going to shows in Tokyo are still active today.
Take a look at the line-up for an event such as the legendary annual garage Halloween Ball and you'll see many of the same names listed in 2015 that were on the flyers not just back in 2005 but some even in 1995.
For the Japanese music fan this is probably a good thing. For just as for their films, the audience seems to enjoy most feeling safe and secure in the familiar. How else to account for bands wearing the same costumes, performing not just the same songs but the exact same routines, year in, year out?
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As someone who experienced and thrived upon the evolution of the seventies and eighties, while I do enjoy seeing favourite bands again - and again - I also have a need for some advancement; something, someone new.
But over the last decade the number of (interesting) new bands starting out seems to have reduced drastically.
In the past couple of years I've discovered the likes of The Bays - a refreshing high school girls band whose take on the sixties beat music put many of their peers to shame. I caught them three times before they quit to concentrate on thier studies.
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Valentines - an Osaka band who played in Tokyo at an event organised by long-running label Sazanami that gathered together bands from all over Japan. And The Pats Pats - somehow improbably combining a love of Ramones-style punk-pop and eighties idol music.
But it's a tiny minority in a sea of bland indentikit rock, pop and punk (in the worst sense of the word) bands. However, what has flourished, and often in unexpected ways, has been the 'Idol' genre.
The New (Idol) Order
Idol music was a dominant force in Japan in the eighties but found itself increasingly out of touch with what listeners wanted in the following decades. That is until a rejuvination begun in 2005 by the decidedly uncool and uninteresting AKB48 followed a few years later by the slightly more hip Momoiro Clover Z.
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On the surface these would seem to have little to no relevance to what this article is talking about.
However, 2010 saw the forming of, for want of a better term, 'anti-idol' act BiS who, in retreading - and exposing - the path walked by the likes of Momoclo were anything but interested in projecting a wholesome, innocent image. They played at live houses often sharing bills with punk and hardcore bands, and collaborated with noise outfit Hijokaidan (releasing two albums as BiS Kaidan).
Six years on, BiS have gone (though their management is currently repeating the experiment - with less emphasis on 'experiment' - with BiSH, while most of the BiS girls are active in other acts) but the ball hasn't stopped rolling.
Is the idol business just manufactured rubbish?
Live house schedules are now filled with as many idol and 'alternative idol' acts as traditional bands, with BellRing Girls Heart's live show equal to any in Japan right now.
What's more, there seems to be ones to cater to all tastes. With idol groups covering pretty much any genre one can think of - from rap to punk to shoegazing to metal. Yes, global phenomenon BabyMetal qualify here.
Though don't be put off seeing the more theatrical Zombie Lolita - who were doing it when the BabyMetal girls were barely out of kindergarten, in much more intimate surroundings as well.
"But isn't all this idol business just manufactured rubbish?" I hear the suspecting reader ask.
Video: Zombie Lolita at Sangenjaya Heaven's Door
A subversive alternative to the rock machine
Well, obviously with the not dozens but hundreds of idol acts now around there is a lot of garbage. Still, as the same applies for 'proper' bands we can't dismiss the scene on this basis. Plus we are now witnessing more examples of acts themselves being in some sort of control.
Be it former indie musicians flirting with the idol genre - to great success in the case of singer-songwriter Seiko Oomori - or using it to their own ends - such as 80s retro popsters Kit Cat - or even a much more mainstream sounding group callme, formed by a three members of the classy mainstream pop quintet Dorothy Little Happy breaking away and doing everything themselves, albeit still signed to AvexTrax.
But that's not really what matters; nor is the failure of the movement to provide a truly subversive alternative to the rock machine. What's most important is that it's 'now'.
Video: Kit Cat at Shimokitazawa Club Que
Idol acts can be very shortlived.
The age of many 'idols' means members of groups are leaving or 'graduating' all the time (deciding - or it being decided - that it's not the future for them), while often if an act doesn't achieve a certain level of popularity within a certain timeframe they will dissolve.
This is the exact opposite of most bands in Japan for whom playing music is a hobby they need to financially support with their day jobs.
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Not since heyday of UK punk between '76 - '79 have groups formed and disbanded with such abandon, helping give Japan a live music scene that, for now at least, is appealingly transitory.
If that's not what you want, well, the likes of The Rolling Stones or The Who or whoever no doubt have a tour scheduled.
Too many otaku?
While one appeal of the 'Idol' scene is that it's uniquely Japanese, I should mention that Tokyo is a great place to see overseas touring bands; while tickets can be pricey you'll probably have a much better time than seeing them 'back home' - wherever that may be.
Going to idol shows can be a risky proposition though, the main potential negative for many outsiders being the presence of too many 'otaku' who while adding a unique atmosphere to a show with their practiced moves can drown out vocals with their chanting.
Stage diving, chants and crowdsurfing
If you're a viewer of anime series such as THE iDOLM@STER and think idol shows are all about waving glowsticks in a fey manner, you may be surprised to learn that a lot of alternative idol shows are actually more akin to hardcore punk gigs with "Oi!" chants, stage diving, and crowdsurfing being the norm as much as the exception.
Such behaviour while obviously okay in live houses is generally not tolerated in other venues, and the idol scene is interesting in that it seems quite suited to alternative settings.
Indeed, one can often see idol acts (for free) doing so-called 'mini' live shows in record stores such as Tower Records (who even have their own idol label T-Palette) and Disk Union or in shopping centres.
Video: callme at Akiba Cultures Theater
Holidays in the sun?
I'm already looking forward to some fortnightly visits to Tokyo this year, where I currently find I'm able to go to a gig pretty much every night. If this sounds like your idea of a perfect holiday, then the Tokyo live circuit is a lot easier to navigate than it was when I first explored it.
You can browse all the live house schedules and see many bands' upcoming live show information online, and you can get a taste of what most groups sound like live via YouTube.
Do note that while traditional gigs tend to be organised a month or two in advance, idol shows can often be slotted in to live house schedules at as little as 24 hours notice and advertised via social media, something that obviously wasn't possible until recently.
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If I've nudged you into buying your dream ticket, here's a few tips that may help you make the most of it...
A full list of Live Houses
While they do mix and match genres, if you find certain venues' shows featuring a band or bands you like then their other gigs may be of interest. I've been to hundreds of shows at maybe half-a-dozen live houses while many others I've never set foot in.
Live Houses I tend to frequent include:
Higashi-Koenji UFO Club
Intimate setting for psych to experimental and everything in-between and host to the monthly garage event 'Back From The Grave' (organised by DJ Daddy O-Nov, who is also responsible for Halloween Ball).
Sangenjaya Heaven's Door
Your best bet for catching the wildest, craziest acts such as Ed Woods, Zombie Lolita, QP-Crazy etc
Rather too officiously run for my liking - absolutely no passouts - but whatever type of music you're into you're likely to end up here at some point. They also run Shelter and other smaller venues and publish and release stuff.
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Buying tickets for shows
You almost always have to pay an extra ¥500 for a drink ticket on entering a live house, but you can often save as much by paying the advance rather than the door price.
Do this by 'reserving' a ticket in advance. This can be done simply by contacting one of the bands playing and giving them your name which will be added to the list on the door.
Some groups even have a dedicated ticket reservation space on their websites.
To buy advance tickets for gigs where the reservation system doesn't apply, you can go to any Lawson convenience store, where you'll find a ticket machine.
How to use these requires an article of its own, but if you say 'ticket' to someone working there and give them the Lawson number (which can be found in listings online) they will usually do it for you.
Unless you know the timetable it's best to arrive at gigs for the start time, which is usually 30 minutes after the open time. Don't assume that just because a band is well known to you they won't play first!
Also, if you haven't been to a partcular live house before it's not a bad idea to find it ahead of time; the maps given on websites can be misleading, and I've spent up to an hour wandering around unfamiliar areas trying to find places!
Video: Bellrings Girls Heart at Shinjuku Loft
All photos by Miles Wood
Author: Miles Wood has organised dozens of shows for both local and touring bands in Japan. His label Simply Thrilling has released 4 CDs featuring Japanese bands, while the video offshoot has released 3 DVDs capturing the Japanese Live House experience.
Do you have any tales of late nights in dark places in Japan's Live House scene?! If so, I'd love to hear them. Please leave a comment below and share all...
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