Notes from: Fuji Rock Festival 2017
Residing in the pine-tree coated mountains of rural Japan’s Niigata, Fuji Rock looks on apocalyptically as we arrive on Friday afternoon.
Dark clouds weave through the misty valleys as the swarms of largely Japanese music fans queue patiently, sporting a hikerdelic mix of oversize ponchos and waterproof walking gear. Ghosting under the arched entrance, I begin to anticipate the atmosphere on the other side. Will it resemble the orchestrated chaos of previous festivals, or a more laid-back affair?
Sex-crooner Father John Misty provides the muted soundtrack as we set up our tents in what would become the first of many heavy thunderstorms. As the soaked skies turn from grey to black, doom-pop trio The XX’s name flashes in neon and they begin their much-anticipated evening set. A perfect blend of the now iconic ‘Intro’ and a blast of thick smoke whirs the crowd into an albeit mild frenzy. The band peak midway with epic trance rocker ‘I Dare You’. Jamie XX’s pulsing dance beats the perfect frame for Oliver Sim and Romy Madley Croft’s sentimental vocals.
There are some mammoth names playing this year including Gorillaz, Björk and Aphex Twin - their headline sets housed in natural amphitheaters, framed by thick green foliage. Wooden footpaths snake the sleepy forests and the main stages are connected by bridges suspended over rocky streams. Traversing the site, we also discover undercover venues, food courts selling Gapao Rice and mojitos, yoga classes, kids play areas, fire-eaters and daredevil motorcyclists. The true greatness of Fuji Rock is the democratization of experience. Drunken debauchery can easily be displaced in favour of a family camping holiday.
Unsurprisingly, Friday night is all about Gorillaz. Damon Albarn enters the fray looking wide eyed and wired, exclaiming that he’s ‘feeling very wavvvvy’ after his bullet train from Tokyo. An electric energy passes between him and his otherwise Afro-Caribbean ensemble, their powerful rhythms colliding with his crooning melodies and rap interludes. Even the band’s pre-recorded cameos hit harder than most live acts, with the giant faces on overhead screens bowed at from the stage.
I awake around lunch time on Saturday, heading ten minutes down the road to the local onsen, where I lay in the steamy haze of hot spring water, gazing at a garden of blue Hydrangea flowers. Whilst this may sound like paradise, paradise can be quickly lost and I spend the next twelve hours rain soaked, muddy and blistered. However as midnight strikes, I’ve regrouped with my friends and we’re dancing bare foot to 60’s soul classics on a wood floored mock pub.
As Sunday arrives, it takes a few apologetic manoeuvres and I’m in the Red Marquee – a 5,000 capacity sheltered arena where Slowdive captivate the audience with their lush dream pop. In front of me, a peroxide blonde bob sways to the sounds of ‘Souvlaki Space Station’, the girl elevates her chin and raises her hands like two snakes swimming. When the song stops, singer Rachel Goswell queries the crowd’s silence, resembling a Tokyo commuter train at tea time.
In the wooded area, next to Field of Heaven stage – which I’m told utilises electricity produced from renewable bio-diesel fuel, some of the pine trees had been cut to waist height. Smoking with strangers, we somehow managing to communicate without any real shared language. My eyes begin to resemble theirs and I feel altogether lighter as we descend the hill to the thousands dancing in the rain. Looking down, I see what looks like a swimming pool full of skittles, as coloured ponchos bop to Bonobo’s rhythmic beats. For the duration of the set, we stand by two children sat on their parents swaying shoulders. The downtempo, jazz-inflected, soundscape picks up pace progressively, carrying everyone along with it. The revellers seemed to be in a private space somewhere between themselves and the music – endless Japanese faces, peeking beneath plastic hoods, smiling for no one but themselves.
A few hours later we reunite to drop just before Major Lazer’s mass aerobics class. We reluctantly honour the MC’s commands to get down on our knees but flat out refuse to ‘take our tops off and spin em’ in the air.’ The set is what you might expect; good fun and well produced commercial EDM, with mid-track switches, jolting between hip hop, dub and electronica. Fireworks explode and glitter floats above the crowd in slow motion, twinkling in the lights. A collage of fragmented sights, sounds and feelings to me now, but at the time, as the sky glistened, I knew that the best night of the festival had just begun.
Walking en-masse along the narrow wooden walk way that cuts through the forest, people were more animated than before, bumping in to each other and jumping up to tap the illuminated stars tied to the branches above. Indecipherable sounds blast from the Red Marquee, over the rows of people sitting outside on the tarmac to those sitting in the forest area. The intersection between these two areas draw in a disparate group of Tokyo-based westerners and a wild band of Japanese new age ravers, bouncing between laughter-laden conversations and body popping dance moves. I feel free to wander, safe in the knowledge that some strange magnetic force will return me to this spot.
Beneath the near twilight sky, I sit alone in one of the empty seats, tribal electronica bleeding behind me. A pulsating reminder of realty’s inevitable return emanates from my blistered foot, only to be refuted by the silhouette of trees spiralling in the reflected lights of a disco ball. As the festival draws to a close, it feels like everyone has completed a gruelling, but worthwhile marathon. I smile as I glimpse the man in the silver suit, who had sported a gimp mask for the entire festival – to be force fed wine through the holes in his leather mouthpiece.
From the Rookie A Go-Go tent - about the size of a tiny club, I hear the opening bars of Arcade Fire’s ‘Wake Up’ - entering just before the white screen wall is pulled across the sides. The smoke machine is on full throttle and the focal centrepiece, a topless muscle man and gorgeous Japanese girl gyrate on an elevated platform. People stand around them and on top of the bar, stamping their mud soaked trainers. Plastic cups are raised aloft as the wordless chorus is chanted in unison. Strangers throw their arms around each other like it's New Years Eve. This was it, no one said it, but we all knew it: the grande finale, the last dance, as decadent and dirty as everything that hd gone before. A celebration of having survived the mud, the rain and the endless queues, to come out the other side still raving. One last tune to rejoice over with people you’ve never met before, sharing some innate and primordial sensation. One last chance to feel that special, evasive, fleeting, feeling that we go to festivals to find. One last chance . . . until next year.
Bjork photo: Santiago Felipe. Gorillaz photo: Masanori Naruse. All other photos: Adam Buczek