A first timer's foray to Fuji Rock Festival
Perched on a natural grass amphitheater that descends to an enormous live stage in the wooded Mount Takenoko in Naeba, peaks rising in the distance, I look around to discover I might be the only first-timer here. Cascading down the slope to Fuji Rock Festival's mighty Green Stage is a technicolor sea of portable chairs, picnic tables and tarpaulins, a sure sign that 14 years in, Japan's most iconic music event has become a staple for music fans who were far more prepared than I.
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Even accounting for its glorious -- if tricky to reach -- location in the peaks of Niigata, Fuji Rock stands out as one of the great world festivals, maintaining an atmosphere like no other. Despite occasional drizzle over the course of the three days that turned patches of the sprawling site into thick gloopy mud, the diligence of each and every attendee to take any shred of trash with them and carefully separate them into designated drop boxes means that while you are surrounded by tens of thousands of people, you can also feel at ease in unblemished nature.
Influenced by the ecological theme of England's Glastonbury Festival, Fuji Rock provides exercise among the hillsides via atmospheric boardwalks that meander through the forest, past villages of hammocks and sweet-smelling organic food stalls, leading all the way down to hippy hangout Stone Circle, nearly an hour's walk from the iconic site entrance. En route the full range of aural delights that music can provide emanate from a multitude of stages, floating with the near permanent mist above to the almost meditative audiences.
Local vs. Western moods
An abundance of quality food from around the world -- not to mention organic wine bars and Western-style drinking holes -- complement the diversity of acts performing nearly 24 hours a day. But while the international influence of the festival is abundant, the mood among the crowd is decidedly hushed. Whether throngs of people are swarming towards an unmissable performance, milling around the more obscure podiums that are scattered from the peaks of the mountains to the depths of the woods, or sat patiently between sets in the open spaces of the monster stages, the Japanese crowd keeps to itself.
A tell-tale sign of the difference of Western attitude to festivities and the local contingent is played out each night at the curious Crystal Palace Tent, that features human cannonball's, post-apocalyptic style rides and DJs until 7 a.m. With alcohol dished out in generous portions it's the site to find Tokyo's foreign community living it large until the sun is welcoming back most of the previous night's revelers.
Almost coming second to creating the perfect ecological rock extravaganza are the bands themselves, who merely soundtrack proceedings. The opening day saw London hotshots The xx perform a set that repeatedly threatened to entrance the crowd before letting them down in indulgent morose monotony. Them Crooked Vultures delivered a thunderous set with drummer Dave Grohl seemingly intent on literally moving mountains, while U.K. native Corinne Bailey Rae brightened up the crowd with a soulful set of crafted pop. Closing out the first night's main stage shenanigans, another U.K. band, Muse, delivered a master-class of space-age stadium rock complete with glittering costumes and anime visuals.
Super groups are back
On day two, Fuji revealed some slightly poor booking schedules, a relatively weak line-up left the fields half-empty to witness a breezy and playful Jamie Cullum work up the lazy-afternoon revelers, before former Creedence Clearwater Revival frontman John Fogerty rolled back the years to play a string of hits including the rambunctious "Have You Ever Seen The Rain?". Green Stage headliners Roxy Music seemed suprisingly out of their depth on the big stage, causing a bottleneck of fans diverting to MGMT on the second largest White Stage, though consensus seemed to be that they too failed to live up to billing, perhaps due to the same flat sound that dulled the great Bryan Ferry in the Roxy set.
The final day brought out the big guns and fans with one-day tickets seemed to pile in to see New Yorker's Vampire Weekend run through a tight and polished set of African-infused indie rock, one of the highlights of the festival. Thom Yorke's Atoms For Peace kept the indie-art rock going, the unit featuring Red Hot Chilli Pepper's bassist Flea and delivering much of his "The Eraser" solo album in funk style, though it was the solo session of Yorke at a piano that brought the most moving moment with a spine-tingling reading of Radiohead song "Videotape".
The Red Marquee, home mostly to dance acts, provided respite from the intensive noodlings with Scottish dance act Hot Chip driving the crowd wild and proving themselves as a far better -- and kooky -- live act than their patchy records suggest. Mellow French electronic duo Air then swayed the crowd with dream-like soundscapes until pop hits "Sexy Boy" and "Kelly Watch The Stars" had them in full voice.
The main stage's last act (bar extra late-night special guests The Scissor Sisters) was to bring the dark, spooky cinematic creepiness of Bristol-base collective Massive Attack to the forest, who duly delivered a mesmerizing and sometimes hypnotizing set that culminated with the pulsing "Atlas Air" as the drizzle appropriately descended.