Thursday, May 17, 2012

Irish music sessions in Tokyo

When I have my own shop, I would love to host some sessions in the space. Sunday afternoons round the fireplace, in a set-up like a big old kitchen or cosy living room, epic banter ;), tea and cake, with some of the stronger stuff undoubtedly too... well it sounds so civil.

Wherever you go in the world you'll find people playing Irish traditional music, and most definitely in Tokyo. There is something inclusive, barrier-breaking, border-crossing about being able to sit down with a group of people and play the same music. You wouldn't even need to speak the same language very well, but you could maybe achieve something together, and even if not you'd have a great time trying.

My fiddle having a little rest

When I first came to Japan in 2001 I used to travel from Saitama to the Shannon's pub in Osaki sometimes on a Sunday evening to hear the Irish music sessions that were led at the time by the wonderful folks who went on to set up the band Gypsy Pot. I was just listening then, mind. I'd be living in Japan for another 6 years before I even considered trying to learn the violin myself.

Maybe a year and a half into my classical lessons at a music night school, I got a book on Irish music. 6 months later I joined in a session for the first time and stumbled through a tune, the bits of coloured guide-tape still on the finger board to show me the notes. I've now been learning violin for a little over 3 years, still fumble my way through a lot but am able to join in, ever so gradually, more and more tunes in the sessions. There is still a looong way to go, but it's possible, of course it is, if you're thinking of learning an instrument as an adult, go for it!

So here we go, whether you're playing, learning or just listening, here's a list of Irish music sessions in Tokyo that I'm aware of at the moment.
Note that these details are correct at the time of writing, but times and dates change all the time. I plan to come back and flesh out this post the more places I try out, but please do contact any venue yourself before making a special trip out.

The Shannon's Irish Pub, Osaki. Sunday afternoons, once a month on the 3rd Sunday, 5-7pm
The Shannons sessions are purely Irish traditional music. It's a small venue and a small group of about 5 regular musicians, with others who come and go. These sessions have been running for at least 10 years that I know of, but the bar itself has changed hands a few times with some staff being more supportive of the sessions than others. The atmosphere is very intimate, and you'll almost certainly be asked to start a tune off. There are sometimes a few other customers in the bar, people who have hunted the place down after seeing the warm description on the site, or random wanderers-in from the shopping mall it is situated within. Did I mention that it's strangely situated in a big brightly lit shopping mall, with a fountain out front of the pub..? If you're lucky, one of the talented musicians will have even brought his clàrsach, his small Irish harp to the session. Not much in the way of food on Sundays.

The Royal Scotsman, Iidabashi. Sunday afternoons, 3-5pm (Currently on hiatus, possibly re-starting Autumn 2013 - check their Facebook page)
A fairly new pub and fantastic venue for Irish traditional music sessions. Just off the main slope in Kagurazaka/Iidabashi surrounded by awesome restaurants and cute side streets, this pub while also fairly small is lovely and airy thanks to the windows all around, the open plan set-up and welcoming staff. I've seen maybe up to 15 musicians turn up at sessions here, taking up a good half of the space as other customers wander in for a few drinks, and maybe have a go on the bodhrán. The variety of instruments is surprising here, there is a regular ullieann pipes piperer, extremely talented fiddle players, a guitarist, flautists, whistle players and button accordionists, oh yes and mandolin players, bodhrán and banjo players too. It's really something. The food is fantastic, and they are in the running in my books for the best fish and chips in Tokyo.

The Dubliners, Ikebukuro. Thursday evenings, once a month on the last Thursday of the month (apart from a break in July and August), 8-11pm
Session led by Jim Ediger (see below). The only time I've been able to attend was before a national holiday and so the Dubliners management decided that the sessions couldn't happen there that night. Unfazed, we piled en masse into a local karaoke room and had a fantastic evening. Don't feel I can comment on the sessions at the actual Dubliners venue yet then, but the mix of people was certainly great!

The Dubliners, Shibuya. Wednesday evenings, once a month on the 2nd Wednesday of the month, from 8pm
I haven't been able to attend this one personally yet either, but I think the musicians might be set up on the balcony part outside. Sounds nice for the summer!

The Warrior Celt, Ueno. Wednesday evenings on the 1st and 3rd Wednesday of the month, from 8pm.
Another weekday evening session I haven't made it to, but have heard nice things about. Might be a little smoky, but it should be a welcoming and very good natured session.

Irish Times Pub, Shinagawa. Frequently the 4th Saturday of the month from 5pm-7:30 or 8pm - contact the venue to check.
This is a comparatively large venue for sessions, with the musicians taking up a space at one end around a big table. Lovely people attending this new session, and it as lots of potential as a very fun and welcoming one to join. Food served.

For the most up-to-date information on Irish music and culture events in Japan check this blog (in Japanese).

Ullieann pipes, what a treat

A few additional thoughts about learning Irish music and attending sessions in Tokyo:

- Quite a lot of musicians in Tokyo practice in karaoke booths, probably because so many apartment contracts stipulate that instruments are banned 楽器禁止/gakki kinshi. You'd need to ask at the particular karaoke place you want to use (maybe you could say 楽器の練習してもいいですか?gakki no renshu shitemo ii desu ka? Is it ok to practice my instrument?), but many places do allow it. Shidax for example is one place that even promotes the fact they rent out their rooms to individuals with instruments.

- When about to change to the second or third tune in a set, musicians in sessions in Japan generally look up and make eye contact with the other players, nodding or so, to indicate that the tune change is about to take place. I gather that in other countries a short shout along the lines of "hup" is shouted or whooped, but I've only ever heard this at larger events in Japan. You could probably do this yourself in a session if it's your tune and it would be awesome, but you'll probably need to watch out for the nodding looks for a cue to know when someone else is changing tunes or ending a set.

- There can sometimes be quite a lot of waiting between sets. Session leaders are generally present (or someone has the role foist upon them), but it isn't often that I've seen a leader start up one set after another to keep things going. There is a dynamic in some places, like the Shannons where the musicians are prompted to take turns to start something off, if they can think of something they fancy playing. Musicians will also pick out the first notes of a tune by way of suggestion and the group will often join in and make it the next set. Quite frequently though there is quite a lot of time for chatter between sets, which is great in order to get to know people, but might be a bit more "what can we play.. hmm, erm..." than some people might be used to.

- As in other countries, some sessions in Tokyo aren't that keen on having slow airs played. The tendency is to play faster-paced music to keep the mood up and so that everyone can join in. The Royal Scotsman session and possibly Ikebukuro could be good venues to try out a slower song, but as anywhere it's polite to ask the leader if you can do so. Also there are some sessions where it is strictly all Irish traditional tunes, and others where Cape Breton music and Scottish and so on are played, just check with the session leader if you're unsure.


Pete Cooper's 'The Complete Irish Fiddle Player' is the book I started with, (I know learning from a book  isn't the best or most traditional way of learning Irish music, but I needed to start somewhere) the learning CDs are clear and easy to learn from, and the guys at the sessions know pretty much any of the songs in the book. It's set up quite nicely, introducing new techniques bit by bit and building to more difficult tunes. When you've finished this book you should have the skills to pick out tunes from other recordings and teach yourself how to play them, which would be the proper way of learning, without the dots on paper. One caution is that some of the arrangements are a bit different to how the tunes are played in Tokyo (only a few, like The Banshee), and also the recordings are just played through once each, whereas you'd at least play them twice at the sessions - much to my surprise in my first Shannon's appearance :)

These fionn seisiun books (or actually just the CDs for learning by ear) were recommended by a friend at the Shannons group. They play a lot of these tunes, and the arrangements on these CDs are quite similar to how they play the songs in Tokyo. You can listen to clips on their site too - the Comhaltas site itself is a fantastic resource for Irish traditional music.

Another great site is the session, where you can find sheet music, the ABC notation, and informative discussions about various tunes, their changing names and the best recordings or links to YouTube videos. You don't have to sign up to search for and find probably any song in the tunes database, but there is also a nice forum there too, so it could be worth registering to join in the conversation.

Jim Ediger is a Canadian musician teaching fiddle in Tokyo. Jim teaches Irish traditional music as well as music from around the British Isles, and Cape Breton etc. Here is a link to Jim's site with information about his extremely popular lessons. Jim also leads some of the sessions, including the Ikebukuro celtic sessions each month in the Dubliners pub, and also does some in Shibuya. 've only had the pleasure of meeting him the once so far, when I went to the Ikebukuro session a couple of months ago. He's a really nice easy going guy. I'd love to make it to those sessions more, but it's difficult on a week night.

The Irish Network in Japan are an NPO run by volunteers to promote cultural exchange between Ireland and Japan.

If you're looking for an Irish music teacher, ask around at the sessions you attend. Some of the musicians also teach casually and formally, and the guys are likely to be able to point you in the right direction.

And finally! Back to the sessions, here are some of the regular tunes I've heard played in Tokyo: (though there are many, many more!)

Maid Behind the Bar
Cooley's Reel
Saddle the Pony
Tobin's Jig
Chicago Jig (or Dusty Windowsills)
The Teetotaler's Reel
The Silver Spear
The Castle
My Darling Asleep
The Salamanca
The Banshee
Lark in the Morning
The Kid on the Mountain
Morrison's Jig
The Road to Lisdoonvarna
Woman of the House
The Earl's Chair
The Walls of Liscarroll
Behind the Haystack

Hope to see you at one of the sessions around about town. I'll be the one sat with my fiddle on my knee, waiting for a tune I know to join in excitedly. Sláinte!


  1. AnonymousJune 08, 2014

    In 2013 I went to sessions at the Dubliner in Shibuya and the Warrior Celt in Ueno. I am American, and although I can barely say anything in Japanese I was welcome and it was a lot of fun. The level of musicianship in Tokyo is high!

  2. Lovely to hear! Yes, I agree, there are excellent (and knowledgeable) musicians at the sessions in Tokyo :)