Monte Nordstrom in Japan: 2001

copyright 2001 by Monte Nordstrom
from issue # 74 - Cosmic Debris Musicians Magazine - July, 2001

"From Sun To Sun"
It's a big jump from Crofton to Kyushu,
But I'm looking for a diff'rent point of view.
But it won't be long before,
I gaze into the rising sun;
With my rock'n'roll'n'boppin'
blue suede shoes.
I played Rockabilly last night with the Pythons,
Now I'm 30,000 feet up in the blue.
I can't believe I'm on my way, with my guitar too
All the way from Crofton to Kyushu...
From Memphis & the cradle of the blues;
To Whitehorse & the midnight sun.
Me & my guitar, have been on the run
Now I'm crossing the Pacific & when this day's
done... I'll be rockin & rolling
in the Land of the Rising Sun!
(Chorus:) Hey, hey, Fuji! Fuji, Boogie Woogie!

(c)2001 Monte Nordstrom/Northstream Music/SOCAN

I settled into the 11.5-hour flight of my ten-day busman's holiday to Japan with my bottled water & hooked into the in-flight movies. Every so often the flight's progress was illustrated on the screen with a map of the Pacific Rim, along with ETA, altitude, temperature & airspeed. Our course was over the Queen Charlottes & the Gulf of Alaska then down the Kamchatka Pennisula & North East China. We flew the length of Japan before landing at KIX in Osaka.

With all the excitement of travelling, I was unable to sleep. It got a bit tedious telling the attendents "no thanks" everytime the drink cart came by, but my bottled water insured that I wouldn't be lacking exercise.

Arrival - Osaka / Fukuoka / Kitakyushu:

My first glimpse of Japan was from 30,000 feet. The world looks barren from this altitude. Very misleading. The pilot told us we were over Tokyo, but from my seat, it was hard to see much of it.

Minutes later I got my first photo op... Mount Fuji rising through the clouds. Within half an hour I was in Osaka. I took my first step into Japan, got in line for Customs & breezed through without even opening a bag.

I took the shuttle to the domestic terminal & acquired a cart. I now had a 3-hour lay-over. I picked up my connector ticket; went through domestic security & wandered down the airport, checking out shops. I bought a phone card & called the Pite's number in Kitakyushu. Dave's daughter, Julie answered & told me that he was with a private student & that her mom was teaching a piano lesson. I said I'd be ar-riving in Fukuoka soon & would call again.

At this point I started practicing Japanese. I had 3 hours. Might as well be prepared, right? I pulled out the "Japanese In 10 Minutes" book that I had borrowed from my daughter. To my dismay I noticed the fine print below the bold title, "per day". It didn't even specify how many days...

I had my pocket translator & helpful sentences from the language manual to start. Dave had primed me with a few phrases. The most helpful was Sumimasen: (Sue me my son) or "Excuse me", which doubled for "I'm sorry". A clod can go along way with this & if you look a little dangerous, people are eager to help you move along...

I had a few words already: Konichi wa - hello; Biru Kudasai - beer please; Domo arigato - thankyou; Sayonara - goodbye.

I would soon be in Fukuoka where I would find a local bus & get to a specific stop, somewhere on the island of Kyushu. A little daunting for a jet-weary verbal maladroit.

My pocket translater suggested that "Kono basu wa Hichino guchi he ikimasuka?" would get me to where I would meet Dave. Of course I had to rely on gestures & goodwill. I was now a "gaijin" in a strange land. I went to a kiosk & asked a one-word question, "Biru?". I was thirsty & I needed to practise my Japanese.

On the way to Fukuoka & I got to watch the news with a plane load of business people. I couldn't understand much, but it looked just like the daily news back home.

When I arrived at Fukuoka Airport I noticed I was the only non-Asian in sight. My blonde hair, newly-acquired blue sunglasses & 6' 3" stature, no doubt made me an oddity. I felt like a mobile landmark. The next tallest person I saw in this crowd was a young woman with 5" stacked soles on her hot pink boots. This footwear is big with Japanese girls, pardon the pun...

I called the Pite's number again. Masako told me how to find the bus wicket; that Dave anticipated picking me up; and that everyone was excited about my arrival. I couldn't understand whether the bus trip would take a few minutes or an hour.

My next move was to the bus wicket. Mmm, diesel fumes. I tried my first complex sentence in Japanese. "Hichino Guchi?" The woman looked at me quizzically. I felt like an idiot. "Hichino Guchi?", I repeated with a bigger question mark. She punched out a ticket & helpfully directed me to a stern man in a uniform.

The passenger attendant looked like a no-nonsense kind of guy. I squeaked, "Hichino Guchi?" & he pointed to the first bus stop. I stood there obediently.

A few minutes later I asked again. He squinted at me & talked to the ticket lady. "Lost Gaijin" was the body of their inter-change. He gladly put me on the next bus.

This bus was jam packed. I stowed my heavy bag & tried my handy phrase on the bus driver. He looked at me blankly as I was compelled to the rear of the bus by eager commuters behind me. I spent the next 45 minutes trying to read the roadsigns, as they whipped by in the invisible landscape. My co-passengers were all nodding out, or deeply engaged in conversation. I had no idea how far I was going on this bus.

The first stop appeared & half the riders disembarked. I got a chance to approach the driver & repeat "Hichino Guchi?" He indicated that it was either the previous, or one of the next three stops. I decided it was an upcoming stop & kept my eyes peeled.

I kept my mouth shut at the next stop, just to see what would happen & nothing did. I considered getting off & taking my chances, but I resisted the urge. What if there was no phone? The driver then turned & repeated "Hichino Guchi", as if I were hearing- impaired. I grabbed my bag & exited, suddenly becoming fluent, "Hichino guchi! Domi arigato, Sayonara!"

The bus disappeared around a corner. I was standing in the dark in a rundown, semi-industrial area with three-story wooden buildings & narrow streets. It looked like East Vancouver. No sign of Dave at this point. I had travelled over 4000 miles in 24 hours & was in a strange land, with my suitcase in my hand.

Before panic could settle in, Dave appeared from around a corner. He looked impressive with his 3 piece suit, red hair & full beard. I was less dapper in my rumpled travelling suit. Here we were, two old school mates from the Cowichan Valley meeting on a street in Japan. Amazing. We dragged the luggage to his car.

Dave brought me home to his apartment in Chuo-machi. I brought out the omiage (traditional presents). Masako, Julie & Cana were excited to see me & happily opened their gifts. Dave was pleased to receive Aberlour Scotch & Jack Daniels. We cracked the single malt & had a toast or 2...

I told Dave that I had to see some street level life. We excused ourselves & went for an evening stroll. We found a little restaurant/bar that was still open. A good opportunity to taste the culture. Wise? We decided we would gambatte (do our best). More biddoo & some outrageous rice wine with a big ginseng root floating in it. This deadly concoction was sitting in a jar on the counter & the hostess insisted we try it. It looked like an aquarium without fish. Mmm. That was the perfect end to the first ex-tended day (27+hrs) of my spring vacation.

I awoke in a comfortable fog & it took a while to realize where I was. Dave brought in a coffee & chocolate croissants (tres western). He told me to get packing. We were off to see his friend Hosan (Jiho-san) the Bosan (Buddhist priest) at Saganoseki-machi, some four hours away by car. We hit the road.

Kitakyushu has a population of about a million. As Dave & I travelled out of the city, I noticed how heavily the area was developed. I wondered if it would be like this all along. (A few days later Dave showed me the green side of his city. Impressive.)

The sensation of being a passenger while driving on the left was disorienting. I kept looking down to my left for a rear view mirror. There wasn't one. It's like forgetting your wristwatch & looking at a blank arm. This odd feeling was compounded by the unusual little cars & trucks, endowed with poetic or silly names. Over the next few days I would giggle like an idiot whenever I saw one new to me.

The Japanese have a way with making rules & getting around them. Car owners in major cities are required to prove ownership of a parking spot before acquiring a licence. A micro-mini car has been developed that is smaller than the criteria for the definition of a "car". These "non-cars" have special yellow licence plates & are extremely popular. You see them wedged in doorways & parked on sidewalks all over the place. Amazing. As was the frequency of toll boothes on the various routes that we used. I guess you have to pay for roads somehow. I didn't ask about taxes.

Eventually we moved into agricultural areas with terraced hillsides & smaller townships. We travelled through the seaside cities of Beppu & Oita & eventually arrived at Saganoseki.

We spent the next two days at Hosan's beautiful Zen Buddhist Temple on the side of a small mountain, while my jetlag kicked in. Dave knew that this would be a perfect location to regain my composure, in comfort & serenity.

Hosan is a fantastic host. We met his mother in the kitchen when we arrived & visited with her. Lucky for me that Dave is fairly fluent in Japanese.

Hosan arrived a bit later, greeting us warmly. He is a well-travelled man, no stranger to Victoria & has a great sense of humour. We had a good chinwag & in the evening he took us out for a Sushi feast at a local restaurant.

I have never had such varied seafood in my life. There was too much for us to finish. Cuttle fish, Sea Anenome, Shark, tuna, abalone, seaweed & many things I could not identify. These were consumed with draughts of Asahi beer & sake. Mmm.

After our feast we returned to the 500 year old temple & continued our visit. We listened to music & sat on the tatami mat flooring. It was an inspiring situation for deep conversation & sampling of our host's massive collection of single malts, including Aberlour (the winner). Hosan brought out a bowl of chocolate almonds & believe it or not, they complement Scotch beautifully.

Later on we retired to the upstairs rooms, with their thin sliding walls. I enjoyed a deep sleep, awakening to the crowing of a local rooster, accompanied by the singing of frogs & wild birds on the hillside.

One of the things that impressed me in Japan is the plumbing. The concept of a two-stage "big flush / Little flush" is eco- smart; & having the water that fills the toilet, first pour out of a spout into a basin on the cistern lid - so you can wash your hands - is brilliant. No need for a separate wash stand in the cubicle! I had seen traditional Japanese plumbing (squat toilets) in public washrooms enroute. Intimidating for the inexperienced. Imagine my delight when I found Hosan's American-style commode with a heated toilet seat. What luxury!

That morning Dave & I had a lazy morning listening to the symphony of sounds outside in the bamboo forest. I played music & did some recording with the Mini-disc for posterity. Then to breakfast with Hosan's mother. We were allowed to enter the inner temple, where I was inspired to play more guitar. Dave took some handi-cam footage of the exotic surroundings.

Later we hiked up the hillside. Scattered across the north face were dozens of rows of gravestone shrines to ancestors. These date back hundreds of years. The sunlight filtered on the moss covered stones through the trees. Large raptors called kites circled lazily overhead on the updrafts. Magical. Dave & I walked down to the seashore & back along the path to the restaurant. I had to retrieve my camera which had been left behind the night before. We wandered through the little fishing village, which used to be a busy steel mill town. The mill closed & left dozens of blocks of empty apartments behind. It was strange to see these ghost buildings.

The lush vegetation was a far cry from my first observations on the plane at 30,000 feet. Bamboo forests with wild cherry trees blanketed the hillsides & the locals all had thriving gardens around their homes. Beautiful.

We sat on the seawall & speculated what direction Vancouver Island would be. How many times have I been on Long Beach & thought about Japan. Big ocean, small world.

Later that day we drove to Beppu & lunch at a Ramen & Gyoza cafe. I was getting very ill at ease from the jetlag by this time.

We then proceeded to an unusual little museum dedicated to things carnal. Hosan told us that this was a popular place to bring your date. Hmm. From this erotic exhibit we headed for the Onsen (hotsprings / mud baths) which are located all over this seaside city. Steam emanates from the ground everywhere here.

At the Onsen we checked in & traded our shoes for these impossible little plastic slippers. We wandered in & disrobed in the changeroom. Our belongings were placed into a little open cubicles & a small towel was issued by the attendant. Nudity is not an embarassment in Japan, apparently.

For the next couple of hours we moved from pool to pool of hot grey mud, alternately showering off & soaking in the sulphury muck. It was healing but exhausting. Finally I was parboiled & had to quit. But my jetlag seemed be abating.

As I was leaving I saw a middle aged executive type man, stark naked but for a folded towel on his head. He was talking a mile a minute into his cell phone, as he sat in the mire. Talk about incongruity.

Later that day we enjoyed a traditional Japanese dinner prepared by Hosan, back at the temple. There were many things that I didn't recognize but it was interesting to give them a try. I love the Japanese cuisine, apart from a couple of textures. We had several types of seaweed, tempura vegetables & fish, squid, octopus, tea & biru. Later on we retired to Hosan's room for another evening of conversation & single malts. Another great day!

After our two days of visiting with Hosan it was time to take our leave. The next morning we drove to the local fish market, where I purchased a fish to take home to for Masako, back in Kitakyushu. This was a special gift for her, since I had taken off with her husband for a couple of days.

The market had about 20 huge concrete tanks with live fish in them. You just had to point at your choice & the fishmonger would net, bonk, clean & pack it. This one cost 7500 Yen. Masako later told me that this species cost twice as much in Tokyo.

We made our goodbyes to Hosan at this point. I am looking forward to returning his generosity when he visits Vancouver Island in October. At Beppu we grabbed a quick McTeriaki Burger for the road. (Not bad.)

Dave selected a different route to take us back to Kitakyushu. It was a rising road through the mountains & offered views of the surrounding valleys & small agricultural communities, as we moved north in a light rain. We listened to Leonard Cohen's "the Future". Perfect for a rainy day & discussion of the two concerts that we had planned.

Tomorrow would be the first event at "Jack's Emporium", a curio shop converted to a party venue. It would be Jack's first "live" event. We had to do some preparation for the show, which incuded picking up an amplifier from the second venue, "Murphy's", in Onga, where the Saturday show was scheduled. Imagine travelling to Japan to perform in an Irish Pub. Now I want to go to Belfast & play a Sushi Bar !

We finally got back to the apartment & tidied up, before heading downstirs to Masako's parents' suite for a special Japanese supper. I had brought some smoked BC salmon, that my wife, MaryAnn had purchased for the Kobayashi's gift. We enjoyed that, along with the fresh fish we had just delivered. It was sliced paper thin, raw & delicious.

Masako's father, Takashi, (Oto-osan) & mother, Chieko (Oka-asan) were lovely hosts & it was a treat to make their acquaintance & enjoy their company.

After dinner Dave & I retired to Mr. Kobayashi's den where he showed us the lastest software on his computer. He had prepared the tickets for the show at Jack's. My shoulder was still bugging me, so Mrs. Kobayashi took me into another room & got me to try a massage machine. I felt like a car in an autobody shop, getting a dent taken out of my fender. It did help a bit, tho'. We made our exit while the kids were playing with their grandparents. Masako kindly allowed Dave & I to take to the street for a quick brew. We had some ideas to work on.

We went to a funky beer joint, with a sliding wooden door. The inside looked like a set for some far-east Bogart movie. There was a coal shuttle beside the kitchen door & the walls were black from years of smoke. This was an inspiration to conversation.

I've been working on a fiction piece for a few years & I asked Dave If he'd be interested in co-writing a screenplay by email. We went over methods to this process & agreed to give it a go. We've been tossing it back & forth for a couple of months now & it's developing nicely!

Masako & the kids were waiting when we got back, so we had a nice visit before the kids turned in, followed by their dad, who was getting sleepy. Dave was still on his early morning work schedule & I was on some Martian time zone by now. So Masako & I stayed up & talked til the wee hours. It was great to catch up on things with her.

Masako grew up on the north island of Hokkaido before moving to Tokyo. She & Dave met in Kobe & married there. They relocated to Kitakyushu (her mother's hometown) after the big earthquake. Masako still gets nervous when tremors occur. I don't blame her, having seen video of their Kobe experience.

We discussed her musical friends in Tokyo. Masako wondered whatever happened to her friend, Keizo, who was a successful musician that she had lost touch with. (Jaco Pastorius used to hang with Keizo when in Tokyo) I suggested she see if he had a website. She searched the web & managed to find his site & send him an email. He responded in a couple of days.

At this point Masako wisely told me to head off to sleep, in preparation for the next days show. I bid her goodnight & left her checking the stock market on her laptop computer. She later emailed Keizo about my music & as a result of their reconnection, Keizo has agreed to contribute some bass tracks to a project that I've been working. What a blast! Hands across the water.

On my next trip I will have two reasons to visit Tokyo. Firstly, I look forward to meeting & playing music with Keizo. (We've been emailing about the project.) Plus, my first album, "ptarmigan" has been selling through an outlet in Tokyo. How bizarre! I went off to sleep with a sense of wonder about it all.

The next two days we were occupied with the concerts. The show at Jack's came off well despite his pre-game jitters.

He & his wife, Yamazaki-san & their bartender, had stayed up all night decorating the venue. It was like another movie set, with curios covering every bizarre square inch of wall & ceiling.

As the guests filtered in, a Japanese duo, "Colours" was doing a sound check.They were sharing the bill with me. I set up my CDs display & placed promo on the tables, while meeting with the audience. Dave took video & promoted the CDs, while Masako introduced me to Dave's ESL teacher friends & a couple of his private students, inluding Mr. Urano & his assistant Tomoko. CD sales went well & my one hour set of Canadiana was warmly received. "Colours" finished off the evening with their set of acoustic originals in Japanese, so it was a bi-cultural event & very satisfying all around.

Mr. Urano told Dave that he would like to have me perform at his venue, "Rin-Rin's" on my next visit, so groundwork for a future trip was laid. We packed up & headed back to the apartment in anticipation of the next night's show at "Murphy's.

In the morning Dave & I went for a drive to a couple of surfer beaches & checked out some spots in the country. At lunchtime we went out for Okonomiaki (cabbage pancakes) with the family. Mmm. Then Dave & I headed over to Onga for a sound check with Bob Murphy.

Bob's venue is also an ESL / Computer School / Italian Restaurant. Talk about multi-tasking / multi culturalism. He has a first rate sound system & we enjoyed a "Funky Chicken" Pizza (with lettuce & Vietnamese hot sauce on a tortilla) while waiting for the audience to arrive. We were joined by Dave's friend Paul Gayle, who had also been at Jack's.

The first set was to a small appreciative crowd. During my break Bob asked me to kick it up a notch & dispense with the between-song patter, since not many could understand it.

I plugged in my Zoom FX pedal & cranked out a set of high energy blues guitar/harp & howling. This got the growing audience warmed up. By then some young Japanese blues musos had arrived & were anxious to jam with me.

So the third & fourth sets were full-on rocking blues. Hiroaki Kuroki & Masaki Teshima are fine players, who would do well on our local blues scene. It was a pleasure to share their enthusiasm.

Dave & I hung in after the main show & I did a little acoustic set at the bar for the later crowd. Once again the evenings' CD sales were decent & combined with the gate from the two shows, I covered more than half the cost of my trip. We celebrated with Tequilas & caught a cab home.

The next day we took the train back to Onga to pick up the car & watched a "Blues Guiterist", Nakao Kaoru doing a sound check with his sextet. He had a big Gary Moore-type sound with Santana overtones. They were joined by a 3 female vocalists. We hung in & listened to them do a nice (phonetic) version of "I Feel the Earth Move", before heading back to Chuomachi.

That evening we enjoyed a special Udon noodle meal with roast duck, prepared by Masako. Julie beat me at a dozen games of "Gomokunarabe" (a simple form of "Go"), til I cried uncle.

My trip was winding down already. The next morning Dave took me on a hike up the mountain to get a view of Kitakyushu's harbour. It was beautiful & in some ways, reminiscent of Vancouver.

In the aftenoon we went to Julie & Cana's Shinto birth shrine, with the whole family, including the grandparents. After we paid our respects at the temple, we went to the adjoining park for a traditional Hanami (cherry blossom) picnic. It was beautiful to see all the trees in bloom & enjoy a meal in the sunshine. The park was full of people enjoying the spring celebration.

Later on, Masako took me into a Pachinko Parlour, for a quick introduction to pinball gambling. I think I'm better at "Gomokunarabe". We caught the bus back to Chuomachi & had more family time. Dave ran off a copy of the video that we had amassed, before we all called it a day.

The next morning Dave took me up Sarakura mountain & around the scenic Kawachi Reservoir, the watershed for Kitakyushu. We also visited the school where he teaches ESL, where his daugther Julie attends. I was on my fifth roll of film.

Then back to the apartment for tempura. The food was incredible throughout this trip & I did return home heavier than when I'd left. Couldn't have been the biru.

The afternoon was spent doing some last minute shopping with Masako and visiting her folks in Chuomachi. They all sent presents home with me for my family. Very sweet! The evening was spent in conversation with Dave, Masako, Julie & Cana. I can't believe how much living had been crammed into the past week & a half. I was really made to feel part of the family. Very nice!

The last morning, Dave & I were up at 5:am & off to Fukuoka airport, for my marathon trip back to Vancouver Island. I won't go into details, but I used my 9 hour layover in Osaka to debrief & make notes of my whirlwind visit. I now have many vivid memories, an album of photographs & a video of my travels, to accompany this telling of my first trip to Japan.

I look forward to seeing the Pites when they arrive for their yearly summer vacation, here in the Cowichan Valley, & I'm planning a future trip to the Land of the Rising Sun. Domo Arigato & Sayonara!

Note: Monte Nordstrom has produced over 75 demos and has recorded 9 albums to date (Dec '2000). He performs regularly at numerous venues on Canada's West Coast.
Email Monte at:

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