In a small Tokyo (東京) bar, people gather. The music’s loud, the atmosphere lively and the beer is flowing. But this is no ordinary tavern. No suits or cosplay here – just cowboy hats, tight jeans and belt buckles as large as the waist. It looks like Texas and sounds like Texas, but this is Tokyo! And the only time you realise it is when you look at the faces of the 90% Japanese crowd.
1. Tomi Fujiyama (トミ藤山)
Japanese country music can trace its roots back to the 1950s, when Hank Williams and cowboy movies were the rage. This “golden age”, influenced by America’s involvement with Japan, produced many pioneers, including the legendary Nagoyan, singer, Tomi Fujiyama.
Born in 1940, Tomi sang geisha
Influenced by Ella Fitzgerald, Hank Williams, Patty Page and Mahalia Jackson, Tomi started to gain a following. In 1964, at the age of 24, she travelled to America, playing in Vegas, New York and finally the Grand Ole Opry. She met legends like Buck Owens and appeared on TV. It must have been quite a sight, this young Japanese girl whose English was still not great, singing perfect country ballads, like her signature – Tennessee Waltz. During the late 1960s Tomi toured with GI’s in Vietnam, their stories still bring tears to her eyes.
In 2015 Tomi appeared once again at the Grand Ole Opry, a rare event. They still remembered her and her songs. The documentary, Made in Japan, was made about Tomi’s life and she continues to perform to this day – but now only in the warmer months. Having sold over 25 million records, Tomi is one of the corner stones of Japanese country music. Her advice to newcomers: “Understand the feeling behind the song, don’t just copy, make it your own!”
2. Eddie Chmura
Another face on the country circuit is Eddie Chmura, a native Chicagoan who moved to Japan more than 50 years ago. In America he never liked country, instead preferring rock and playing saxophone with his band. However, a South Carolina army buddy managed to persuade him to visit a country live house in Fukuoka (福岡), and he loved it. Eddie had two advantages – language and band experience. Influenced by Johnny Cash and George Strait, he started playing country at the Chuck Wagon (チャックワゴン) in Fukuoka.
As his Japanese improved, he gathered a unique blend of ‘gaijin (外人)’ and ‘Nippon (日本)’ fans. “It’s great in Japan”, he says, “People are welcoming”. In the 1980s, Eddie moved to Tokyo to pursue his professional career as a translator, before returning to Fukuoka and then back to Tokyo in 2015. In 2016 he formed a new band – the Diamond Backs. Playing a combination of old and new styles, his music encourages dancing – no small achievement considering the shyness of many Japanese. Eddie’s number one rule – country has to be fun – “I feed off the audience and they feed off me”.
3. Hidehito Tanaka
Aichi (愛知) born drummer-singer Hidehito Tanaka is another country favourite. Hidehito plays with Eddie, but also has his own band, Country Fairground, which recently celebrated their tenth year anniversary. Hidehito has been playing for 25 years, and was influenced by the Doobie Brothers and Eagles, as well as bands such as Boston.
Like Tomi, Hidehito could not speak English when he started singing, and learned pronunciation through songs. His English is now good, thanks, he says, to George Strait and Willie Nelson. Hidehito loves the older singers, and sadly reflects that newer country does not seem to have the same heart. Performing two times a week, country has become Hidehito’s life. “It’s a great way to bring cultures together”, he says and, judging from the crowd, I think he’s right.
Tokyo has many excellent country music bars, including the Country House (カントリーハウス) in Akasaka (赤坂), the Lone Star Café (ロンスターカフェ) in Takadanobaba (高田馬場) and bluegrass bar Rocky Top (ロッキートップ) in Ginza (銀座). However for real “home-style”, these two bars are unmissable:
4. Little Texas (リトルテキサス)
Little Texas is a bar in Meguro (目黒) boasting a range of up and coming, as well as established, country acts. Its owners, Grace Natsuko (ナツコ・グレース) and Takeshi Yoshino (吉野剛司), have been named “honorary Texans”. The certificate hangs in the bar, as do other Texan memorabilia. Takeshi usually mans the bar, while Grace takes care of the line dancing (she owns her own studio). Their food and love for Texas are genuine. The crowd is 80% Japanese, and it’s a wonderful way for foreigners to meet Japanese in a Western setting. Fun and dancing guaranteed!
5. Hee Haw (ヒーホー)
Hee Haw, owned by Aichi born husband and wife team, Macki and Katue Ishikawa, is one of the best country restaurants in Tokyo and can be found in Nakano (中野). Macki, has been playing guitar since 1965. Starting with Meiji University (明治大学)’s Country Capers (カントリーケイパース), he moved to Sapporo (札幌), forming the Matango (マタンゴ), playing country, rock and even Enka. After a few years, a band from Tokyo, The Longhorns, called him back, and the rest is music history. Macki now owns more than 60 guitars and plays with 4 bands.
Macki opened Hee Haw 31 years ago, after getting married. Money was tight and he made most of the furniture himself. The restaurant is a unique blend of memorabilia and guitars. Its homely feel and great food makes it a popular hang-out for locals. However, the real draw card is the clientele – most of whom are musicians. On any night you might hear impromptu bluegrass or country being played – and if you are lucky, Macki may even take his guitar out.
On the fourth Thursday of every month, a bluegrass band plays, but on other nights its pot luck. The food is great and not costly; recommendations include the Hamburger 500g, popcorn and chilli. Servings are large. Katue is usually behind the bar, as is Macki, who also dons the waiters outfit to serve customers.
And there you have it, country has a home in Tokyo. For a unique experience get your cowboy boots on and enjoy!