My Best Friend is a Pop Star in Japan

What happens when a temporary move becomes a new life — as a pop star? Writer Michael Petrou travels to Sendai to reconnect with his old friend who's become quite big in Japan.

Tokyo’s Budokan arena was built for judo, not rock ’n’ roll. But after the 1964 Olympic Games, the stadium took on a new life as a mecca for musicians. The Beatles played five shows here in 1966, followed over the years by Bob Dylan, Cheap Trick and Janet Jackson. The Budokan developed a reputation as a venue that brought out the best in musicians, and the best wanted to play there.

On a February night in 2015, the Budokan hosted an audience of more than 8,000 to celebrate a local band’s 15-year anniversary. Its members strode onstage amid blue lights, lasers, cheers and a sea of waving hands, many clutching glow sticks. The two front men, one wearing sunglasses, the other playing a low-slung Gibson Flying V guitar, sang in a seamless mix of Japanese and English. This wasn’t surprising: They lived in Japan and had families there. But it may be a little misleading to call them locals.

JULY 1, 2019
A concert with lots of lights on stage, confetti in the air, and people's hands held up.
Monkey Majik plays to a crowd of more than 8,000 at the legendary Budokan in Tokyo

The band was Monkey Majik. The two front men, Maynard and Blaise Plant, were born in Saskatoon and Ottawa, respectively, and spent much of their childhood in Vanier, a gritty, mainly francophone neighbourhood of Ottawa. Now, they perform in a Japanese pop-rock band that has sold millions of albums. The members have become goodwill ambassadors of Canada to Japan, and of Japan to Canada. They’ve played for the former emperor and empress of Japan. The video for a recent song, “Umarvelous,” featuring the bandmates dressed like 1970s glam rockers, has been watched more than 12 million times on YouTube, and the song has been played more than 100 million times on the social-media platform TikTok.

A man holding chopsticks and wearing a Japanese garment; only his chin is visible.
Maynard enjoys breakfast at an onsen in Matsushima
A field in Sendai, Japan surrounded by trees.
Maynard enjoys breakfast at an onsen in Matsushima
Fukuura Island is home to more than 300 species of flowers, plants and trees

Early one morning this spring, I found myself slogging through mud and hoping I wouldn’t get stung as I watched Maynard and his bandmate Takuya (Tax) Kikuchi work on their honeybee hives near Sendai.

Years before Maynard became a rock star in Japan, we attended Queen’s University, in Kingston, Ontario, together. I was an editor at the campus newspaper. Maynard, wiry and charming, was a student politician with a knack for showmanship. One summer during university, Maynard and I took a road trip from Kingston to Cape Breton. We slept in a tent on the side of the highway. We spent an afternoon climbing a mountain outside Saint-Pascal, Quebec. We fished wherever water looked promising, catching mackerel off the pier in Glace Bay. We got to know each other the way you do when you travel together.

And so, despite the peculiarity of Maynard’s Japanese celebrity, deep down I wasn’t that surprised by it. The honeybees are a different story. Tending them, with all the diligence and patience that requires, doesn’t seem like a vocation a famous musician might adopt. Maynard and Tax rent land from a nearby farmer. Their hives sit on a hill above the farmer’s flooded rice fields, next to forests and bamboo groves. Tracks of wild boars are visible among the hives.

Maynard describes his apiary as a labour of love, something that reminds him of childhood summers working on relatives’ farms in Saskatchewan. “I like being in nature,” he says, squeezing smoke from a small canister filled with burning grass and bamboo shoots into a hive to calm its occupants before removing its lid. “We’re pop musicians. But writing pop music is not easy. It takes time, and you need to recharge. So, for me, this is a recalibration.”

Gloved hands handling a bee colony.
Maynard gets busy tending his beehives outside of Sendai
A small Japanese temple in the forest.
Maynard gets busy tending his beehives outside of Sendai
Chūson-ji is a temple of calm in the forest

Visiting Japan was something Maynard had thought about since he was a kid, thanks to Japanese cartoons he watched on television and a visit to the Japan Pavilion at Expo ’86 in Vancouver. One day, Maynard saw an ad posted on a university bulletin board looking for people to teach English in Japan. “It just jumped out at me,” he says. He decided to go.

Before flying to Japan, Maynard came to visit me in Halifax. We sat on the patio in my backyard on a warm night in late June, the air heavy and unmoving and the sky blocked by a canopy of broad-leafed trees. Maynard strummed and picked at a guitar and sang some songs he had written, his voice carrying into neighbouring backyards. In one, he asked Aphrodite, goddess of love, to send him sunshine: “I really need it, I really need it.”

I didn’t recall seeing Maynard perform music anywhere during the four years we spent together at Queen’s. This was new. I empathized with his restlessness and figured Japan was simply a way to scratch that itch. He would go for a few years, make some money and come home. That, after all, is what everyone else did. But Maynard didn’t come back.

Two men on a bridge in Sendai, Japan, having a conversation. The camera is far away.

Catching up on one of the many footbridges that cross the Ginzan River in the charming mountain village of Ginzan Onsen.

When he first moved to Japan in 1998, Maynard settled in Shichinohe, a small town in the Tōhoku region about 700 kilometres northeast of Tokyo. He would often bring his guitar to his English classes so he could sing with his students. When the organizer of a local international festival asked him to perform a few songs, Maynard balked until a fellow English teacher suggested they play as a band. They found two more members and practised together for a week before the festival. The four decided on the name Monkey Majik, based on the theme song from an old Japanese television series. About 50 people came to watch. “We were terrible,” says Maynard. “But it was fun, and that was the point.”

Because it was fun, they kept playing in local bars and at other small festivals. A scout from a major rec-ord label came to see one of their shows and urged them to come to Tokyo for a tryout. By then, Maynard had been in Japan for almost three years and was looking for a reason to stay. He had met the woman who would become his wife and was spending three to four hours every night polishing his Japanese, building up a permanent callous on his finger from tracing characters. All of a sudden, the possibility of a music career seemed like an answer.

But something was missing. Maynard flew back to Ottawa to find it. He met with his younger brother Blaise, and the two of them spent a few weeks writing and playing songs. Maynard convinced Blaise to come back to Japan with him and join the group. Members have changed since their first festival gig, but Maynard and Blaise have been fixtures for almost two decades.

A cherry tree on a hill covered in white blooms.
Bloom time: a cherry blossom tree in Ōgawara.

Around the same time as Maynard began his musical career, I began one as an international journalist, reporting from Afghanistan, Iraq and dozens of other countries. I had three children. Maynard had two. We saw each other occasionally, in Ottawa and Montreal, but never for as long as I’d have liked. I blinked, and 20 years went by.

So we decide to recreate the Cape Breton road trip of our youth, but in Maynard’s home region of Tōhoku, with years of growing up and growing older between the two trips. It will be a classed-up version of our first one. We’ll sleep in hotels rather than on the side of the road. Someone else will cook our fish. Or, on our first night together in Japan, our steak: Sendai beef is so heavily marbled, I discover at Gyujin steakhouse, that eating it feels like chewing charred butter.

Two men standing on a red bridge over water talking.
Michael (left) and Maynard cross the 252-metre-long footbridge to Fukuura Island.

We set out from Sendai early the next morning, the sun low and the air crisp. Our first stop is the spring cherry blossom festival in Ōgawara. Trees line both sides of the river, pink and shimmering. Gusts of wind send petals dancing into the water. The river path is lined with stalls selling takoyaki (breaded octopus balls) and beer. There’s something very Japanese about appreciating the blossoms’ ephemeral brilliance, Maynard says, noting the esthetic concept of wabi-sabi, roughly meaning beauty that is fleeting and imperfect. “It’s an important symbol of new beginnings,” he says about the cherry blossom bloom. “There is also the tragedy of its short life. It’s intense, and then it’s gone.” Monkey Majik has written a song about it.

We drive high into the mountains for a lunch of cold buckwheat soba noodles in a sparsely furnished restaurant where food is served on a table only a few inches off the ground and the floor-to-ceiling window looks out over a stream and simple garden. More wabi-sabi. That night we stay in Ginzan Onsen, a mountain village home to dozens of hot-spring resorts. We’re served a multi-course feast of fish, meat, pickled fruit and fish roe, and then lie in steaming spring water overlooking a valley still shedding its deep drifts of winter snow.

The next day, after visiting the tranquil Chūson-ji Temple, remnants of a samurai’s planned utopia 900 years ago, Maynard wants to show me a part of the country that deeply affected how he feels about Japan and his place in it. We drive along the eastern coast of Tōhoku, where the 2011 earthquake and tsunami destroyed towns and killed thousands. Maynard and his bandmates spent weeks shovelling debris and helping people move back into their homes, then performed concerts to fundraise in support of those efforts.

Helping was reflexive, he says. It didn’t cross his mind to do anything else. “It reinforced my love for the country. When you share really dark times with people – and you know this as a journalist – you grow closer. Everything changed after that, from the way I write music to the way I look at life.”

Two men eating Japanese food. The shot was taken through glass from outside the restaurant.
Maynard (left) and Michael noodle over a soba lunch in Yamagata
A small island covered in trees with a rocky outcropping in the foreground.
Maynard (left) and Michael noodle over a soba lunch in Yamagata
Pine-covered islands dot Matsushima Bay.

The best friendships are those that don’t diminish with time and distance. Years can pass, but reconnecting feels like taking a favourite record off the shelf. Your perspective might change, the music might even sound different, but you still treasure the pleasure it brings.

When we were younger, Maynard and I would stay up late and talk about what we’d do when we left school and went out into the world. We do the same on this trip, but now there’s less life ahead and more to look back on. During these conversations, I return many times to questions of Maynard’s identity and home. What he loves about Japan and Japanese people, he says, is their appreciation for nuance, for the grey between the black and the white, where he is most comfortable. “There are so many beautiful parts of Japanese culture that I want to learn from and take part in,” he says.

We spend our final morning together on Fukuura Island, one of many pine-covered islands in Matsushima Bay, close to Sendai. Maynard says the place reminds him of the Thousand Islands dotting the St. Lawrence River near Kingston. Fukuura Island is connected to the mainland by a long footbridge. Crossing it, we are stopped by a group of women who recognize Maynard and ask for a photo. They apologize for interrupting him. He says he’s glad they did.

As the women walk away, Maynard says that when he travels to Canada, he tells people here he’s “going home.” In Canada, preparing to return to Japan, he says the same thing. “Is it not possible to have two homes?” he asks, clearly hoping the answer is yes. For him, it seems that it is.


Listen to writer Michael Petrou and Monkey Majik's Maynard Plant's interview on CBC's Ottawa Morning.

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