Guitars in Daily Life - Nagashi of Japan

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Guitars in Daily Life - Nagashi of Japan

In Japanese culture, there have long been “nagashi” – strolling guitarists – who play guitar and sing for customers in popular “izakaya” restaurant- bars, and represent a unique manifestation of the guitar experience in Japan. As a modern nagashi since 2008, Pari Nakayama is keeping that culture alive, continuing to brighten people's evenings with a repertoire of more than 2000 songs, including current hit songs and worldwide standards in addition to traditional nagashi songs.

“I began my career as an ordinary musician, recording and selling albums,” said Nakayama. “But I longed to be a nagashi, making a living directly based on my music enhancing a customer’s evening. It’s simple – if I put my heart into my performance and the customer is pleased, then I am giving them a valuable experience.

Pari Nakayama

In the 1960s and 70s, there were more than 100 nagashi performing every night in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. This cultural phenomenon quickly spread throughout Japan as the most popular form of musical entertainment to accompany an evening with friends and family.

“At the height of the nagashi phenomenon, there were specialized management agencies that would send nagashi on a rotating schedule of izakayas,” said Nakayama. “Since there was no karaoke at the time, the customers would often sing along with the nagashi – it was a beloved form of everyday entertainment.

A “songbook” of lyric sheets. With this in hand, many customers sing along with the nagashi.

Although izakayas experienced many changes in fashion with the introduction of karaoke in the 1980s, today the nagashi is experiencing a comeback through a newfound interest in retro izakaya culture.

“There are more than 30 nagashi performing in Tokyo – young and old alike,” said Nakayama. “What they all have in common is the desire to perform and interact with the audience and feel their response. With experience, they gain regular customers and ultimately become an important part of the community.”

Nakayama's home turf is Ebisu Yokocho, a popular arcade filled with thirteen izakayas and restaurants. On any given night, Nakayama spontaneously approaches groups and relies on his intuition and communication skills to tailor a special performance for them based on social cues he detects.

“The important thing is to get a sense of what the customer wants most, and to make that possible through your performance,” said Nakayama. “Everything revolves around the customer – this is the main characteristic that distinguishes nagashi from general musicians. It’s not about pleasing a general public with each performance – it’s an intimate and engaged interaction with the customer that’s right in front of me. For instance, someone may request a song that was loved by a deceased friend. Or for a couple celebrating their anniversary, I may sing memorable songs from the year they got married. Each customer has their own experience, whether they want to laugh, sing or cry. When I’m able to make a customer’s night special, I know they’re glad they encountered a nagashi!”

Although nagashi in the past sometimes played accordion or violin, the modern nagashi’s accompaniment of choice is the acoustic guitar. Nakayama chosen instrument is a 1960s Yamaha Dynamic No. 20 classical guitar.

The Dynamic No. 20 guitar that Pari Nakayama regularly uses

“Because the customers’ requests comes from a wide range of genres, the guitar is the only instrument that can really handle such demand,” said Nakayama. “Accordion is beautiful, but is inevitably going to be rhythmically weak. Because the guitar has a percussive aspect, you can get into the rhythm, but you can also strum quietly for a subtler performance. I love my Dynamic No. 20. The body is a smaller than a normal guitar, but it still delivers a big sound. When you're walking around in a crowded izakaya, the smaller the better, as a bigger guitar can get in the customers' way.”

“Energy is really important in a nagashi's performance,” concluded Nakayama. “Customers are mostly delighted by the energy the singer conveys, even more so than by their musical abilities. And pleasing customers gives me even more energy. As I continue as a nagashi, my repertoire has grown and my rapport with customers has naturally improved. Most importantly, just performing and improving is a great pleasure for me – and it’s fun!”

Thanks to performers like Yakahama, ordinary evenings in Tokyo’s izakaya can be transformed into a magical memory thanks to the songs of the nagashi.

Interview/Text: Hajime Oishi, Photography: Keiko K. Oishi