Essential summer festivals 2014

We list our favorite festivals from around the country to help guide you through the coming months

by Mike Sunda, Elliott, Steve Trautlein, Angela Erika Kubo and Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

A summer without festivals simply wouldn’t be a proper summer in Japan, so now that the humidity has returned, it’s time to slop on an extra layer of sunscreen and line up some outdoor activities.
To make your life easier over the next few months, we’ve gathered together a list of the festivals we recommend you experience through to the end of September.

We’ve compiled a selection that has something for everyone: some big, some small; some in cities and parks, some in the countryside; some for families with young children, some for single young adults. The only thing left for you to do is decide which you’re going to attend…


Summer Sonic fans in 2013

Summer Sonic fans in 2013 | VIOLA KAM

Music festivals

After spending countless summers dutifully checking weather forecasts and stocking up on waterproof spray, I’ve learned that there are two types of music festival in Japan: those bathed in glorious sunshine from start to finish, and those I go to. And yet, while most of us have already resigned ourselves to having to deal with another round of trench foot and leaking tents, let’s face it — music festivals are still the most fun we’re likely to have all year.

One person who won’t have to worry about sudden downpours is Kanye West. No sooner had West been listed as one of the headliners for this year’s Fuji Rock Festival (Naeba Ski Resort, Niigata Prefecture; July 25-27) than the divisive rapper was announced as having cancelled. His absence leaves a Kardashian-sized void in a lineup otherwise reliant on serial visitors such as Franz Ferdinand, Basement Jaxx and Manic Street Preachers. Hip-hop fans will at least have a reunited Outkast to look forward to.

The summer calendar’s other heavyweight fixture, Summer Sonic (Tokyo and Osaka; Aug. 16-17), is propped up by two legendary names of rock ‘n’ roll. Robert Plant, continuing to eschew a conventional Led Zeppelin reunion, will perform with the Sensational Space Shifters, while Queen will line up with American Idol runner-up Adam Lambert in place of the late, great Freddie Mercury. Those in charge will no doubt hope that these restructured outfits can appease younger fans and old die-hards alike.

Summer Sonic’s pre-party, Sonicmania (Makuhari Messe, Chiba Prefecture; Aug. 15), likewise opts for a veteran presence, with German electronic pioneers Kraftwerk heading up a bill that also features Kasabian and Mogwai.

Those who would rather support domestic rock acts have quite a few events to choose from. Rock in Japan (Hitachi Seaside Park, Ibaraki Prefecture; Aug. 2-3 and Aug. 9-10) boasts an A to Z of Japanese rock spread across two consecutive weekends — from Art-School and Boom Boom Satellites to Masayoshi Yamazaki and Zazen Boys. The roster at Rising Sun Rock Festival (Ishikari Bay New Port, Hokkaido; Aug. 15-16) is no less comprehensive, featuring festival favorites such as Soil & “Pimp” Sessions and Denki Groove. Also taking place in Hokkaido, family-friendly Join Alive (Iwamizawa Park, Hokkaido; July 19-20) offers free entry for children under middle school age, as well as a large selection of Japanese acts spanning crowd-pleasing pop, rock and jazz.

If Japan’s rock festivals haven’t managed to impress you on paper, perhaps it could be an idea to diversify and try out something different. Saito Kinen Festival (Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture; Aug. 10-Sept. 6), a series of classical music events founded by Seiji Ozawa, will celebrate a landmark 23rd edition that marks 40 years since the passing of influential conductor Hideo Saito, in whose memory Ozawa initially assembled the festival. Meanwhile, Earth Celebration (Sado Island, Niigata Prefecture, Aug. 22-24) offers visitors the chance to experience both the serene beauty and raw power of spine-tingling taiko performing arts ensemble Kodo in its natural home alongside a deft collection of world music artists.

Elsewhere there are events to satisfy fans of just about every genre. Jazz fans can flock to Tokyo Jazz Festival (Tokyo International Forum; Sept. 5-7), which features jazz pianist Makoto Ozone going up against American bassist Christian McBride, while sound system enthusiasts can meditate on bass at Fuji Reggae Festival (i-Messe, Yamanashi Prefecture; June 8) and Outlook Festival Japan Launch Party (ageHa/Studio Coast, Tokyo; June 8). Or if you don’t know your AKBs from your SKEs, you might like to get to grips with idol culture at Tokyo Idol Festival (Odaiba, Tokyo; Aug. 2-3) Promising more than 100 acts, one wonders whether the idols might even outnumber the fans. With the “local idol” boom in full swing, regional events such as Fukuoka Girls Festival (Runbretta Bayside, Fukuoka Prefecture; July 19) will also be showcasing their homegrown talents.

Alternatively, experience Japan’s rich history of music technology at Tokyo Festival of Modular (Superdeluxe, Tokyo; June 7-8), which promises a smorgasbord of modular synthesizers and performances by gear-heads such as Richard Devine. Those who prefer listening to electronic beats in the great outdoors can count on Rural (Mountain Park Tsunan, Niigata Prefecture; July 19-21) and The Labyrinth (Naeba Greenland, Niigata Prefecture; Sept. 13-15) for all things techno.

With a wide variety of highlights on offer, Japan’s festival calendar should satisfy just about everyone. Everyone except, perhaps, Kanye West devotees.

Mike Sunda is a devout music fan who has been known to stay up late dancing to his favorite beats.


Art festivals

While many of the country’s leading summer art festivals are scheduled to take a break this year, there’s still enough on the calendar to keep art enthusiasts interested once the mercury starts rising. Unfortunately, the first art festival to kick off proceedings this summer doesn’t exactly look like it’s going to set to the country alight. However, supporters of the Asahi Art Festival (June 15-Oct. 14) say the community-based focus of the exhibits merely reflects the inherent assimilation of art in wider society. Local citizen groups, art-related nonprofit organizations and others coordinate the events, with projects nationwide attempting to highlight the positive elements of life all around us.

The highlight of the summer as far as the global art community is concerned is the Sapporo International Art Festival (July 19-Sept. 28; ), which has been curated under the watchful eye of acclaimed artist and musician Ryuichi Sakamoto. Indeed, Sakamoto is more than just an artist these days, with most news organizations in the country preferring to focus on his activism activities in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. It’s perhaps not surprising, therefore, that he has elected to base the event around the theme of “City and Nature,” asking artists from around the world to offer examples of how urban centers can coexist with the great outdoors. Art exhibitions, performances, live theater and participatory workshops will take place all over the city at various venues, including the Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art, the Sapporo Art Museum, the former Sapporo Court of Appeals, underground pedestrian walkways near JR Sapporo Station and Moerenuma Park. This last venue, in particular, promises to be one of the festival’s major drawcards. Designed by the late modernist sculptor Isamu Noguchi, the park will host an aurally stunning “forest symphony” sound installation that was produced by Sakamoto working in tandem with the Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media InterLab. Several of Japan’s senior artists are also on the roster to exhibit work — anti-art pioneer Tetsumi Kudo, photographer Naoya Hatakeyama, fog sculptor Fujiko Nakaya and Nissan Art Award winner Aiko Miyanaga — while famed foreign artists on the bill include Anselm Kiefer, Carsten Nicolai, Tomas Saraceno and installation superstar Subodh Gupta.

Rounding off summer with aplomb is the venerated Yokohama Triennale 2014 (Aug. 1-Nov. 3). Having suffered a dip in attendance figures in 2011 in the wake of the March 11 disasters, organizers are expecting the fifth installment of the exhibition to draw more enthusiastic crowds this time around. Featuring internationally prominent artists alongside up-and-coming figures, the festival is again expected to benefit from primarily operating from the Yokohama Museum of Art, while also hosting related exhibits at Shinko Pier. Artistic director Yasumasa Morimura — an appropriation artist from Osaka — takes over the curation helm this year, promising a festival that is very different from its earlier incarnations. Titled “ART Fahrenheit 451: Sailing into the sea of oblivion,” the 89-day event tells the story of a voyage that mirrors that of Ray Bradbury’s lead character in his 1953 novel of a similar name.

Elliott Samuels likes to experience art, not the tablet-based guides that tend to distract audiences.

Hot stuff: Chicken is a popular takeout option at the One Love Jamaica Festival in Yoyogi Park.

Hot stuff: Chicken is a popular takeout option at the One Love Jamaica Festival in Yoyogi Park. | JAMES HADFIELD

Food festivals

Dining enthusiasts tend to lay low ahead of the busy food festival season in fall. And for good reason: It’s too hot, and there’s too much else going on. However, that doesn’t mean you’ll have to go hungry this summer, thanks to a host of local and internationally minded events that promise to keep participants well-fed.

People on Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka Prefecture have already begun celebrating the seasonal catch of red snapper at the monthlong Shimoda Kinme Matsuri (through June 30) which includes dozens of restaurants serving special menu items that feature the renowned local fish. Down in Miyazaki, Seagaia Music Resort 2014 (June 28-29) combines megawatt J-Pop acts (various Exile lineups; W-inds) with a gotochi (local) food fair. Details are sketchy, but expect generous helpings of the region’s famous chicken. Kanagawa, meanwhile, gets its Hawaiian groove on at Aloha Yokohama (July 12-13); loco moco, garlic shrimp and island-themed sweets are all on the menu.

Adventurous diners within reach of Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park can enjoy world cuisine at weekend events that celebrate the culture and cooking of, among others, Thailand (July 26-27), the pan-Asian region (August 2-3), Indonesia (Sept. 6-7) and Vietnam (Sept. 13-14). The park will also host the annual One Love Jamaica Festival (June 21-22) — think jerk chicken and natty Japanese dreadlocks — before the event travels to Nagano (Aug. 16-17) and Nagoya (Sept. 20-21).

It’s a time-honored tradition for Japanese to beat the summer heat by venturing up to Hokkaido, and the end-of-season Sapporo Autumn Fest (Sept. 13-29; ) offers another reason to escape. This sprawling bazaar of regional and seasonal cuisine, clustered in the neighborhoods around Odori Park, features Sapporo’s signature ramen, sake and, of course, seafood.

Steve Trautlein is a freelance foodie eating his way around Japan.


Beer googles: A woman drinks craft beer at a festival in Osaka in July 2013.

Beer googles: A woman drinks craft beer at a festival in Osaka in July 2013. | THE CRAFT BEER ASSOCIATION

Beer festivals

There’s nothing better to chase away the summer heat and quench one’s thirst than to chug back a few ice-cold beers. As more small- and mid-scale jibīru (craft beer) breweries pop up as the beverage continues to grow in popularity, expect to discover some new and interesting brews at beer festivals across the nation this summer.

Be sure to come up with a good excuse to miss work on Monday to nurse your hangover because June 1 is officially the last day of the Great Japan Beer Festival Organized by the Craft Beer Association, the bonanza is held at Tokyo’s Ebisu Garden Hall and offers visitors to chance to sample more than 120 different beers. Tickets are ¥5,200, but you can get a ¥400 discount if you purchase in advance.

If you miss that, the Nippon Craft Beer Festival will be held on the banks of the Sumida River on Aug. 1 and 2. This year’s lineup features 20 local breweries from all over Japan that will showcase more than 60 different beers to slurp down. Don’t miss the beer-kon event, a large singles’ party that is scheduled to be held on the evening of Aug. 2 — you might find a soul mate who loves beer just as much as you do.

A number of beer festivals will be held outside of Tokyo, including the Tohoku Craft Beer Festival, which runs from June 13-15 at the Area Nakaichi Nigiwai Hiroba in Akita. The Craft Beer Association will also be holding beer festivals at Kyocera Dome in Osaka from July 19-21, the Nagoya International Congress in Nagoya on July 2 and 3, and Osanbashi Hall in Yokohama from Sept. 13-15. Beer lovers as far north as Hokkaido can join in on the fun at a monthlong event in Sapporo’s Odori Park, which accommodates more than 13,000 visitors each year and currently holds the mantle of being the largest beer garden in Japan.

Angela Erika Kubo is a bar fly based in Tokyo who loves exploring new watering holes.


Atsuko Hirayanagi’s award-winning

Atsuko Hirayanagi’s award-winning ‘Oh Lucy!’ is likely to attract attention at the Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia.

Film festivals

Summer brings plenty to look forward to and cinema fans will be glad to know there are multiple air-conditioned venues to sample some of the best, weirdest and yet unknown movies in a series of summertime film festivals.

Kicking things off is the Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia (May 30-June 15), which is held at four theaters, including Tokyo’s Omotesando Hills’ Space O. A total of 200 short films will be shown during the festival — free of charge in Tokyo theaters from May 30 to June 8, and in Yokohama from May 30 to June 15. Make your online reservations now because seats fill up fast.

A newcomer is Hors Pistes Tokyo (June 7-22), held in collaboration with the Centre de Pompidou in Paris. Thirty-six films will be showing at seven venues, including Institut Francais du Japon and Uplink in Shibuya. Don’t miss the talk show given at the Apple Store in Ginza on June 6.

What’s a film fest without sitting on the grass, beer in hand? Make your way to the Akiruno Film Festival (July 20-27), which is now in its 30th year. Akiruno’s biggest drawcard is the open-air theater (actually, everyone just sits on picnic blankets) that is set up on the banks of the scenic Akikawa Ravine, where screenings and subsequent partying go on until the wee hours. It’s a one-night affair (July 20), so mark the day in your calendar. The rest of the festival screenings are held at two theaters in Akiruno City.

The summer film fest to conquer all others, however, is the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival (July 12-21) — now celebrating 23 years of gender and sexual equality in movies. From July 12-18, screenings will be held at Eurospace in Shibuya (late show only), and from July 18-21, the stage shifts to Spiral Hall in Aoyama. Event and party info is updated online, so keep an eye on the website.

Kaori Shoji covers film for The Japan Times when not dreaming of opening her own T-shirt stand in Okinawa.

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