When was the last time you had the chance to truly live in the moment?
A month ago I honestly couldn’t tell you, despite an effort to meditate and be more mindful of my present. I was fortunate enough to recently take a two-week break from my normal life and experience a new culture while doing what I love with some amazing people. The return back has been a bit jarring, but I’m just now having a moment to process it all and hopefully bring some new perspectives to my current life.
I play bass guitar in a punk band called Detenzione. When people heard my band was about to tour Japan they assumed we were famous, but no, you haven’t heard of us. We perform mostly in basements in Riverwest, D.I.Y. spaces and dive bars and have only been around a year. No, we don’t have a huge radio hit in Japan, but through friends of friends, a little luck, and Yoichi Eimori of the record label Snuffy Smiles who believed in us, we were booked an 11-date tour around that beautiful country.
When asked to bring “another American band” with us, it was a little more difficult than you’d think. Plane tickets weren’t covered, so finding a group willing to pony up with short notice to take time off to travel was tricky, especially with our wish of having three or less people to cram in the van we’d be spending a lot of time in together. A net was cast amongst friends and the glam synth-pop dance party known as Rio Turbo signed on for the adventure. They turned out to be the perfect people for the journey. Despite the difference in sound, they were definitely aligned in energy.
I admit to having had an embarrassingly small amount of knowledge on the geography of Japan. I also had very little knowledge on the customs and culture and overall identity of the country and its regions. I tried to enter the experience as a student and was excited to open up to newness without any preconceptions or expectations. My bandmates Eric Schultz and Eric Mayer had toured Japan previously in their bands Holy Shit! and Tenement (respectively) and loved it. Luckily, the other newbies in our traveling group had much the same mindset as I and we took on the adventure with our eyes and hearts open.
We arrived at Narita airport in two groups, having booked two separate flights and my group arrived to find Rio Turbo being interviewed on the Japanese television comedy show, “Why Did You Come to Japan?” They inquired about following our tour, thinking Americans touring in Japan would be hilarious. They were probably right, but we got caught up in the excitement of being in a new country and didn’t follow up.
That set the tone for the unpredictability to follow. So many details of the tour were catered to, so surely there was a solid itinerary, but we weren’t let in on it. That may have been our hosts making sure we didn’t feel stressed and just enjoyed ourselves.
I loved it that way, not knowing what each hour would bring.
Besides Yoichi, our other host was Satoru, bassist of one of my favorite groups, Your Pest Band. Our drummer, Eric Schultz, was the driver and tour manager for Your Pest Band in the states and Detenzione had played a few shows with them. This time around, Satoru was the one driving us. As the only licensed driver in our group, this was a huge undertaking – many of our drives were overnight and 8-9 hours long. I was grateful for his willingness to take that on. Both Satoru and Yoichi have Milwaukee friends that love them dearly, for good reason. They were excellent hosts and saw to it that everyone was happy and I couldn’t thank them enough for taking care of our gear, making sure details were covered, and being patient with my many requests for translation assistance. They are now treasured friends to us all.
We rented a van that would become both our beloved home and source of discomfort for its ability to never let you find a position to comfortably sleep in, but exhaustion made for occasional bouts of slumber. This made for a special delirium state, fertile for increasingly bizarre inside jokes and rituals like “sunrise sake” along with a collective consciousness that made us all a lot closer than we had ever been at home in Milwaukee.
The shows we played were both unique and somewhat blurred together, but I treasured every single moment on those stages. There was a marked difference between performing in the states versus the cities we played in Japan. Maybe it was the fact it was Golden Week – a weeklong holiday where many people enjoy a week off of work. Or maybe it was a general difference between music scenes. I felt so much pure joy performing there. Every room was filled with people who genuinely seemed to just want to have a good time, without the posturing and self-consciousness I see in American audiences. I counted three shows where our singer was picked up and body passed. I often felt a connection to the crowd and a wish to touch them, so when it felt right, I would push myself back-first right in and tried not to miss a note. Our singer Dan Agacki shared a pretty detailed rundown of each show that you can read over at MilwaukeeRecord.com.
Our tourmates Rio Turbo are band to see live. The trio is equal parts party music and performance art. You might think they would be an odd billing on mostly punk and hardcore lineups, but they had the right amount of charisma and ability to make everyone smile and put the crowd in a good mood for the rest of the sets to follow. They had the most fun combinations of stage clothing that fell somewhere between 90’s rave and sex shop lingerie. Kelsey Kaufmann takes a break from her usual role behind the drum kit to act as DJ for this project. Cat Ries is a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist in her other life, but as a member of Rio Turbo she flexes her dance and performance skills to delight and loosen up any crowd. Each night she would dance with anyone willing to let loose and by the time she was back on stage she would captivate everyone with her impressive headstand splits right at their final song’s crescendo with singer Joey “Turbo” crooning to her bum.
The venues we played were a mix of standard venues with pro gear and really cool DIY spaces; often with a retail shop attached with records, shirts, and zines. The latter were my favorite, lacking a tall stage to separate you, and the DIY spirit was a warm and special one. A few shows had a DJ that would spin records between and after sets that kept the energy up, especially when you couldn’t remember the last time you had a full night’s sleep. At Vortex in Yokkaichi, music was blasting, people were dancing, food was laid out and the venue floor was covered with padding and a box of sleeping bags and pillows were offered up. Band members and attendees would literally drink, eat and dance until they dropped. This was the free-spirited vibe we felt around the country.
Each musician you met from an opening band was an instant friend. The support made me feel very emotional and most of the homes we slept in belonged to opening band members. One late afternoon, a band from an upcoming show hosted a barbeque complete with whole fish and vegan options for the vegans of our group. Every day of tour was a sunny and beautiful 72-79 degrees… except that day. In the rain under tarps, we discovered the tasty combo of orange juice mixed with shochu (liquor distilled from rice, barley and sweet potatoes.) Despite our complete inability to speak their language, social times were genuine and fun. It was a good feeling to know that across all the barriers, through music we can always find a commonality and connection.
Every host offered a home cooked meal and literally every square inch of their space. We had amassed a special scent of lingering smoke from venues (unfortunately indoor smoking is still legal in Japan), van-cured sweat, and feet - that hopefully has dispersed from those homes by now! Leaving shoes at the door is a custom I wish was more widespread in the states. Not just for keeping a home clean, but adding an intimacy and comfort.
I had imagined more downtime then we had, but we were surprisingly active between shows and Yoichi and Satoru would take us to destinations we didn’t know we were headed to until we pulled over. Perhaps surmising that we’d appreciate free beer, or maybe because we were from Milwaukee, we managed multiple brewery tours and saw both Kirin and Asahi breweries. To break up long drives, we would stop at lookout points on bridges overlooking the grandest views of my life. Another surprise stop was a temple in Kyoto known for its past brewing sake. I lifted a weight one is supposed to set a hope or wish to and I suddenly wept briefly out of nowhere. There was so much magic in the air. We stopped off at rest stops in the countryside that were marketplaces often specializing in an ingredient unique to and grown in the area. Closer to the venues, we explored markets with rich histories that boasted street food and produce. In Kumamoto, we explored the Yatsushiro Castle ruins. We visited gardens and parks, and took in the views of ocean shorelines and expanses at the tops of mountains.
Japan has a variegated landscape on its lush islands and I absolutely feasted on the majesty of it all.
We bathed in several sento, although we were turned away from a few for having tattoos, which are taboo in many bathhouses. Our group was split up by gender on these excursions, but we enjoyed the activity of socializing in a mixed-generational public place. Relaxing nude in a bath shared with all degree of size and age of bodies was a communal experience unique to me as an American. Watching a pair of elder friends helping to wash each other’s backs was an intimate experience that felt like an honor. The experience left me feeling what a loss we have in our culture that doesn’t foster social contact outside of our own age groups.
So many experiences were new to us and treasured. Without international data plans on our cellphones, we were able to experience everything together, allowing imagination and introspection to really thrive. We had intermittent access to Wi-Fi at some venues where we’d do a quick dump of photos to Instagram or let our loved ones back home know we were still alive, but all the long drives and much of our time exploring was free from devices. As a person with the word “Digital” in her job title, this freedom was a huge relief. Real life and creativity exists between the screens. We had to feel our feelings together, face-to-face. We expressed ourselves openly. How have we moved so far from that as a society so quickly?
Our final show was a mini-festival in Tokyo (lovingly titled "Ass Fest"); featuring bands we befriended along the way, a celebration of Yoichi’s birthday with his favorite bands, and capped off with a raucous performance from our beloved Your Pest Band. Homemade vegan chili was served by Yoichi's lovely girlfriend, the special from the bar was “American Dog” (corn dog) and “Ice Cream on Liqur” a funny little nod to our culture. The new-wave band Deathro shouted “HOW ARE YOU MILWAUKEE??” several times during their set. It seemed a celebration to send us home as well. During Your Pest Band’s set, we got a little misty-eyed saying farewell to the tour, farewell to our Japanese friends we had the luck to become close to, and farewell to the country that took us in with open arms.
It started to seep into my consciousness that I had my stack of responsibilities waiting for me at home. I was a little grateful for the multiple layover, long flight purgatory to sort of ease back into the life I took a break from. I will admit, I experienced not just jet lag and exhaustion, but some post-tour depression or separation anxiety. We have been checking in with each other, feeling a similar sense that we had become each other’s phantom limbs. We have plans to have a night sharing memories and watching movies soon.
Of course very few can live a life of travel and few responsibilities, but I hope to find a new frame to set my goals into. Reflecting on this journey, I’m opened up now even more to the importance of the moment - the vitality, the learning, the connections, and the humanity.
Just for fun, here's a before and after. First day vs. last:
If you want to peruse more detailed memories from my trip, view more photos below and take a deeper look: