2015-06-15

Visiting Aoki Tatsuyuki at Tama Cemetery

TSPO in 1990.
Founder ASA-CHANG (yellow/black hat); TSPO's current leader
Atsushi Yanaka (top left); the late Aoki Tatsuyuki (bottom left);
and late Cleanhead Gimura (in black).
I'm a huge fan of all types of Japanese music, specifically kayokyoku, alternative, and instrumental. One of my favorite Japanese jazz bands is the internationally acclaimed Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra - TSPO or Skapara for short. They have a more mainstream sound now which is enjoyable, but I love the blues, funk, and occasionally black gospel influences of their earlier music, all without performing in highly offensive blackface like Rats & Star...

Aoki featured on the July '95
issue of Rhythm & Drums
with Takahashi.
TSPO was formed in in 1985; this marks their 30th year. Their over-the-top, highly energized performances earned them a record deal in 1989. Although the group was founded by percussionist ASA-CHANG (real name: Asakura Hirokazu; 朝倉弘一), at the fore was Cleanhead Gimura (クリーンヘッド ギムラ) whose real name was Sugimura Eiji (杉村英詩). His onstage presence was funny and flamboyant, and his talent was apparent as he was both the group's vocalist and occasional backing musician. Gimura brought TSPO's instrumentals alive in the 1980's until 1994. Unfortunately, he passed away in '95 after a short battle with brain cancer. The last album he actively participated in was FANTASIA (ファンタジア), one of my favorite TSPO records; worthy of its name, its a dreamlike album. I especially love Gimura's vocals on Akai Tori no Ballad (朱い鳥のバラード). The group commemorated him with GRAND PRIX (グランプリ), arguably their first album to target a wide audience due to its mainstream pop sound. Several actors and guest musicians like Takahashi Yukihiro (高橋幸宏), one of my all-time favorites, contributed to GRAND PRIX. I think TSPO made GRAND PRIX a lively album to reflect Gimura's electric personality. 
I was able to score copies of
FANTASIA and GRAND PRIX
from BookOff stores in Tokyo.

Sadly, Gimura was not the only TSPO member to pass away. Their original drummer, Aoki Tatsuyuki (青木達之) died in '99 in apparent Tokyo rail accident. However, as he was struck after walking onto the tracks, his death was widely publicized as a suicide. Nonetheless, there was no suicide note so authorities did not conclude he took his own life. Either way, I feel it was an extremely unfortunate event since Aoki was an incredibly innovative and sharp drummer, composer, and DJ. While TSPO did not release an album in his name, they expressed their sadness regarding his untimely death on their live album Ska Evangelists on the Run. I think Motegi Kinichi (茂木欣一) - Aoki's successor and TSPO's current drummer - is extremely talented as well (he has a great singing voice to boot), but I still prefer Aoki.
TSPO's European tour poster.
Six of the eleven original members
remain.

I have yet to see a TSPO show, but thanks to technology I have watched several of their performances, including ones from the early 90's. Below is a clip of TSPO performing a cover of the late Bobby Bland's 36-22-36 on a street in Shibuya, Tokyo on New Year's Day, 1990 (a little over a month before I was born!).

TSPO is going on a European tour next month, so if you have an opportunity to see them, make sure you do! I certainly wish I could.



It might sound strange, but I wanted to visit the graves of Cleanhead Gimura and Aoki Tatsuyuki when I knew I would be going to Tokyo. I searched extensively but couldn't find where Gimura was buried. On the other hand, I quickly located the exact location of Aoki's gravesite in the expansive Tama Cemetery or Tama Reien (多摩霊園) through this website

On the train to Tama.
I arrived at Tama Station on the Seibu Tamagawa line.
There is an English-Japanese map
at Tama Station which lists
all points of interest.
Once I got to Tokyo, I didn't think I'd actually visit the cemetery. It's relatively far removed from the center of the city, but as I planned to go to Nakano (中野区) the same day, I decided it would be a good morning activity since Tama (多摩市) is close by. I was slightly nervous about going to the cemetery because I have never entered one before (!), but making my way there was like a fun mini adventure since Tama is in the suburbs (it's actually a small city), so I had to take a smaller local train to get there.

Throughout my stay in Tokyo, I had my cellphone and a rented portable Wifi device to guide me, but I still often consulted maps. There is guide map at Tama Station which clearly displays the large cemetery.

On the way to the cemetery, there were several tombstone workshops and stores where families visiting their loved ones could buy grave cleaning tools and flowers. I also noticed a few quant restaurants where I assume families eat lunch after visiting their loved ones. 

The main entrance to the cemetery.

The front gate clearly displays the hours
in Japanese and English.
On foot, the cemetery is around 5-10 minutes from Tama Station (I walk quickly so it took me around 5 minutes to get to the cemetery gate). I went in February, and since days are shorter during the winter, the cemetery was open for an hour and 30 minutes less than it is in the summer. 

Tama Cemetery is organized into
neat quadrants.
After entering the cemetery, there is an information center to the right along with a large map of the grounds. I was tempted to ask for the coordinates for my favorite Candies (キャンディーズ) member, Tanaka Yoshiko (田中好子) also known as Sue (スーちゃん). Thanks to Google, I discovered she was also buried in Tama Cemetry after her death in 2011, but one must ask for the location of her gravesite as it is a secret. I was too nervous to enquire, though. Instead, I studied the outside map to locate Aoki's grave as the workers in the information center studied me through the window! It didn't take long to find the general area of the grave which is at 8区-1種-14側. Using my knowledge of Chinese, I was able to figure out the kanji (漢字) or Chinese-derived characters meant section 8, side 14 or something along those lines. However, Tama Cemetery is so well-planned knowledge of Japanese isn't necessary to locate a grave. Each section is marked by a sign, and there are reminder maps on the outside of each quadrant making it difficult to get lost.
The marker beside the section
where Aoki is buried.

Strangely enough, while I was able to locate the correct section within minutes, I couldn't find Aoki's grave! I walked around the area for a bit, studied each marker, but none of them said his name. Well, I wasn't about to give up! After examining my surroundings a little longer, I realized I hadn't walked through one area of the section. I went to the other side while simultaneously searching for a picture of the gravesite on my phone and...it still gives me the chills, but exactly when the photo loaded on my phone, I realized I had just walked up to Aoki's gravesite. It was a freaky moment!

Once I found the grave, a sad feeling washed over me. The flowers there were dead and the plants overgrown. I didn't bring anything to leave by the grave. Somewhere online I read fans occasionally leave Aoki his favorite cigarettes as he was a chain smoker, but I thought it might be disrespectful to leave something. I'm simply a fan - a complete stranger to him and his family. Still, when I saw how old and dry the plants at the plot had become, I regretted not buying a small bouquet; many shops sold them for just $5. 

As cheesy as it sounds, I began to contemplate life and death there. Where do we all go when we die? Wherever it is, I hope Aoki, Gimura, Sue, and all my other favorite musicians are happy making music wherever they are. With that thought, I left Tama Reien as quickly as I came.

My picture of Aoki Tatsuyuki's grave.

3 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for this! I love SkaPara and was searching for info about previous members/their passing away. I lived in Jpaan three years, though far from Tokyo, so never got to see them, sadly. I miss the more flamboyant frontman, too. Merci-arigatô-thanks a bunch.

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    Replies
    1. No problem, thanks so much for reading! I don't have any friends who like SkaPara, so I've made it a mini mission of mind to find out what I can and keep up with them. :) Hopefully you can see them on one of their world tours. I'm personally going to make an effort to see them next year!

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  2. Dear Nicolette. I'm really pleased for this post. I'm from Caracas, Venezuela. Skapara is my FAVORITE and inspiration band since i met them...

    I wrote you on Instagram a time before and never recived a reply. Tatsuyuki Aoki is my favorite Tokyo Ska member. His mood in SOUL and FUNKY style in the drum and in Jamaican Rhythm is THE ONE AND ONLY.

    Please try to check my site, there you'll can see and listen specials mixtapes that i did dedicated to Skapara with so much rare tunes from my collection: www.jiwshow.tumblr.com

    Yoroshiku!

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