Standing in a dark forest clearing at the foothills of mountains in a snowless mid-summer ski resort, I am surrounded by tens of thousands of people, mostly Japanese.
It’s been at least half an hour of waiting and my feet are already aching from three days straight of dancing, walking or just standing around.
That’s when I wasn’t stretched out on grass or bundled in a tent with nothing but a sleeping bag to cushion me from the uneven ground.
Finally the stage lights up and Radiohead begins to play a two hour long show as the grand finale to the Fuji Rock Festival, the annual live music extravaganza in Japan.
It has taken two planes, two trains and a bus to get here from mid-winter Wellington. As soon as Thom Yorke starts singing, goosebumps creep over my sunburned arms and I know the journey was worth it.
Radiohead and 1980s Manchester act the Stone Roses headlined alongside Elvis Costello, Gossip, Jack White, Ray Davies from the Kinks and the Gallagher brothers from Oasis. I was one of the few Westerners amongst 140,000 people attending 2012’s annual Fuji Rock Music Festival.
Held at the end of each July in Naeba Ski Field, an hour and a half on the Shinkansen bullet train out of Tokyo at Yuzawa, Niigata, Fuji Rock first operated at the base of Mount Fuji in 1997 and kept its name when it was relocated to Naeba, where festival-goers can camp on the adjacent golf course or stay in nearby hotels.
Set up like a woodland wonderland, the seven stages are separated by twenty minute walks over streams, through stretches of forest and along boardwalks with each plank hand-painted.
It is Asia’s extremely organised answer to Glastonbury, or a more reserved version of the United States festival Coachella. Fuji Rock aims to be the “world’s cleanest festival”. Smoking is almost banned and a pedantic recycling system is enforced, the many rubbish bins manned by festival staff who instruct people to separate the label, bottle and cap from water bottles for disposal in separate bins.
There are endless hours of entertainment on hand no matter what mood you’re in. You could lie under a tree listening to Japanese jazz-fusion, cool your feet in the stream, or take a twenty minute ride to a mountain’s peak on the world’s longest gondola, the Dragondola. Take a peaceful walk through the forest; eat ramen or grilled meat or tacos or gelato. Dance to Britpop in a marquee or walk along a fairy light-lined board walk to buy fresh baked bread stuffed with cheese to eat in a hammock. At the furthest end of the festival, around an hour’s walk from the entrance, there’s a drumming circle anyone could join in on, alongside a makeshift bowling alley and a bar serving up mojito cocktails.
The locals are well-prepared for each day at the festival, carting around tarpaulins and foldout camp chairs to sit on and backpacks full of water supplies and snack. An average outfit is outrageously patterned long johns underneath shorts with hiking boots or gumboots, a band t shirt, sun hat, and a patterned scarf or towel across the back of the neck.
While attending a music festival is always an act of endurance – waiting in line, being exposed to the sun, using portaloos and hand sanitizer for several days on end – Fuji Rock is as well run as the complex, high volume Japanese subway system you’ll take to get there. Around 17,000 of the music lovers attending sleep in tents situated near communal warm showers, separate for each sex, for those willing to wait in line about an hour at peak times to get clean.
The festival’s flushing portaloos are constantly replenished with toilet paper supplies and there are dozens of food stalls throughout the festival, with a wide range of reasonably priced food at around NZD$10 per dish. Heineken is a sponsor of the event and could be consumed anywhere on the site, a liberating fact that kept seems to keep drinking strangely under control.
Some people like to holiday at resorts, where their world is temporarily limited to the pleasures of sunshine, swimming, eating and drinking. Spending a vacation at a music festival is a similar experience for audiophiles – for three entire days nothing matters but which band to watch perform, choosing delicious snacks to eat from the international food stalls and tossing up between iced coffee or a cool beer.
A good level of physical fitness and a lot of patience is needed to make Fuji Rock enjoyable, not just because of the 35 degree heat but also the Eastern-style toilets that one needs to crouch over. Expect to walk for several hours a day and face long lines to access food and water at peak times, and to be rewarded with excellent sound quality in a beautiful environment.
Despite the international line-up of the festival, I have no trouble remembering where I am. Some of the Japanese food, such as rice and salmon for breakfast or whole fish flame grilled on sticks with their little mouths gaping, does not appeal. A gelato stand weirdly boasts tomato amongst the expected fruit and chocolate flavours. Some of the food stalls serve up incredible looking dishes but without a word of Japanese and no pictures to point to, ordering them is tough.
At times, I feel worlds away from the people I find myself alongside. But when the Stone Roses open their set with ‘I Wanna Be Adored’, it is clear from the joyous looks on the Japanese faces of my fellow-festival goers that music crosses all cultural barriers and the desire to dance is universal.
Originally published in the Melbourne Age