MAKUHARI, Chiba Pref. — We plowed our way into the mass of humanity packing the Makuhari Messe event hall moments after the cheers rose to ring in the new year.

Bright flashes of light illuminated falling silver confetti as 2002 yielded to 2003. Thousands of crazed revelers were jumping, pushing, screaming, and then pushing and screaming some more. The air was thick with the smoky reek of incense and Ecstacy cigarettes. Every step brought the unsettling sound and feeling of empty PET bottles crackling under my feet.

Countdown 2003, Crystal Skulls: The Further Revelations, was a mere three hours old and already the heavy humidity created by thousands of sweaty dancers was fogging my glasses.

Put on by veteran Tokyo organizers Solstice Music and Vision Quest, Countdown 2003 attracted some 13,000 partiers — up 62.5 percent from the previous year — making it the largest trance party staged in Japan during the past 12 months, inside or out.

Several changes were made over last year’s setup to accommodate a much larger crowd, alleviating some problems, but creating others.

The stage was repositioned 90 degrees clockwise to the “half-court” position, allowing the organizers to move the control booths off the dance floor and up into the gallery seats (center of photo) straight across on the second deck, which was closed off this year. The upper deck seats provided a great place to chill out last year, but a larger crowd creates safety concerns.

The net result should have been more room to dance, but the halls and break areas were too far removed from the music, and drafty, so the walls inside the hall filled up fast with tired partiers, two or three deep in some spots.

As the throng pushed toward the center of the floor, trying to soak up as many of the 120,000 watts as possible, the thermal energy was so concentrated that you could feel it within seconds of re-entering the arena. The left and right sides of the dance floor were a wasteland of scattered PET bottles and exhausted bodies, easy to trip over in the relative darkness.

Starting with 1200 Mic’s — still riding high on the popularity of their “1200 Micrograms” album — at midnight, six live acts filled the first six hours of 2003. The rest of this A-list lineup comprised Skazi, G.B.U., Infected Mushroom, G.M.S. and Saiko Pod. DJs Dino and Dimitri D.K.N. both played killer two-hour sets for the finish.

The concentration of live acts kept the hall full, and hot. And it was at some point when I managed to maneuver close enough to see who was actually playing — Skazi, I believe — that I started making up excuses for skipping my usual New Year’s Day “hatsumode” shrine visit. (This is also when, I think, I was invaded by a nasty flu bug, wallowing in all that humidity.)

Since a shrine visit for me is more recreational than spiritual, it was fairly easy to check off the parallels: massive crowds all pushing front-to-butt in sort of a uniform motion toward a higher stage, wafts of smoke and incense, things falling on my head. (Except that confetti hurts much less than a 10 yen coin when it lands on the top of your skull!)

The bitter cold outside, with hints of snowflakes, was also a huge factor in breaking with an 11-year-old adopted tradition. And this being the third year of massive New Year’s Eve parties, it seemed reasonable to shift to a new custom.

I doubt that the shrine crowd missed me, or any of the others who claimed that night to be in my camp. Official figures show that shrine visits were up 1.5 percent to 86.22 million people for the first three days of 2003.

There were several first-timers — either for Crystal Skulls or their first trance party, period — that I talked to who were overwhelmed by the magnitude of the production.

A number of veterans, however, were dismayed because they couldn’t really see and connect with the artists, thanks to the high elevation of the stage. (Quietly, a couple of the artists lamented that they, too, couldn’t read the crowd well enough.)

Countdown 2003 was awesome but imperfect. But then an event like this has to straddle expectations of both the true trance crowd and the thousands just out for a New Year’s ball. And on balance, Solstice and Vision Quest did pretty well.

One incident, however, highlighted a growing problem on the indoor party scene: Bigger crowds mean more heat and more humidity, which do not play well with electronics.

Sometime near 5 a.m., just as the G.M.S. set was crystallizing: POOF! A power adapter for one of the mixers failed. It took only about five minutes to get the music back on, but the shock rattled a lot of people. This sort of thing happens at crowded clubs, but never to Solstice or V.Q.

“I think it was purely electrical,” said Vision Quest spokesman Ben Munro. “High humidity is always a factor and we need to take care of, or at least be more aware of, this.”

According to Munro, Solstice and Vision Quest will continue working together for New Year’s Eve. “I think it gives people a chance to check out artists they may not have heard play live or DJ before, and the amalgamation of different fans also provides a fresh atmosphere.”

Will there be a “Further Revelations” CD such as the “Mystery of the Thirteen Crystal Skulls” release last year? “Maybe,” said Munro.

The month since Crystal Skulls has been brutally cold in Tokyo and one bout after another with an ultra-nasty flu. Making the countdown party into my personal hatsumode — and avoiding those few hours out in the Jan. 1 deep freeze — probably saved my life.

Return of the Cube

A few days before New Year’s Eve, I was prowling around the lounge of Slinky, in Tokyo’s Shibaura district, asking people what they would miss about the “Slinky experiment” in Tokyo. The responses, not surprisingly, ranged from “Huh?” to “Ah, not much, really.”

It was only at the end of September when the U.K. house outfit Slinky took over Cube326 for a three-month run. The attempt to give Tokyo clubbers yet another alternative was noteworthy, but attendance fell far short of expectations.

A week later (Jan. 4), all that remained at Cube326 from Slinky was the curvy “S” logo on the cigarette machines. The crowd for the “Return of the Cube326” party was thin — lots of folks no doubt still suffering from the post-Countdown flu — but it felt good to be back on familiar turf.

According to Cube326 President/Producer Masahi Naito, about 70 percent of upcoming Cube events will be more Goa-psytrance, with splashes of progressive and house, especially on the upper dance floors.

Unfortunately, the Cube326 Web site is still dormant. But there is an after-hours party Sunday morning, with DJs Kemal and Bryan on the list. (Starts at 7 a.m., 2,500 yen.)

The new high-water mark

YOKOSUKA, Kanagawa Pref. — The Hide (pronounced “hee-day”) Museum here is the last place I ever expected to be on a Saturday night (Jan. 11), party or no party.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi reportedly exerted great influence in getting the museum built to honor the late Hideto Matsumoto of X-Japan fame. The advertisements for this place feature a dwarf with reddish, jagged anime hair — easy to say “no” to.

But as a longtime Yokosuka resident, the allure of being present at this port city’s first real trance party was too great. There have been “Goa nights” in the live houses here, but this was an actual party. The southern Kanto high-water mark — that distance from Tokyo where you could attract enough people for a break-even indoor party — has always been Yokohama.

Fortunately for organizer Kemuri-ya and cosponsor Indiscrimination, about 300 people, mostly casually dressed Yokosuka and Yokohama locals, showed up at the Psyence Cafe, the Ryo-Ma live being the big draw.

The gig was a success, but Indiscrimination doesn’t measure success by numbers alone.

“We are basically just a T-shirt company,” says Incri co-founder Ken Ito. “We don’t get any real revenue from the parties, just the exposure of our clothing label,” adding that ticket proceeds go almost entirely to paying for the venue and the artists.

An interesting approach, but Indiscrimination is doing well, despite being caught between bad economic times and a surge in competition for party attendance.

“We kept our expenses to a minimum when we got started (on Jan. 1, 2000),” said Ito. “And we aren’t strictly trance either. We don’t discriminate and we don’t set boundaries. That’s what our name means.”

Ryo-Ma, with Comer on synthesizers, Aizawa on guitar and Ajo and Kai on “wadaiko” drums, is a good example of Indiscrimination is about.

“These guys wanted to perform to a larger audience and people really seemed to like them. So we gave them a shot,” Ito said.

The next Indiscrimination sponsored party, again with Kemuriya, is set for Feb. 13 at Yokohama Bay Hall. In addition to Ryo-Ma, live acts include Mitsumoto plus Ari and Matally. DJs on the bill include Ree-K, Funky Gong, Ayashige, Onechang and Roki.

Party picks


Absolute by Arcadia at Differ Ariake. Live acts Absolum, MOS and Altom, plus DJs Christof and Kemal. Starts at 10 p.m., 5,500 yen at the door.

JouJou at Club Core in Roppongi. Guest acts Uni and Mitsumoto, plus DJs Nisshy, Gamma, Masato, Sid-Micro, Yu-ki and Juna. Starts at 10 p.m., 2,500 yen at the door.

Feb. 10

Space Jungle by Solstice Music at Differ Ariake. Live acts Alien Project and Crunchy Punchy. DJs Ari Linker, Jean Borelli, Ryo and Isao. Starts at 10 p.m., advance tickets 4,000 yen, at the door 5,000 yen.

Feb. 22

Vision Quest, Magic Islands Tour at Differ Ariake, Infected Mushroom CD release party. Infected Mushroom, plus DJs Duvdev (Infected Mushroom), Atom (Cosmic Baby) and Joel (Sound Fort).

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