Sessions in Chiba

When Katie Sexton lay down her fiddle and moved to Chiba in Japan, she wasn’t expecting to take it up again so quickly. To her surprise however she found a thriving Irish music scene in Japan with sessions, fleadh cheoils and céilí’s a part of the popular subculture dedicated to traditional Irish music. 

It wasn’t long, writes Mary O’Brien, before the flame-haired Irish girl, who has been playing the fiddle since the age of four – later on a regular at the trad sessions in Charlie Madden’s pub in Timoleague – was turning heads in Chiba’s local Irish pubs. She now plays the fiddle with four bands in the city.

Katie, 24, grew up on a small self-sufficient farm in Timoleague. One of six children, five girls and a boy, she and her siblings are well-known in the local area for their musical and sporting talent, with Katie herself winning an All-Ireland bowling championship in 2013.

After studying languages at University, Katie moved to Japan on a graduate programme in August 2022. She currently works as Co-ordinator of International Relations at Chiba’s City Hall.

About 40km east of Tokyo with a population of almost one million people, Chiba is as different to rural West Cork as you can get, with Japanese people typically quite reserved and working long hours.

“The people are very polite here and there are probably four different ways to say thank you and sorry,” shares Katie “but they’re also very welcoming like the Irish.”

As always, music creates a bridge between cultures and Katie feels so at home here that she hopes to make the move permanent. She’s a part of the growing community dedicated to Irish music and dance in Chiba. “I never thought I’d hear a Japanese person sing ‘The Boys of Kilmichael’” says Katie laughing. ‘We have great craic at the gigs.”

Gaelic football is also popular with men and women playing in the Tokyo club.

Home is a one-room apartment close to Tokyo Bay with a spectacular view of Mount Fuji on a clear day. It’s located in a Red Zone, where the tsunami hazard is classified as high and earthquakes are frequently experienced.

It doesn’t seem to bother Katie. “We do a lot of disaster training and drills and all the buildings have been engineered to shake with the earthquake,” she says pragmatically.

Chiba she says is “a wonderful city known for having the longest suspended monorail in the world, as well as sandy beaches and medieval castles.” The city also boasts an ancient lotus flower, believed to be over 2000-years-old, the oldest flower in the world.

“The best time of year to visit,” shares Katie “is March to May when you’ll get to see the Cherry Blossoms or October to November.” The rainy seasons starts in May and summers are hot and humid.

When she’s not playing the fiddle, Katie is known for giving lectures on Irish culture around the city. She works with the Irish embassy promoting working holidays for Irish students. In the last few years, Chiba has welcomed increasing numbers of Irish people. “You can get a good pint of Guinness and you’ll even find Clonakilty whiskey here now,” says Katie. Aside from the pint of Guinness, which she says “will set you back at least a tenner”, it’s a lot cheaper to eat and drink here than in Ireland, with ‘all you can eat/drink’ buffet restaurants very popular.

Katie attends the same trad session as Kozo Toyota, a well-known talented flute-player and founder of the Toyota Ceílí Band in Tokyo, which has competed at Fleadh Cheoil’s in Ireland. “There’s a big Comhaltas scene out here now and Mr Toyota is a great ambassador for Ireland here in Japan,” she says. “He teaches the flute and the tin whistle.” As well as the fiddle, Katie has taken up playing the koto, or Japanese harp.

Right now, the young musician is busy helping to organise the St Patrick’s Day parade in Chiba, which she says will have the entire city sporting green and getting into the Irish spirit with Gaelic football demonstrations and Irish music, dancing and pageantry. Katie will be representing Ireland in the parade with her fiddle before heading off on a session pub trail around her four Irish locals. Irish wolfhounds and Red Setters are popular in Chiba and, with pets still preferred over parenthood in Japan, you’re more likely to meet someone pushing a dog than a baby in a stroller at the parade!

With a significant drop in young Japanese people deciding not to get married and have families due to increasing financial pressures and a desire to live without social obligations, the Japanese government is now sponsoring dating apps and you can even take a course in dating skills in Tokyo.

On the dating scene however, Katie is playing her cards very close to her chest but she does mention that “the men are a lot shyer than they are back in Ireland!”

While she admits to missing her mammy’s home cooking, her pet donkey Neddy and playing with her sister’s at the regular Thursday night sessions in Charlie Madden’s, Katie doesn’t appear to be too homesick…Chiba has won her heart.

WCP Staff

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