MASTERMIND ~ Japanese Tour Diary
By Bill Berends - January 1997
Going to the Moon - Monday, January 20On January 20th 1997 at 9:30 AM we departed from Newark NJ's International Airport bound for Narita airport in Tokyo Japan. As our UA B757 lifted off I had a sinking feeling in the bottom of my stomach, and the higher we went the more surreal it became as the landscape gave way to cloud cover reminiscent of a very large field of rolling snow banks. It was ten years ago when we laid down the first Mastermind tracks on tape. Ten years. Now four albums and a lifetime later we were headed to the other side of the world. It's been a long road for sure...
In order to make this tour happen I had to be able to bring my synthesizers as it's a vital part of our sound. To my amazement I managed to get the basic midi-guitar requirements into a four space rack about 9" tall. Packed into a bright blue Avil flight case it certainly passed the size requirements, but we all knew it exceeded the maximum weight limit. We were all kind of looking around at each other as they rolled the scale out at the counter, but the nice UA lady gave us the OK and off it went. As we sat in the plane after boarding we all heard a loud "thunk" as the whole plane shook. We looked around at each other and laughed. The blue case!
First stop was changing planes in Chicago's O'Hare Airport where we saw our B747-400 sitting at the kiosk as our flight taxied into dock. A very impressive aircraft I thought, like an early model Space Shuttle, I knew it would get us there, the thing is amazing. Between flights we had an hour to kill so we walked around a bit and exchanged our dollars for Japanese Yen. The tunnel you walk through in O'Hare to reach the International Departures is a futuristic design with long moving walkways that talk, twisting multi-colored neon lights, and strange electronic music sound sculptures that follow you as you go. Weird. Like a scene out of Star Trek, we were definitely headed for another world it seemed.
The B747-400 is a BIG plane. It seemed like it took forever to lift off as it lumbered down the runway, but you could see it when the wings filled with air, achieving a sort of erection and taking us into flight. 'Geez, these things really work!' I thought, 'this is cool as shit.' You could definitely feel the massive weight of the aircraft as it rolled into our flight path, like a really solid flying ton of bricks, this thing was stable. Yeah, flying is great I thought, I have to do this more often.
I will say that 13 hours in one of those little economy seats was a bit uncomfortable (to say the least), but the flight was OK. Our flight path took us right over Alaska where looking down you could see the Alaskan Rocky Mountains as clear as a bell. Frozen lakes, snow capped peaks, rocky islands, even from 7 miles in the sky it looked barren and inhospitable, but it was a beautiful sight. Then over the Aleutian Islands and out across the Pacific Ocean, I felt like I was going to the moon. Very cool.
After many uncomfortable hours of nodding in and out to the roaring drone of jet engines, the woman beside me said "Japan" and I leaned over to the window. 'Wow, we're there.' I looked down as we crossed the coast line and wondered what lies ahead down there? It's definitely different, the layout of the land is different, not at all like all the little squares you see crossing America. With a heavy "thunk" as we touched down at Narita Airport, our flying behemoth had made it 6,300 miles non-stop to Tokyo without a hitch. Amazing. We had crossed the international date line so by now Tokyo time was 6:00 PM on Tuesday, January 21st. 14 hours ahead of our own time zone and 30 hours after local departure time, we were in the future! All our luggage had made it intact and customs was no problem, so off we went. Concert organizer Shingo "Numero" Ueno met us right outside where we loaded up his van and then set off across Tokyo in the dark.
The First Day - Wednesday, January 22We settled into our apartment at Triade Ltd. in Nerima and went straight out to dinner Japanese style with Shingo and his partner Norie Hashikawa. They took us out to sample the local cuisine, sushi with hashi, you name it (I can't), we tried it. With beer! It was great. Japan is a great place for beer we learned, there are even beer vending machines right out on the street. Cool! Everyone was very friendly and we felt right at home our first night in Japan. It was a great feeling.
The next morning at 9AM we were awakened by knocking and Phil opened the door to find a very surprised looking man and woman standing there who immediately started going on about something in Japanese. I guess they didn't expect to find several large Americans here. Frantically they paged through a Japanese/English dictionary as they handed us some pamphlets... they were Jehovah's Witnesses!! Unbelievable!
We were basically left on our own to wander the streets of Nerima today as Shingo had work to do. Nerima-ku is a ward of Tokyo connecting to Ikebukuru, our main train station as we soon learned. Shimakatsu was our stop. We found a liquor store straight away and bought a case of Sapporo beer. We sampled the local food shops, book stores (bought copies of BURRN! and scanned the music 'zines), convenience stores (7-11!), and many private shops. All the Japanese we met (and this was far away from the tourist traps and central Tokyo) were helpful and kind, all doing their best with English to answer our questions. We had no problems, everyone spoke at least some English, and no one really gave us a second look as we wandered up and down the streets and alleys checking out the all the little shops.
Later in the evening after we had returned to Triade, Hiroshi Masuda, my friend and the promoter who had arranged for our trip, called and invited us to dinner. Shingo put us on the train to Ikebukuru and Hiroshi met us at the end of the line. He took us to a little place in a nook up a little stairway somewhere and it was packed! We got a table as everyone bustled around to take our coats and proceeded to have a wonderful meal of tofu, chicken, green things, fish, and... beer! There was a group of older Japanese people there partying and we all ended up taking pictures together and had a great hearty feast. What a cool place!
On Air West - Thursday, January 23By noon we were on the train with Shingo to Shibuya station in downtown Tokyo. When we walked out of the station... wow! THIS was Tokyo as we had imagined it! People everywhere, signs flashing, giant TV screens on buildings, a total overload of the senses! It was very intense. But as intense as it was, there was a strange sort of serene calmness to it. Unlike the noisy bustle of New York, people in Tokyo are more polite, more sensitive to others perhaps. I felt very comfortable there.
On Air West is a great medium sized concert venue. We met the band Gerard and the concert staff upon arriving and they were all very friendly and helpful. We couldn't have done these gigs without Gerard's equipment (many thanks guys), and the On Air staff was very professional. Soundcheck was a nightmare as the first Marshall amp they had rented for me didn't work and we were all in a panic, but another amp showed up shortly and things went OK after that. By then the room was filling up with onlookers and cameras were flashing. I have should have dressed hipper for soundcheck I thought.
After soundcheck I did an extensive interview for Archangel magazine in the dressing room with Hiroshi Masuda and Naohiro Yamazaki of Belle Antique (our current label in Japan) assisting with translations. We autographed dozens of CD's for the merchandise table and then Noahiro brought us a giant bag of food from McDonalds! We were grateful for his kindness but laughed and joked around about going all the way to Japan to eat Big Macs. We watched Gerard for a while from the balcony then went back to prepare for our Japanese debut.
The show went well even though the Marshall didn't feel quite right, it had a sticky tone which inhibited legato style playing, but we made it work. The audience was very enthusiastic and not as nearly as reserved as we were lead to believe. I could see people in the front of the hall that clearly knew every change, every word, every beat of every song. That was pretty cool I thought, they know our albums. After our set they clapped us out for an encore Japanese style which is a steady persistant rhythmic clap in unison, so we of course obliged them. Pretty cool, it was a good first show.
After the gig we all went out to dinner with Shingo, Hiroshi, Ars Nova, and several friends. Much food and beer was consumed as we went over the nights receipts. It was a success. We made enough to cover our expenses and the flight to Sapporo which was our main concern, so we ate and drank until 2AM and took cabs home as the trains stop running at midnight. I slept soundly on my futon bed that night knowing we had done it. (Review)
Flight in Fuchu - the Soh Band Trio jam. Friday, January 24Many months ago while making tour arrangements with Hiroshi via e-mail, I mentioned to him how much I enjoyed jamming fusion style and he asked if I would like to jam with some Japanese musicians. Of course I jumped at the chance. "On stage?" he asked to which I replied 'why not?' So he arranged for me to meet and perform with three members of the Soh Band at a jazz-improv oriented club called "Flight" in the outer Tokyo region of Fuchu. Today was the day.
Hiroshi and his friend Yukihiko Takeba picked us up mid-morning for the drive to Flight in Fuchu. My brother Rich and our soundman Art Dorety went with us and Phil stayed behind in Nerima to go shopping. A club style venue in the basement of a building, Flight is a great little place with a very nice sound system. I was a bit anxious since it's been quite some time since I've performed in public with any other musicians, and I didn't really know what to expect, but Suji Soh and the guys in his band were great. We rehearsed our impromptu set for about two hours in the afternoon and after walking in the rain to a western style dinner of hamburgers and coffee, we hit the stage at 8PM.
For two hours we played through some rather loose but enthusiastic extended renditions of Mahavishnu Orchestra's "Meeting of the Spirits" and "Birds of Fire", a fusion piece of mine called "Sudden Impulse", Mastermind's "On the Wings of Mercury", one of Soh's songs called "Gee, I like Summers" from their "No Problem At All" album, and an extended jam on Jeff Beck's "Freeway Jam" mutating into Mile Davis' "Right Off". There were some moments of panic here and there, but it was a ton of fun and I couldn't have met up with a better bunch of players. We bounced riffs off each other like I haven't done since I was a kid. Man, I wish these guys lived closer! The audience seemed to enjoy what we did and clapped us out for an encore, but since we hadn't rehearsed anything else a slow blues reminiscent of Cream's "Sittin' On Top of the World" closed out the night. Anyone who can play blues is OK with me!
More Japanese food and beer and we went home after an extended goodbye with all the guys from the Soh band. It was a wonderful experience and I hope to get to jam with them again someday. (pics & audio)
Eggman - Saturday, January 25Up early and again on the train to Shibuya, again the same feeling of intense calmness walking out of the train station. I really like Japan. I think the fact that Japan is 99.4% Japanese has a lot to do with the sort of focused energy one feels there. Coming from the cultural diversity and adversity of America it was a strange and pleasant experience. I enjoyed it a lot and can't wait to go back.
Eggman is a smaller venue, more like a club, sort of like Orion in Baltimore. Also in the basement of a building you descend a curving flight of stairs to reach the entrance, and again performing with Gerard it seemed like a cool place to play. This time they got me a different Marshall which wasn't too bad, but it still had a sticky 'old tube' kind of sound. Not *my* Marshall that's for sure! Young Guitar Magazine had a photographer out shooting pictures of my guitar and synthesizers as we ran through soundcheck. After we were done I went out to a coffee shop for an extended interview with Yuzi Okumura, a major Mastermind fan and editor for Young Guitar. When we returned to the venue, there was a line of people all the way up the stairs and around the building waiting to get in! Very cool!
The place was packed and our show went well. There were a few minor problems using borrowed gear, but we played with a lot of energy and it was quite a success overall. I wore a Kamikaze headband Phil had got for me the previous day for our encore of "War Machine" and the audience really responded with enthusiasm! It seemed appropriate to me since I really feel like I've been killing myself to make this band thing work sometimes, plus with all the playing I had done in the past week (we gigged in Philadelphia and Baltimore before we split) I had a developed a nasty blister on my middle finger by the end of the set and was bleeding and in pain. The crowd obviously wanted another encore, demanded another encore in fact! But with my finger in shreds I felt it better to stop then. I apologize to our fans there, we really wanted to play some more.
After the show I did a photo session with Keiko Kumagai and Akiko Takahashi of Ars Nova and then we went to a coffee shop where Keiko and I interviewed each other for Marquee, Japan's #1 progressive rock magazine. It was a load of fun with everybody adding their comments, and with some of the difficulties in translation, we all had a really good laugh now and again. We met up with Shingo later and left early to catch the last train back to Nerima where the Saturday midnight crowd through Shinjuku is just as you would imagine - packed to the walls! Still there is that feeling of calmness and focus. After a low-key dinner in Nerima I hit the futon at Triade with a real feeling of accomplishment. Despite the little problems, Mastermind in Tokyo had been a total success.
Sightseeing in Asakusa - Sunday, January 26This was our day off. Shingo had a convention to attend that day so Kyoko Kanazawa of Ars Nova met us at the train station. We took connecting trains and subways until we met up with Hiroshi and the rest of Ars Nova at the old temple in Asakusa. This as I understand it is the 2000 year old culture of Japan - ancient temples, Japanese devils, towering pagodas. I bathed in healing incense, tossed coins into the wishing well, had my fortune selected, and we shopped at the many gift shops that line the approach to the temple. Later in the day Shingo met up with us and we went to our final feast in Tokyo in a German style brewery. Excellent! Japanese food and German style beer! What could be better as Marquee picked up the tab, we had one final glorious night with all our friends in Tokyo. We laughed and ate and drank for hours, but I had a feeling of sadness knowing this would be the last time we would see all these wonderful people for some time.
On to Sapporo - Monday, January 27Our flight to Sapporo left Tokyo's Haneda Airport at 7:30AM so we were up and out of Triade at 5:00 AM. Goodbye Nerima, we hope to see you again someday. As we walked to the departures area Rich looked out the window and said "hey, look at that!" Off across the runways you could clearly see Mt. Fuji in the distance. The spiritual heart of Japan. Even through the morning haze it was an impressive sight, and gazing on Fuji-san towering in the distance I felt our mission in Tokyo was fulfilled.
JAL airlines was great. Our ride to Sapporo was a JAL B747-200 and the plane had a nose camera so we could watch our takeoff on the big screen. Again this monster aircraft impressed the hell out of me and as we climbed skyward. Now in bright daylight, we had a great aerial view of the city of Tokyo below with Mt. Fuji in the background. What a sight. I'm sure it's something I'll always remember. We flew the northern length of Honshu, the main island of Japan, and watched the city give way to mountainous terrain and twisting roadways by now far below.
Briefly crossing the sea north of Honshu, the island of Hokkaido quickly came into view... two large snow capped mountain peaks looming just off in the distance, it looked like something out of Tolkien's Trilogy. As we began our descent, my ears popping and sinuses squeaking from the cold I was starting to develop, I was blown away by the view. We crossed the shore line and landed in Chitose, Hokkaido's main airport near Sapporo, where the first thing we saw on touching down was a US Air Force F-16 blasting off on an adjacent runway. Streaking off to the northeast and gone in a heartbeat, probably patroling the nearby Russian border we surmised, it was a reminder of the world we live in. We taxied in, picked up our luggage (and the blue case) and met Toru Mitsuhashi of Eugene Productions in the lobby.
It was about an hour's drive through the country on divided highway from Chitose to Sapporo, much like the interstate highways we have here in the USA. Sapporo is a popular skiing area, so there were many people traveling in our direction with skiing gear. Although it was cold, it was a crisp and dry cold that was quite refreshing, nothing like the damp cold we get on the east coast. Since it was still early, Toru took us to a little country style breakfast nook and we ate a warm meal while being serenaded by some wonderfully relaxing string quartet music. Quite a departure from Tokyo, we were in the country now.
After breakfast we went to the GuruGuru CD shop and autographed CDs, bought some rare discs, and explored their selection. Since we had left so early Toru could see we were beat and kindly took us to his home were we all caught a few hours of sleep. We badly needed it. By 2:00 PM we were up and off to Messe Hall which is sort of like a basketball court on the 5th floor of an office building. It was cool. Providence is one of my favorite Japanese bands so I was looking forward to working with them.
We met the members of Providence and our soundcheck went OK. Afterwards, we went out to dinner on our own and found a little restaurant where we had the old man running the place laughing and joking with us. Everyone in Japan seems so cordial, even up here in Sapporo. We returned to the hall now full of people and Providence played an impressive set of material from their last CD. Although we were exhausted and the sound system wasn't quite up to Tokyo standards, we played a powerful set and the audience clapped us out for an encore.
After the show we went out to drink and dine Japanese style with all the members of Providence and had a really great time. These people know how to party! We spent our final night in Japan at the Tokyo Inn in Sapporo where we watched Japanese TV and slept western style. It was a short but deeply restful sleep for everyone, we had accomplished our mission and were on our way back home. Again up at 5AM for the flight back to Tokyo, we were all in a dream like state of exhaustion.
The Journey Home - Tuesday, January 28After arriving back at Haneda we caught the Airport shuttle bus to Narita. We checked our baggage and spent the few hours we had between flights shopping in the many gift and book stores at the airport, then went for one last Japanese style meal where we sorted out our accounting and divided up our Yen. The trip had been a complete success no matter how you look at it, we sold all our merchandise, our expenses were paid, so despite being dead tired, we were all in pretty good spirits.
The trip home was another UA B747-400, but not so crowded this time so we had room to stretch out and sleep a bit. Straight across the Pacific to San Francisco the flight was also not as long as the trip over. Arriving in America was a rude awaking compared to the courteous attitude of the Japanese. In one day we went from gracious Japanese flight attendents bowing and smiling, to hostile American customs officials shouting in our face. Turn around, pack it up, take me back to Japan. Please!
Our connecting flight from San Francisco was a B757 directly to Newark and in a few hours we would be home. Litfing off out of San Francisco I had a clear view of the entire city from the air; the Golden Gate Bridge, Oakland, the rolling hills moving inland. A beautiful sight, but it's easy to see how it could be gone in a minute. The downtown area is built on a flat little island that looks about an inch above sea level with the entire Pacific Ocean stretching out beyond. One sturdy wave and no more San Francisco!
I slept through most of the 4 hour flight home as heavy cloud cover prevented sightseeing, but as we approached our landing in New Jersey, now clear and in darkness, it was easy to see the massive scale of this country. Clustered lights and glowing ribbons of highway stretching off in every in every direction, NYC on the horizon, it is impressive. But I was with mixed emotions as we landed. Do I really want to be back here? Sometimes I am not so sure...
Epilogue1997 is the 10th anniversary of Mastermind and fittingly, the year of our first trip overseas. As I said it has been a long road, but I'm sure given the chance we would all do it over again. We never set out to be rock stars, only the modest ambition to be real live performing musicians. It is with great happiness that I look upon our performances in Japan and I am honored and thrilled that we have had the chance to present our music live to Mastermind fans 7,000 miles away. It was great.
We experienced the kindly people and fascinating culture of Japan first hand with feelings of joy and a sense of wonder, but there is a feeling of accomplishment too. Could it really be this music we make actually brought us half way around the world?! So it would seem. This is a labor of love more than one of commerce, and no one involved is really in the 'big league' music business, no one has unlimited budgets or makes a tremendous profit. Yet we made it work. An international alliance of musicians and fans, a cultural exchange based solely on the art of progressive rock and nothing more. Is this not amazing?! I believe it is truly something special and Mastermind will return to play Japan again one day, this I assure you.
Special thanks to: Hiroshi Masuda & Poseidon Productions, Shingo "Numero" Ueno, Kazuyuki "Seazer" Kobayashi, Norie Hashikawa, Gerard, Providence, the Soh Band, Ars Nova, Yukihiko Takeba, Eugene Productions, Toru Mitsuhashi, GuruGuru, Hiroshi Monma, Naohiro Yamazaki, Marquee, Yuzi Okumura, Young Guitar, Archangel, and especially to all the fans who have supported Mastermind in Japan all these many years. Thank you.
©1997 Bill Berends. May be reproduced in whole or in part with inclusion of this copyright notice.