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Osaka, Japan: The funkiest underground music venues

By Andrew Madigan 3 February 2020

Header image courtesy of @shidareyanagi

Osaka isn’t just the ugly industrial neighbour of Kyoto or Tokyo’s uncool kid brother. It’s a major city in its own right with a thriving culture that’s been going strong for more than 2,000 years. Today, it’s a quirky, fun, diverse, and often strange place, even by Japanese standards, and you can see this in the city’s raibuhausu scene. These “live houses” cater to a wide range of genres including metal, punk, hardcore, grunge, grindcore, psych, ambient, prog, and more! You can also find a wealth of DJs, recording studios, and record labels. Wander around in the Minami district west of Midosuji Road, home to many live houses, and you’ll invariably stumble onto a cool (and often peculiar) club.

Namba Bears

For over 30 years, Bears has been the city’s standard-bearer for alternative music. Founded by Seiichi Yamamoto, guitarist of Boredoms—legendary noise-rockers from Osaka—this venue is small, dark, cramped, loud, and smoke-filled; exactly what you would want in an underground club. Best of all, you can bring your own beer!

Bears features punk, pop, folk, indie, avant-garde, and more. Perhaps not the place to bring visiting dignitaries who might not appreciate stand elbow-to-elbow and chest-to-back with sweaty young people, but otherwise this is a perfect venue for experiencing Osaka’s underground music scene.

Hokage

This is where you come to see up-and-coming local and regional bands. Hokage has an ecstatic, friendly, intimate feel, like a house party thrown by your best friend. The music is heavy—hardcore, metal, noise, and related genres—and the concert-goers tend to drink hard, mosh hard, and spill beer. Hokage is located near Time Bomb Records in Amerikamura (“American village”), a haven for expats. Like many a raibuhausu, there’s no stage, so the line between audience and musicians is practically nonexistent. In fact, this is such a tiny club that the band takes up almost half the space!

It’s a hot and sweaty basement space and the audience is mostly local, with a sprinkling of Aussies and North Americans. To escape from the mayhem, grab a cheap beer in the lower basement bar, where you can relax on a ramshackle sofa and enjoy the decor—insect display cases and a ram skull.

King Cobra

The Cobra is also in Amerikamura—"Ame-mura,” to locals. You’ll find it in Triangle Park with a small-scale reproduction of the Statue of Liberty looming overhead on top of the New American Plaza building. This is a trendy, fashion-forward area, on par with Tokyo’s Harajuku district.

The space consists of two separate venues. The main stage is on the third floor, and the smaller, aptly-named “squat” is on the second. King Cobra features punk, thrash, and extreme metal, among other genres, and although it’s a dive, the sound system is spectacular. Be sure to bring earplugs and drink plenty of water!

The tiny makeshift bar looks as if it’s held together by band stickers, duct tape, black paint, and graffiti. This place has a vaguely gothic look and the floor is painted a red-and-black checkerboard, like an old pair of Vans. If you need sustenance on the way home, you’re in luck because the neighbourhood is littered with 7-11s.

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Kinguu

Kinguu is considered quite eccentric, even in a strange town like Osaka. If you’re looking for a bar that’s decorated like a Victorian horror show with plenty of creepy antique dolls and masks, a wide array of taxidermy, and a great selection of mead and absinthe, this is your place. It’s basically Marilyn Manson’s living room.

Chandeliers, dim lighting, dark corners, red velvet drapes, hundreds of little antiquarian junkshop object d’art; Kinguu has been curated with great care and devotion. The club is not easy to find; you’ll have to climb to the fifth floor of a nondescript building. The bands—anything macabre or experimental—start playing at 2 am on Saturday nights.

Socore Factory

This time, there is no dive or hole in the wall. More spacious and relaxed than most of the other clubs here, Socore has a higher ceiling, a “real” elevated stage, and a dash of simple elegance—hardwood floors, fresh paint, matching unbroken furniture, no mildew. It’s where the Queen of England would come if she rocked the hip clubs of Osaka.

In Kita-Horie, Socore features bigger acts with decent followings, but it still has an underground vibe and exciting bands that typically hail from the less heavy end of the alternative spectrum—math rock, singer-songwriters, indie pop, and the like. The club is polished, but not corporate or boring.

Sengoku Daitoryo

This peculiar, dark, rambunctious club can be found inside the Midoribashi subway station on the eastern edge of the city, near several Buddhist shrines and a North Korean school. These are all true facts. Another truth is that Sengoku Daitoryo is a real dive, in the best sense of the word, so much that it makes storied New York bar CBGB look like the Royal Albert Hall!

The music is a wide mix of styles and genres: electronic, pop, psych, drone, trance, punk, DJs, experimental, and whatever’s new and interesting. The beer is cheap and the bathrooms aren’t too bad. The decor is simple—black walls and... more black walls. Every spot on the floor has an unobstructed view of the tiny stage (if you can manage to see through all the smoke), and the sound system is excellent. This is the place for serious music fans who are really into their music, rather than a trendy bar to see and be seen in.

Fandango

The largest, most well known, and beloved of Osaka’s live houses, Fandango is located in North Osaka in a rundown historic district, inside an anonymous sand-coloured building next to a car park and a clutch of vending machines. Outside, there’s an ugly sign and no marquee. You’d probably walk right by and never know it was there. Inside, however, you’d definitely know where you were.

The bands and the crowd dance, scream, sing, and pump their fists like a troupe of rockin’ dervishes. The space is exceedingly spartan—exposed concrete and not much else. The owners have made no attempt to spruce the place up or land a feature in Architectural Digest.

For over 30 years, Fandango has hosted the best live acts from all over Japan and the world: rock, noise, glam, metal, punk, anything loud and aggressive. Bands perform almost every night, and the audience is always primed. The interior is just as dilapidated as the neighbourhood outside, but the club is full of energy and has surprisingly good food.

Andrew Madigan

Contributor

Andrew Madigan is a freelance writer from Washington, DC. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Observer, Lucky Peach, VinePair, Smart Travel Asia, Live & Invest Overseas, Verge, Outpost, and International Living.

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