Bands gather under Hokkaido’s rising sun

by James Hadfield

“Go for it, guys!” the staff on the wristband checkpoint shout as people file past. “Have a good time!” As the day wears on, they grow more enthusiastic. High-fives are exchanged, with the more ebullient customers even getting a hug.

You know you’re a long way from Tokyo when the people tasked with a job only marginally more entertaining than toilet duty seem to be having the most fun. Such is the case at Rising Sun Rock Festival, a two-day extravaganza where goodwill is taken to occasionally ridiculous extremes.

Held in the fields surrounding Ishikari New Port, 15 km outside Sapporo, the northernmost of Japan’s major music festivals is a singular beast. What started in 1999 as an all-night event with a single stage now spans seven areas and pulls in around 120 acts — but it hasn’t lost the intimate feel you’d expect from an event a quarter of the size. Putting even the nocturnal shenanigans of Fuji Rock to shame, all but two of the stages keep running until dawn on the second night, meaning that — weather permitting — the “rising sun” bit is a given.

The site itself is just large enough to prevent the sounds of each stage from bleeding together, but small enough to stop you from getting bunions. It’s dotted with mirror-ball sculptures, art installations and hay bales, the latter providing good perches for the more diminutive audience members. Other intriguing touches include two rudimentary convenience stores and a Joysound karaoke stage, where an 8-year-old boy in a leather jacket all but upstaged dad-rockers Mr. Children as they blared away nearby.

Unusually among Japanese festivals, it’s possible to see the stages from many of the camping areas, but a rigid order prevails. Campers must first go to a reception desk and have their berth allocated, a bit like getting seats at the theater. What feels anal at first quickly makes sense when navigating the neat rows of tents in the wee hours of the morning. It’d never work in other countries, of course, but then that’s part of the charm.

Charming, too, is the rather orderly brand of lunacy practiced here. During punk rocker Ken Yokohama ‘s headlining set on Friday night, a sizable contingent of the audience started running in a circle around the sound desk, high-fiving everyone they passed. Why? Because they could, presumably. Similar eruptions of moronic fun could be seen throughout the event, all of them so unthreatening it was hard not to giggle at the spectacle.

This year’s Rising Sun, held on Aug. 15 and 16, marked the festival’s 10th anniversary and boasted a particularly strong line-up, including some acts who’d performed at the inaugural event.

Denki Groove don’t seem to have changed much in the intervening period apart from their expanded waistlines. Their dance anthems may sound like Underworld with a taste bypass, but they went down a storm on the first night of the festival, helped by a guest turn from former member and Sapporo local Yoshinori “Marin” Sunahara.

Shiina Ringo was only 20 when she played here in 1999, and she’s come a long way since. Appearing not once but twice this year, her first slot with rock band Tokyo Jihen ticked all the right boxes without really ruffling any feathers. That was saved for the second night of the festival, when her hotly anticipated solo set succeeded in wrong-footing just about everyone there. With only a piano and a string quartet for company — and not a guitar in sight — she performed a series of elegant, stripped-down reworkings of her back catalog, plus an affecting take on Burt Bacharach’s “Alfie.”

In an inspired bit of timetabling, Mr. Children were given an early evening slot on the main stage, leaving posthardcore magpies Zazen Boys as the de facto headliners — a bit like scheduling Coldplay under fiddly funk-metal band Primus. No prizes for guessing which band was the more interesting, or which attracted the larger crowd.

As fun as the big-hitters were, some of the highlights came earlier in the day. V ∞ redoms used a postlunch slot to rehearse alternatives to the drum-circle shtick they’ve been flogging for the past eight or nine years, to intermittently brilliant effect. Those in search of something slightly more sedate got their fix from Akiko Yano and Hajime Chitose , two generations of female artists who drew huge crowds for their idiosyncratic warbling.

Though relegated to the most far-flung stage on the site, Oki Dub Ainu Band were worth the trek. Joined by the female vocal group Marewrew, their ethnic-dub fusion made for the most sublime moment of the entire festival. On another stage, meanwhile, Vola & the Oriental Machine supplied what was undoubtedly the most energetic, their febrile postpunk jams sounding like Bloc Party might if they knew how to enjoy themselves.

Later on, Yura Yura Teikoku ‘s midnight set brought the main stage closest to a Hendrix moment, the snake-hipped Shintaro Sakamoto firing off a succession of increasingly synapse-frying guitar solos in between catchy psychedelic pop ditties. Rovo promised to take things to an even higher level after that, but their seemingly never-ending set became a bit of a yawn.

Things grew a little hazy after that (was that really an enormous walking condom near the main stage?), but Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra were on hand to bring things back into focus in time for sunrise on Sunday morning. As they hammered out a succession of finely-honed swing-ska tunes, it was hard to imagine anyone else playing this slot — or, at least, doing it as well.

“We’ve played festivals in Europe and America, but Rising Sun is the best in the world,” declared baritone saxophonist Atsushi Yanaka toward the end of the set. In any other circumstances, it’d sound like a throwaway comment. In this case, though, he might be on to something.

Paint and loincloths — the fest fans speak up

Kazuhiro , Sapporo

What’s the deal with the costume?

I’ve had it for a long time, but I haven’t had a chance to wear it. This being a festival and all, I thought I might as well crack it out.

Who have you come to see this year?

Honestly, I was really looking forward to seeing Kiyoshiro Imawano (who was forced to cancel owing to health problems). It’s a shame that he couldn’t make it.

So who have you enjoyed the most?

Dohatsuten. I actually came on stage with them wearing a fundoshi (loincloth) at the start.

Wang “Orange” Chun-Wen , Taipei (right)

What brings you all the way to Hokkaido?

My friend told me that the Japanese bands playing here were good, and because it’s the 10th anniversary, there are lots of good artists coming. Plus, it’s pretty cheap. I love Sapporo, too.

Which bands did you come to see?

I’m listening to a lot of these bands for the first time, actually, but I’ve been looking forward to Ginnan Boyz and Denki Groove.

Takeru Amano , Tokyo

What do you do?

I’m a painter. I did this (points to the enormous painting behind him).

Have you come to Rising Sun before?

Yes, this is my second time painting here.

What are the good points about this festival?

Lots of stuff. It gets more interesting every year, so I feel like I want to try to make the next year even better. Fuji Rock is also good, but this one’s different: it has more of a handmade feel.