Voices | FOREIGN AGENDA

Going in blind to Japan's Fuji Rock Festival

by William Lang

Contributing Writer

It’s Fuji Rock season again. This weekend, an assortment of folk will gather at Naeba Ski Resort in Niigata Prefecture to enjoy music courtesy of Chemical Brothers, Sia and The Cure, as well as the mix of rambling disorder and creativity that is the summer festival in Japan.

Fuji Rock will be bustling with music lovers of all types: rockers and ravers, the young and old, sober fans and the dazed and confused. The preshow hype got me thinking about my own trip to the festival three years ago: I am a blind Scotsman and Fuji Rock was my first-ever music festival. I was accompanied by a friend, the able-bodied Aussie Nick. He doesn’t even need glasses.

If you have a disability or face some other kind of challenge when traveling (maybe you have kids, maybe you’re pregnant) I can declare that Fuji Rock shouldn’t be as difficult as you might imagine. At the risk of beginning with a spoiler, though, one of my tips would be never to leave the details of your trip up to someone like Aussie Nick.

Nick came up with the idea of us going to Fuji Rock together. I was very tempted. That year Wilco, Beck and Travis were playing and it sounded like it would be great, but I was worried. Would the toilets quickly become a hygiene-hazard for the sighted, let alone a man who can’t see what he’s plonking his bum cheeks onto? Would I get pushed, bumped and trodden on by drunken hordes, like the rush-hour at Shinjuku Station? Would my wrist stand up to the strain of tip-tapping a white cane all day and half the night as we traipsed from one tent to another?

I didn’t want to sound timid so I came up with an excuse: “It’s too late now to organize a tent, or hotel nearby, or seat in a car or whatever to sleep in,” I told Nick. “Maybe next year?”

Nick remained resolute.

“We’ll get a day ticket then,” he replied. “We can take the shinkansen from Tokyo to Niigata in the morning; watch Travis, Wilco and Beck during the day; and we’ll catch the night bus back at 1 a.m. No worries.”

“Well, what if we can’t get a ticket for the night bus?” I said meekly.

“O ye of little faith,” said Nick. “I know a guy who knows a guy. We’ll definitely get tickets for the night bus. Just leave that to me.”

So we were off to Fuji Rock.

Did I mention that Aussie Nick is Australian? You might have figured that out from the nickname. I don’t wish to lazily stereotype Australians as being, at times, excessively laid-back. I’m sure it just happens that the three Australians I know very well are all, at times, excessively laid-back. Aussie Friend No. 1 once set fire to a stranger’s newspaper on an early morning train in Japan because the guy wasn’t responding positively to his drunken banter, and he seemed pretty relaxed as I picked him up from the police station. Aussie Friend No. 2 regularly loses his mobile phone, credit card, car keys or anything not attached to him with safety pins. He never loses his cool, though. Aussie Friend No. 3 once sauntered away from a work drinking party and woke up the next morning lying next to some train tracks, having misplaced one of his shoes. Nick is Aussie Friend No. 3. I possibly should have bought the night bus tickets myself.

I brought a proper raincoat, some Wellington boots, long trousers, a water bottle, ear plugs and a foldable chair. Nick came in shorts and flip-flops.

“You don’t suppose it’ll rain or get cold at night, do you?” he asked. “Oh, by the way, I forgot to get the night bus tickets. But I’m sure we can just sit up all night, have a few drinks or whatever.”

It was a long day at the festival. We arrived on Saturday afternoon at around 3 p.m. and left the next morning at 5:30 a.m. We saw the headline acts and discovered a few small Japanese bands. We walked to several different stages, some of which took 30 or 40 minutes to get to. The ground was pretty rough and rocky — not great for my wrist, nor Nick’s flip-flops. We got tired and lay down in the woods for 30 minutes and closed our eyes. Nick, dressed in nothing but his shorts, sandals, a T-shirt and optimism, slept. I, dressed in my trousers, boots, coat and anxiety, lay shivering in the cold.

We had a great time, though. Navigating the crowds was less trouble than I had imagined. People dart past, jostle and swing around cautious pedestrians like me in Shinjuku Station because of its enclosed structure, and the nature of those who pass through it. Naeba is a large open space. I could generally avoid being in a crush of bodies at popular performances simply by staying near the back — no great loss, since I couldn’t see the performers anyway. And people were not trying to escape a mind-numbing commute with smartphones, but were paying attention to where they were. However, entering a crush of bodies was unavoidable when moving from one popular area or performance to another. At least the crowd formed into lanes all moving in one direction, and I could feel a shoulder or back in front of me and shuffle forward along with the flow.

One highlight of the festival for me was Wilco performing “Spiders (Kidsmoke).” Another was the simple freedom of listening to music in the open air. If Nick and I didn’t like where we were sitting, or who was playing, we just got up and went somewhere else.

The toilets were not as bad as I had feared, either. There were special “priority” toilets that disabled people, parents with small children and pregnant women could use. They were reasonably clean and had much shorter queues than the regular toilets.

At one point, I thought I had found a fantastic new band. Nick led me into a tent where I could hear a group of women singing in perfect harmony in a classic soul style. I listened for a bit and turned around to Nick to say that the band was amazing, and that they sounded just like a 1970s American soul group.

“It probably is a 1970s American soul group,” he replied. “You’re listening to a tape, Will. This is a DJ set.” Another tip for blind Fuji Rock-goers: Ask, “What’s this tent we’re going into?” before you pass comment on what you’re hearing.

It didn’t rain and we were able to stay outside all night, although it did get cold when the sun went down. Unless you are excessively laid-back, bring warm clothes.

At around 3 a.m. we found the ambient tent and a cafe open nearby. We drank rum and chai tea, listened to the music drifting over the morning air and waited for the sun to rise.

Aussie Nick, despite having limited organizational skills and bumbling through life mostly through luck, was a great companion. And well done to Fuji Rock for putting on a festival accessible to those requiring special support, such as excessively laid-back Aussie friends.