Bluegrass, Tokyo Style: An Inside Look at the Storied Rocky Top Bar

Amid towering skyscrapers and suited–up “salary men” scurrying through the bustling streets of Tokyo’s Ginza district, you’ll find a place of worship for American Bluegrass music.

Rocky Top is a bar, restaurant, and, most importantly, music venue perched three stories above the hustle and bustle. It’s where a Japanese infatuation with bluegrass lives, a perfect example of the Japanese tendency to not just mimic, but perfect western musical styles. They’ve done it with everything from soul to lounge to the Beatles.

Bluegrass started to develop a strong international presence during the American folk music revival of the 1960s. Via champions like Alan Lomax and Bob Dylan, the world took notice of these distinctly American styles.

Rocky Top was a club where American bluegrass players could find an audience as early as the 1970s. The smoke–stained walls are plastered with autographs and thank you notes from people who have graced the club’s stage, including David Grisman, Del McCoury, Tony Rice, John Hartford, Lee Oscar, Bela Fleck, and even the inimitable John Denver.

Our evening at Rocky Top was filled with listening, laughter, and discussion, not to mention copious Japanese craft beer. And in following both the bar’s tradition and slogan, “Here we pick, here we sing,” we agreed to sit in with the house band for a few songs.

The “Oh, Jin Band”, as it is translated from the Japanese, featured some of the most esteemed members of Japan’s bluegrass heritage. The band leader, Jin Sasaki, was one of the first (and few) promoters bringing American bluegrass bands to Japan in the 1970s.

But Rocky Top isn’t just a nostalgic bar trading on its former glory. It plays an integral part in keeping bluegrass music alive in Tokyo, something the locals take very seriously.

Bluegrass currently thrives in Japan, with an increasingly young crowd taking part in festivals and bluegrass clubs at the country’s universities. But the scene in Tokyo skews older, and there was a palpable sense of excitement amongst the older people at Rocky Top in having outsiders — particularly younger tourists — make the effort to seek out the establishment.

Between sets, Toshiro Taniguchi, the lead guitarist and vocalist of the “Oh, Jin Band,” was kind enough to discuss his background and the current state of bluegrass music in Japan.

How long have you been playing guitar?

I started when I was 15 years old. Now I’m 58. Many, many years.

Why did you start playing bluegrass?

When I was young, there were bands that would translate bluegrass songs from English to Japanese. They would also try to play traditional Japanese music with a string band accompaniment, and when I heard that music, it was so exciting.

At first I wanted to play banjo. So I tried, but it was very difficult and I gave up. I changed to the guitar and mandolin. My brother also plays mandolin, so we used to play together when we lived in Kagoshima. This was around 1977, when I was in University.

Have you seen many American bluegrass bands here in Japan?

Yes. The first American band I ever saw in Japan was the Osborne Brothers. After those first bands came, so many more came over. I saw Sam Bush and Newgrass Revival, David Grisman, Tony Rice and the Tony Rice Unit. They played here. [Points to the stage]

Our bandleader, Jin Sasaki, was a promoter, and he was the one who brought Tony Rice and Grisman over here. He also published a bluegrass journal. That was his job then, but not anymore. Now he just plays. Around here, we call him the “Big Boss.”

Do you have a favorite bluegrass band?

My favorite singers are Del McCoury and Tony Rice. I love Sam Bush, too.

[During the set break, a live recording of Ricky Skaggs is playing on the bar television]

And by the way, I used to live in New York — almost 20 years ago now. I got to see his concert [points to the television playing a Ricky Skaggs performance] at Carnegie Hall. [Laughs]

It was a very nice show.

Where was your guitar made?

It was made in Japan. It’s styled after a Martin D–18. The builder is actually from Canada, but was a repairman at a guitar shop here in Kanda [district in Tokyo], called Blue–G guitars, a very nice shop. His name is Sagen de Jonge. I purchased it secondhand, but it has a great sound.

It seems like there are so many Japanese luthiers.

[Points to a small crowded table near the bar] So, that man sitting over there is a builder. He builds mandolins and guitars. [Laughs] He’s a very good friend of mine.

Many of my friends are bluegrass players or builders.

So it’s a close community?

Yes, we all go to each other’s shows. And on the first Saturday of the month is a big bluegrass party and jam [where] all the best Tokyo bluegrass bands get together for a concert.

Did you experience the same sense of community while you were living in New York?

Yes. I got to join a local bluegrass band, playing mandolin, while I was there. I played with some very good old time musicians too.

Bluegrass is very popular here in Japan. Is old time music popular as well?

Not so much.

Why do you think that is?

There is such a distinct difference between bluegrass and old time music. It’s hard to play old time music for so long. It goes on and on and on, never ending. [Laughs] So they are just different styles.

In Japan there are Bluegrass “circles” in the universities. In Kobe, and Hokkaido, Tohoku — each university has a bluegrass circle, or club. Sometimes there are 50 or 60 members. But there is no group at the universities here in Tokyo, so that is sort of a problem.

So all the players in Tokyo meet here [at Rocky Top]?

Yes. But not so many young players, unfortunately. Even here, it’s rare to see players in their 20s. In the university circles, players are much younger.

Any idea why that is?

I don’t know. I hope more young people will take an interest in bluegrass. It is a great tradition, and I hope it lives on through them.

Last question: who is your favorite bluegrass guitar player?

Tony Rice is my favorite. He’s the best.

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All photos by Effie Benjamin

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