Beatles fans make mop-head pilgrimages to Abbey Road. Deadheads shuffle to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury. Japanese rock fanatics come to Koza City—the home of heavy rock. The town changed its name to Okinawa City in 1974, but to locals and music lovers alike, it’s still known as Koza: the place that gave rise to groups like Cannabis, Condition Green and, most famously, Murasaki (named in tribute to Deep Purple).
These bands forged a visceral, hard-hitting sound totally unlike anything that was emerging from Honshu at the same time. The reason? Koza was (and still is) host to Kadena Air Base, the largest American military installation in the Pacific. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Koza’s rock groups honed their skills in local clubs and bars, playing in front of young GIs who’d either recently returned from the Vietnam War or were just about to be shipped there. These audiences demanded an aggressive sound in keeping with their own experiences of combat—and the bands of Koza delivered it in spades.
Stepping off the bus at the Goya crossroads, I encounter a very different side of the city. Cicadas buzz from street-side hibiscus bushes. A solo sanshin plays gently from an upstairs window. Sewing machines whir from a row of stores embroidering military badges for America’s latest campaign in Afghanistan.
The first stop on my tour is Charlie’s Tacos. This city landmark has been serving Mexican food to American military personnel and visiting mainlanders since 1956. Hanging on the walls, framed photographs of satisfied customers attest to Charlie’s popularity: monochrome Tet Offensive-era Marines chug frosty beers, Gulf War airmen chow down on enchiladas. Incongruous among them, Norika Fujiwara flashes a peace sign at the camera and bites into a tortilla wrap. There’s a dab of hot sauce on her perfectly cleft chin.
After lining my stomach with some of the best beef tacos I’ve eaten this side of Tijuana, I drop by Teruya Music Shop. Five years older than Charlie’s, Teruya has always supported the city’s up-and-coming bands, and the friendly staff draw me a map of the area and seed it with their recommended places to go. Koza has over 50 music venues compressed into roughly eight square blocks, specializing in genres ranging from hip-hop and jazz to traditional Okinawan folk songs. “But if it’s rock you’re after, then you can’t beat Jack Nasty’s and Seventh Heaven.”
Jack Nasty’s is a basement club run by Koza veteran Katsuhiro Kawamitsu of Condition Green. Ka-chan is the Ozzy Osbourne of Okinawan rock, famous as much for his belly-length beard as his tendency to flash his ample member and urinate into cups of beer mid-performance. I order an Orion from the bartender, check the glass is clean, and listen as he tells me how Ka-chan once ripped the snake from a bottle of habushu, chewed it up on stage and tossed the chunks into the audience. Tonight finds the legend in a mellower mood. Reminiscent of an Asian Charles Manson, he sits behind a pair of bongos and runs through a set of bluesy rock tunes, interspersed with bilingual monologues about drinking, music and Koza that have locals and out-of-towners alike in stitches.
He finishes with a rip-roaring rendition of “Heavy Day’s Night,” after which the customers uproot themselves en masse and head the two blocks to Seventh Heaven. This live house is owned by Ray Murasaki, son of the founding member of Murasaki, and it’s the home turf of his speed rock band 8-Ball. When I arrive, they’re midway through their signature tune “Masquerade.” Think Linkin Park catchiness backed up by a barrage of guitars and the wrath of Rage Against the Machine. As the strobe lights flash and the crowd ricochets off one another like pachinko balls in fever mode, I realize that Koza’s rock scene may well be pushing 40, but it still packs the powerful punch of a pissed-off teenage Marine.
Okinawa City is an easy 30-minute rent-a-car drive from Naha Airport. Alternatively, buses make the trip every 10 or 15 minutes. The closest stop to the action is Goya crossing, from which it’s a few minutes’ walk to Teruya Music (3-1-7 Chuo, Okinawa-shi; 098-937-3162), Jack Nasty’s (B1, 1-11-3 Chuo, Okinawa-shi; 098-938-3781) and Seventh Heaven (3F, 1-2-10 Chuo, Okinawa-shi; www.7thheavenkoza.com). Charlie’s Tacos is slightly north from there, opposite the Korinza shopping mall (4-11-5 Chuo, Okinawa-shi; 098-937-4627).
If you’re lucky enough to be in Koza in early July, make sure to check out the annual Peaceful Love Rock Festival (www.koza.ne.jp/events/peaceful), which brings together both new faces and old-school stalwarts of the Okinawan rock scene.