Birthday Present Takes Band To Orient

Junction 87 took the ‘devil' from Georgia to Japan

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Junction 87 rode the Orange Blossom Special to Kobe, Japan April 14. Although the Kobe daily newspaper had an article about the Rim Country band two days in a row, "Nobody seemed to recognize us on the streets," Junction 87 founder and bass fiddle player, Jim Norman said.

Yet Norman, Billy Ichida and Robert Lewis played for three packed houses over the course of a week.

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Retired judo instructor Shizuka, sang onstage with Junction 87 at his retirement party at Repas Chinois, April 15. Billy Ichida, Robert Lewis and Jim Norman are Junction 87.

"I was very proud. The expectations were very big and we nailed it," said Ichida. He plays guitar and electric fiddle.

This first tour came to be when Shizuka, a sensei, who Japanese-born Ichida and his family knew, was getting ready to retire from teaching martial arts and open his own dojo, which is a martial arts studio.

A sensei, is a common Japanese martial title and used to show respect.

His disciples wanted to give him a big gift and the sensei asked if it was possible to have Billy and his band come and perform.

Bluegrass and traditional country music tunes, such as those sung by Hank Williams, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash have many college-age and older fans. Shizuka, is no exception.

"He performs country music in English, even though he does not speak the language," Ichida said.

The students organized and sold tickets to Shizuka's party to fulfill his wish.

The next stop on the tour was City Lights. The small bar overflowed with approximately 40 die-hard country music fans. The band treated fans to three sets, the same as they play at gigs back home.

"The people all sang along when we played," Ichida said.

"It was amazing," lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist, Lewis added.

Norman likened listening to American country songs sung with a distinct accent like "you or I singing La Bamba -- you know the words, but don't know what they mean."

He caught himself singing along to the song "Sukiyaki," a chart-topper from 1963, on the radio a few days ago.

"You know that song is not about sukiyaki at all. It's about heartbreak. An American disc jockey gave it that title. The Japanese lyrics go something like, take a walk, tilt your head up so tears don't roll down your face," Ichida said.

All this is proof that music crosses cultural barriers and speaks to the heart of human beings.

Junction 87's tour ended with their April 20 performance at the Live Music Showcase, a variety show where they followed 11 musical acts including Ichida's sister's band, Nami, a folk singer duo from Okinawa and a 12-piece band with back-up singers.

An American audience might shrug their shoulders at a fiddle player, the crowd in Kobe went wild when Ichida and Norman cut the rug.

"Bob did not wear his devil horns when we played ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia,' but I guess our antics translated," Norman said.

"We blew the audience away," Ichida said.

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In between concerts, Shizuka took the group by train to tour the Golden Pavilion and other special sites in Kyoto. Pictured left to right: Jim and Connie Norman, Marry Kennedy and Bob Lewis, Billy and Ginny Ichida and Sensei Shizuka at Kiyomizu Temple.

Junction 87 was the only band the audience applauded to an encore.

Some fans wanted a slow number, others requested fast so Junction 87 went for the middle with "Mountain Music."

Then all the musicians got together on stage to jam.

"It exceeded all our expectations," Norman said.

In between gigs, the band and their wives were feted by their new friends and Ichida's family, who still live in Japan.

At a traditional Japanese restaurant, complete with lush gardens, kimono-clad servers bowed each time they entered or exited the room.

Lewis, not normally a fish eater or a beer drinker, had to stretch his taste buds. He tried octopus, squid and tuna.

"My wife and I discovered we could take a bite and wash it down with beer. I didn't lose any weight," he said.

"They wined and dined us and wouldn't let us pay. You couldn't go to a tourist agent and book the kind of trip we enjoyed," Norman said.

Lewis got a big kick out of high school teens that pointed and laughed, saying "cowboy" as the band waited in their cowboy hats for a Kyoto train.

He was impressed with the taxi cabs that ran on liquid propane and the transportation system in general.

The "immaculate, modern" cities impressed Norman. And the people, who while not outwardly friendly, were very friendly once engaged in conversation.

The band is considering future gigs in Tokyo.

"It'll happen," Ichida said.

Catch Junction 87's act Sundays from 5 to 9 p.m. at the Buffalo Bar and Grill in Payson. They play from 6:30 to 10:30 p.m., Saturday, May 10 at the Mogollon Steakhouse in Strawberry.

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