Japanese sake and music hits London…

It seems at times as if we’re enjoying a packed annual calendar of Japanese cultural events in the UK, particularly in London. Events such as the Japan Matsuri through to Hyper Japan have demonstrated a keen interest in every aspect of Japanese culture. But the addition of the Japanese Sake Festival has presented an event that while it shares some aspects of the annual Japan-themed events, it also presents a few interesting elements in the mix.

The Festival’s chief theme was, of course, the promotion of a broad range of sake from a diverse number of companies (which also included a London-based sake company). The rice-based drink has surged in popularity in recent years, particularly with the high profile given at events such as Hyper Japan. The Sake Festival featured more than 20 different Japanese sake types being served at 6 stands, alongside 5 food stands and art stalls.

But the other aspect of the event that made it stand out was the choice of stage performances. With such diverse talents as Rie Fu, Miou, Yue Miyagi, Akari Mochizuki, Hidè Takemoto, Kayono Wakayagi and Hibiki Ichikawa gracing the stage, the festival offered up a full day’s entertainment.

Hidè Takemoto, who was also part of the Japanese Sake organising team, has been demonstrating his guitar skills at a variety of music events in London for some time. His talents allow for smooth, laid-back pieces as well as more dynamic compositions – showcasing his confidence in handling an acoustic guitar.

Meanwhile, Akari Mochizuki is no stranger to performing live at Japanese cultural events. The talented singer (who J-Pop Go previously interviewed in 2012) has a passion for enka, minyo (Japanese folk music) and Japanese blues. Accompanied on stage by Hidè, she breezes through an engaging set that’s topped off with an energetic delivery of ‘Hitori De Nadeshiko’, the song that she encourages the audience to sing along with (“Mochi!”).

Rie Fu has built up her own musical foundations since the release of her eponymous debut album in 2005. Taking inspiration from the likes of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, The Carpenters, and Yumi Matsutoya, Rie has carved out her own unique sound over the years. Notable for her contributions to the world of anime (in particular Gundam SEED Destiny and Bleach), she’s demonstrated a versatility that has led her to a diverse audience.

For her performance at the Sake Festival, Rie unveiled a new direction with her musical endeavours. Utilising her skillset on guitar and vocals, along with a controller which is employed for percussion and on-the-fly vocal samples. Much of her performance features more of an organic sound, often augmented by sampled vocal effects (and in some cases, a few choral trills from Rie directly).

A few minor technical issues aside (“Sorry my guitar decided not to work today – yay! my guitar’s back!”), Rie delivers an engaging performance for songs such as ‘The Light In The Water’, which features mesmerising chord effects and Rie’s vocals taking on a silky lilt to them.

Her closing song has a more perky piano melody to it with more vocal effects (calling to mind artists such as Grimes), but overall a more stripped-down and simple delivery.

Miou has become a mainstay for Japanese music events in recent times, including some sterling performances at Hyper Japan under her belt. Her combination of traditional Japanese music styles with a more modern interpretation has led to some intriguing compositions, including covers of Eurythmics songs.

As ever, Miou offers up a smooth vocal delivery over signature tunes, such as ‘Pave My Way’ and the strident flute melodies of ‘Live To Fight Again’. But takes things down a gear for the piano-led ‘MOMIJI’.

Guitarist Yue Miyagi slots effortlessly into the music schedule, but there’s something very different about her approach to guitar playing that lends a bright and breezy element to proceedings. The soca rhythms to songs such as ‘Bird’ have an airy appeal to them, while ‘Jungle’s Traffic Jam’ reveal more of a jazz foundation.

Having studied music from a very early age (she first took up the guitar at the age of 4) Yue has a confidence and stage presence that’s impressive to behold. While all the artists on stage today show their chops for musical performance, it’s Yue who somehow manages to come across as having the most fun.

The stage was also graced by a session of traditional Japanese dancing courtesy of Kayono Wakayagi. Adopting the style of Yamatogaku Kotobuki, which weaves western chorus techniques into Japanese traditional music, this seasoned performer added a more thoughtful element to proceedings.

Also on hand to push more traditional Japanese music aspects, a group of taiko drummers gave the event a more emphatic performance. The booming percussive sound of taiko drums is something that you don’t just hear, but also physically feel. For the Sake Festival the taiko session was conducted by Liz Walters (a veteran of the UK taiko scene) featuring students of the Bethnal Green-based Tamashii Daiko school.

Although most of the Tamashii Daiko members were unavailable for the day, 2 advanced students from the school were on hand to help the group. The taiko group also set up a fun lesson for people wanting to work out their energies on the drums (which also included an enthusiastic Miou wanting to stretch her musical talents!).

Between the music performances, there’s room for some dedicated J-Pop DJ duties, care of J-Pop Go. With such a diverse crowd, it offers an opportunity to present a very diverse setlist. Shonen Knife, AKB48, Puffy, Halcali, Perfume, Tommy February6, Dempagumi, Babymetal, Kyary, FEMM are all on the bill. Perhaps the sweetest point is watching a very young girl air-guitaring to Tommy Heavenly6 – perhaps a potential future star in the making.

Crafting a polar opposite DJ set is DJ Koichi (who is also acting as sound engineer for the day). Koichi styles himself as a strictly vinyl DJ and his music covers a very broad base of 60s tunes up to the modern day. What’s intriguing about this setlist is how familiar many tracks are, including cuts from iconic Japanese folk outfit Happy End and even ‘Ii You Da Na’ by The Drifters (which managed to later end up being adapted for the soundtrack to classic anime series Love Hina).

Another veteran of the Japanese cultural stage is Hibiki Ichikawa. The only professional player of Tsugaru Shamisen in the UK, Hibiki has chalked up an impressive catalogue of performances including the Japanese Emperor’s birthday event at the Japanese Embassy, Japan Matsuri and Hyper Japan. Hibiki has also struck out to become a teacher for budding UK shamisen players.

Hibiki’s talent is presenting a deceptively simple performance that utilises the plucked strings of the shamisen, which build up to surprisingly energetic compositions. Hibki’s choices weave in traditional Japanese songs along with a more engaging performance for some Japanese folk tunes – a more striking sound with dramatic chords.

Hibiki is also joined on stage by Hide for a joint performance. The contrast between the stark sound of the shamisen and the more warmer tones of the acoustic guitar present an intriguing combination. To begin with, Hibiki leads the way with Hide giving the shamisen player a polished foundation. Later, it takes on a more frenetic rhythm and at one point Hide is utilising his guitar as a make-shift percussion instrument. The last piece offers up a very strident musical motif and draws the crowd in with some enthusiastic clapping.

The Japanese Sake Festival conjures up memories of the Japanese Art Festival, an event which attempted to bring together a diverse platform for Japanese culture. But while the sake is as popular as ever, there is something appealing about the musical talent that the Sake Festival has brought to bear for this event. Hopefully, more events will follow in the future.