Delving into the Tokyo Underground @ Shimokitazawa’s Basement Bar

By ALEXINE CASTILLO YAP

Peach Kelli Pop at Shimokitazawa Basement Bar, 1 May 2018 | Photo by author

If you had asked me to describe Tokyo before I started living here, I might have replied by reproducing what a cursory trawl through Google Images might spit back: images of dazzling neon lights, hectic pedestrian crossings, and charming (yet annoyingly fleeting) cherry blossoms in the spring. To the casual tourist and observer, that’s all that seems necessary to know about the Japanese capital. However, anyone who has lived in Tokyo long enough knows that much of the city also involves the subterranean—of the underground spaces that, despite their tendency of staying out of sight, make up an important component to such a huge, multi-layered, bustling city.

Should Godzilla ever come to Tokyo, you can rest assured that Tokyo’s indie music scene would survive relatively unscathed; much of it takes place in the oft-painted-as-enigmatic world of the Tokyo underground. As a semi-regular (I say this since I am, as of writing this piece, still bitterly shackled to compulsory 8:30am classes) patron of 2500-yen indie rock concerts in smoky, dingy basement-level live venues, this is a reassuring thought, and one which I keep in mind every time I descend a staircase into a chaotic underground rock concert.

Shimokitazawa’s Basement Bar, located a little ways off the more animated heart of the famous hip youth town, is fast becoming one of my favourite haunts in the city. Well-known for the quality indie rock acts it regularly hosts, both local and international, going there is something that any Tokyoite should experience at least once. There’s something sublime about the intimacy of a bar venue when it comes to live music; no wonder the other famous basement venue for indie rock music, UNIT in Daikanyama, also operates under a similar underground-music-bar format.

Recently, I attended an indie rock event at Basement Bar with a spectacular line-up featuring five different bands, including my favourite local indie rock band, an all-girl group called TAWINGS (who, mind you, can play some really slick post-punk/surf punk). I may have only gone to the event specifically for them, but in the process, I discovered four other bands that I’m now also beginning to play on repeat, including the headliner act, Peach Kelli Pop, another all-girl group, this time hailing from California.

Whether you’re at the front row within spitting distance of the lead singer, or further away at the back sipping a few drinks, there is certainly a sense of proximity between the artist and the audience which a larger, above-ground venue could not quite capture. It being underground further adds to a certain secretive ‘let’s keep this between us’ appeal around which indie rock is so often centred. Though slightly intimidating at first, especially if you’re going alone, it’s also a great place to meet like-minded (like-eared?) people who have an affinity for fuzzy, distorted electric guitars (and, of course, the pretentious indie rock appeal of saying ‘I bet you’ve never heard of this band before!’).

To use an oft-quoted expression (or, let’s face it, a straight-up Transformers reference), there is more than meets the eye in the city that is too often assumed to be completely destroyed whenever Godzilla wreaks havoc on land, and it certainly pays to dig deeper. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s scary, going underground. The subway still intimidates me, and there’s something about underground spaces that can inspire a creeping sense of claustrophobia (Exhibit A: the B2 floor of the University of Tokyo’s Komaba Library). But if you’ve lived in Tokyo long enough, you’ll know how important these spaces are, and especially as a fan of indie rock music, which is so intrinsically connected to the subterranean.


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