Fuji Rock Festival (FRF) is one of Asia’s largest music festivals, attracting well over 100,000 spectators and dozens of international and local performers. It’s located at the Naeba Ski Resort in Niigata prefecture, which is about a 90-minute bullet train ride west of Tokyo. In the festival’s first year, it was held at the base of Mt Fuji but it was hit by a giant typhoon. The following year the festival was held near Tokyo, but the summer heat was too much to handle and returned to the cool temperatures of the mountains.
We were lucky enough to go twice, once in 2009 with my brother, and again in 2010 with different group of English teacher friends. Both times we decided to drive down – the first time was to allow us to do some other travels, like climbing Mount Fuji, and visiting historic Nikko; the second time was to save money.
Getting there from Hokkaido included an overnight ferry from Otaru, and as we were doing it to save money, we opted for a patch of carpet in the shared 12 people rooms – which fortunately being loud foreigners, others were unlikely to share with us. The highlights were probably the baths that sloshed about with the swell, and my first solar eclipse – well, at least the first that I could recall.
FRF is officially a three-day event, running from Friday morning until late on Sunday night though for those who come early there is an opening party held on the Thursday night. Having the festival held in a ski-resort area during summer gives festival goers an abundance of accommodation options: from the pure-festival-experience option of camping, through to the VIP lodgings of the Naeba Prince Hotel. The camping area is on the lower slopes of the ski-resort, and those unlucky enough not to arrive early will find themselves setting up their tent on seemingly impossible gradients.
We arrived both times early on to make sure we weren’t one of those people that had a 45-minute walk to their tent, which was set on a black diamond run. As usual, it was raining and the ground was muddy. There is something that feels wrong about setting up tents in the rain. At least we were only on a 5-10% gradient, and only 20 minutes walk from the entrance.
Of course, the rain didn’t last for ever, and when the sun came out, the full heat of Japanese summer hit us, crushing us with the humidity that we knew was only going to feed the clouds that were later going to dump rain back onto us. The queues for the showers and hot springs were eternal (and almost as bad as the queues for the portaloos), so we were incredibly grateful for knowledge passed down to us from some FRF Veterans about the nearby creek, with its alpine fresh water.
While the lineup up is usually truly amazing (though, your mileage may vary), it’s the atmosphere and the beautiful location that would get me returning. Think giant mountains, surrounded by trees and fresh mountain air while watching Vampire Weekend entice people as far as you can see to get out of their camp chairs and jump around. It’s sensory bliss.
The spectators are also a different breed to what is generally experienced in the West. People are happy to sit back, relax and take in the music. And when I say sit back, they do just that, bringing in camp chairs, inflatable mattresses and tarpaulins. Not even the deafening metal of The Melvins is enough to stop some people dozing off for an afternoon powernap 15m from their enormous speaker stacks.
Sadly (for my photo collection), they had a very aggressive stance against photography. The upside of this was less people with cameras/phones in your face trying to take low-res blurry photos. I’m happy with the compromise. And a sneaky shot of Hot Chip.
Like many large music festivals, it’s spread out among several stages that tend to cater for a certain genre of music, from electronic beats through to hippies with acoustic guitars and bongos. To walk from one end to the other requires you budget at least 30 minutes. It’s forgiven because the commute between the stages are via beautiful forest paths lined with art and the occasional hidden stage/bar/restaurant. Though, a word of warning, the paths do turn to mud with the inevitable rain (so bring suitable footwear).
Unlike any other festival that I have ever been to, the food here is genuinely a highlight. It’s almost as much of an attraction as the music itself. Honestly. There are vendors selling any and every variation of food that you can imagine, from Russian sausages through to Spanish paella, British fish-n-chips, Turkish kebabs, Italian pizzas, Thai curries and plenty of Japanese cuisine. And at ¥500 for a delicious Thai curry, I was in heaven.
While I appreciate that a ‘rock festival’ isn’t to everybody’s taste, to those of you who are interested in live music, because of its unmatchable ambience, beautiful setting and the cultural differences of the spectators, FRF should be added to your ‘must see festivals’ lists. At the top. In bold.