Every year, social media pages are splashed with colorful images of feathers, powder and bacchanal–which could only mean one thing: Carnival has arrived. I’ve traveled to over eight Caribbean countries over the years to experience the joy of touching the road, fetin’ till the sun rises, and covering my body in oil and paint as a form of defiant celebration. Recently, my love for Carnival led me to a place I never imagined: Japan. Though I’ve visited the country numerous times–having fallen in love years ago with its neon lit buildings stacked with bars and restaurants, cherry blossom-filled parks and ancient temples, during this visit I was here to, surprisingly, “take ah wine.” Soca in Japan’s inaugural weekend celebration, spearheaded by Kegon Toussaint and his team, took place September 15-18 and included fêtes around Tokyo and even a traditional “pretty mas” Caribbean carnival — complete with vibrant costumes and all the traditional regalia.
Over 300 travelers from various parts of Japan as well as New York, Atlanta, Paris, Los Angeles and beyond traveled to the electric streets of Tokyo and verdant countryside to celebrate Caribbean culture. Acclaimed soca artists in attendance included Nailah Blackman (who performed her road favorite hit “Come Home to Me”), Jadel and Mical Teja.
Why Japan of all places? “There’s a small but growing diaspora of Caribbean people living in Japan for reasons such as work, family, or simply because they love Japan,” says Toussaint. “Although many of these Caribbeans are happy in Japan, at some point they do miss their culture back in the Caribbean. Soca in Japan is creating a platform for them to at least get a taste of their culture and also giving them the opportunity to build their own Caribbean business in Japan.”
After an 11-hour flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo’s Haneda–and a prelude to what was to come with Delta One’s delicious chef-curated Japanese menu onboard, I kicked off the weekend of festivities by checking into my favorite boutique hotel in the city, TRUNK. Located in the trendy and bustling neighborhood of Shibuya, the 15-room retreat was just steps away from where most of the parties for the soca-filled weekend would occur. First up was Soca Magic, an evening fête that featured a DJ lineup including LA-based DJ Willy Wonka and DJ Daiky. The cosplay themed party was full of characters, and the dance floor came alive with people dressed in costumes, singing in unison to soca classics.
The next day, it was time to get “dutty.” Unlike the Caribbean tradition of waking up before the sun, Soca in Japan’s J’ouvert kicked off in the early afternoon with crowds gathering on a grassy field outside of Tokyo. Patrick “The Hypeman” Anthony – an internationally acclaimed MC from Trinidad & Tobago – got the crowd hype with paint and powder. “I was truly taken aback when I first saw the reaction of soca music in the club at Soca Magic. My heart was full of joy seeing soca lovers all the way in the far east smiling, jumping and wining to soca music,” he says. “I traveled all the way from the city of Port of Spain, Trinidad to Tokyo to witness that soca music knows no race or color or time zone. Soca will reach all corners of the globe and change the world for good.”
Other events included the Rum N Bass party, and Island Nations, where soca superstar Nailah Blackman performed her hits to a magnetic crowd. “Performing in Japan had to be one of the most unique experiences I’ve ever had, especially coming from the Caribbean and seeing how much they love our culture and enjoy it just as much as we do–all on the other side of the world,” Blackman shares. “It was an absolutely phenomenal experience discovering Japanese culture, seeing the similarities and how we are so very different. It was a euphoric feeling for me. I can’t explain how much I love that place.”
On Carnival Monday, we headed out to Chiba, about an hour and a half outside of Tokyo, ready to hit “the road.” A truck blasting music, various vendors selling food and drinks, and even a Japanese steelpan band greeted us. I was also excited to see a line for doubles – a handheld snack of fried bread and chickpeas that is many people’s hangover and hunger cure in Trinidad.
I’ve been to Carnival celebrations in Barbados, Trinidad, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Anguilla and more. To witness a group of people from around the world raise their voices to the sound of soca in the Japanese countryside was a moment I won’t forget. It reiterated to me not only the unifying power of Carnival, but of Black culture and its ability to influence every facet of the globe, from our fashion and music, to our innate swag. “Although Japan is traditionally a conservative society, there are many Japanese who just want to, as we say, free up and let loose. They want the openness of Caribbean culture,” says Toussaint. “Some of them frequently visit Caribbean carnivals every year. And for those who can’t afford to visit the Caribbean, because it’s quite expensive from Japan, they’re glued to social media learning everything they can about it.”
Apphia Pereira is a Trinidadian lawyer and artist who has been teaching English in Japan for four years. Of her experience with Soca in Japan, she says, “It was exciting because we are so underrepresented in this country, from not having an ambassador or consulate, to seeing only one association of Caribbean culture represented. I feel like having such a huge, successful event that showcased not just one but many subsets of our heritage was fulfilling. As a person who loves both my culture and Japan, seeing the fusion and the appreciation that Japanese people showed was heartwarming and thrilling. I can’t wait to see what’s next for us.”
Things to Know If You Go
Soca in Japan 2024
Next year’s event will occur in September. Follow @socainjpan on Instagram for an official announcement on dates and how to purchase a package.
How to Get There
Flights to Japan during the fall are relatively cheaper than the high season in March and April, but regardless, it’s always best to book your flight early. Delta, my airline of choice for this trip, has nonstop flights from Atlanta, Los Angeles, Seattle, Detroit and Minneapolis to Haneda airport, which is about a 25-minute ride from central Tokyo. A major perk of flying from Los Angeles is the new, exclusive Delta One check-in at LAX’s Terminal 3, where I was greeted by a member of their Elite services team and taken through a private TSA check-in and even given a ride in a Porsche truck on the tarmac straight to the plane’s gate. In Haneda, the Sky Club also includes a made-to-order noodle bar and Japanese sake, and in the sky, the cabin’s 180-degree flat-bed seat and attentive service ensured that the jet lag upon arrival was not too bad.
How to Get Around
Tokyo’s trains are extremely safe and clean. Buy a SUICA card in Haneda airport, which you can add money to and use for public transportation. Taxis and Ubers are also readily available.
Where to Stay
Most Soca in Japan night events and city tours occur near Shibuya. I recommend TRUNK on Cat Street not only for its proximity to events, but also because it functions as a co-working space to catch up on emails, meet up with a friend for a drink, or stay caffeinated when jet lag hits. There are also two restaurants onsite, and an outdoor courtyard where you can grab a bike to explore the city.