With this article, I’m starting a series of articles for Fandom Post related to travel in Japan. In no way am I an expert on Japan or travel. My connection to Japan comes through many personal ways as my oldest daughter was an exchange student for a year in high school and then again for a year in college. We have also hosted Japanese exchange students for the school year here in American several times and have gained many close connections to Japan. These are only my personal reflections and experiences and do not represent other people’s opinions or expertise.
With the recent news of long-term male idol group, Arashi, going on hiatus at the end of 2020, people are buzzing about their long and successful career. While many fans are distraught by the news, countless fans are admitting that after 20 years, Arashi deserves a break. Idol culture is a deep and permanent thread weaved into the fabric of Japanese culture. What’s more, idol groups are here to stay.
While Korean idol groups are better known internationally, Japanese idol groups still have a strong worldwide fanbase. There is even a permanent AKB48 café and shop in Akihabara almost directly outside the Electric Town Exit of the JR line. Even as a tourist you can’t escape billboards of idol groups, both 3D and 2D, plastered in trains and nearly everywhere you scan.
Not all idol groups are famous, appearing on variety shows, staring in the latest drama or launching a new CD. Numerous, relatively unknown, idol groups are struggling to just get their name out and gain even one new fan. And their journey is not an easy one.
In the last decade, I’ve gone to dozens of K-pop concerts with my now college-aged daughters in the United States. But in all the times I’ve been in Japan, I haven’t seen one concert until this past trip. If you didn’t know Japan calls concerts “lives” or a “live”. In addition, getting tickets for a live, especially for a popular group isn’t easy, especially for foreigners. Often there are lotteries which makes it nearly impossible unless you have someone you know that lives in Japan and is willing to help you. Often a Japanese credit card is required, or a Japanese address and phone number are requested. In fact, when we bought simple movie tickets online, we needed to provide a Japanese phone number to purchase them. Personally, I have not tried to buy tickets to a concert in Japan, but I have heard stories of friends that have tried and failed many times.
My most recent trip to Japan was this past January (2019) and I had two interesting J-pop idol group experience. First, we passed by the Tokyo Dome the day NEWS happened to have a live. Huge merchandise booths were open and many, many (mostly) girls of all ages were roaming around the area. We were there looking to eat at our favorite doria restaurant, but so were a ton of NEWS fans. As a person who is really interested in culture and people, it was fun to observe high schoolers to middle aged women toting their merch around in large bags while waiting for the concert to begin.
By far my favorite and most personal idol experience happened when my family and I went to Space Emo in Ikebukuro, a very small venue, to see the relatively new formed idol group Astral Code (Twitter @astralcode_info). By chance, a close friend of our family, auditioned and made it into the group, so when we came for a visit, we were determined to support him. So, with yellow light sticks in hand, we paid our ~$6 drink cover fee each and we were ready to wave our light sticks with pride.
The group Mumei (Twitter @mumei_dance), who is from the same agency as Astral Code, came out first for approximately thirty minutes. They are mostly a dance group that focused on some K-pop dance covers. Astral Code came out second and while I was going into this with no expectations, I was legitimately impressed. The five-man group, a sixth member was added shortly after we watched the live, danced and sang a mix of covers and an original song. There was playful banter in between the songs and since it was one of the member’s birthday, there were many fun moments to witness.
Whether you call it unfortunate or not, there were only around 15-20 fans present. There were four high school girls and the rest were older, but probably in their late teens to mid-twenties. Yep, we were the only foreigners and my husband was the only male present. However, this intimate live was perfect. Close to the group on stage, it was casual and presented an even better chance to interact with the group.
It was expected that we could not take pictures of video during the live, but after the live something what I consider unusual from an American standpoint happened. While talking with the members was completely acceptable, everyone was given one free mini polaroid with a member of their choice. I chose to support our friend and took a picture with him. Any other pictures were bought at the tune of approximately ~$10 for additional members and ~$20 for a group photo. In all my years of going to little local alternative bands in tiny bars, I never had to pay for a picture, but shelled out a lot of money for merchandise like t-shirts, hoodies, and posters. There weren’t any items for sale except for the photos.
This whole thing was new to me, but I loved it and I highly recommend skipping the big concerts and supporting one of these many upcoming groups. It’s relatively affordable and it gives you a unique opportunity to see a side of Japanese culture that most tourists never witness. However, if you fear your Japanese language skills are not up to such an intimate setting, don’t worry. During the show, you might get lost during some of the banter, but just observe and then enjoy the show in front of you. For about $6, this just may be one of the cheapest entertainment options you have in Japan. (Not all shows are this cheap, but even for about $30-40, you can see a whole slew of new idol groups perform in one day).
I also want to add a little background about these new idol groups that might help put things in perspective and perhaps sway you to take a chance and get off the beaten path and support these groups. These idol groups, while managed by an agency, are not supporting them financially like you might have heard in K-pop groups. They are not trainees and live and breathe their dream while getting food, shelter, and lessons in return for the future promise of hitting it big. In the case of Astral Code, the members have a varied background, experience, and ability. They get singing and dancing lessons for free, but they still need to make a living. They work part-time at other jobs making ends meet, just so they can make this opportunity they’ve been given with the hope their dreams will be achieved.
So, maybe going to Japan is just not in the cards for you. How can you support these groups? Social media. Our friend in Astral Code listed nearly a dozen of social media style platforms Astral Code is part of, though few are probably familiar to many Americans with the exception of Twitter and Line. These guys in Astral Code know who their fans are right now. They are working hard to win new fans. They are fun and personable, and they can really sing and dance. Supporting new idol groups just might become addicting once you’ve tried it. Check out Astral Code and it might just lead you to a new path of discovery.