Turning Japanese

Juno take on Tokyo, live to tell the tale.

JUNO

WITH AVEO, ASAHI

VERA Project, 206-956-VERA, $7 all ages

8 p.m. Fri., Jan. 31

WITH THESE ARMS ARE SNAKES, AUTOMATON

Graceland, 206-381-3094, $8 adv.

10 p.m. Sat., Feb. 1

Throughout their seven-and-a-half-year history, local five-piece Juno have crossed the U.S. seven times and toured Europe twice; in mid-January, the group made their first trip to Japan, playing five shows over 10 days, before returning to Seattle for their first local appearances in nearly a year. This is singer Arlie Carstens' diary of the band's adventures.

JAN. 7

I spend the afternoon of the sixth running errands and asking cashiers stupid questions like, "Do you have this size stuff sack not in purple?" I finish packing at 4 a.m., and [guitarist] Gabe picks me up at 5 a.m. We drive around freezing our asses off gathering the rest of the good old Juno Boys Band: [drummer] Greg Ferguson, [guitarist] Jason Guyer, and on bass this time around, Mr. Jason Lajeunesse. Eight months of planning all coming to a head. The flight from Seattle to LAX is uneventful.

Now aboard the finest airline in the world, Singapore Airlines, we're on our way to Tokyo, Flight SQ 11. Oh shit, we've got turbulence! The painfully attractive flight attendants unleash their pearly-white smiles all around the cabin, making eye contact with every passenger as if to suggest, "Oh this? Pay no mind, this isn't a big deal." Fakery. The plane bounces around on and off for an hour. The guy next to me is double-fisting a Coke and Jack and a gin and tonic; more gets on his lap than against his tongue. Poor bastard, you've got just 11 more hours of this. I need sleep.

JAN. 8

Hiroshi, Ari, and Shuko meet us at the Narita Airport, about 30 miles outside Tokyo. They arrive in a small white passenger van the size of a loaf of bread. Hiroshi's our 21-year-old promoter. He's slight, wears wire-rimmed glasses, black jacket, and jeans. He smiles wide but speaks very little. Ari plays guitar, sings, and chain smokes for the band Blass Two Licks. A three piece, BTL sound like Hsker D sung in Japanese. Juno will be doing four of our five shows around Japan with BTL. Hell, yes.

Shuko used to live in Fort Worth, Texas, and played in the Japanese noise-rock band Aspera Bay. She now lives in Tokyo, where she teaches English to Japanese businessmen. Shuko will travel as our interpreter for the duration of our stay. Without her, we are idiots.

After dropping our bags and instruments at Shuko and Ari's flat, we go for dinner at Ikki. The restaurant's an izakaya, a Japanese traditional-style bar. On this tour, we'll eat at many izakayas. Ari orders dinner for us, huge plates of sashimi and stir-fried vegetables. Guyer and Lajeunesse freak out when the waiter carves up a live fish and places it still breathing on our table, lips gasping and tail flexing. Welcome to Japan, fellas. With a real tear in his eye, Guyer names the fish Herman. We return to the flat, divide up the floor space, and go to sleep. It's 3 a.m.—we're off to a good start.

JAN. 9

I awake around 6 a.m. I can rarely sleep on tour. Like those scenes in Blade Runner, out on the balcony a marvelous sunrise does battle with a dense gray mist obscuring the bay and most of the outlying cityscape. The human ingenuity of this place is both magnificent and horrifying. It's just huge, skyscrapers for miles and miles. Bright blue cargo vans, bicyclists, and screaming yellow taxi cars zip across the canal bridges below.

This is our day to rest and deal with jet lag as we drive to Hiroshi's parents' home in Nagoya, some four hours away. It's windy and balls-cold here. Japan isn't the tropics; patches of snow occasionally dot the roadsides. We stop at every Hello Square rest stop along the way to stretch, buy oddball snacks, and bullshit with Ari's bandmates, Ryu and Miu. This extends our journey to seven hours. BTL travel into the city to find a hotel for the night, while we make our way out to Hiroshi's home in Nagoya's farming region.

Upon entering the house, I come face to face with his tiny, rolled-shouldered grandmother. Silence. Not a word passes between us, only the slightest bowing acknowledgement. She retreats to her room. Hiroshi's father sits smoking in the living room wearing light blue pajamas and a black down vest. He makes us a huge feast of soba noodles, fried chicken, pumpkin, cuttle fish, and pickled daikon. Delicious. Hiroshi's mom heats sake and then withdraws to another room, returning only twice to see if we've finished up. Pronto, she wants us to please take our white interloping asses to the room they've arranged for our evening's quarantine. Off go we go.

For the remainder of the night, we sit around on reed mats next to a low, heated table, the kotatsu. The fellas drink sake and Kirin beer. I eat chocolate-covered soybeans until I nearly pass out. Everyone huffs grizzlers [cigarettes? We think so—Eds.] till they can no longer see each other. Madness. We listen to Hiroshi's CDs and reminisce about our favorite Clash songs.

JAN. 10

Around 6 a.m., the neighbor's dog goes apeshit and somewhere in the kitchen a shrill "beep(!)" kicks in. Time for a shower. Showering in Japan is genius. You just hang your towel outside the door and walk into an enormous wet room. Everything gets wet, you're hotter than hell, you choke on steam, and the water filters down to a series of gutters in the floor. Nirvana. Still, the freeze attack waits on the other side of the door.

At 8 a.m., Gabe and Greg rouse Guyer and Lajeunesse. Guyer's gluttony kicks in early—he plows through a mountain of prepackaged doughnuts and other sweets, sampling blobs of this or that, but devours nothing in full. Still in his sleeping bag, Lajeunesse wriggles his way over to the kotatsu in search of a lighter. For breakfast he just wants smokes and polite hangover conversation. That's my guy! I go for a walk and shoot photos of the neighborhood while the light's still good.

Around 11 a.m., we start our drive back to Nagoya's city center to meet up with BTL. We sound check at the club and then rent rooms upstairs at the Hotel Choraku. Later that evening, the club's doorman runs up to Shuko yelling; he takes her hard by the arm and frantically warns her not to walk with gaijin (foreigners) on the street in front of Huck Finn. A local Yakuza [gang] controls it. Shuko tells me they run the bar next door and reportedly are quite happy to carve up foreigners. The great news gets passed around in quick order.

The club holds approximately 150-200 people. We play with the bands NAHT, Sick of Recorder, Park Loam, and BTL tonight. The joint is sold out. Crazy, this is not only Juno's first show of the tour but also our first show in 10 months. Hello Nagoya! Welcome to our train wreck! Anything that can go wrong does. Still, the show is amazing, a cacophony but amazing nonetheless. A girl named Eiko, notorious to American indie-rock bands touring Japan, comes to the show. She brings presents and shoots a boatload of photos of herself with us. At the end of our set, people cry, scream, and ask for autographs. Not kidding. This is surreal. After the show, many of the bands go drinking at another izakaya. I've never experienced more camaraderie between touring bands than on this night in Nagoya.

JAN. 11

We wake, shower, freeze our asses off, pack the van, buy coffee and digital video tapes, and then wait for Gabe and Lajeunesse to return from their brisk morning stroll through Nagoya. Miu is concerned that we'll be late to our sound check in Osaka. Road Rule No. 214: American bands are late, always. The drive takes four hours. We pass through the mountains via a highway system of high-tech tunnels and glass-smooth two-lane toll roads. Japan ain't slouching—even rural areas look more modern than most major American cities.

Our show is at Club Water with the bands Fahner's Witch, Dig a Hole, Vifida, and BTL. Again, an employee warns us not to hang around the small side street in front of the club. Apparently, two doors down is the largest Yakuza office in Osaka. This city rules. Neon signs big as office buildings. Out on the Nanba District's main drag, a hulking bullet-train platform rises above hundreds of small streets and thousands of shops. This is Japan's second-largest city, and by the looks of it, all 3.5 million inhabitants are either out shopping, dining, testing sex toys, or perusing photos at the many storefronts pitching escort services. Or playing pachinko. The parlors are packed with chain-smokers; their blank eyes gone all puffy, staring straight through the machines, pulling handles, pushing buttons, lazily clutching handfuls of those polished little silver balls. Back at the club, Shuko plays interpreter for Gabe and me during a zine interview. The kid is petrified and embarrassed; as always, so are we. So I ask him a few questions to ease the tension. He's a film student. His favorite color is mauve. He believes it gives him positive energy and a good outlook on life. He says, "Dark colors are draining." I think, "Hell, we might need to look into this." The Juniform is just varying shades of blue and black—what does that mean about us?

We play well, the audience is happy. Afterwards we're all soaking with sweat. I don't recall much more about the show than that. Near the van, three "comfort girls" stand on the corner in their symbolic white coats. Their shtick is to hit local men up with offers to join them for drinks, dinner, and conversation in exchange for a fee. Shuko explains that it's like prostitution but rarely involves sex. Intrigued, Juno's resident Drunky the Bear goes off to ask a few questions of one of the girls. He comes back no more than three minutes later laughing, "Hey buddies, she's got no love for Mr. Baka Gaijin (crazy foreigner)! No love at all! Haaaaaaa!"

JAN. 12

Today is a day off. We do the long, beautiful drive back to Tokyo. I write in the passenger seat up front, while Lajeunesse ropes the boys into a gambling game of UNO. We stop at a Hello Square to admire Mount Fuji and the surrounding acres of green tea plantations.

In hipster Shibuya, we go to dinner at yet another izakaya. The gentlemen kill about 400 grizzlers and guzzle enough Kirin to fill a bathtub. Ryu challenges Lajeunesse to a sake-drinking contest. At the behest of a friend from back home, we try to get Ari to take us to Roppongi, the foreigner district. This is where all the non-Japanese congregate to go club dancing, scrounge for drugs, drink, get lap dances, full-body massages, and other debauched pursuits. Ari isn't having it, he's exhausted.

JAN. 13

Tonight we play with BTL, Kiwi Roll, and Downy at Club Que in Tokyo's Shimokitazawa District. Again, sold out. Bizarre and great fun. Though the sound onstage is terrible, it sounds epic out in the room. It's a diverse bill and unsurprisingly, once again all the bands are very good. To their hometown crowd, BTL play their best set of the tour. Kiwi Roll drop bombs with a set of aggressive screamo-math rock. Downy is Japan's answer to Sonic Youth and Radiohead.

When it comes time for Juno's set, Guyer borrows a Marshall JCM 900 head and a matching 4x12 cab. During the encore, he and Lajeunesse get a little too aggro, toppling the head off the back of the cab. It hits the ground—KABLAMMO! Guyer's guitar cuts out midway through the song—not good. He just shrugs, drops his guitar, tosses a grizzler behind him (landing it in my face), waves to the audience, and walks off stage, leaving us to finish up. Lajeunesse destroys the stage with thunderous bass squalls. It is awesome and totally stupid. The shocked crowd goes wild. After the show, I meet a few people from the audience. I can't get used to the crying. We truly appreciate the enthusiasm. But still, it's freaking me out a little. We miss the last train back to our flat in Toyosu. I buy a $4 cup of Starbuck's drip coffee in Shibuya's town center. We hail two taxis. The fair comes to $100 U.S. How is it grizzlers cost as little as $2 per pack in Japan and yet a small cup of coffee is four bucks? Japan likes to keep the smokes cheap. Everyone smokes in Tokyo. Everyone. It's mass insanity.

JAN. 14

We awake early again for our day's mammoth haul to Sendai, Japan's self-proclaimed "Punk Rock City." Our drive is seven hours of pee breaks and stops to buy candy at every Hello Square. We caravan with BTL and meet up with our new friends in the band Balloons. They're amazing, like a cross between the Jam and the Minutemen. Once more, a few of the Juno gentlemen nurse hangovers while gambling UNO in the backseat on a table fashioned from a cardboard box. Classy.

The club, Birdland, is located somewhere within the city center. But again, like each city we've visited, it's difficult to get your bearings. It's all a fascinating sprawl of buildings, tiny streets, and neon. As we unload our gear, a column of diapered men some 40 members deep comes marching down the street. They wear wooden flip-flops and white knee-high socks to match their cloth diapers and headbands. Reciting ritual chants, they carry plates displaying symbolic foods: fish, carrots, daikon radish, etc. . . . All shivering and covered in sweat, their faces are dead serious. "Punk Rock City" indeed!

The show room is no larger than the living room of a typical Capitol Hill studio apartment. The walls are covered in posters advertising recordings and upcoming shows by bands with names like Monster's Vomit and Naked Yeggs (my personal favorite). Though Birdland is claustrophobic to a fault, it attracts a great mix of punks, hardcore and straight-edge kids, mods, hippies, wet-blanket emo kids, and even a few rebel tough-guy wanna-be biker kids with slick hair and studied sneers. Eight bands on the bill. Something for everyone.

By the end of the night, we only have time for a 40-minute set, so we opt to play as many of our shorter, faster songs as we can. It is loud—I mean ungodly, horrifically loud—a tidal wave of guitars, drums, and hiss of monitor feedback. The stage is all of 4 feet deep and 8 feet across. I can touch the ceiling with my open palm. It's mayhem, but it's fun. Tonight's is the most expressive audience of the tour so far. We drive the seven hours back to Tokyo. It is now snowing. We arrive at our Toyosu flat sometime around 8 a.m.

JAN. 15

Five hours later, we take trains to Club Shelter in Shimokitazawa. Tonight we are playing with the Tokyo bands Toe and Balloons and with No Knife from San Diego, Calif. Some 200 tickets have already presold and a line is forming around the block outside. The opening band, Toe, is a legendary math-rock trio from Tokyo. It's all about the drummer. The guy's such a revered figure in Japan, he has his own signature sticks and drum kit. Only in Japan could this happen! I love Japan!

Balloons drive a stake through the heart of Tokyo. They play wonderfully. And then No Knife beguile the audience with their San Diego pop punk. We go on last. It's late, which means Drunky the Bear is in full effect. Tonight the honor of that title definitely gets passed to Lajeunesse. He brings a bottle of wine onstage with him and salutes the audience between songs, howling, "Kanpai!" Totally confused, they roar back, "Kanpai!" Our sides are splitting from laughing, which makes this show a very un-Juno-like live experience. Having Lajeunesse with us changes our inner-band chemistry and live show considerably.

For example: During the last song, he catapults himself into the drums, flattening the whole kit on his way to plowing his face into Greg's crotch. Later he says to me, "See, Arlie, playing the music just wasn't enough, I needed to get closer in order to really get inside the music. Crashing into Greg was totally spontaneous, I just felt I needed to get closer to him." God bless Jason Lajeunesse.

By night's end, this Club Shelter show outstrips all others to become the best show of the tour. The crowd is all smiles and thumbs up. A kid comes over to me and says, "Wow, Juno and No Knife on the same bill? Wow! So good, this show is so good!" He's psyched, which really is the whole point of our being here. I'm exhausted but very glad we've come. This tour's worked out to be so much more than we could've hoped for.

JAN. 16

The shows are over, so we sleep in. In the late afternoon, Shuko takes us by subway to go sightseeing. We visit an outdoor market, pray, and cleanse ourselves with purifying smoke and holy water at a Shinto Buddist Temple in Asakusa. In Harajuku, we blow nearly every penny we have left at a five-story toy store called Kiddy Land. Miu and Ari arrive in time to have cheap, conveyor-belt sushi with us. Around 11 p.m., we head to the baka gaijin district, Roppongi.

After an extended survey of the surroundings, I decide that Roppongi, much like New Orleans and Amsterdam, is basically Disneyland for sinners. Shuko calls her Canadian friend, Jesse, to come meet us. She says he knows this realm like the back of his hand. Jesse delivers us to Bar Quest. Holy shit. At around 2 a.m. the dance club swarms with enormous Italian bouncers in black Armani suits. They work to keep an eye on the Russian mobsters, while bottle-blonde Euro-trash chicks in sunglasses and crazy-tight outfits pitch their low-budget lap-dancing skills and high-dollar tabs of ecstasy. DJs work in short shifts blasting bad-ass beats. With suit jackets and ties flailing, drunk American and British businessmen do that dance, (you know the one). Harsh ponytail dudes in leather pants and ribbed turtlenecks strut, staring at themselves against the mirrored walls. It's hotter than a goddamn rap video up in this motherfucker. Come about 4 a.m., the debauchery gets much more expensive and a whole lot worse.

The Bear dives right in! It's his last night in Tokyo, so he figures it's his right, if not his responsibility, to give the Juno Japan tour its proper dose of corruption. Our boy goes full tilt, deciding he's gonna leave Tokyo in a blaze of glory. Or maybe on a stretcher, it's 50/50 all the way.

By 5 a.m., Shuko is near collapse. However, Ari's in a dance frenzy with two French guys, Shio's asleep at the bar, Ryu's vanished, Jesse's making deals with the hoods, and Lajeunesse's whacked out of his mind and he's taking photos of himself with some 6- foot-tall Japanese girl, (she's got Charlie's Angels hair, black stiletto heels, and more make up than Mary Kay). Gabe chain smokes and does suave shoulder-shrug dances while watching a boxing match on the enormo TV in the corner. Greg's gripped, just totally gripped. Guyer? God love him, Guyer sits huffing his final grizzler and curses Fate for entrenching him in this fantastical hell; surrounded by all that's nasty and hilarious in the ways of the world.

But when Guyer sees Shuko start to keel over, he takes the lead and tells everyone that we've got to break free of Bar Quest. Five minutes, later we all duck into a ramen joint to kill the hour while waiting for the subway system to go back online at 6 am. Greg puts a one-eyed monster doll on the table in front of Lajeunesse and says, "Hey buddy, how many eyes do I have?" Lajeunesse says, "There are two eyes and three dolls." Need I say more?

JAN. 17

Ari and Shuko drive us to Narita in the afternoon. Ari's bandmates, Ryu and Miu, take the subway to the airport. Despite our best efforts not to, everyone gets choked up when we have to say our goodbyes. We all have so much to be grateful for with these people. No turbulence on Singapore Airlines this time. We suffer a short but arduous layover at LAX's Customs and Immigration station. Go figure, we all look like the undead. The United Airlines flight back to the Northwest is about as joyous as a dead dog in the road. With our heads full of jet lag and adoring memories of Japan, not one of us has any desire to be back in the States; arriving in Seattle, I feel like we're a million miles away from home. This has truly been the best tour of our lives. Thanks for reading.

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