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Summer’s best festivals are off the beaten path

by Ian Martin

Special To The Japan Times

For the past 10-15 years, Japan’s festival season has been dominated by four main events: Fuji Rock, Summer Sonic, Rock in Japan and Rising Sun.

Of these, Fuji Rock is by far the best, with its mountain setting in Niigata Prefecture, and dependable lineup of major international acts and interesting local bands. It’s also the most expensive, though, with tickets at more than ¥40,000 plus transport and accommodation for three days. Summer Sonic is its big rival in the international-band stakes, but often falls short when it comes to its lineup. Situated in the corporate dystopia of Makuhari Messe, Summer Sonic can seem more like an industry trade fair than a festival.

Of the two big Japanese-music-oriented festivals, Rock in Japan is a reliable indicator of what’s going on in the rock scene, if only because they seem to book exactly the same bands every year. From this year’s lineup, 55 bands out of the 120 scheduled were also on last year’s bill.

For those not willing to put up the cash, or who are simply in search of something a bit different, the good news is that there are gazillions of alternatives. The bad news, though, is that the same bands seem to pop up again and again. Groups such as Straightener, Negoto, The Hiatus, Flower Companyz and Maximum the Hormone are everywhere, lending many festivals a strangely uniform appearance. This is most obvious at the four-day Join Alive (July 20-21, 27-28; Iwamizawa, Hokkaido), which is very much a poor man’s Rock in Japan with a couple of good international groups poached from Fuji Rock (Yo La Tengo and Rocket From the Crypt).

Two festivals that offer an interesting peek at some of the acts simmering just beneath the radar of the major commercial events are GFB’13, aka the Tsukuba Rock Festival (July 13-14; Tsukuba, Ibaraki Pref.) and the Say Hello Festival (July 13-14; Imizu, Toyama Pref.). The former transplants Tokyo indie stalwarts such as Owarikara, SuiseiNoboAz and Siamese Cats, as well as alarmingly happy progressive-pop ensemble Chiina and hotly tipped festival regulars Akai Koen. The latter offers up the fascinating progressive and metal-influenced rock of Crypt City and the intense stop-start avant-garde antics of Ningen OK alongside reliable old faces such as Mono, Boris and Eastern Youth.

For real connoisseurs, Freedommune Zero (July 13; Chiba) is probably the place to be. Most of the lineup has still to be announced, but among the artists currently confirmed are Penny Rimbaud of British anarcho-punks Crass, noise maniacs Boredoms, and iconoclastic underground legends Otomo Yoshihide and Keiji Haino.

In August, World Happiness (Aug. 11; Tokyo) is a real nostalgia trip for all those bubble-generation hipsters. That event stars Yukihiro Takahashi of YMO, singer-songwriter (and former YMO keyboard player) Akiko Yano, Scha Dara Parr, Towa Tei and Tamio Okuda of Unicorn. Also on the bill is video-game composer Keiichi Suzuki, the man behind the beloved Super Nintendo Mother 2 (Earthbound) soundtrack, and those looking for a break from pure nostalgia would do well to check out Hikashu, who, despite their ’80s technopop roots, have been constantly evolving throughout their 35-year career. Their current shows are an explosion of eccentric pop, avant-garde jazz, and something indefinable and uniquely theirs that leader Koichi Makigami terms ” ‘pataphysic rock.”

Sweet Love Shower (Aug. 31-Sept. 1; Yamanakako, Yamagata Pref.) is probably best avoided based on the name alone. Earth Celebration (Aug. 23-25; Sado Island, Niigata Pref.), though, looks to be a great alternative to traditional festival fare. It’s hosted by taiko drum ensemble Kodo, and features guest shamisen player Hiromitsu Agatsuma along with numerous workshops and fringe events, not to mention kayaking expeditions and more.

Further west, Sunset Live (Sept. 6-8; Itoshima, Fukuoka Pref.) is likely the biggest event, although the lineup, dominated by reliable festival regulars such as Ego Wrappin’, Mongol800 and Soil and “Pimp” Sessions, offers little in the way of local flavor. On the more imaginative side, check out the gypsy pop of Charan Po Rantan and the electro hip-hop of group_inou.

However, the real treat for Fukuoka indie maniacs will probably be Yokochin Rock Festival (Sept. 16; Fukuoka). Organized by local eccentric Bogey of tropical prog-pop orchestra Nontroppo, highlights are likely to include The Vottones, who deliver pure, unfiltered rock’n'roll like only Fukuoka mentai rock bands can; and the playful, occasionally ferocious and indescribably odd Tokotokotonntoko’s.

At the other end of the country, and rounding off the festival season, is Aomori Rock Festival (Sept. 14; Hiranai, Aomori Pref.). Shamelessly courting the subculture nerd market — as well as an indie and underground crowd with whom the scene seems to share an increasingly wide overlap — it features the likes of idol groups Dempagumi.inc and BiS, both of whom are by now dead certainties for almost any indie festival, as well as pro-wrestling events. At the other extreme, the festival also devotes space to the likes of posthardcore screechniks Envy, metal legends Ningen Isu, noise pioneers Hijokaidan and most intriguingly 1970s folk-blues singer-songwriter Kan Mikami.