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Friday, June 29, 2012

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Summer festivities: A crowd watches a band at last year's Fuji Rock Festival. Japan isn't suffering from a shortage of music festivals this year, and they cater to a variety of musical tastes. ALEXIS WUILLAUME


Festival season in Japan gets the mercury rising

Special to The Japan Times

Across Japan, the June rainy season is about to give way to summer's searing heat that kicks in come July. That means one thing to music fans: Festival season is getting into full swing.

News photo
Starting early: Large music festivals in Japan sometimes provide services that cater to families. ALEXIS WUILLAUME

This year, The Japan Times picks out the best of the bunch — whether it's Kazuyoshi Kushida, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu or Kraftwerk that gets your mercury soaring.

The monsters

These extravaganzas on the festival circuit have been drumming up publicity via social media for months with line-up announcements, and each one grabs annual attendances of more than 100,000.

The first to take place will be Fuji Rock Festival (July 27-29). Since relocating in 1999 to its present home of Naeba, Niigata Prefecture, new stages have been added regularly to the venue, making it Japan's largest festival. This year's main draw is Britain's Radiohead, who will headline the final day's program on Sunday night. In fact, the headlining slots are pretty much a U.K. rock lover's dream (though I wish Blur or Pulp could've made the bill) with former Oasis singer Liam Gallagher's new band Beady Eye, and the recently reformed Stone Roses anchoring Friday's lineup; and The Specials and Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds taking the main Green Stage on Saturday. It's unlikely that Liam and Noel will cross paths, as the brothers are reportedly not on speaking terms — but if there's ever a chance for drama it's more likely at Fuji.

One act to definitely check out is Jack White, formerly of the White Stripes, on Sunday. Despite critical acclaim for his work in the White Stripes, The Dead Weather and The Raconteurs, it was his solo debut, "Blunderbuss," that earned him his first No. 1 spot on the U.S. Billboard charts.

Many Fuji Rock veterans will say, however, that the festival isn't about the headliners — it's about the smaller stages. Sakanaction, Purity Ring, Gossip, Goth-Trad, Moritz Von Oswald Trio, and At The Drive-In are all must-sees on this writer's itinerary.

Rock in Japan Festival (Aug. 3-5) is the next mammoth festival after Fuji, a showcase of solely Japanese acts (unlike the other two monster fests, the website doesn't have an English version). Fans should be happy to see the return of hard rockers 9mm Parabellum Bullet, and alt-rock duo Quruli, the electrifying AA=, and rock royals Dragon Ash among a host of other national heroes. Names to note this year on the pop end of the spectrum are Chara, Yuki of Judy And Mary fame and the ever-popular Perfume. Once again taking place at the sprawling Hitachi Seaside Park in Ibaraki Prefecture, the line-up for this festival might be the best insight into what's currently playing on the stereos of high school kids nationwide.

The final monster to take place will be Summer Sonic(Aug. 18-19). If Fuji Rock can be dubbed the "nature festival," then Summer Sonic is clearly its urban counterpart. Taking place concurrently in the Tokyo area and Osaka, it caters to fans of the biggest names in both the international and domestic music scenes. Pop star Rihanna and California punks Green Day are set to headline, with popular rock acts New Order and Franz Ferdinand also playing. Though an outdoor performance might sound better, the ethereal Sigur Ros should put on a good show despite being on the indoor Mountain Stage performing material from new album, "Valtari." Australian sensation Gotye and Canadian buzz artist Grimes are also must-see acts due to their popularity overseas.

Finally, taking the spotlight for the first time at the event (though she'll also be at Rock in Japan) is Harajuku princess and overnight sensation Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. Expect a crowd full of curious Green Day fans for that one.

Jazz & classical

Of course not all festivals are frantic, sweaty affairs. The soothing sounds of the country's jazz and classical events are just as likely to cool you down on a hot summer night (unless, of course, you're at a lively Soil & "Pimp" Sessions jazz gig).

Taking the lead in this field is Sapporo City Jazz (July 7-Aug. 23), which will again take over Hokkaido's capital for more than a month of music. The majority of the festivities will take place at the striking White Rock Music Tent in Odori Park in the center of Sapporo, but be sure to head to the North Jam Session concerts where there'll be performances by jazzy favorites such as Juju, the always charismatic Crazy Ken Band and disco and R&B singer Cheryl Lynn.

The Saito Kinen Festival Matsumoto (Aug. 4-Sept. 7) in Nagano Prefecture is the top pick for classical-music concerts. Fans of these particular proceedings will be relieved to know that although celebrated conductor Seiji Ozawa will not be able to directly lead any of the performances on stage due to health concerns, he was able to take the mantle of music director for the highlight: "Stravinsky: A Soldier's Tale." The work is a collaboration with Kazuyoshi Kushida, artistic director of the Matsumoto Performing Arts Center, who will also participate as an actor in the production itself. Other highlights include a chamber concert featuring Yu Kosuge on piano, and the orchestra concerts, which will have the complete Saito Kinen Orchestra on full display under the baton of British conductor Daniel Harding.

Jazz lovers will see the summer end on a high note with the Tokyo Jazz Festival (Sept. 7-9), three days of smooth reverberations spread out over three venues across the capital. Notables this year include Take 6, Ben E. King and Burt Bacharach, as well as the sultry numbers of Esperanza Spalding and the captivating Balkan Beat Box boogieing with Japan's own Soil & "Pimp" Sessions. Or dress chic and strut on down to the Cotton Club to spend your evenings taking in different forms of jazz from around the globe. Not a bad way to spend those final balmy days of the summer season.

Special shows

The sheer volume of festivals in Japan can be a bit overwhelming, and sometimes it takes something extra special to attract new fans. So, the following events don't fit into one single category of musical experience, but are well worth checking out if possible.

The not-so-subtely named No Nukes (July 7-8) at Makuhari Messe in Chiba Prefecture has been put together by musical powerhouse Ryuichi Sakamoto as a way of protesting the country's current reliance on nuclear power. Sakamoto has corralled some impressive names for the show, including the members of his own Yellow Magic Orchestra teaming up with Keigo Oyamada (aka Cornelius) and Ren Takada and Tomohiko Gondo of synthpop collective pupa. Sakamoto will also be joining forces with Reichi Nakaido (aka Chabo) and Tortoise Matsumoto as they make up the Kiyoshiro Imawano Special session, another collaboration not to be missed. Also taking the stage will be Asian Kung-Fu Generation, Akihiro Namba of Hi-Standard fame and Tokyo-based duo Hifana. However the booking that will really turn heads at this one is influential German group Kraftwerk. This is essential summer listening for all music geeks.

The Kuniumi Music Festival (July 15) is set to take place on spectacular Awaji Island in Hyogo Prefecture. The line-up for this compact festival is as impressive as the surroundings, with respected hip-hop crew Tha Blue Herb and festival favorites Overground Acoustic Underground leading the show and supported by locals Danytime and Shinkeman, the uplifting soundscapes of Kyoto-based Nabowa and DJ sets from quality international acts such as Britain's Appleblim and Germany's club Berghain resident Marcel Fengler.

The last of these special festivals is Soul Beat Asia (Sept. 8-9), held in Aichi Prefecture with the stunning Toyota Big Bridge as its backdrop. The event does the venue justice, with a formidable program including the internationally loved Oki Dub Ainu Band and the punk-rock-influenced Chinese folk group Hanggai. Also at Soul Beat are the 15-member Pascals and their brand of truly affecting, albeit quirky, indie pop. Make it to this gem if you can.


This brings us to the realm of the electronic. Dance music enthusiasts will lament the absence of both Taicoclub Camps and the regular outdooor installment of Metamorphose this summer, however these picks should keep even the most uncompromising of ravers satisfied until they retreat to club dancefloors once again in the chillier months.

First up is Freedommune 0 A New Zero (Aug. 11), the brainchild of Naohiro Ukawa, founder of the studio and live-streaming website Dommune. The team is back with a vengeance as their first excursion out of the studio was scuppered due to a torrential downpour last year. The line-up hasn't been released yet, but based on last year's proposed bill and the kinds of artists that support Ukawa's endeavor, it's safe to say there'll be some quality beats. Oh, and just to be on the safe side, this year's event will be indoors at Chiba's Makuhari Messe conference center.

Mega-rave Wire (Aug. 25) will take place again within the colossal Yokohama Arena in Kanagawa Prefecture. With a huge line-up of hard-hitting techno DJ's and producers from the international dance-music circuit, this party has established itself as one of Japan's premier electronic-music events. This year sees Robert Hood, Frank Muller and Detroit-techno favorite Derrick May manning the decks, as well as Japanese techno-pop pioneers Denki Groove and German duo Format:B performing live sets.

Finally, September sees the twilight of festival season and the arrival of The Labyrinth (Sept 15-17). Set in the valleys of Naeba, Niigata Prefecture, this remarkable party is a tour de force in the electronic-music scene, known for the freshest lineups, meticulous programming and its unparalleled Funktion One sound system. No rosters have been released yet, but Labyrinth fans tend to go for the party — the acts are always just an impressive bonus and a worthy end to another summer of grooving.

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