People in Japan have the luxury of living in the world’s second-largest music market. This means artists cater to customers in the form of a surfeit of concerts and festivals that run the gamut of musical tastes from rock to electronic to jazz to classical and world music. Music festival culture really took off here in the late ’90s with the birth of Fuji Rock and has meshed nicely with Japan’s traditional summer festival scene — adding another facet to the ancient-modern dynamic that keeps the nation so intriguing.
Fuji Rock Festival
After last year’s bill topped by guitar rockers the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beck and co., this year’s 22nd Fuji Rock Festival takes a more progressive turn. The opening Friday of the three-day summer music festival event at Naeba Ski Resort sees Damon Albarn’s virtual act Gorillaz headlining the main Green Stage. Promoter Smash’s Johnnie Fingers says lining them up was something of a coup. “Though they have a new album [Humanz],” he notes, “they hadn’t planned to do festivals this year, so we’re very happy. Their appearance at Fuji Rock will be the only festival they play this year.”
Two more main acts also chose Fuji Rock for some of their only festival appearances of 2017, a sign of the event’s key position in the world’s second-largest music market. “We were pleased Bjork agreed as she will only play two festivals this year, Fuji Rock being one,” Fingers adds. “Aphex Twin will also only do a few shows this year and there is a lot of interest as to what kind of show he’ll do.” In a show of his enduring legend in Japan, the British electronic music innovator tops the bill ahead of LCD Soundsystem, something you would be unlikely to see in another country.
Acts making a welcome return include Kiwi songstress Lorde, Irish rockers The Strypes and drama-filled English outfit The XX, while anticipation is building for appearances by eclectic American DJ Diplo’s Major Lazer, South London singer-songwriter Sampha, Irish electronic music producer Eden, ironic indie rocker Father Misty and crossover country artist Sturgill Simpson.
As usual, in addition to the main stages, as much fun will be had in ancillary spaces like the Palace of Wonder and reconfigured Orange Cafe, which provides another needed covered space amid the buckets of rain that vent from the heavens above Niigata Prefecture.
- Date: July 28-30
- Location: Naeba Ski Resort, Niigata Pref.
- Tickets: ¥19,000 (1 day) ¥36,000 (2 days) ¥43,000 (3 days)
The urban summer music festival alternative, Summer Sonic this year offers distinctly different approaches on Saturday and Sunday—it’s almost as if the legacy of promoter Creativeman’s Punkspring/Popspring double header lives on through Summer Sonic. Punters at the Tokyo and Osaka mirror editions can choose their preferred genres by day.
Saturday in Tokyo (Sunday in Osaka) seems intended to draw fans of pop-centric sounds with headliners at the main stages taking the form of EDM giant Calvin Harris and hip-hop/pop crew Black Eyed Peas. (Fans of Fergie will be disappointed as the “M.I.L.F. $” star won’t be rejoining Taboo, will.i.am and Apl.de.ap. in their encore Summer Sonic appearance.)
Rockers will have to head to other nearby stages, where English group Kasabian and France’s Phoenix will be the main draws alongside acts including techno duo Justice (also French) and English progressive trance trio Above & Beyond.
Sunday in Tokyo (Saturday in Osaka), on the other hand, tilts toward guitar bands, with Dave Grohl’s indefatigable Foo Fighters topping the bill. Warming up the stage for the post-grunge warhorse are domestic masked metalists Man With A Mission and UK stoner/blues rock duo Royal Blood.
On the other stages, Punkspring veterans Sum 41, Good Charlotte, Pennywise and Newfound Glory will have the moshpits forming in front of the Sonic Stage all day long. In a mirror image of Saturday, pop-tronic sounds are featured in the form of acts including Kesha and ’80s boy-toy Rick Astley.
For the sleepless, the Tokyo edition offers the traditional massive Friday night pre-party in the form of Sonicmania. It’s a formidable bill in itself with Liam Gallagher, Kasabian, Justice, Orbital and !!! receiving backing from domestic chart-toppers Perfume and Denki Groove.
- Date: August 19-20
- Tokyo: Zozo Marine Stadium & Makuhari Messe, Chiba Pref. Osaka: Maishima Sonic Park
- Tokyo Tickets: ¥16,500 (1 day) ¥30,500 (2 days), Sonicmania ¥11,500. Osaka Tickets: ¥14,000 (1 day) ¥25,500 (2 days)
Best of the Rest
Sandwiched in between Fuji Rock and Summer Sonic are Japan’s two biggest domestic-focused rock summer muic festivals.
As Japan’s music market focuses more on native acts, Rock in Japan Fes (Japanese). grows from strength to strength. The event, at a seaside park in Ibaraki Prefecture, is now a sprawling two-weekend affair that in 2016 drew some 270,000 punters over four days. The product of Rockin On magazine, RIJ features the gamut of chart-topping Japanese acts from veteran skronk rockers Zazen Boys and ’60s revivalists Love Psychedelico to anime smash Your Name soundtrack writers Radwimps and kawaii favorite Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. The event is set for Aug 5-6 and 11-12 at Hitachi Seaside Park.
Rising Sun Rock Festival (Japanese) gets consistently strong reviews for its scenic location in the Hokkaido countryside. Debuting in 1999, the event offers a somewhat more indie-minded lineup ranging from rockers Chatmonchy to funky jam band Overground Acoustic Underground. The action goes down Aug. 11-12 at a special stage in the port of Ishikari, Otaru.
After the rock festival crunch comes a number of music events catering to more specific tastes and lifestyles. Traditionally held on the third weekend of August, Earth Celebration is a respite from busy modern life hosted by the legendary Kodo drummers. From Aug. 18-20, the muscled taiko drummers will welcome guests including punk group Brahman to join them in three nights of concerts at the atmospheric harbor of tiny Ogi Port on Sado Island in the Sea of Japan.
On the weekend of Sep. 1-3, Tokyo Jazz (Japanese) sees titans from keyboardist Chick Corea to guitarist Al Di Meola to pianist Yusuke Yamashita converge on Tokyo for three days of sonic exploration in the soaring spaces of the Tokyo International Forum.
Electronic music fans look to the weekend of Sep. 16-18, when two very different festivals will have feet moving both in and out of town. In Odaiba on Tokyo Bay, Ultra Japan welcomes stars from old schoolers like Carl Cox to young EDM chart toppers such as The Chainsmokers. The three-day festival will also be adding a new “Live Stage,” where Empire of the Sun, Pendulum and Porter Robinson are set to perform.
If Ultra is evidence of how commercial the global the EDM scene has become, Labyrinth on the same weekend is a symbol of Japan’s homegrown party scene. The connoisseurs’ techno event held at the Naeba Ski Resort where Fuji Rock takes place recently announced that it’s intentionally downsizing to maintain its intimate quality. It will no doubt sell out even without announcing its lineup.
Rock Fests with the Kids
So you’ve made the bold decision to bring your little ones to Fuji Rock or Summer Sonic. What to expect?
At Fuji, organizers Smash, aiming for a broad demographic, do a pretty good job at catering to families. There is an excellent Kids Land that provides private space for changing little ones’ diapers, as well as climbing sets, a bouncing net and an impressive log swing for intrepid young explorers. Fuji Rock also organizes instrument making classes and face painting to keep kids occupied. Long distances between stages must be negotiated over muddy paths, making strollers a heavy lift. But the burden is lightened by the fact that children enter Fuji Rock free up to age 15.
Summer Sonic is both easier to reach and far simpler to negotiate with a stroller, as you’ll be spending 90 percent of your time on level concrete floors. The organizers Creativeman have also significantly upgraded their Kids Club, with a bouncy house, slides and ball pool for tiny ones. Older kids are catered to with a silent disco, dance workshop and performances catering to younger sensibilities by groups like the Tempura Kidz.
Parents considering a music fest should also think about the Earth Celebration, which begins with a shinkansen and boat ride to far-flung Sado Island. Once on the island, there is a vibrant flea market, and numerous music and crafts workshops for kids — in addition to the spectacular taiko drum concerts sure to impress seen-it-all tweens. The whole family can also enjoy walking or biking around Ogi Port’s atmospheric lanes or head to one of the island’s attractive beaches.
Another good one (this year at least) is Wild Bunch Fest in Yamaguchi. Unfortunately, it also happens to be the same weekend as Summer Sonic (and it’s already sold out as well anyway).