As Yo La Tengo once sang, “summer’s what you make it,” and that’s especially true in Japan this year. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics are likely to throw a major wrench (or should that be hammer?) in the works for next summer’s festival calendar, so it’s worth enjoying things while the going is good.
And there’s certainly no shortage of stuff to enjoy. In addition to the traditional matsuri (festivals) that pop up across the country throughout the summer, Japan hosts an increasingly diverse range of outdoor events, many of which have as much to offer for families as for bright young things looking to get blotto in the sun.
The organizers of Summer Sonic (Aug. 16-18; www.summersonic.com) have already announced that they’ll be taking next year off, as one of their main venues is being requisitioned for the 2020 Games, but not before they’ve had a chance to mark their 20th anniversary with an extended three-day bash. B’z becomes the first Japanese act ever to headline the event — which is split between locations in Chiba and Osaka — alongside fellow rock warhorses Red Hot Chili Peppers and EDM duo The Chainsmokers. Don’t sleep on getting tickets: This one’s going to sell out.
The venerable Fuji Rock Festival (July 26-28; www.fujirockfestival.com) promises a similar mix of something old and something new, with returning headliners The Chemical Brothers and The Cure joined by first-time visitor Sia. As ever, many of the highlights are likely to be found on the smaller stages scattered around the event’s sprawling mountain valley site.
Most summer music festivals in Japan feature exclusively domestic artists, and the lineups tend to blur together after a while. It would be remiss not to mention Rock in Japan (Aug. 3-4 & 10-12; www.rijfes.jp), also celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, which is outdoing all the competition with a full five days of music served up at an attractive park on the coast of Ibaraki Prefecture.
Hokkaido’s Rising Sun Rock Festival in Ezo (Aug. 16-17; rsr.wess.co.jp) stands out from the crowd by featuring the reunited Number Girl, a celebrated 1990s guitar band that got back together specifically to play the event. And while summer is already well in retreat by the time Ringo Fes. (Sept. 28-29; www.ringofes.info) rolls around, the Matsumoto weekender consistently serves up a more varied and adventurous diet than the majority of its peers.
EDM fans can expect a drenching at S2O Japan (July 13-14; www.s2ojapan.com), where water cannons leave the dance-floor looking like a wet T-shirt contest. Nicky Romero and Knife Party top the bill, while Japanese punk rockers Wanima will commandeer the venue for an album release party on July 15. Not to be outdone, Osaka’s Music Circus (Aug. 24-25; www.music-circus.jp) promises fireworks and a literal meat market, Niku Fes, to complement EDM and hip-hop acts including Galantis and Yellow Claw.
More discerning techno heads may want to sit things out until Rural (Sept. 20-23; www.ruraljp.com). The peripatetic festival marks its 10th anniversary with another new location — a lakeside campsite in the mountains of Nagano Prefecture. The lineup has yet to be announced, but expect plenty of forward-thinking sounds over the event’s four days.
Back in the capital, Tokyo Jazz (Aug. 30-Sept. 1; www.tokyo-jazz.com) shakes off its fusty image with a lineup that showcases some of the current jazz vanguard (Kamasi Washington, Snarky Puppy) alongside veteran artists Chick Corea and Charles Lloyd. Look out, too, for spin-off events and free performances in the Shibuya area. Speaking of free, you won’t have to pay a thing to catch the performances at the Sumida Street Jazz Festival (Aug. 16-18; www.sumida-jazz.jp/sj), and the emphasis on crowd-pleasing acts makes for a good family day out.
There are sure to be plenty of jazz heads in attendance when the freewheeling Shibusashirazu Orchestra celebrates its 30th anniversary at Shibutaisai (Sept. 16; www.shibutaisai.com), a jamboree that also includes the likes of Clammbon and Rovo.
Outdoor shops in Japan tend to do a brisk trade during the summer, as festival-goers deck themselves out for their big weekend. Taking the idea to its logical conclusion, outdoor brands are now organizing events of their own. Music only plays a small part in The North Face’s Mountain Festival (Aug. 3-4, www.spaceshowertv.com/mountainfestival), where adventurous types can participate in activities like bouldering and trail running, while The Coleman Camp (July 26-28; www.thecolemancamp.com) promises acoustic sounds and a back-to-basics vibe.
If you’re prone to grumbling about corporate encroachment on the festival experience, you may prefer rock band Gezan’s Zenkanku Fes (www.zenkankakufes.com), where the atmosphere is anarchic, and the music and food are free. Lord knows how they do it, but in addition to the regular Osaka edition (Sept. 21), the festival will also be happening in Tokyo during the fall (Oct. 12).
The Seto Inland Sea is home to some of Japan’s most boldly conceived art museums, and there’s no better time to explore the area than during the Setouchi Triennale (summer session July 19-Aug. 25; www.setouchi-artfest.jp/en), when the permanent exhibits are complemented by a host of temporary installations. It’s best enjoyed by grabbing a ferry pass and spending a few days hopping from island to island in search of the unexpected.
And while the thought of spending a few hours in an air-conditioned theater sounds pretty appealing at the height of summer, the most memorable movie-going experiences at this time of year are to be found in the great outdoors. The annual Stardust Theatre in Haramura (July 26-Aug. 18; www.hoshizoraeiga.com) returns for another season of screenings at a nature reserve 1,300 meters above sea level, though details of the schedule are still under wraps at the time of writing. In Tokyo, meanwhile, film fans can catch free outdoor screenings of movies including “The Wizard of Oz” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” every weekend at Picnic Cinema (July 26-Aug. 25; www.gardenplace.jp/special/summer2019/gardenpicnic)
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