Summer means a lot of things in Japan: stifling heat and humidity, fireworks and the Bon holidays, nagashi-sōmen noodles and chilled barley tea. For music fans though, the season brings a different kind of to-do list: booking cheap train tickets in advance, stocking up on essential supplies — and searching for your tent’s instruction manual. Summer music festivals are an institution in Japan, and when you’re hibernating six months from now, it’ll be the memories of the season’s highlights that will warm you up as much as any kotatsu.
Of course, the reality of the festival experience can be less than warm and wonderful, too — as you may realize after an hour fumbling in the rain, desperately trying to coax your tent into adopting a third dimension whilst your legs swell to twice their size (who said they were bringing the bug spray?). There are some things you just can’t plan for, but stick to our guide and you shouldn’t go too far wrong, music-wise.
Freedommune Zero (Makuhari Messe, Chiba Prefecture; July 13): Despite having announced only four acts so far, Freedommune Zero is already looking likely to be the most eclectic festival of the summer. As well as a DJ set from Dommune boss Naohiro Ukawa, experimental act Boredoms will present “7×13 Boadrum.” After previous percussion-heavy concerts “77 Boadrum” (2007) and “88 Boadrum” (2008), featuring as many drummers as implied in each title, you don’t need more than an elementary grasp of math to conclude that one of this year’s requirements will be a large stage. There are also confirmed appearances from Penny Rimbaud — activist, writer, and founder of anarcho-punk band Crass — and 91-year-old writer-turned-nun Jakucho Setouchi, who will deliver a Buddhist sermon.
Fuji Rock Festival (Naeba Ski Resort, Niigata Prefecture; July 26-28): You know a festival is stacked when My Bloody Valentine are casually listed in a generic, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it 12-point font, but take a close look at the Fuji Rock poster and you’ll see that’s exactly what’s happened. Three days of sun without a drop of rain in sight — unheard of for Fuji Rock — made last year’s event a success, although its Britpop-heavy main stage could have been accused of lacking in variety. This year’s edition brings with it more diversity at a headline level, boasting a reunited The Cure, Iceland’s most famous export, Björk, and Nine Inch Nails, with the latter seeing Trent Reznor renege on a live hiatus that has lasted since 2009. Joining the old guard will be a genre-spanning selection of some of this generation’s biggest names: divisive EDM upstart Skrillex, indie rockers Vampire Weekend and rapper Kendrick Lamar, whose late-2012 “good kid, m.A.A.d city” album was greeted with widespread acclaim.
Despite featuring the usual festival regulars and Japanese favorites such as Shugo Tokumaru and Soil & “Pimp” Sessions, this year’s lineup balances Fuji Rock’s penchant for nostalgia with a relatively finger-on-the-pulse approach that has led to the inclusion of furiously independent hip-hop act Death Grips, dream-poppers Tame Impala and DIIV and post-punk revivalists Savages. Late-night ravers can look forward to house music starlet Maya Jane Coles as well as the man behind the all-conquering Harlem Shake meme, Baauer. With so much on offer you can even forgive them for bringing over Mumford & Sons.
Summer Sonic (Tokyo and Osaka; Aug. 10 and 11): Although Summer Sonic always seems to be fairly popular with a younger crowd — especially the Tokyoites who seem happy to withstand two days in the microwave-like conditions of Makuhari Messe — perhaps the organizers feel differently, as they seem to be deliberately targeting an older demographic with this year’s lineup. Headliners Metallica and Linkin Park will be hoping to invoke nostalgia for metal both old and nü, while Cyndi Lauper and Earth, Wind & Fire will attempt to roll back the years yet further. Caught somewhere inbetween are the likes of Stereophonics and Beady Eye.
The 2012 Mercury Prize winning indie rockers Alt-J, soulful 19-year-old singer-songwriter Jake Bugg and stadium regulars Muse make up the Brit contingent, while the Japanese rock scene is represented by long-running acts Maximum the Hormone, The Pillows and The Back Horn. For the most part, this is as uninspiring a lineup as we’ve seen from Summer Sonic in recent years, which this time seems to be relying on the strength its reputation alone.
Sonicmania (Makuhari Messe, Chiba Prefecture; Aug. 9): A distinct lack of electronic acts at Summer Sonic means that those who want their fix of four-four beats should head down on the Friday night instead for Sonicmania — a pre-party of sorts that focuses on dance music. Highlights include “Madchester” pioneers The Stone Roses, raucous DJ Steve Aoki (whose now-infamous rider features, among other requirements, a “rubber dinghy” for crowd-surfing), as well as Justice, Breakbot and Busy P from French electro record label Ed Banger. Japan is represented by Denki Groove, Perfume and Sakanaction.
Saito Kinen Festival (Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture; Aug. 12-Sept. 7): After several battles with illness over the last couple of years, conductor Seiji Ozawa will return to the annual classical music festival that he founded in 1992. This year’s program includes performances of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale” as well as a double bill of Maurice Ravel’s only two surviving operas, “L’enfant et les sortilèges” and “L’heure espagnole.” Jazz pianist Junko Onishi has been coaxed out of retirement by a combination of pleas from Ozawa and author Haruki Murakami — on Sept. 6 she will perform George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” with her trio, accompanied by the Saito Kinen Orchestra and conducted by Ozawa, in what should be a memorable finale.
Rock In Japan (Hitachi Seaside Park, Ibaraki Prefecture; Aug. 2-4) and Rising Sun Rock Festival (Ishikari Bay New Port, Hokkaido; Aug. 16 and 17): As always, these two festivals taking place in Ibaraki and Hokkaido respectively are the definitive choices for fans of Japanese rock music. At the former, rock heavyweights such as Dragon Ash, Fujifabric and Sakanaction mingle with popstars including duo Puffy and kawaii ambassador Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. The producer behind her songs, Yasutaka Nakata, will also perform with his own group, capsule.
Meanwhile, Rising Sun Rock Festival features a smorgasbord of indie talent, making it a must for those interested in the latest up-and-comers. Although it is normally Japan-based acts that feature exclusively, Bo Ningen somewhat buck the trend this year — the Japanese psych-rock four-piece will be flying over from East London, where they have been based since 2006, organically cultivating a fearsome reputation through their sheer live prowess.
Tokyo Jazz Festival (Tokyo International Forum; Sept. 6-8): Japan’s largest jazz festival returns for its 12th year, bringing with it an impressive array of veterans from across the world, including cool-jazz saxophonist Lee Konitz, keyboardist Chick Corea and the 12-strong Cuban ensemble Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club which includes Omara Portuondo, a member of the original Buena Vista Social Club. The younger generation is represented by in-demand, New York-based drummer Marcus Gilmore, as well as the Ai Kuwabara Trio Project — the eponymous composer still a relative newcomer, but whose debut album in 2012 marked her out as one of the Japanese jazz scene’s brightest hopes.
The best of the rest: With festivals spanning just about every genre imaginable, it’s impossible to fit everything on offer into a single writeup, but the following includes some of the most promising of the less well-known festivals.
Impatient festivalgoers getting antsy at the mere mention of upcoming fixtures can start packing their bags as early as this weekend. Boredoms-offshoot OOIOO and acoustic unit Soul Flower Mononoke Summit perform at Soul Beat Asia (Sengoku Park, Aichi Prefecture; June 8 and 9), while Ryo the Skywalker heads up the Fuji Reggae Festival (Kawaguchiko Stellar Theater, Yamanashi Prefecture; June 9). Tokyo-based American composer Jim O’Rourke tops the bill at Fukune Music Fes (Fukuji Onsen, Gifu Prefecture; June 8), which also, rather attractively, features an on-site hot spring — perfect for postfestival relaxation. Non-outdoors-types can content themselves with the indie rock on offer at Kiwa Kiwa Music Fes (Tokyo; June 29 and 30), spread across four clubs in the heart of Shibuya.
Moving into July, cerebral rapper Shing02 is the big draw at Free Shelter (Heartland Asagiri, Shizuoka Prefecture; July 13 and 14), and pop-inflected hip-hop and reggae is the order of the day at Tokai Summit (Nagashima Spa Land, Mie Prefecture; July 20), which features the likes of Home Made Kazoku and lecca. Meanwhile, northern festival Join Alive (Iwamizawa, Hokkaido; July 20-21 and 27-28) boasts a lineup that reads like a “who’s who” of the Japanese pop-rock scene: Bonnie Pink, De De Mouse and the aptly titled, ex-Ellegarden project The Hiatus are just a few of the names that will appear over the course of the double weekender.
Unsurprisingly, J-Pop is the main dish at MTV Zushi Fes (Riviera Zushi Marina, Kanagawa Prefecture; Aug. 9-11) — the likes of Rip Slyme and twins Amiaya should provide sunny vibes to match the beachside location, which is less than an hour by train from Tokyo. Last but not least, techno-mecca The Labyrinth (Naeba Greenland, Niigata Prefecture; Sept. 14-16) and genre-inclusive Ringo Fes (Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture; Sept. 14 and 15) keep things going as the heat starts to subside by late summer. If you still haven’t had your fill by then, it means you weren’t partying hard enough!