As one of the most popular bands in the country today, the Itchyworms are no stranger to touring and packing venues wherever they perform. With familiar hits like “Akin Ka Na Lang,” “Love Team,” “Penge Naman Ako N’yan,” and the immortal “Beer,” they’re also bound to have their songs sung back to them by the crowds who attend their shows anywhere in the country.
But what if they gigged in a foreign land where hardly anyone speaks nor understands their language?
The seasoned rock quintet – composed of Jugs Jugueta (lead vocals, guitar), Jazz Nicolas (lead vocals, drums), and Kelvin Yu (bass, vocals), plus new members Mikey Amistoso (also of Ciudad and Hannah+Gabi on keys and acoustic guitar) and Weckl Mercado (lead guitar) – recently embarked on a short tour of Japan in early October. They played three shows across three nights: at Live House Gattaca in Kyoto on October 6, and at The Blarney Stone and Sengokudaitouryou in Osaka on October 7 and 8 respectively. The Blarney Stone gig was part of this year’s Kansai Music Conference and was scheduled first, and then a friend got them booked for the Kyoto show and a second Osaka show — turning their Japan stint into a mini-tour of both neighboring cities.
It wasn’t the Itchyworms’ first time in Japan – the band performed at the Tokyo Beyond Festival in November last year – but for this tour, they traveled without their usual crew of techs and roadies. They took trains and buses lugging all their gear and set it up themselves, while their manager Julie Pacanas and some friends and loved ones helped with live sound engineering, selling band merch, and documenting the tour.
“It was fun figuring out quick but cheap ways to get to the venues from our Airbnb,” says Amistoso, the band’s “designated navigator.” “We initially booked a van to bring us back home [from Kyoto] but decided to cancel it because we wanted to live on the edge and experience the rush of making it safely and on time for the last train [to Osaka],” he narrates. “I had to be the killjoy and herd 11 people [to] make sure we all made it back home. Fortunately, we made it to the very last train with a few minutes to spare. It was very punk rock!”
“It was quite similar to our US tour earlier this year, wherein we didn’t have any crew,” adds Jugueta. “It helped that Japan’s railway system is so efficient. It was exciting and challenging to ‘go back to [our] roots’ [of commuting to shows without a crew], but I guess that’s part of the experience.”
The language barrier wasn’t a problem either with audiences for all three shows consisting of a good mix of Filipinos and Japanese, “plus some Americans, Africans, and Irish as well,” says Jugueta. “We played our Filipino songs 95% of the time, and they loved it!” the singer exclaims. “It really proves that music is universal.” At one show, a Japanese fan even went onstage and sang a Nihongo version of “Beer.” The band also shares that Chizuko, a fan from Osaka who briefly lived in Manila and caught the ‘Worms back in 2006, attended all three gigs. “Japanese people think very highly of artists: musicians, visual artists, poets, dancers, singers, etc.,” he adds. “ I think they appreciate music differently from how Filipinos appreciate music. I think we’re so lucky to have this opportunity to share our music and Filipino music and culture with them.”
Still, says Amistoso, “A huge percentage of the audience were Filipino, and a lot of them came from faraway prefectures in Japan like Nagoya. In one Osaka show, so many Filipinos came that the venue had to turn away customers because the place was so packed and they were concerned about fire hazards. The doorman was shookt. I overheard him say, ‘You will be the last customer, nobody can come in anymore.’ ‘Are you here to catch the Itchyworms? Wow, are they this popular?’”
The Itchyworms also enjoyed the experience of playing in small venues designed for live music, or what Amistoso calls “real performance spaces.” “Their venues are like little halls,” recounts Nicolas. “No sit-down tables. The bar is outside and if you wanna get a drink, you go out and you can bring it back inside. Everyone’s just standing, dancing, and having fun.”
“You’re right there in the trenches with your audience, and it’s just thrilling,” adds Jugueta. “We haven’t had the chance to do that ever since the pandemic, ever since Route 196 closed down and (longtime lead guitarist) Chino (Singson) left for Canada (in 2022).”
As tiring and as taxing as it was, the band enjoyed and appreciated the touring experience immensely, as it made them closer and tighter as a unit – especially with the recent addition of Amistoso and Mercado to their lineup – as well as more confident to present their music to international audiences. “We had a lot of ‘punk rock’ experience with Chino in the early days, and we just had to do it again with Mikey and Weckl,” says Jugueta. “When you watch a band, you see them [for] one hour onstage. But what you don’t see are the hours of rehearsals, van rides, plane rides, train rides, interviews, etc. together. These are the experiences I treasure.”
“We have no grand plans of being popular abroad,” closes the singer. “This ‘experiment’ of applying in international music festivals started out as an excuse to travel out of the country as a band. But it really does feel good to have foreigners appreciate our music. It makes you feel legit as a musician.”