Recently named one of seven official Japan Heritage ambassadors by the country’s Agency for Cultural Affairs, Marty Friedman takes Guitar Aficionado on a tour of his favorite spots in Tokyo’s Shinjuku ward.
By Richard Bienstock | Photo: Yoshika Horita
From the late Eighties throughout the Nineties, Marty Friedman made a name for himself as one of the top soloists in hard rock and heavy metal, first as one half of the acrobatic instrumental shred duo Cacophony with Jason Becker, and later as the lead guitarist in Megadeth, with whom he recorded five studio albums, including the multiplatinum 1992 effort Countdown to Extinction.
But after a decade with Megadeth—a period that saw them enjoy an unprecedented level of mainstream success—Friedman abruptly quit the band at the dawn of the millennium to move to, of all places, Tokyo, and essentially start his music career all over again.
“I knew I wanted to play in the world of Japanese music, because even when I was in Megadeth that’s what I was listening to all the time,” Friedman explains today, relaxing on a couch in a conference room at his apartment building in Tokyo’s bustling Shinjuku ward. He gestures to his surroundings. “And I knew if I was here I could make that happen.”
Making his way in the world of Japanese music, however, was easier said than done. “I found that, in Japan at least, fans of Japanese music don’t really know anything outside of that,” he continues. “And Japanese fans of international acts—whether it’s Adele or Celine Dion or Metallica—really don’t pay much attention to the music being made in their own country. That means a fan of Japanese pop probably isn’t going to know too much about Megadeth. So when I got here and started playing in this world”—Friedman pauses, then laughs—“it was, ‘Who’s the gaijin with the long hair?’ ”
These days, very many people in Japan recognize the gaijin with the long hair. Friedman, now 54, has become known not only as a musician—he records and tours in support of his own instrumental guitar music; has played with artists like pop singer Aikawa Nanase and idol groups like Momoiro Clover Z and AKB48; and has acted as a songwriter for many others—but also as a mainstream TV personality. He estimates that over the past dozen years he has made “hundreds” of appearances on Japanese television (it helps that he was relatively fluent in the language before moving to Tokyo), beginning with his star turn on a show titled Hebi Meta-San, or “Mr. Heavy Metal.”
“That show was basically about taking the piss out of metal,” Friedman explains. “When it was first pitched to me, I was like, ‘I really don’t want to do this.’ But I tried it and I fell in love with the challenge. I would do things like morph a Japanese folk tune into Rush’s ‘2112,’ and it would have to make sense to both a traditional and a rock audience, and also tell a story. It was a lot of pressure but it actually made me a better guitarist.” After a successful run, the network created a spinoff starring Friedman, Rock Fujiyama, that ran for four seasons. “The thing is,” Friedman says with a hint of bemusement, “I had gone to Japan originally just to play Japanese music. But all of a sudden I found myself being handled by a big TV management company, and that opened every door in that world to me.”
So much so that Friedman has over the past decade often found himself placed in odd and varied service. Since moving to Japan in 2003, he has appeared on news programs, variety shows, and even a popular Japanese cooking series whose title translates to “It’s the Kitchen!”; been cast in national advertisements for everything from Fanta soda (for whom he was transformed into a manga character) to a Sumitomo Bank spot to beverage company Suntory’s “Healthiest People in Japan” campaign; hosted an NHK radio program; acted on TV shows and in movies; and written a weekly column on J-Pop music, among many other endeavors.
In fact, as he takes Guitar Aficionado on a walking tour through his Shinjuku neighborhood, he explains that it is his increasingly busy calendar that led him, at the last minute, to cancel our originally scheduled meeting one day earlier.
“I was asked to appear on this daytime talk show—it’s like a Regis and Kathie Lee–type thing—where they discuss the topics of the day,” Friedman says.
“They brought me on to talk about Donald Trump and his family. They wanted to know if I talk about that sort of thing with my musician friends overseas. And I was like, ‘If we were to talk about Trump, we wouldn’t talk about his wife or his kids. That’s like supermarket gossip-mag type of stuff!’ I was saying this and they were cracking up. And it actually got picked up in the news here. I love doing that type of stuff. It’s out of my element but it’s so much fun.”
The latest addition to Friedman’s growing résumé of non-musical endeavors is his being named one of seven official Japan Heritage ambassadors by the country’s Agency for Cultural Affairs. Serving alongside famous Japanese kabuki actors, chefs, and singers, as well as former New York Yankees outfielder Hideki Matsui, Friedman is tasked with promoting Japanese culture and history to the outside world in advance of the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. “To be chosen by the Japanese government to do such a thing is incredible,” Friedman says. “I’ll be doing a lot of programs here and also outside of the country to help introduce people to Japan. It’s perfect for me, because I’m an outsider who’s also an insider—I’m like a spy! So I know what outsiders are experiencing when they come here—that overwhelming feeling. And I can help with that.”
Friedman was more than happy to serve a similar ambassadorial role for Guitar Aficionado, chaperoning us through the streets of Shinjuku, from the massive and always bustling Shinjuku Station, recognized as the world’s busiest transport hub, to the neighborhood’s colorful Kabukicho (“Red Light”) district, to the incredibly narrow, bar-and-yakitori-restaurant-lined passageways of Omoide Yokocho, colorfully known as “Piss Alley.”
“Shinjuku is like the New York City of Japan,” he explains. “Things are happening 24 hours a day. There’s always something to do, and because of the train station, pretty much everybody who comes to Japan will find their way through here. It’s also a very convenient area to live in.”
During our walk, Friedman offers up a tourist’s primer on Tokyo, from where—and what—to eat, to where to shop, to where to get your music fix. First up, he says, “When you come to Shinjuku, plan to go shopping. You’ll find a lot of great things to wear, especially ‘rock band’–type clothes. There are several department stores in this area, like Marui and Isetan, with great men’s departments. I also recommend a store nearby in Shibuya called 109 Men’s. Shopping for clothes here is fantastic.” Friedman laughs. “Especially for guys who are not extremely tall…like myself! You don’t have to buy kid’s clothes. In Japan, I can find a lot of great things that fit.”
As we wind our way out of Piss Alley and into Shinjuku Station, Friedman leads us into the Odakyu department store, connected to the west side of the transit hub. With more than a dozen floors, Odakyu offers everything from restaurants to men’s and women’s clothing to furniture and home goods. The basement level, meanwhile, houses one of Japan’s famous depachika, essentially a massive food hall. “There are a bunch of depachika all over the city,” Friedman says as we descend downstairs.
“Another great one that’s maybe a little more upscale is nearby in the Keio department store.” The food halls, Friedman continues, “are more of a local thing than a place tourists go.”
We stroll past cases boasting wildly colorful sushi and sashimi, Japanese teas and spirits, and an incredible array of rice balls, dumplings, and skewered meats and fish, among other delicacies, before Friedman stops at a counter to purchase a few monaka, a bean-paste and mochi-based Japanese sweet. He promptly rips open the packaging and shares them with our entire party.