GMT Plus Nine

Keeping Irish time in the land of the rising sun
Episode Trailer

Is there anything unusual about speaking Japanese, and removing your shoes before tucking into a set of Irish reels? Host Shannon Heaton travels around Japan with Tokyo-based trad band tricolor to learn more about the Irish and Celtic music scenes in the Land of the Rising Sun… and discovers heaps of common ground, social culture, and cake. 


Thank you to everybody for listening. And a special thank you to this month’s underwriters: Gerry Corr, Chris McGlone, Sally Tucker, Jeremy Keith, David Vaughan, Chris Murphy, Brian Benscoter, and Joe Garrett for underwriting this episode.

Episode 30 – GMT Plus Nine:  Keeping Irish time in the land of the rising sun
This Irish Music Stories episode aired June 18, 2019

– transcript by John Ploch –

Speakers, in order of appearance:

>> Shannon Heaton: flute player, singer, composer, teacher, and host of Irish Music Stories 
>> hatao (Tomoaki Hatekeyama): Flute player, teacher, owner of CeltNoFue music stores, and special IMS correspondent for Episode 42 >> Yuka Nakafuji: Tokyo-based fiddle and concertina player who performs with tricolor
>> Nigel Heaton: young announcer for Irish Music Stories
>> Hirofumi Nakamura: Osaka-born multi-instrumentalist (piano, guitar, bouzouki, accordion, mandolin) 
>> Tomoyo Sugai: Yamamashi, Japan-based Irish flute player who studied trad music at the University of Limerick
>> Kozo Toyota: Tokyo-based Irish flute player, teacher, and band leader of Toyota Ceili Band
>> Minako Kondo: concertina and piano player who did her master’s thesis on Irish music sessions in Japan
>> Joey Abarta: L.A. born and Boston-based uilleann piper 
>> Aaron Jones: English-born, Scottish-based bouzouki/guitar player 

* * * *

>> Shannon:  I’m Shannon Heaton. And this is Irish Music Stories, the show about traditional music, and the bigger stories behind it…

…Like how flute player hatao has watched the Irish scene in Japan explode over the last two decades:

>> hatao:  When I started playing, the community was very small. But nowadays there are hundreds of players all over in Japan, and sessions every night in major cities in Japan.

[ Music: “Feed the Duck a Mandarine,” from Live at 求道会館

Artist: John John Festival]

>> Shannon:  Japan is home to lots of great Irish, Scottish, and Celtic musicians. Like Mana Okubo here on fiddle. And like Yuka Nakafuji.

>> Yuka:  I love Irish music, because it’s not only music. So friendly. Good food, and drink. 

>> Shannon:  Yuka lives in Tokyo. And she and her band tricolor have picked up on the fact that there’s a lot more than music behind Irish and other Celtic traditions. And her guitarist husband Koji Nagao and accordion-playing friend Hirofumi Nakamura all value those extra non-musical aspects of trad culture.

I know they really do, because I travelled with them all around Tokyo, Takasaki, Kawaguchi, Kofu, Nagoya, Ise, and Kyoto. I also met up with flute players hatao, Tomoyo Sugai, and Kozo Toyota. And concertina player Minako Kondo. And I checked in with uillleann piper Joey Abarta and bouzouki player Aaron Jones about their experiences with the trad scene in Japan.

My goals are to learn why and how Irish music has struck a chord in Japan. And to tell you the story of three candles on a cake. And how they summed up years of friendship, collaboration, and community.

* * * *

Before I tuck into this show about Irish music in Japan, my son Nigel and I want to thank our sponsors.

>> Nigel:  Thank you to Gerry Corr, Chris McGlone, Sally Tucker, Jeremy Keith, David Vaughan, Chris Murphy, Brian Benscoter, and Joe Garrett.

>>Shannon:  Thank you for donating this month and helping me build the show. To support future editions, please head to And thank you.

* * * *

So here we go, an Irish Music Stories exploration of the Irish tradition … in the Land of the Rising Sun.

[ Music: “Lorient,” from キネン (kine)

Composer: Koji Nagao

Artist: tricolor]

This is the first track off of the newest album by tricolor. Or as they say in Japan:

>>hatao andYuka pronounce the word “tricolor”.

>>Shannon:  The band (sort of randomly) took its name from the French word, Tricolore. Mostly because the image of the French flag is hip in Japan.

But also, each of these musicians has a unique style and color: 

Fiddle, accordion, and guitar. 

Blue, White, and Red…. like the French flag. 

Or to be more primary color about things, maybe “Red Yellow Blue”. That’s the name of the tune that I wrote for the band. More on that in a bit.

tricolor has been playing traditional and original Irish music together for a decade. And while some Japanese people started playing trad music during the folk boom of the 1970s, fiddle player Yuka Nakafuji with her guitarist husband Koji Nagao and accordion-playing friend Hirofumi Nakamura are part of a wave of musicians who are helping to ignite even more interest in Irish and Celtic music in Japan today. 

Wherever they play, a community of music lovers and fellow musicians surrounds them.

For their album release tour last month, I had the pleasure and privilege of performing with them. All the gigs were special events. Really, really great. But their hometown show at Senkiya took the cake.

[ Music: “D Big Build,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories

Artist: Matt Heaton (guitar)


Because Hide who owns the venue (and who is hilarious) presented us with a cake at the end of the show. 

He asked the audience to clear their chairs after the encore. And then he brought out this cake with three lit candles: one red, one yellow, one blue. And he whipped everybody back up into a frenzy. We played one more tune. There was a big dance party. It was great.

And I didn’t want it to end! Because I knew once we’d finished, Hide’s friends would tear down the stage backdrop they had spent hours building. 

And when I say ‘backdrop,’ I mean a 10-foot-high, 16-foot-wide set design. A living landscape. Built by the husband-and-wife team Otogisha. Now, this is a professional design firm that specializes in organic-style decorations for stages and other special events. But this one was personal:  they’re big fans of the band. And they had asked Hide at the venue if they could make something special for the tricolor show.

They built a tree. Adorned it with ferns, cherry tree branches, bamboo, flags, and lanterns…


>>Shannon:  So, it must have taken them a long time.

>>Hirofumi Nakamura:  Yes, I think so. I heard they prepared from before night—last night.

>>Shannon:  Yeah, it was absolutely beautiful. And after our performance, they took it all down.

>>Hirofumi:  Haha! Yes, yes. It took maybe only half hour.

>>Shannon:  To take down all that work.

>>Hirofumi:  Very quickly.

>>Shannon:  That’s Hirofumi, the accordion player. After the show, he loaded the van while the backdrop came down. And while we finished off the last of the food that Hiro’s wife Shiori had prepared:  a gourmet 10-dish meal for nearly 100 guests, in honor of tricolor’s 10th anniversary, and the venue’s 10th anniversary.

It was a colorful, candle-topped celebration.

And while we ate the cake, the Otogisha van, with the last of the backdrop foliage, drove away. The last audience members dissipated. And it was over.

But it wasn’t really over. Because many people at this show will meet again. Many of the people in that audience, and at other tricolor shows, are Irish musicians. Like Tomoyo Sugai who joined us for a few tunes during our set in Kofu. She did a year of Irish music studies at the University of Limerick.

>>Tomoyo Sugai:  Hi, my name is Tomoyo Sugai. I play the Irish flute. 

>>Shannon:  And you studied in Limerick?

>>Tomoyo:  Yes, I used to study in University of Limerick for a year.

>>Shannon:  Great, and why did you start to play Irish music?

>>Tomoyo:  Because I fall in love with the country, Ireland itself. And then I started the music to get to know the country more. 

>>Shannon:  Tomoyo was an exchange student in Ireland, learning English and living with a family in Limerick, before she got serious about the flute. I wondered what it was about the country that first appealed to her:

>>Tomoyo:  Something attracts me. I don’t know why. But something attracted me. So, that destiny.

>>Shannon:  Yes, it was destiny. And I think it’s our destiny today to play music together. I can’t wait to play our tune together!

>>Tomoyo:  Me too.

>>Shannon:  For that concert with Tomoyo, the audience sat on tatami mats on the floor. Of course, everybody was speaking Japanese. And still, the whole thing was very rooted in the Irish tradition. The tunes, the rhythms. It was all Irish.

[ Music: “Bluebells are Blooming,” from Thousands of Flowers

Artist: Tomoyo Sugai ]

And it was also very modern band-ish. Like many groups from Ireland, Scotland, America, and beyond, tricolor has this band sound. They write a lot of their own tunes. They add grooves and riffs. They have colorful harmonies. There’s a lot of variety and catchy appeal in their arrangements.

Nothing so Japanese about it, really. It’s a modern, commercial, Celtic band, which is familiar to me. 

If I’d had any of my own amazement about all the trad music in far off Japan, it was quickly fading. And turning into easy enjoyment of great music, wonderful company, delicious food… and celebratory cake.

[ Music: “Red Yellow Blue,” from キネン (kine)

Composer: Shannon Heaton

Artist: tricolor ]

So, the cake gig with the stunning stage backdrop—this concert was, in a way seven years in the making.

(YUKA starts story in Japanese)

It all started when Yuka sent me an email. She told me about her band tricolor. Said they were recording a new album. Their third album. And they wanted to record my tune the “Anniversary Reel”.

That was back in 2012. And we stayed in touch. 

Then for Tricolor’s 10th anniversary, Yuka invited me to compose a tune for the band. I wrote “Red Yellow Blue,’ thinking of the three of them—Yuka, Koji, and Hirofumi, each as a strong primary color. And when they combine, they create a multitude of hues, and moods together.

Yuka wrote a tune to go with it, called “Contrail.” She imagined a blue sky, with three brightly colored paper airplanes flying in the wind. We recorded the whole thing remotely. And we liked the process so much, we decided to try it in person for tricolor’s 10th anniversary tour, and bring our remote collaboration and friendship, from long-distance dream into real life.  

I learned a few Japanese phrases, packed a good book and my Nidra sleep mask for the plane. And 20 hours later, I was sitting in a rehearsal room with my pals, running through our set for the shows.

If the experience had ended there, it would have been great enough. But we went on to do concerts around the country. We got to travel together and eat meals together. We played in sessions together. We went to an Owl cafe (where this creepy old owl fell in love with me and he flew back and forth over my head. He was super weird and not super gracious.)

But except for my owl suitor, everyone else was so yashashi—so kind. And so gracious about speaking English with me.

[ Music: “Slip Jig Dreams,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories

Artist: Matt Heaton (guitar) ]

>>Shannon:  Thank you very much for speaking English with me because I cannot speak Japanese. But also, we don’t have to speak words.

>>Yuka:  Yeah, yeah. I cannot English well, but I and Shannon we play music together. It’s so great! 

>>Shannon:  It’s so great.

[ Music: “Aghaidh Jhanuis,” from Guitarscape

Artist: Hirofumi Nakamura ]

>>Shannon:  Yuka Nakafuji knows what it’s like to make connections with people, even when you’re not fluent in a language. She knows what it’s like to be a fish out of water. She went to Ireland when she was a teenager:

>>Yuka:  I went to Ireland. But I cannot speak English. But I went to Irish session. Everybody all, “Oh, welcome! Join the session!” So, I played Irish music with Irish people, It’s so fantastic for me.

>>Shannon:  The thing that got Yuka to Ireland—and to Irish music in the first place—was hearing the Irish band Altan. Her family friend gave her a ticket to the Altan’s first ever tour of Japan, and she was mesmerized.

[ Music: “Mill Na Máidí,” from Harvest Storm

Artist: Altan ]

>>Yuka:  I had never heard Irish music. And I felt so excited. And I also wanted to play this music!

>>Shannon:  After hearing Altan, Yuka headed to Walton’s New School of Music in Dublin for a month. And there she met fiddle player Brendan O’Sullivan. He showed her the ropes. And he taught her about rhythmic ‘lift’.

>>Yuka:  Irish music and Japanese old folk music is similar melody. And the count is (clapping) 1234. But we don’t have the…

>>Shannon:  You don’t have the upbeat?

>>Yuka:  Yeah! CH-ch-ch-ch

>>Shannon:  Brendan taught Yuka how to play with rhythmic style and made her feel welcome in Dublin. And just as Yuka had been welcomed in Ireland, she opened the door to me in Japan.

>>Shannon:  Well thank you for welcoming me to Japan. It’s been an honor and a pleasure.

>>Yuka:  Yeah, my pleasure.

>>Shannon:  Arigato-gozaimas!

>>Yuka:  Arigato-gozaimas!

* * * *

>>Shannon:  Arigato-gozaimas and thank you for listening! Here’s a short message from my son Nigel.


>>Nigel:  It takes a lot of time and a lot of travelling to create this show. If you can kick in, just go to Any amount helps. Thank you.

* * * *

You remember the accordion player Hirofumi. His wife Shiori is the chef who catered our show with the backdrop and the cake. Hiro and I chatted before one of our shows about how he got the Celtic music bug.

>>Hirofumi:  At first, I was inspired from Japanese singer/songwriter—his name is Akeboshi. 

Song: “Messed Up Mind,” from After the Rain Clouds Go

Artist: Akeboshi

>>Hirofumi:  He used to live Liverpool in UK. So ah, in his work, in his compositions, sometimes it is with tin whistle or atmospheric fiddle. Sometimes (sings jig rhythm), rhythm of dance tunes. So, I love his style of composition.

[ Music: “Sabai Sabai,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories

Artist: Matt Heaton (guitar) ]

>>Shannon:  Hirofumi liked the sounds and the rhythms of Irish and other Celtic music styles. And he was drawn to the social aspects of the tradition too. He added accordion, bouzouki, and guitar to his repertoire of instruments, so he could play easily with other people.

>>Hirofumi:  I started my music career from classical piano. So, I always play alone. But Celtic music style is unison with my friends.

>>Shannon:  Yes.

>>Hirofumi:  So that thing is very enjoyment for me.

>>Shannon: Yes, it’s very social.

>>Hirofumi:  Yes, social, yes. I can communicate… 

>>Shannon:  Right.

>>Hirofumi:  …that thing is very good for me.

>>Shannon:  It is really good—for a lot of people. In Ireland, in the States, in Japan.

Interest in Irish music and Celtic culture started taking root in Japan back in the 1970s. It was a small community back then—just a few folks who took up instruments after hearing bands like Steeleye Span, and Fairport Convention, and The Bothy Band. They weren’t finding trad bands on YouTube, or learning tunes from online tutors, or seeing performance photos in social media feeds.

But that small group got a big boost in the late 90’s—near, far, and wherever people are.

[ Music: “My Heart Will Go On (Love Theme from ‘Titanic’),” from Titanic (Music from the Motion Picture)

Composer:  James Horner

Artist: Céline Dion ]

Around the world, the movie Titanic and the dance sensation Riverdance raised interest and awareness of Irish and Celtic music and culture. Irish pubs popped up in Tokyo and Kyoto. And those pubs started weekly sessions. And with more public performances of Irish music, even more folks caught the Celtic bug.

[ Music: “G# Fade In and Out,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories

Artist: Matt Heaton (guitar) ]

And now, two decades later, Japanese musicians are still finding trad. Hirofumi attributes this to social media, but also to real life encounters, like concerts and music clubs.

>>Hirofumi:  I was a university student, there was Celtic Music Club. Our friend Kozo Toyota, who plays flute, he made that club in 2005. So, I saw them playing. A very good atmosphere. And I loved to join. So, I started to play Celtic music.

>>Shannon:  Hirofumi went on to build his life around trad music. He performs with several Japanese Celtic bands, including a project with Kozo Toyota, the guy who founded the Tokyo University Celtic Club. That’s the club that got Hiro started in the first place. 

[ Music: “Roundabout,” from Via Portland

Artist: O’Jizo ]

Kozo Toyota has been a driving force in popularizing Irish music in Japan. He has performed and recorded extensively throughout the country. And he’s taught a number of younger players. He also took the Toyota Ceili Band to compete in the All Ireland Fleadh in 2016. That’s the annual Irish music competition that brings in half a million people each summer.

Kozo and I chatted before a special session at the Tokyo Irish pub An Solas. He told me about his brass background as a half dozen other Irish flute players were setting up for the night.

>>Kozo Toyota:  I used to play classical music before. I used to play the trumpet. But Irish music is very unique, because there a lot of bands that consist of family—like a brother and sister, or sometimes a father and daughter, or a couple. It’s very special compared with classical music.

>>Shannon:  So, you took Irish music from Japan over to Ireland competing in the Fleadh. 

>>Kozo:  Yes, yes, yeah.

>>Shannon:  What was that like for you?

>>Kozo:  Ahhh! Yeah, it’s a nervous, you know! (chuckling)

>>Shannon:  Yeah.

>>Kozo:  But it was a very nice chance to improve myself. And to see a lot of great musicians.

[ Music: “An Paistin Fionn,” from Gathering Cloud

Artist: Toyota Ceili Band HP ]

>>Shannon:  Kozo told me that at school, he specialized in ethnomusicology and music education.


>>Kozo:  Teaching is one of my most important things. 

>>Shannon:  Yeah.

>>Kozo:  So, the younger students are amazing. A lot of students are trying to learn Irish music and dance. And actually, Irish people are very surprised; because in Ireland, only old people enjoy set dancing. But in Japan, young students are amazing. 

>>Shannon:  Yeah? Okay, let’s play some tunes!

[ Music: “Father O’Grady’s Trip to Bocca,” from Session at An Solas

Artist: Tokyo Session musicians ]

>>Shannon:  Before Kozo Toyota came on the Tokyo scene, flute player Isao Moriyasu and his concertina and harp-playing wife Masako were influential figures for young musicians. They travelled and played extensively throughout the West of Ireland, traveling with the names Paddy and Bridget.

Back in Japan, Isao published books to help Japanese players. And from there, many young musicians began making pilgrimages from Japan to County Clare. And more sessions popped up in Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and smaller Japanese towns.

When I met concertina player Minako Kondo after a show in Kofu, she told me that as of last December there were 55 venues all over Japan with regular Irish music sessions. And she would know. She did her master’s thesis on the subject. And she learned, not surprisingly, that big cities have the largest trad populations. 

But Irish music is also played in public sessions in 20 of Japan’s 47 prefectures. Even in Hokkaido (the north island) and Okinawa (the south island).

When Minako lived in Tokyo, she played in sessions regularly. But these days she is doing more solo playing:

>>Minako Kondo:  There are many sessions in Tokyo.

>>Shannon:  And now you’ve moved here, about two hours away.

>>Minako Kondo:  Yes.

>>Shannon:  And how’s the Irish music scene here?

>>Minako:  We don’t have Irish sessions here.

>>Shannon:  So, what do you do for music these days?

>>Minako:  I’m playing the concertina by myself at my home… just practice.

>>Shannon:  Yeah.

>>Shannon:  As Minako reported, there are more Irish music venues—and musicians—in bigger cities. After the tricolor show in the big city of Kyoto, four of the musicians who’d come to the gig invited us for super-charged flute tunes after the show. 

Here we are, live at the Gnome Pub, in the basement of the SSS building, just down the road from the Kyoto Imperial Palace. 

[ Music: “Noisy Curley,” from Session at The Gnome

Artist: Kyoto Session musicians ]

It was at Irish music sessions like this one that Boston-based uilleann piper Joey Abarta forged friendships during his year in Tokyo. Joey played for a show at Tokyo Disney Sea (that’s s-e-a.)

>>Joey Abarta:  It’s a water-based theme park. They have the Little Mermaid, 10,000 Leagues Under The Sea. But then they also have a recreation of a Cape Cod village. 

[ Music: “Trip to the Jacks, Where is the Cat,” from Music from Sliabh Luachra

Artist: Jackie Daly, with dialog/welcome from employees at Disney Sea Cape Cod Village ]

>>Shannon:  Wow. 

>>Joey:  Yeah, it’s pretty trippy. 

>>Shannon:  And they wanted a piper for that?

>>Joey:  Yeah, they kind of put together an immigrant band. That was like the theme. So, they brought people over from New York, Australia….

>>Shannon:  Wow. What an unusual way to go to Japan. 

>>Joey: Yeah. It was really trippy (both laughing!)

>>Shannon:  That was your day job?

>>Joey:  That was my day job. And I would always be rushing out of there and going to sessions. And there was one almost every night. And the funniest thing is I would go out alone. I don’t speak Japanese yet. You know, it’s my first month or so there. Finding the sessions and then meeting everybody at the sessions, it was like this whole crazy adventure. When I look back at it, it’s unbelievable. Because streets don’t work in Tokyo like they do here. The streets go forward and backward, but then up and down. So, something might be on this number building, but it’s on the seventh floor.

>>Shannon:  Yeah, that sounds like a pretty daunting experience for a 20-year-old. And yet you had this organizing element of playing Irish music. So, if you could find the places, there was a built-in community of people that you could probably trust.

>>Joey:  Yeah, totally. That’s one of the gifts of Irish music really. Everywhere you go, you have somebody that is your friend. And if you don’t know ‘em, you’ll know ‘em quickly enough.

[ Music: “D Major Walk Down,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories

Artist: Matt Heaton (guitar) ]

>>Shannon:  Joey made a lot of friends, and played a lot of music, and went to a lot of bars during his year in Tokyo. 

>>Joey:  I would go into these bars. And you could hear the music. But they still smoked in the bars then— I think they still do now even. It’s legal to smoke in bars. And you kind of waft through all this cigarette smoke. And there’d be all these players sitting in the back. All Japanese, playing music that would be the same as anywhere. And you could sit down and none of them can know English. But you could sit for three hours and drink and have a good time, and kind of mess around and play music with them. And it was a really interesting thing. I thought. 

Like the people in Japan that started playing, they did what I did. Their parents don’t play Irish music. They just heard it one day and they were like, oh, I really want to get into this. And then they’d step by step, they’d go to Ireland for festivals. They’d seek out people that can play, they take lessons from them. So, it’s the same thing that kind of drives me. It’s just when I heard it, I just wanted to hear more. 

I just kept meeting people. It was crazy. Like I would go to one session, I would hear about another one. And you can go out and play almost every night of the week, you know? Um, I enjoyed it a lot. All the people were really, really kind. 

>>Shannon:  And yeah, Joey is also kind. And he likes bringing people together, too.

[ Music: “Bonny Bunch Of Roses/The Ashgrove,” from Swimming Against The Falls/SnámhIin Aghaidh Easa

Artist: Joey Abarta ]

>>Joey:  Well, when I was there, I um, I wanted pipers to get together. And uh, so I basically got the word out to a couple that I knew in town. And um, they told some people. And they told some people. And I said, we’ll just call it the Tokyo Piper’s club. We’ll meet at my house, listen to music and then if people want, will teach each other tune or whatever. And we started doing that. And people would come from three hours, four hours away on the day off and come in. And one of them who lives in the north of Japan that I met at probably one of the first sessions I was there, his name is Makoto Nakatsui. And he now is probably one of the best uilleann pipe makers in the world…

>>Shannon:  That’s great!

>>Joey:  …not just Japan.

>>Shannon:  Wow.

>>Joey:  Yeah, with the Piper’s Club—even if we couldn’t get together at a house, somebody would sort out renting a karaoke place. 

>>Shannon:  Wow.

>>Joey:  Which, karaoke in Japan is super serious. And every—you have your own private room that’s soundproof. So, we weren’t doing karaoke, we were just playing pipes. Because they don’t care what use the room for. We just brought all our pipes in. And a door would open up, and beer and appetizers would come through. And then we’d sit and drink beer and play and it was really weird. They were really, they were really into it. And they would go above and beyond to get to people together. 

>>Shannon:  Making a real effort to get people together. And investing in special touches like beer and appetizers in a karaoke room. Or a gorgeous tree backdrop. Or a 10-course meal. Or an anniversary cake. This is the universal language of celebration. And I’ve been lucky to experience many celebrations all over the world—in Ireland, Italy, Thailand, and New England (when our friend Phill McIntyre decorated a staircase with white birch branches and hundreds of Christmas lights for a special holiday show).

[ Music: “Heartstrings,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories

Artist: Matt Heaton (guitar) ]

But there was a particularly consistent dedication to food, drink, and hospitality—and cake—that I experienced at traditional music events in Japan. And this reminded Joey of another cake story, that involves the singer Sting.

>>Joey:  Oh, you know what was a great? The Sting’s Christmas album.

>>Shannon:  Hahaha!

>>Joey:  And he sings this old English song “A Soul Cake“—you know that?

>>Shannon:  No, I’ll have to check it out.

>>Joey:  OK, but anyway, I remember around Christmas there was this English woman, who I think was in her seventies then. And she used to come in with a full trolley cart of percussion. She played bodhran. And she was like maybe five feet. And she was living in Japan for a really, really, really long time. And she was a realtime translator of Sumo matches. 

>>Shannon:  Wow. 

>>Joey:  That’s what I remember. But she used to sing that song, “A Soul Cake, A Soul Cake.” And um, there was one part says, “Two for Peter, one for Paul, [pause] one for the Lord that made us all.”

>>Shannon:  And she would cross herself every time?

>>Joey:  And she would do that—she would put her hands together like a prayer. And then she would sing another verse. She would do that again and again and again. Just a character, you know, like all those ex-pats that were around. But she would play like tambourine, she would play bells. You would have egg shakers, a bodhran. 

>>Shannon:  So, the eccentricities that you experienced in Japan were from ex-pats?

>>Joey:  Right! (Both laughing)

[ Music: “Soul Cake,” from Broadway’s Carols for a Cure, Vol. 16, 2014

Artist: The Broadway Cast Of “The Last Ship,” feat. Sting ]

>>Shannon:  There were no tiny English singers at our session in Kyoto, where I played tunes with hatao. Just lots of jigs and reels, and good laughs. And we continued our hang the next morning in hatao’s lovely Celtic music shop.

[ Music: “Grupai Ceol Memories,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories

Artist: Matt Heaton (guitar)

>>Shannon:  I enjoyed the tunes last night.

>>hatao:  It was a great night.

>>Shannon:  It was. And here we are in your shop which is beautiful.

>>hatao:  Ah, yes, we opened just one year ago—last year. But before that, we were in business for seven years. And we sold lots of whistles and flutes.

>>Shannon:  The CeltNoFue store, which is Japanese for Celtic Flute, is upstairs from the Field Irish Pub. The upstairs shop is small, beautifully organized, and filled with Irish whistles and flutes. And also, harps and dulcimers, bouzoukis and mandolins, bodhrans and banjos, and really nice accordions. And well-curated sheet music and CD collections, featuring Japanese Irish musicians prominently. hatao is committed to promoting local musicians.

hatao (his full name is Tomoaki Hatakeyama) calls his shop a tribute to the Irish music that he loves. That changed his life. He started playing when he was 18. 

>>hatao:  I started playing tin whistle when I was at university. That was the year the movie Titanic made a huge hit in Japan. 

>>Shannon:  Yeah.

>>hatao:  So, I also went to theater to watch that. And I heard the sound of the tin whistle for the first time. But I didn’t know what instrument it is.

[ Music: “Bb Whistle Set,” from Kitchen Recording circa 2008

Artist: Matt & Shannon Heaton ]

One of his friends played Irish fiddle and oriented him. He helped him find a tin whistle. And then hatao got to work.

>>hatao:  I listened to CDs again and again. And I tried to copy everything. When I was younger, I went to sessions like every Tuesdays and Saturdays. I was very motivated and enthusiastic to learn tunes. So, I recorded everything. And I practiced a lot.

>>Shannon:  In his early days, hatao performed with an Irish band. But these days, he is adamant about not playing Irish traditional music as a professional musician. He focuses on his own compositions instead, and feels most comfortable performing in Japan, China, Taiwan, and Korea.

But he loves Irish music. As he says, he still has the trad music bug, and is still listening, learning, and respecting Irish music. One of his biggest early influences—that helped him mature as a musician and find his own voice—was flute player Isao Moriasu (AKA Paddy).

>>hatao:  Isao Moriasu and Masako… I read all of his books when I was a student. His first book about Irish music was published in 1997. 

[ Music: “Celtic Grooves,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories

Artist: Matt Heaton (guitar) ]

That book invited lots of young people to Ireland. Because of him.

>>Shannon:  You went to Ireland.

>>hatao:  Doolin, Ennis, small town–Ennistymon.

>>Shannon:  And did you feel welcomed?

>>hatao:  Yes, um. It was much different from these days. Less tourists. The first time was in February, so it was very quiet. I remember quiet pubs, with fireplaces. (chuckling) And I was very lucky to be able to go to Ireland in 90’s—late 90’s. Because there was no smart phone. No LCC (lowcost carrier) 

>>Shannon:  No Ryan Air?

>>hatao:  We say LCC. And very few tourists. Few Asians in Ireland. So um, it was very special for me. Nowadays, if you go to Ireland in the summer, you see lots of Japanese, even Chinese, Korean, Taiwanese playing Irish music. Irish people get used to it— seeing Asian people playing Irish music. But in the late 90’s it was so special even for professional musicians in Ireland.

>>Shannon:  Special—like unique and people weren’t used to it? Or special like you did not feel welcome?

>>hatao:  Hmmm. In late 90’s—first time, I was looked at like, how can I say, an alien (chuckling). Special people from Asia.

>>Shannon:  You stood out?

>>hatao:  I stood out. And kids chased me (laughing).

>>Shannon:  They chased you? Did you run away? (both laughing)

>>hatao:  Hahaha. They want to take photo with me. 

>>Shannon:  How did you feel?

>>hatao:  I also felt very special.

[ Music: “さかさまの道,” (Another Road) from 雨つぶと風のうた Songs of Raindrops and Breeze

Artists: hatao & nami ]

>>Shannon:  In addition to getting chased and feeling ‘special,’ hatao also felt musically discouraged. His early enthusiasm and confidence were put to the test in Ireland.

>>hatao:  I found that even high school students can play very well there. And I found no place in this music, as a professional musician. So, that was a most tough time for me.

>>Shannon:  You felt discouraged?

>>hatao:  Yes, discouraged, disappointed about myself.

>>Shannon:  But he didn’t give up. He kept learning. And he contacted flute player and flute builder Eamonn Cotter for a few lessons.

>>hatao:  I looked up the name of my flute maker. And that was Eamonn Cotter. And I called up him and told that I’m from Japan and I want to learn a few tunes from you. And he said, “Okay, so please come.” And he lives in countryside.

>>Shannon:  Did you hitchhike there?

>>hatao:  Haha! Yes, I did!

>>Shannon:  hatao learned a lot, thumbing around Clare in the late 90’s. And he brought new skills—and a new perspective—home to Japan.

>>hatao:  So, when I came back from Ireland, I started to play my music. I tried to compose my pieces. And still, I am doing that. So, I am not a professional Irish musician. But I’m, I’m just a flute player, yeah. 

[ Music: “月をさがして,”(Looking For The Moon) from 雨つぶと風のうた Songs of Raindrops and Breeze

Artists: hatao & nami ]

>>hatao:  I enjoy Irish music, and I am still learning it. But my focus is creating my music.

>>Shannon:  I feel the same way. As an American, to find my place in Irish music for a long time was discouraging.

>>hatao:  You have heritage in your family, so…

>>Shannon:  Yes but, you know, I was born in the States—and I’m an American. I admit, I have not felt always welcomed.

>>hatao:  Yeah. In Ireland. I found that Irish music is social, and cultural, and historical experience. And I cannot cut only music from this cultural background.

>>Shannon:  Yes.

>>hatao:  In pub sessions I didn’t even understand what, you know—I didn’t get their jokes. (laughing)

>>Shannon:  Yeah!

>>hatao:  What’s funny? Right?

>>Shannon:  There’s language, right. And accents. But also, the language of humor. It’s very different in different places. 

>>hatao:  Yeah, yeah, yeah, context. Humor is very important in Irish music.

>>Shannon:  I think so.

>>hatao:  But I found that very difficult for me. (chuckling) I’m too serious always. (both laughing)

>>Shannon:  Well… So Irish music can balance you.

>>hatao:  Yeah.

>>Shannon:  Last night at the session, we had music, drink, and a lot of conversation.

>>hatao:  Yeah.

>>Shannon:  It was very social.

>>hatao:  It was, yes.

>>Shannon:  Is that not normal?

>>hatao:  Sometimes…

>>Shannon:  …fewer conversations

>>hatao: Yeah, no jokes. (both laughing)

>>Shannon:  Well, maybe we can change that a little bit. I certainly want to be respectful and go with the flow, here in Japan. But maybe a little humor…

>>hatao:  It was a very good atmosphere last night.

>>Shannon:  It was fun.

>>Shannon:  It was fun. And the music was on a very high level. Though during my trip I did meet newer players who, though technically proficient, seemed to be missing some of the dimension and context of the music. Here’s uillean piper Joey Abarta again.

>>Joey:  Some people in Tokyo would be like when we all started out: maybe listening to what I call, like, big, big bands in Irish music, like Danu and Dervish.

>>Shannon:  Right. They’re listening to modern ensembles assembled for performance. Bands who, in fact, do play good traditional music. And have put tunes into sets and worked out their own dressy variations. And have given the sets of tunes short titles like “The Sunset Set.”

>>Joey:  You know, when you learn a set, and it’s called, like, “The Sunset Set”—that’s kind of where—and, and where they’re doing the same—because they’re very serious. So, they learn all the same variations. Everything very, very, you know, precise. That’s not really Irish music, in a way. You know what I mean? But that’s what I did when I started. I copied all that stuff.

>>Shannon:  Yeah. Newer, usually younger players around the world can start here. They get into some band, and then they start learning and copying what they do. Copying the tunes they play, the way they play them. Instead of internalizing the tunes. And weaving them into their own repertoire and style. That’s not really a Japanese thing. It’s just a new musician thing. 

When hatao started playing the flute, he admits that he started by listening to bands and to popular players like Michael McGoldrick and Matt Molloy. And he tried to sound just like them. (So did I).

And then he learned more. And he found his own music and social voice. 

>>hatao:  When I was younger, I was very shy. And I just didn’t stand out by any means.

[ Music: “Meditation,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories

Artist: Matt Heaton (guitar)

>>hatao:  I was bad at sports. And maybe I am good at studying. But I was very shy anyway. I found Irish music. And if you play Irish music you need to communicate with people. 

>>Shannon:  Yes.

>>hatao:  And, even you don’t speak, you express yourself through music. And so, music helped me a lot. And through playing Irish music I made lots of friends. And gradually I got used to speaking about myself. And so, music changed me a lot. And I want students to experience the same thing. That through music, communicate to each other, learn from each other. 

[ Music: “ちゅうちゅう奥さんのポルカ,”(Mrs. Tittlemouse’s Polkas) from enishi

Artist: hatao ]

I learned a lot from my short time in Japan. Like how similar the Irish music journey can be for players, no matter where they come from. Like how important the trappings and the celebrations that surround Irish music are. Like how lucky I am to have found this global Celtic community. And how we can all be keepers of these traditions—when we share them.

Scottish musician Aaron Jones has visited Japan with his band Old Blind Dogs. He took note of the active community in Japan.

>>Aaron Jones:  In Japan, the scene there is incredible. You know, the, the standard of musicianship, it’s brilliant. You know, they’re engaged in not just the music, but the culture. And the attitudes to life. And it’s, you know, it’s great to see. 

But I think Celtic culture, it’s not necessarily a hedonism; but it’s a release that a lot of people like the excuse to have. So that appeals to people. You know, we all work very hard. We all have our crosses to bear. And so once in, once in a while it’s nice to have an excuse. And Celtic culture tends to engage that. That need in all of us. Which is I think why it’s universally appealing. 

Plus, you know, the rhythms are easy to tap your foot along to. I think that’s what is the success of Riverdance has been down to—it’s just really approachable. It’s not rocket science. It’s just fun, uplifting music, and people clearly having a good time. 

[ Music: “Dark Haired Lass/Biddy from Muckross,” from Blackwater

Artist: Altan  ]

It was that good, fun time that lured fiddle player Yuka Nakafuji in, when she saw Altan perform. When she experienced this excited audience, and joyful musicians making eye contact with each other.

And also, the tradition of melody instruments playing in unison struck Yuka as particularly resonant for Japanese people. Instead of taking turns soloing, traditional musicians aim to blend and match. That’s how Irish musicians lift up the music—and each other.

>>Yuka: Irish music = same melody. 

>>Shannon:  Unison melody?

>>Yuka:  It’s good for Japanese, I think. So, everybody together. I love this.

>>Shannon:  Yes.

>>Shannon:  With 24/7 online access to Irish music, and social media streams that reach across borders, it should be no surprise that there’s a community of Irish musicians and dancers in Japan.

And yet, the idea of a Japanese Irish fiddle player can be more surprising than, say, a Boston Irish musician. Maybe because Boston has a big Irish population. Maybe because there’s no language barrier. Maybe because it’s only six hours from Boston Logan to Shannon airport.

Yeah, the flight to Tokyo is much longer. And the Japanese language has, of course, a very different feel from English or Irish. 

And to remove your shoes as you enter a venue, and then tuck into a set of Irish reels… 

…well, perhaps there’s something a little strange about this combination.

Until it’s not so strange. Until it’s just back to music and dance and community. Until it’s just friends playing music together and blowing out candles on an anniversary cake.

[ Music: “Anniversary Reel,” from tricolor BIGBAND

Composer: Shannon Heaton

Artist: tricolor ]

* * * *

Irish Music Stories was written and produced by me, Shannon Heaton. Thank you to Yuka, Koji, Annie, and Shiori for showing me around their country. Thank you to Matt Heaton for the production music. Thank you, Nigel, for acknowledging our sponsors. And Thanks again to Gerry Corr, Chris McGlone, Sally Tucker, Jeremy Keith, David Vaughan, Chris Murphy, Brian Benscoter, and Joe Garrett for underwriting this month’s show. If you can kick in, there’s a donate button at Every little bit helps. Thanks again for listening, everybody.

[ Track: “Tawny Owls 2,” from stereo field-recording of two male Tawny owls 

Artist: Benboncan, used by attribution license ]

Companion Chapters

Related essays

Bonus Content

Related videos

Cast of Characters

Episode guests in order of appearance

Flute player, teacher, and owner of CeltNoFue music stores in Kyoto and Tokyo and special IMS correspondent for Episode 42 (and translator with Ryoko Murakami or Episode 01)

Yuka Nakafuji


Tokyo-based fiddle and concertina player and composer who performs with the trio tricolor

Hirofumi Nakamura


Osaka-born piano, guitar, bouzouki, accordion, and mandolin player who performs with tricolor, John John Festival, O’Jizo

Tomoyo Sugai


Yamamashi-based Irish flute player who studied trad music at the University of Limerick

Tokyo-based Irish flute player, teacher, and band leader of Toyota Ceili Band (competed in the All Ireland Fleadh in 2016)

Minako Kondo


Concertina and piano player who did her master’s thesis on Irish music sessions in Japan

Joey Abarta


L.A.-born, Boston-based uilleann piper who honed his music with visits to Ireland, at Disney Japan, and relationships with master pipers

Aaron Jones


English-born, Scottish-based bouzouki/guitar player and singer performs with numerous bands including Old Blind Dogs

The Heaton List