This story was first published in the Herald Sun & Daily Telegraph's Travel section in 2010.
Burlesque cabaret. Lightning bolt battles. Disco ball-lit boardwalks through 20-metre high pine forest. Laser shows in underground bunkers. Outrageous fashions. The world's biggest bands. More than 100,000 people.
Welcome to Fuji Rock.
Held over three days and three nights in July each year, the Fuji Rock Festival is Japan's biggest outdoor music festival. Located among the pine-laden hills of Naeba, Japan (nowhere near Mount Fuji as its name suggests -- the first event in 1997 was indeed held at the base of 'Fuji San', but was cancelled half-way through due to a typhoon), Fuji Rock hosts more than 100 bands across six stages, attracting some of the biggest names in music. The Beastie Boys, Arcade Fire, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Iggy Pop, The White Stripes and Muse are just a few of the bigger names to have graced the Fuji Rock stages in recent years.
However to call it Japan's answer to music mega-events such as Lollapalooza, Glastonbury or Australia's own Big Day Out is to do it a major disservice. While this is an event that will attract thousands based on the lineup alone, Fuji Rock is arguably the biggest and best insight into Japanese youth culture any traveller could hope for.
The immediate impression upon arriving in Naeba is that this event is unmistakably Japanese. Our shinkanzen (bullet train) from Tokyo arrived with second-perfect accuracy, buses were waiting for us upon exit from Echigo Yuzawa train station to take us to the festival site -- and our Japanese host Hanako had even arranged for our tents and supplies to be mailed and picked up at the site.
Beyond the refreshing efficiencies, however, the passion for this event amongst attendees is inspiring. The online chatter over prospective Fuji Rock lineup announcements keep thousands glued to web forums for half of the year. By the time we arrived at the festival site in the mid-afternoon prior to the opening night party, hundreds had already been queuing patiently for hours -- not to get in to the festival -- but simply to get a prized official Fuji Rock t-shirt. The campsite, based on the Naeba mountain golf course, had already been turned into a mini city full of amusing pop-culture oddities. It's not every day you enter a campsite entry guarded by a metre-high Spongeboy Squarepants wearing S&M gear. By the time our tents were set up amongst the plush green grass of the Naeba golf course, bottles of shochu (a barley-based alternative to sake) were being passed around amidst repeat acoustic renditions of 'Kaze Wo Atsumete', the iconic Japanese folk song from 70s folk band Happy End.
For some people, however, the simple suggestion of attending a multi-day camping-based music festival is a no-go, regardless of where it is, or how enticing the lineup looks. No matter how much they love a particular band, many a music fan will have questioned their commitment during moments of mud-covered mess, rain-soaked sleeping bags, designated drinking areas serving overpriced beer -- and food choices that consists of little more than two-day old egg & bacon rolls.
Fuji Rock is the antithesis of these painful memories. In a country where politeness is known to frustrate some first-time visitors, here these manners seem to morph simply into a refreshing charm. Along with the plush green grass of the golf course-based campsite, there are a plethora of hotels are located within minutes of the site; this is, after all, a ski resort during the winter. And the food options available -- from New York-style bagels, plates of French-style coq au vin, to an endless array of Japanese staples -- ensure the obligatory 4am bucket of chips are definitely not necessary.
For people watchers, this is Utopia. Japanese teenagers are renowned for their crazy attire -- but give them the freedom of three days away from the real world and the most welcoming of vibes -- the styles and characters on display at FujiRock are mind-boggling. Whilst seeing a group of Mexican-style Lucha Libre wrestlers walking arm-in-arm with a group of Japanese schoolgirls is more than a little amusing, after a few hours it becomes the relative norm.
And with some of the biggest names in music gracing the lineup, the big stages attract huge crowds. However it is in the discovery of unknown or unplanned gems where Fuji Rock stands out. Magicians, hip-hop artists, DJs -- and occasionally, some of the headline acts -- can be found playing amongst the trees to less than thirty people. Seeing the likes of Primal Scream, Underworld and Bloc Party play to 40,000 people did provide plenty of highlights, but seeing a Japanese magician performing at 4.30am next to a block of toilets proved just as memorable.
The smallest attention to detail -- such as the placement of candles, mirror balls or artwork across the site is given loving commitment and attention. Boardwalk pathways through nearby pine forests provide plenty of opportunity for respite from the crowds, as does a 20-minute cable car ride to a 'relaxation zone' on top of the nearest mountain. On an evening wander through a quieter part of the site, finding a group standing silently in a dug-out bunker with lasers and a mirrorball, lighting the forest trees for the benefit of passers-by, provided one of my biggest highlights.
However some key parts of the Fuji Rock experience are simply a great testament to the fact that the Japanese know how to party as well as anyone. The festival's 'Palace Of Wonder' zone is home to a Speigeltent cabaret venue featuring all manner of burlesque revelry, a casino hosted by local girls dressed as French maids, and an outdoor bar where robotic dogs roar fear into revellers. This area is home to some of each year's most talked-about artists, who in 2008 were two silent performers known as the 'Lords of Lightning', who stood on electrified podiums, firing bolts of lightning, Star Wars-style, at each other.
Label Fuji Rock simply as a big music festival and you're selling it far too short. It's an insight into the style, attitude and dedication to artistic expression of Japanese youth that no guidebook or even stroll through Tokyo's hippest neighbourhoods can match.