We were awake early on Wednesday morning to finish packing for the train from Hiroshima to Tokyo. We were booked on the 9:54 which required a change at Shin-Kobe. There are direct trains between the two cities, but they are all Nozomi superfast express trains which aren’t covered by the JR Pass we’ve been using for all our train travel. There were 11 minutes for us to make the connection which, given the punctuality of the trains, was plenty of time. It was particularly straightforward since we arrived at and departed from the same platform at Shin-Kobe.
We arrived in Tokyo mid-afternoon. I had booked us for the night into the Mitsui Garden Hotel Kyobashi which was a 5 minute walk from the station, or would have been if Google Maps hadn’t provided odd instructions for getting there. We eventually arrived and checked in to another compact hotel room.
Having been cooped up on the train for a lot of the day so far, we headed out for a walk and to build up an appetite for dinner. Also, I had been trying to find some Bluegrass music in Tokyo and had googled a bar called Rocky Top which was reasonably close to our hotel. We knew the music wouldn’t be starting until later in the evening but rather than wandering aimlessly, we decided to walk down to where Google Maps told us it was located to scope it out.
The walk took us through Ginza, an area which features all of the high-end shopping establishments you could ever hope to encounter, if that’s your thing. We walked to the place where Rocky Top should have been but couldn’t find it. We are so used to bars and restaurants having street front entrances in the UK, we keep forgetting that Tokyo establishments can be located on the upper floors of buildings. Having missed it on the way down the street, we spotted the sign on our second sweep of the area. To be fair to us, night had fallen by this time and the bar sign wasn’t yet illuminated as the place hadn’t yet opened. We went up to the third floor to have a look at it anyway and the sign outside confirmed that there would be a bluegrass band playing that night.
We still had a couple of hours to kill before they started so we walked back up to the station. On our way in on the Shinkansen, we’d caught a glimpse of the frontage of the old part of the station on its western side. We had come out of the modern, east side and hadn’t seen it when we arrived so we decided to go and take a look.
We then looked for somewhere for dinner and discovered a Japanese foodstuff that we hadn’t previously encountered on our travels: Omurice. It’s rice, inside an omelette. Tasty.
After dinner, it was time to go and get our bluegrass fix so back to Rocky Top we headed. We were relieved to see that the external sign was now illuminated, so up we went and in through the door. The room holds maybe 30 to 40 seats with a stage at one end and a bar at the other. We were seated just inside the door and asked whether we had been there before, which we hadn’t, and were warned that there was a cover charge for the music, which we knew about. We ordered a couple of Asahi draft beers and took in our surroundings. We were the only westerners in the room and, by the time the band started, there were around 15 others there to enjoy the music, all Japanese.
I had heard that bluegrass had a substantial following in Japan and it has been mentioned a few times in the book I’m currently reading, a chronicle of the life of Bill Monroe, the acknowledged father of bluegrass. There is also a famous Japanese mandolin luthier, Eiichi Sumi, who first came to prominence for building some of the top end models of Kentucky mandolins when they were being built in Japan. Kentucky later moved production to China and Sumi built mandolins under his own name.
I digress. The band started playing, and they were excellent. Very tight with some quite formidable four part harmonies, particularly noticeable on their version of Fox on the Run, the Manfred Mann song that The Country Gentlemen later covered and converted to a bluegrass classic.
At the end of their first set, the young bass player, Shinnosuke, came over for a chat with us. We discovered he was the son of the banjo player and he also played with some of his contemporaries in a rock band but enjoyed bluegrass very much. He told us that, for the second set, the band usually invites guest vocalists and instrumentalists on to stage with them and tried to encourage one or both of us to participate. We were obviously reluctant to do so since the quality of what we heard in the first half was way beyond what we could achieve.
But of course, I did it anyway. I sang Gotta Travel On and received thunderous applause, which only goes to show how polite Japanese people are.
There was quite a bit of talent scattered around the audience and it was clear from the song choices that the people there knew a lot about bluegrass music. The third set was back to the band performing again. Their name had been written in Japanese outside the bar but Shinnosuke told us they were called River of Time – an excellent bluegrass band name.
If you find yourself in Japan and want to hear bluegrass, make sure you get along to Rocky Top.
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