When I travel internationally I like to prepare for my trip by taking a deep dive into the local culture. This involves quite a bit of reading but almost as much listening to music. A well-crafted playlist can transform the more ordinary moments of travel into truly memorable experiences. Japan has a rich and diverse music scene, so narrowing down a playlist is difficult, but here are few of my favorite discoveries from my recent trip.
Shugo Tokumaru plays romantic indie-folk that I would liken to Sufjan Stevens. It complements the excitement of leaving for your vacation and settling in for a long flight.
Minyo Crusaders was the most surprising band I encountered when making my playlist. They create an unlikely blend of Japanese folk and Latin jazz sounds that actually works. It’s made for toe tapping and ended up being one of my favorites from the trip.
Shintaro Sakamoto, the ex-lead singer of the popular Japanese psych-rock band Yura Yura Teikoku, has taken a different turn. This latest incarnation is hard to pin down genre-wise; it embraces everything from pedal steel to disco. You might compare him to someone like Beck or David Byrne, but his music has a style all its own.
Lucky Tapes makes extra-smooth pop music for a night out in the city. At times it borders on saccharine, but it is so well-executed that you can’t deny it.
Mitsume’s somber vocals drift between upbeat pop sounds and dreamy Americana guitar riffs. Their music will appeal to fans of The Smiths or Yo La Tengo, but it has a distinctly Japanese feel.
Susumu Yokota was an acclaimed Japanese pop-music producer in the 1990s, but he also had an electronic solo career. You’ll appreciate this ambient music as you drift to sleep on a shinkansen train speeding through the countryside.
No Japan playlist would be complete without the distinct classical music of the country. Aiko Hasegawa plays solo koto, a traditional Japanese stringed instrument that is plucked with the fingers.