So Fuji Rock Festival, ya’ll! Fuji Rock, held at the end of July, is arguably the big daddy of all music festivals in Japan. It and the Summer Sonic Festival, held mid-August, compete for the biggest international headliners, although either one is great if you’re new to the Japanese music scene and want to sample some new artists within the safety net of more well-known international acts to fall back on. So how do you pick?
Fuji Rock is set amongst the lush mountains and greens of the Naeba Ski Resort located in Niigata prefecture. On top of the music, it prides itself on being an eco-friendly event and that depends on volunteer help along with hired workers to keep everything running smoothly. Most people camp out as long as they’re attending, so expect to encounter a lot of hippy and mountain girl/boy types. There’s a lot of drinking and bonding with others/the earth going on over good music and eats.
Summer Sonic, on the other hand, is pretty much about music and music only. Summer Sonic tends to feature more pop and billboard/oricon chart acts than Fuji Rock. There’s no camping on premises or any extra frills. That said, Summer Sonic’s one-day ticket is almost half the price of Fuji Rock. Fuji Rock can really add up with all the extra traveling, camping, parking, etc. expenses tacked on to the original ticket price. One of the girls I was chatting with at the festival blew about half her month’s salary on transport, 3 day festival ticket, and 3 nights at the nearby Prince Hotel. Reasonable accommodation outside of roughing it is few and far between.
But if you know me, you know I like doing things on a budget and I’m not very outdoorsy. So without further ado, here’s my take on how to do Fuji Rock for one day as a single, female traveler, and as cheaply as possible without camping. 🙂
To be honest, I hadn’t planned on attending Fuji Rock this year. I felt the line-up was a bit weak compared to previous years when I didn’t have the time off or extra cash to go, and I didn’t really want to bother unless I had confidence it was going to be absolutely epic. There were only a handful of artists I was crazy enough over to make the trip out for, unfortunately spread all across Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Then St. Vincent announced she was playing and I was completely sold to at least make it out for Saturday, so I started planning.
My job did this shitty thing where I had Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday off, but not the Friday, and I didn’t want to get docked any pay for using more than my 2 “sick days” allowance. This meant I could only go Saturday and/or Sunday, but buying two one-day tickets is about the same amount as buying a full 3 day pass, so in the end I just settled for the Saturday. I recommend buying your tickets during pre-sale to save a little cash. This year’s pre-sale tickets period started from March, just to give you somewhat of a time frame reference.
Getting to Fuji Rock is fairly easy if you use the shinkansen, but it’s not exactly cheap unless you live or will already be in Tokyo. Take the Jōetsu shinkansen from Ueno Station (Tokyo) all the way out to Echigo Yuzawa, which currently costs 6,660 yen ($67 USD). I’m not a Tokyo resident so I would’ve had to pay an additional 4,000 yen + ($40+ USD) each way to make the trip this way.
Carpooling is probably your most economical choice if you can swing it. I had other friends attending Fuji Rock Festival, but as volunteers or going on different days than me, so I was out of luck. As a solo female, I wasn’t really too comfortable traveling with strangers, but if you’re down for it sometimes you can find carpool info on the Coachella Fuji Rock Threads or try the Fuji Rockers Facebook page.
In the end, I decided the cheapest/most time efficient option for me would be to take an overnight bus departing from Kawasaki on Friday night, arriving at Nagaoka early the next morning. From there I could take the Jōetsu line down to Echigo Yuzawa and make use of the free shuttle to and from the festival grounds. To make the most of my stay, I booked my return overnight bus on Sunday night instead, giving me a little more time at the festival Saturday night, and an opportunity to sightsee around Niigata on Sunday.
Round trip for the bus was under 10,000 yen ($100 USD) through Willer Express. I didn’t need to book accommodation for Friday night since I would be sleeping on the bus, which was nice. Other reasons I booked this bus were because of sectional curtains for privacy/easy sleeping, as well as an outlet to keep your cellphone charged. (The bus claimed to have “wide relax” seats, but I don’t think anyone over a women’s size US 14 or anyone over 170 cm tall would have found them very comfortable.) So with everything booked and tickets bought I only had to wait, and finally the end of July crept closer. If you’re wondering about which ticket type is best for you, there’s a First Timer’s guide here.
I packed everything up in an overnight bag in advance. The official page gives you a good list on what to bring, and here’s my take:
- A towel because you will sweat like crazy
- A hat or another face towel to drape over your head
- A bath towel and toiletries if you’re camping or you plan on staying at an internet cafe (for using the shower room)
- Good walking shoes (I wore sturdy sandals for coolness/convenience because I didn’t have any hiking shoes/boots, and I was fine granted it didn’t rain, but your feet will love you more if you don’t go in sandals like the official page suggests.)
- Insect repellant (I didn’t want to keep reapplying so I bought a 2 pack of repellant bracelets, and wore one on my wrist and another on as an anklet. It worked well, no bites. 😉 )
- In case of rain, a rain poncho (clear sky forecast for Saturday, so I didn’t bother)
- Pocket tissues if you plan on using the port-a-potties
- Cool pads/strips (any drugstore)
- Some kind of cleansing sheet/wipe for freshening up (any drugstore)
- A water bottle or refillable water pack
- A small leisure mat (100 yen store or any home center)
- A portable charger if you plan on using your phone
- A camera if you’re not taking pictures on your phone
- Enough cash to tide you over, because no ATMs/credit cards are accepted at the festival
- Your tickets, of course!
That Friday night after work I went home, showered quickly, picked up my overnight bag, and then hopped on a local train out to Kawasaki. Willer’s bus stop is located near La Cittadella shopping mall, which has a lot of good restaurants to dine/hang at until it’s time to head over to the stop. Definitely eat a big meal before and/or bring food to tide you over until you get to Fuji Rock. There’s not really anything besides sandwiches or snacks leaving from Kawasaki to your arrival at the festival. Nothing inside Nagaoka station or Echigo Yuzawa station will be open early morning, and there are no coffee shops or family restaurants around within walking distance.
When I arrived at Nagaoka Station a little after 5:00 a.m., it was already unbearably hot. While I waited for the first Jōetsu local line out I went ahead and changed clothes and freshened up in the bathroom. Surprisingly the bathrooms near the platform entrance gate were pretty nice, and not your usual stinky, squat toilet-only option.
If you want to pay for your local fare ticket by credit card, buy your tickets in advance because the JR Midori no Madoguchi at Nagaoka station doesn’t open until 6:00 a.m. after the first train out has already left. The train ride clocks in at a little over an hour, but the views of the farming countryside and mountains were pretty sweet.
When I got to Echigo Yuzawa I took a walk around the station before boarding the shuttle. I put my overnight bag in one of the station’s many coin lockers, but later saw they also had a few vacant coin lockers at the festival site that would have been more convenient to use. If you go the coin locker route there, make sure you have exact change in 100 yen coins. Do board the shuttle before 9:00 a.m. if you can. From that point on the line starts to get crazy and you might spend 30 min. plus in the blistering heat waiting for a shuttle.
If you’ve only got one day, I recommend making a time table of artists you want see and familiarize yourself with the festival layout so you know how much to allot for walking from stage to stage to make the most of your time. My time table looked like this:
arrival – 10:00: Exchange wristbands, explore, grab breakfast
10:00 – 11:30: Ride the Dragondolas
11:30 – 12:10: The Novembers @ Red Marquee
1:10 – 2:00: White Lung @ White Stage
2:50 – 3:40: SiM @ White Stage
3:50 – 4:40: Travis @ Green Stage
6:20 – 7:20: St. Vincent @ Red Marquee
Upon arrival I just followed the crowd, and bought cool strips at the kiosk set up near the wristband exchange. This is also pretty much your last chance for a non-port-a-potty toilet break or a bathroom with sinks. Lots of women were brushing their teeth here. They’ve got food and festival/artist goods stalls inside the wristband exchange area, but I didn’t tempt myself by checking them out. The exchange lines moved pretty quick, and then I was off!
The Dragondolas entrance is located near the Red Marquee stage, so I decided to avoid a lot of extra walking and bought a mango shake and a jerk chicken avocado pita from one of the World Restaurant stands nearby. Extra bonuses are the umbrella tables set out amongst the shady areas to eat at. Sorry guys, no pictures of food and drink because I was so hungry I pretty much devoured it all in one fell swoop and was rewarded with brain freeze.
There was a nice father/son and stall worker sitting at the same table, and we listened to the little boy tell us all about Yo-kai Watch, a TV show that’s recently become a kid favorite. It’s kind of like Pokemon with ghosts instead of Pokemon, in a nutshell. The friendly people and atmosphere is one of the big perks about Fuji Rock.
After my quick meal I lined up for a Dragondola ticket. I’ve ridden gondolas before, but none compared to the Dragondolas. The ride is a near 7 km line suspended across multiple mountain tops. It takes about 15-20 minutes to each way, which feels more like 30 minutes when you’re as scared shitless of heights as I am. The cost to ride during Fuji Rock there and back is 1,200 yen ($12 USD), which is about half the price if you were to give it a go any other season. Since I rode so early in the day, there were hardly any lines coming and going.
After I reached the other side I took some time to chill over some tea in one of the air conditioned eateries with real booths. This place had the nicest bathrooms you’ll find in the whole area, reasonably roomy with toilet cleansing spray and no shortage of TP. If you’ve got to take a crap, change, or do anything that you wouldn’t want to do in a port-a-potty, I suggest you do it here. One of the perks of being a teacher is that you soon master the art of peeing on schedule and/or holding it in. So due to my l33t ninja bathroom skills, thankfully, I didn’t have the displeasure of visiting any of the port-a-potties that day.
I got back in time to catch the Novembers as scheduled, but since the Red Marquee area was pretty packed, I just hung back and chilled in the background. Nice feel good stuff for an early afternoon. I recommend giving them a listen if you already haven’t. Their style ranges between easy listening rock songs like “Kyou mo Ikita ne” and harder numbers like “Tetsu no Yume“. Between their set and White Lung I had some time to explore some of the other stages and people watch.
I wasn’t sure how crowded things would be and I wanted to be pretty close for White Lung, so I approached the stage about 30 minutes early and it was still pretty clear. I nabbed a second row center spot, which became a front row spot once their set and the moshing started. I think unless it’s a Green Stage performance or a sub-headlinder/headliner act, you can probably get there about 30-40 minutes before any set and land the 1st-3rd rows.
It was clear not a lot of people knew White Lung, but people flocked over once they started and seemed pretty down. There was a decent amount of moshing with a little crowd surfing. Props to the security guys who were on it and safely caught everyone. Although there were few MCs, Mish said they were glad to be in Japan for the first time and wished they could join the mosh pit. Mostly they just did their thing, and I think they had some trouble making the 50 min. set last due to lack of MCs and most of their songs only clocking in around 2-3 minutes. Or maybe they expected the crowd to be a little more riled up? IDK.
I really like White Lung, but Mish’s vocals sing/yell vocals don’t differ much between songs, and I can see how that turns some off from their music, or in the very least makes it seem like every song is just an extension of the previous one. At the same time, I like the charm in setting yourself up this way to let the music be the focal point over appealing to a range of feelings through vocal style, and having your set be a rush/trance you get caught up in until it ends. If you’re new to them, I recommend “In Your Home“, although other songs like “Drown With the Monster” better represent their stage style.
White Stage area has no shade, food stalls, or much of anything in the way of drinks besides a Pocari Sweat stand and a Heineken stand. The sun was beating down by then, so I decided to stake out a spot in the back for SiM where I could put down my leisure sheet and cool off. Speaking of food and refreshment, budget about 200 yen for each plastic bottle drink, 600 yen for beer, and 500-800 yen for most food dishes.
SiM definitely didn’t let the heat affect their performance any. They really got the crowd going, moshing, running, and slam dancing. The vocalist, Mah, switches between this hardcore persona during songs and being overly emotional about the support they’ve received over the years during MCs. I kinda dig that transition between vulnerability and invulnerability; it’s definitely not something you see with most artists in the genre. If you like a mix of punk, rock, ska, electronic, etc. you’ll probably like them. “Who’s Next?” gives you a good idea on how well they can mix it up (the break is amazing), but really anything by them is pretty solid. Easily the best showmanship of any set I saw the entire day. Bad parenting shoutout to the father who left his 5-6 year old son to fend for himself while he went off to join the mosh pit, though.
The walk from the White Stage to the Green Stage is a bit of a stretch, so I didn’t catch the beginning of Travis’s entire set, nor could I even find a spot where they were visible, so once again I laid out the leisure sheet over liquid refreshment. Shared cool strips with a woman who looked pretty bad from the heat, and dozed off for a few. I don’t know why Travis are so underrated as far as big acts go; it’s hard to find much fault with any of their albums. I particularly enjoy their The Man Who album.
After the set I packed it up and went back to the World Restaurant stall area for a bacon, cheese, and mushroom galette from the French eatery and some kickass cider from the English stall beside it. Both really hit the spot, and then I went on to work on snaking my way up near the front during the last 20 minutes of Gotch’s set so I could take out a front row spot for St. Vincent. I’m an on/off fan of Asian Kung-Fu Generation, and I like Masafumi Gotō as a vocalist, but for some reason I just can’t get into Gotch. (I think it’s because his solo work sounds just like every other folky, acoustic Japanese pop-rock band ATM to the point that even awesome instrumentation can’t save it.) Their set finally ended with much fanfare/cheering from the crowd, and I successfully darted in and secured a front row spot. 😀
It’s a good thing I moved fast because people were already lining up, which I wasn’t expecting. I didn’t realize St. Vincent had previously toured years back and she had a bit of a following established already. There was a cool group of people around me I chatted with that made the wait time time go by like nothing. Then before we knew it her set started, and from the very first step St. Vincent took onto the stage she was amazing.
I’m like 99.9% sure her setlist was the same as the Pitchfork performance she did, which if you haven’t seen… Well then, what are you waiting for?!
- “Digital Witness”
- “Every Tear Disappears”
- “Prince Johnny”
- “Birth in Reverse”
- “Huey Newton”
- “Bring Me Your Loves”
- “Your Lips Are Red”
I loved everything from her coordinated, digitalized movements, to her stage reenactments of being resurrected through the music. During the last song she came down towards the barriers and put herself within reach of the audience, playing guitar piggyback on one of the tour managers’s shoulders. It was amazing; she was amazing- what more can I say?
It pains me to say, but after St. Vincent there weren’t really any other acts I was interested in. Neither Arcade Fire nor Manic Street Preachers do anything for me, and although I was kind of curious about seeing Yoko Ono, I wasn’t willing to wait another hour for a good view. I wandered the festival for awhile longer, and then cut out early.
If you’re not camping or staying around the festival/Echigo Yuzawa, the last shinkansen out is a little past 11:00 p.m. You’ll need to set aside about 40 minutes for the free shuttle ride and another 40 min. – 1 hour for making your way to the shuttle line and waiting to ride, which actually means leaving the festival around 9:30 p.m. if you safely want to make it anywhere out of Echigo Yuzawa for the night, and about an hour earlier than that if you’re taking the shinkansen back to Tokyo.
Because I was planning on sightseeing in Niigata the next day, I rode on up to Niigata station, weighing between the choices of staying at a manga/internet cafe (budget around 2,000 yen for a night pack and shower room use) or a cheap business hotel like Toyoko Inn.
I ended up going with the latter, and if you check in with Toyoko Inn after midnight you can get rates around or under 5,000 yen/night for a single, including a (rather unimpressive) breakfast buffet the next morning. Their Niigata Station Front Hotel had the added bonus of having an onsite 24 hour weekends Royal Host located on the first floor. After a complete meal and a good shower I was ready to crash.
All in all, I really enjoyed my time at Fuji Rock and had an amazing first time experience. I can only imagine it being better if it’d been a girls trip out, or if I’d been able to hit up the Paris Cafe or some of the more out of the way stuff I kind of gave up on because one day just wasn’t enough to do it all. If any of you guys made it out to the festival as well, I hope ya’ll had just as much of a blast as I did!
P.S. Apologies for not updating last week. Work was killing me on top of a major case of summer exhaustion, or natsubate. To make up for it, I’ll be making two separate posts this week, this one and another for sightseeing in Niigata. Check back soon! 😉