x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Fuji Rock: Japan's clean, green and safe 16-year spectacle

Fuji Rock, the biggest music festival in Japan, opens on Friday in the idyllic confines of the postcard-perfect green mountains, forests and valleys of Naeba in Niigata prefecture.

Crowds fill a forest in the Japanese resort of Naeba for the 2010 edition of Fuji Rock Festival. Diva Zappa / Corbis
Crowds fill a forest in the Japanese resort of Naeba for the 2010 edition of Fuji Rock Festival. Diva Zappa / Corbis

The green hills are awash with a rainbow-coloured sea of tents, armies of rubber-boot-clad rock fans are marching along muddy paths and the strains of music can be heard across fields and forests from a network of stages.

This may sound like just another year at Glastonbury. But upon closer inspection, it is clear this is no typical rock festival: the portaloos are constantly replenished with toilet paper; there are polite queues not just for beer but also for recycling rubbish into neat piles; and cigarettes are lit up only in dedicated smoking areas.

There is even a spa area with natural hot-spring water where revellers can indulge in an activity rarely associated with the muddy business of rock festivals - namely washing.

Welcome to Fuji Rock, the biggest music festival in Japan, which opens on Friday in the idyllic confines of the postcard-perfect green mountains, forests and valleys of Naeba in Niigata prefecture, about 190 kilometres north-west of the capital.

The three-day event, which has been running since 1997, was inspired by England's most famous festival, Glastonbury, in terms of its rural setting, mix of nature and music and quality headline acts.

But in reality, 15,200km or so is not the only gap between the two events: Fuji Rock remains a quintessentially Japanese affair, renowned as one of the cleanest, greenest and safest music festivals in the world.

This is perhaps one reason why international artists rush to perform at the event - this year's line up includes Björk, Mumford & Sons, Cat Power and The XX - and 140,000 revellers are expected to descend upon Naeba this weekend.

Among them is Sayori Wada, 26, an illustrator from Tokyo, who is packing her bags (with plenty of mosquito repellent) and heading to Fuji Rock for the first time.

"I'm a Fuji Rock virgin," she says. "Every summer, everyone seems to be talking about Fuji Rock but I've never made it in the past.

"This year, I decided to buy a ticket and go. I'm more into hip-hop and jazz than rock but the line-up looks like a good mix.

"There are Japanese bands but I think the international acts attract the most attention. The performance I want to see most is Kendrick Lamar, the US hip-hop artist. I can't wait."

The festival started with a bang of the unwelcome variety: the inaugural 1997 event, set near its namesake Mount Fuji, attracted 30,000 people but was cancelled halfway through its headline set by the Red Hot Chili Peppers when a typhoon struck.

Fast-forward 16 years and the event is a decidedly more slick affair. Now relocated to Naeba - taking less than two hours from Tokyo by bullet train and local shuttle bus - there are seven key stages, the main being The Green stage, with a 50,000-strong capacity.

A string of picturesque pathways throughout the festival cut through woodland and across springs and venues including the Field of Heaven, Red Marquee, Orange Court and the White Stage.

Testimony to its wintertime status as a well-known ski resort, the site is also home to Dragondola, the world's longest gondola, providing a bird's-eye view over the festival grounds.

This coming weekend, as many as 15,000 staff will be working across the festival alongside the 140,000-strong crowds, who have each forked out either ¥43,000 (Dh1,571) for three days, or ¥19,000 for one day at the event.

The brains behind Fuji Rock is Smash, a music promotion company specialising in festivals and concerts, employing about 30 full-time staff in three offices in Tokyo, Osaka and London.

"Being a Japanese festival, the event is not typical of western festival style," says Johnnie Fingers, a director at Smash and, incidentally, a former founding member of the Irish rock band Boomtown Rats alongside Sir Bob Geldof.

"Fuji Rock is possibly the cleanest festival in the world and despite bars staying open until 5am, there are no fights and little or no crime, even in the camp areas. There are also events which are Japanese - at the opening party, we have a 'Bon dance' involving traditional dancers and drummers in national costume."

Centre stage at the festival, however, is undoubtedly its "green" concept.

The festival has a zero rubbish policy, with all rubbish created during the event painstakingly divided into five categories on site before being recycled.

Toilet paper - frequently replenished in the on-site portaloos - is made from cups and cigarette packaging from the previous year's festival, while staff wear jackets made from recycled plastic bottles.

Old chopsticks from the previous year are also turned into wood pellets for fuel for stoves, while even the rubbish bags handed out to festivalgoers are made from recycled plastic bottles.

Despite its size, another key aspect of Fuji Rock's signature style is an emphasis on minimal corporate intervention, as is clear from the scant information available in relation to sponsorship.

Although the festival has 10 to 15 sponsors this year - including Heineken, HMV, Timberland and Pocari Sweat - these are promoted in a minimal way compared with other international festivals, with names appearing in tiny print at the bottom of Fuji Rock promotional material.

"We have a policy of keeping sponsorship very low key. They are only mentioned in small print on flyers and posters," says Mr Fingers, who prefers not to mention any sponsors by name.

"There are no sponsorship banners permitted on site near any of the stages," he says.

"It is very important that the enjoyment focuses on a music and camping weekend in the untouched countryside."

The bucolic landscape and its impeccable green credentials are perhaps not the only pull for international artists, many of whom return to Fuji Rock year after year: another attraction is Japan's music industry.

Defying global digital trends and the oft-quoted mantra "CDs are dead", Japan is home to the world's biggest market in terms of physical music sales, according to Bloomberg News.

Figures from the recording industry association of Japan recently showed sales in the country rose 3 per cent last year to US$4.3 billion - the first increase in five years - pushing the United States off the top spot.

Fuelling the rise in physical music sales are CDs, many of which are increasingly sold hand-in-hand with clever promotional tactics, such as including tickets to events to meet the artists.

However, experts warn physical sales of music in Japan are dominated by a small number of bands - such as AKB48, Japan's biggest-selling girl group - with many followers buying multiple copies of the same CD.

"Japan is the last major music market for on-demand music streaming. While physical sales went up overall in 2012, this was based on a handful of releases. Japan will enter the streaming sphere soon enough,' says Sebastian Mair, the president of the consultancy firm Music Solutions.

"Once this happens, the market for international artists should improve as well as opportunities to perform in Japan.

"Much of Asia is now opening up for touring so, while fees might get smaller in Japan, full-fledged tours of Asia should help lessen the burden."

The appeal of Fuji Rock as an event in itself, however, remains clear. "Most of the artists I've talked to really love performing at Fuji Rock," he says.

"It has a great community vibe and a beautiful location. There's a real community of 'Fuji Rockers'. The festival has kept its grassroots, community vibe as opposed to going overly corporate."

And it is this atmosphere - along with the high-quality line-up, natural setting and eco-credentials - that is most likely the biggest attraction for Ms Wada and the other 140,000 music fans packing their bags and heading there this weekend.