Tag Archives: Outdoor Japan

REVIEWS // Lively Up Yourself (2006)

Sometimes you come across something that you just can’t resist. So it was when I learned about the inaugural Reggae Snow Splash event in one of Japan’s premier ski areas. I knew the organisers through other ventures and decided that it was an event that I couldn’t miss – an unusual combination (reggae and winter sports) but an irresistible one all the same. Pulling together a small crew of likely sorts, we set off by bus from the the heart of the city bound for the Japan Alps.

The event itself was undoubtedly the party of the year. Through all the fun and games, I managed to write up a review of the event and throw in a little ‘gonzo‘ background to the trip too.

The resulting review got published on a Canadian website named The Foreigner – Japan that I got a couple of other pieces published at too. It can be found here. Having sent the review around a couple of other options too, I also ended up getting commissioned by Outdoor Japan to write the cover story for their Summer Music Festivals issue, posted elsewhere in this blog.

I wasn’t able to attend the second Reggae Snow Splash, in 2007, but I know that the organisers expanded the programme for it. I wish them the very best with it in the future and hope to see this fantastic event becoming a permanent fixture on the Japanese event calendar.

Event photos by Racer; Alpine scenery by Dom Pates.

Lively Up Yourself

Chalk and cheese. Salt and cornflakes. Some things are just not meant to go together and can make for an awful mess. However, some opposites can compliment each other. I once tried chocolate chilli at a Mexican restaurant, with great trepidation. It was delicious. British entrants are rarely expected to qualify for the Winter Olympics, yet the UK even came back from Turin with a medal this time around.

Reggae. Snow. Perhaps the last place you’d expect a reggae festival would be at a ski resort. Jamaica might be known for its Blue Mountains but certainly not any white ones. These days, such a sun-kissed sound is no longer confined to the Caribbean, but heard the world over. And Reggae Snow Splash (RSS), in the heart of the Japan Alps, made perfect sense.

The first event of its kind, it provided skiing and snowboarding by day, and live reggae and DJs by night – all at the site of the 1998 Winter Olympics. A bus was laid on to take merry revellers up to Nagano from Tokyo, and the event was put together guaranteeing a stress-free weekend away from the city. Faces from the Japanese reggae scene would be providing the entertainment and for partygoers not wishing to hit the slopes in the daytime, there was even a guided snowshoe hike through a beautiful mountainous setting, with winter forests and spiced wine to top it off.

My gang and I joined the Ski Babylon bus leaving on the Friday night. Once on the road, the passengers were all welcomed with a jerk chicken bento and a cup of ‘jungle juice’ to get us all in the mood – a fine attention to detail that showed the organisation that had gone into this event. Sat at the back and joined by one of the bands playing, we got into the swing pretty quickly.

The bus rolled into Hakuba and we joined the party at Tracks bar that had already kicked off. We partied until 3AM and then bowed out, for the slopes were drawing us later on.

On the main day itself, one and all were not quite up to tackling snowboarding straight away. After surfacing, we borrowed some bicycles from the lodge we were staying at and headed off for a ride through country with breathtaking alpine backdrops – a fine way to clear the foggy head. We stopped in Hakuba town at a restaurant called Uncle Stevens, and were served huge portions of delicious Mexican food at reasonable prices. On the way back, a visit to a nearby onsen was paid – a perfect way to relax and rejuvenate in preparation for the evening.

Back at Tracks, the main event was warmed up by local DJs and Caribbean Dandy, a unit from Tokyo on the leading edge of the reggae DJ scene in Japan. The first band on was Tex & the Sun Flower Seed, who describe their sound as ‘J-Po-ggae’ – a mix of reggae, ska, rocksteady and J-Pop. With eight people on stage and a tight yet loose sound, they made a commanding start to the live music. After a long day out on the slopes, the audience was a little slow to move at first, but Tex’s lively and inclusive set warmed them up quickly. Anchored in bass, horn laden and with a very lively frontman, the band’s sunny grooves won the audience over and had the whole room dancing away the remaining winter chills.

Cool Wise Men were the main act. Active messengers of the Jamaican roots music scene in Japan since forming in 1993, they were to bring the day to a climax and did so with great style. Some hot horn action was provided at the front by sax, trumpet and trombone, with rhythm, guitar and keys holding down the back. Soon enough, the place was jumping and grooving to the Wise Men’s traditional and rootsy sound. Sometimes, a well-known reggae refrain was thrown in. A good energy and solid stamina from them kept the crowd going throughout the night. Most of the material lacked vocals, but they weren’t missed. Cool Wise Men can be seen playing with Jamaican trombone legend Rico Rodriguez in Tokyo in May – a sure-fire hit show to be.

After their set, Caribbean Dandy played out the rest of the party and spun many fine, classic tunes, helping the happy Snow Splashers to keep on grooving till the small hours.

Up and about early the next day, we were on the slopes by mid-morning. As a former Winter Olympics site, Hakuba is well developed for a whole range of winter sports. There are many shops offering gear and wear rental, plus opportunities for beginners to learn from experienced instructors. Plenty of bars and restaurants provide much of the off-slope entertainment and the array of ubiquitous hot springs give the chance to rest those weary bones after all the excitement of plunging downhill fast. Other outdoor activities can also be enjoyed, such as trekking, hiking, and kayaking or rafting along the Himekawa River that flows through the resort. Many of the mountains in the range reach 3,000 metres high and it can be tough to beat the spectacular wintry alpine views from some of the peaks.

Mid afternoon, and all the partygoers gathered together for a final time to say goodbyes to new friends before the bus took everyone back to Tokyo. In terms of organisation, concept, attention to detail and vibe, I’d have to say that it was the best party I’ve been to in a long time. The tour guide on the bus even took the trouble to sing us a number with the on-board karaoke system as we rolled out of Hakuba!

On the return home, hanami season appeared to have kicked off in Kichijoji’s Inokashira Park, with many people partying under the blossoming cherry trees and welcoming in a new season.

So from Winter, must come Spring…


Reggae Snow Splash
Outdoor Japan
Hakuba Alps Backpackers Lodge

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Filed under 2006, Reviews

TRAVEL // Branded By The Bush (2007)

My second trip to Tanzania was longer than the first one and left even deeper impressions. This time I had some real chances to explore, including my first real safari – out in the wilderness and amongst the wildlife I’d longed to see since I was a very small boy.

The destination was Saadani Safari Lodge, a lodge in an astonishing place recently upgraded from the status of a Game Reserve to that of a National Park. The banda (beach hut) we stayed in was set on the exquisite coastal setting of the Indian Ocean, and the lodge offered safaris into the bush and out on the nearby river.

It was here that I earned my first bush stripes, on account of having gotten stuck in a dry river bed at the end of the stay and had to find our way out of the searing heat and unknown potential dangers of whatever lurked in the bush.

Back in Japan, I realised that I had a great story to tell. During the summer that followed my return, I began writing for ‘Outdoor Japan‘ and was keen to use this opportunity to tell my tale. I ended up writing a cover feature for them on summer music festivals, but the ‘survival in the African wilderness’ yarn I was longing to tell would remain untold that year.

In 2007, I started writing for Asia Player – an English-language ‘lad mag‘ based in Tokyo. Mostly, my contributions came in the form of a monthly music column, but Asia Player also finally gave me the longed-for chance to tell my own ‘Boy’s Own‘ story. It was great to also have the chance to write about ‘the bush’ and it not actually be about humanity’s ‘nemesis de jour‘!

In the end, they changed the narrative a little and the piece ended up with the perspective of the narrator making for slightly confusingly reading. However, it’s online and can be found here.

The piece as it was originally intended can be found below. All photos were taken on location by myself, except for the hammock one (taken by Hans Jamet).

Branded By The Bush

It was an unfettered paradise of such wild tranquillity. What matter now of timetables, bullet trains and pinnacles of modern convenience? His eyes drank in the vista. Still he was thirsty and still it went on. Apparently, you could sometimes spot elephants coming down to frolic in the surf.

He was there with his brother-in-law, a Frenchman keen to show the wilds of Africa to the new arrival. To get there, they had travelled through barren terrains, crossed the Pangani River on a dilapidated ferry and passed Maasai herders walking their livestock along the same centuries-old well trodden paths.

A swarthy and welcoming South African showed them around when they arrived, recommending starting with the pool. Beers in the water, lounging around in the shade, topped off with a siesta in the banda. The hut opened out onto the widest, empty stretch of long and glorious coastline the Tokyoite had ever seen. Lulled by the gentle fall of the breakers on the waves and a cooling breeze to billow the mosquito nets around him, he fell into the calmest sleep.

The purpose behind the expedition was for immersion in true wilderness – the first real safari. They began their adventure in an open Land Rover with an old British soldier and a local guide for company. Acacias and baobabs dotted the scrub. The only other signs of humanity were the tyre tracks running in parallel with the lion ones in the mud.

After a little training of the eyes, an abundance of wildlife began to appear – graceful waterbuck hiding out in the long grass, elegant giraffes striking poses against the savannah skyline, gangs of warthogs scuttling through the undergrowth, brightly coloured rollers flitting from bush to bush. That evening, with the breezes of the Indian Ocean wafting through and at tables lit overhead by lobster pot lanterns, they ate with their safari companions and drank themselves senseless.

The following day, they set out on a small boat to explore the Wami River and entered the territory of Conrad’s dreams and nightmares. Submerged hippos eyed them from murky depths. Crocs on the banks gave a flash of tail to remind of their presence. The river bank was teeming with life. Monitor lizards basked in the sun while brilliant kingfishers darted, flashing red or blue amongst the vegetation. Herons and ghostly egrets perched atop the forest canopy or loitered, stock still in the shallow waters.

They later headed out in their own vehicle, surveying the bush from the luxury of an air-conditioned Toyota Land Cruiser. The Frenchman was in his element, playing up his role as the knowledgeable Africa man, an expert in his field with tales to tell.

It had been an almost too perfect experience – heavenly beaches, complete immersion in raw and unbridled nature, the remarkable contrast between teeming Asian hub and wide open spaces under African skies. Something was missing. The guys that spent their lives in the bush had tales of struggles endured and how they’d earned their stripes. The Tokyoite had nothing but surface. Tick boxes in a field guide. He’d not had the bush seared into his being. It came at the last minute.

Early morning, checked out, one final safari before hitting the road. Through the open scrubland and cushioned from the searing heat in their Land Cruiser. Down a dip…must be a dried river bed…looks like tyre tracks…wonder what’s down there…let’s follow…

Immediately, the vehicle that had cocooned them from a world of hidden predators, tsetse flies and baking hot sun became stuck in the soft sand. Every attempt to extricate themselves from their trap only got them stuck deeper in. The Tokyoite tried to dig them out, but the car merely sank more. They had no choice but to walk through the bush and try to find help to pull the Toyota out of the sand.

Grabbing what they needed, they locked the car and abandoned it in the river bed. The Tokyoite covered his head with a fishermans’ wrap. The Frenchman grabbed his long bush knife and they set off, two Arab samurai ready for the elements and any surprises. A vital bottle of water completed the kit. Trekking through the undergrowth, every sound or shadow triggered an explosion in the imagination. Overhead, two vultures circled, coasting on currents and waiting for a moment of rich pickings.

A mile or two on, they came across a track, serving as open road but providing little mercy from the sun. Water was rationed, and parched throats cried out. At one point, a villager from a nearby settlement appeared on a bicycle. The Frenchman stopped him and spoke in Kiswahili. He instructed the man to fetch help, greasing his palm and promising more if he returned. The man went back to his village, telling of a white man on the road and his money, but never reappeared.

They finally arrived back at the lodge, out of water, drained of energy, but emboldened by the experience. The lodge was owned by a Greek guy, raised in Burundi who had escaped when the massacres were raging. They spilled out their story and he began to organise a recovery team – slowly, as this place ran on bush time not Tokyo time.

Back at the river bed, the car was intact. The cobbled-together recovery team pulled out jacks and winches, gathered branches to lodge under wheels for leverage, did everything in their means to free the machine – all to no avail.

At the lodge again, the two original strandees were ordered off recovery duty and sent to the pool to recuperate. Rarely had one man ever been more grateful for an hour in water. Their ride was eventually returned, hauled out by Land Rovers and bigger winches.

Back on tar, the wilderness looked less wild when seen through glass and with a road stretching out ahead. The Tokyoite was changed though, now forever branded by the bush.

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ARTICLES // Season Tickets (2006)

I got my first cover story in 2006.

After attending the inaugural Reggae Snow Splash in Nagano (the location for the 1998 Winter Olympics), I wrote a review of the music and sent it around a few people.

The editor of the bilingual Outdoor Japan, who was also at the event, liked the piece and asked me into the OJ office to discuss writing the main feature for their Summer Music Festivals issue. Although I went to almost every UK summer festival I could in the first half of the 90’s, I’d never actually attended a Japanese one.

Still, not being one to turn down a good chance, I agreed. After much intensive research (not exactly easy as much of the information available online was in Japanese), I came up with the article found below. To be honest, I was quite astonished at the number of outdoor music events actually held in Japan – seems it’s a summer festival goer’s haven.

We decided to take the 60’s theme and I ran with as much psychedelic imagery as I could. The Beatles and Magical Mystery Tour, Alice In Wonderland, Ken Kesey & The Merry Pranksters, The Who‘s Magic Bus (also based on Kesey’s one), The Grateful Dead…what a long strange trip it was!

The piece was published as ‘Let The Good Times Roll‘ (originally ‘Season Tickets‘) and came with a whole array of wonderful and trippy graphics and illustrations by OJ’s chief designer. Title aside, it’s presented here as it appeared in the magazine, edited slightly differently from my original submission.

The trouble was, I unearthed so many great sounding events and in the end I wasn’t actually able to make it to any of them! Never mind, perhaps one day…

Cover design by Craig Yamashita.

Season Tickets

Roll up, roll on up—step right this way. Welcome aboard the OJ Magic Bus for the 1st Annual Summer Musical Mystery Tour with stops at the funkiest and grooviest places to kick back and dig the hot summer sights and sounds in Japan.

Events up and down; here, there and everywhere beckon you to step off the big wheel, get out of the board room and into your board shorts to breathe in the refreshing air, soak up rejuvenating rays and fill your head with music to invigorate your soul.

Ken Kesey’s coming along with his band of Merry Pranksters. John’s here, Paul, George and Ringo, the Walrus and the Carpenter, too. Drinks served by Tweedledum, snacks by Tweedledee. We’ll see if the Mad Hatter can pull out a rabbit or two. Everybody in? The journey is about to begin…

Down South

The sun first rises in Japan down in Okinawa upon idyllic beaches and tropical rainforests filled with island rhythms. It the perfect place to start the tour, so grab your flip-flops and get ready to work on that tan.

The first, and southernmost, event is the Miyako Island Rock Festival featuring the Orange Range and Bennie K, among others. The Tug of Rock ’n’ Roll, on the main island, brings together known and unknown acts to Okinawa and has previously featured Bump of Chicken, Shakalabbits and the High Lows. Just watch out for those yellow submarines!

Get on board the ferry; after the boat party we’ll arrive in Kyushu. The steaming volcanic landscapes and ancient forests are a wonderland to behold any Alice. Don’t miss the Aso Nature Festa or the Beach Café Sunset, which has been bringing ska, reggae and beach culture to Fukuoka since 1993.

Higher Ground ’06 is a large outdoor event in Fukuoka, sponsored by AU and including Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, Puffy and Flow in the line-up. Jamaica Mura V.10 in Oita adds some more Caribbean flavor to the southern isle.

Next, the bus hits the main island of Honshu and rolls into peaceful Hiroshima. One of the biggest outdoor events, Festa de Rama, is held at Setoda Island Beach and features Little Tempo, Miceteeth and Sake Rock.

We then go lunar at the Miyajima Full Moon Party, held on the sacred island just off the coast.

Out West

Once again we’re island-hopping to Japan’s fourth largest one, Shikoku, to visit the fiends at the Monster Bash 2006, then boogie down at Disco Inferno ’06. The former includes Imawano Kiyoshiro and Beat Crusaders, and the latter is described as “The Hottest Party of the Summer!”

The Magic Bus then returns to the mainland and goes urban in the teeming cities of Osaka, Nagoya and Kobe, and then hits the cultural heartlands of Kyoto and Nara. Flagging already? Try a little of Tweedledum’s special Kool-Aid to pick yourself up.

Osaka, Japan’s second largest city, has plenty to keep us entertained. Summer Sonic is held over two days and with a mighty rocking line-up that includes Metallica, the Flaming Lips, Deftones, Massive Attack and DJ Shadow before it heads to Tokyo.

Another massive event, Udo Music Festival 2006, runs over two days and expects a crowd of nearly 100,000. Rush Ball ’06 then fills out Osaka’s party schedule.

The A-Nation juggernaut, a national touring event with some of today’s biggest J-Pop stars, rolls through Aichi and Hyogo with Ayumi Hamasaki, Ai Otsuka and Ami Suzuki on board.

Hyogo also hosts the 35th Annual Takarazuka Bluegrass Festival, one of more than 30 bluegrass fests in Japan. The event features a multitude of first-rate Japanese bluegrass bands.

Urban Kanto

Somebody wake the dormouse; we’re back on the bus and heading east toward mighty Tokyo where millions of people party to the break of dawn. Like the melody from the Pied Piper, the air will be filled with enchanting tunes to draw the natives out of their caves.

The Excite Music Festival brings some exhilaration to Yoyogi Park with the likes of Toshinobu Kubota and Ayaka Hirahara. If we hang around, we’ll also catch Sonarsound, featuring some of today’s most cutting edge electronic and experimental musicians.

Perhaps you’re looking for high culture to tickle your artistic taste buds. Tokyo Summer Festival runs over five weeks at various concert halls, temples, shrines and parks. On a different tip, wily cats will want to keep an eye out for the Herbie Hancock-curated Tokyo Jazz, a hip date on any calendar.

Down in Kanagawa, the Yokohama Arena hosts the Nano-Mugen Fes 2006 with Japanese artists such as Asian Kung Fu Generation playing with other international acts followed by Wire ‘06, Asia’s biggest techno festival.

Beautiful Shonan, with its great beaches, hosts Shonan Music Fest Vol. 0.9. Then take a stroll down the beach to party for charity at the Kamakura Beach Party.

And if this isn’t enough, we’ve still got Summer Sonic in Chiba too…

Around Tokyo

Surrounding the pulsating capital, the nearby beaches and mountains are a great place to recharge and get back to nature. The Izu Islands, Shizuoka’s beaches, Mt. Fuji and Nagano’s rugged alpine ranges are perfect backdrops for some outdoor party fun.

The Stones and the Grateful Dead did the Altamont Raceway in ’69. Santana and Kiss do Fuji Speedway at Shizuoka’s wing of the Udo Music Festival 2006. We’ll ask any Pranksters on board to keep the Angels in check this time.

Shizuoka, with its green tea fields, hosts a couple of ‘green’ events: Wind Blow ’06 and AP Bank Fes ’06, which last year featured Mr. Children and Every Little Thing. Both aim to raise awareness of environmental issues. Things splash down on the island of Niijima for The Pirates, Anoyo’s collective art conscious festival.

Honshu’s adventure capital of Minakami (Gunma) hosts their popular Full Moon Parties all summer. Camping, bungalows and adventure weekend packages are available and it’s just a short trip from Tokyo.

Asagiri Jam, SMASH’s low profile follow act up to Fuji Rock, has sold out the last two years— before even announcing their line-up! Once again you’ll have to wait until the week before the show to know who’ll show up.

Our final stop in this neck of the woods is the Rock in Japan Festival in Ibaraki. Staged at a seaside park by the publishers of Rockin’ On, it allows huge crowds get to see the good, the bad and the beautiful of the Japanese music scene. Dragon Ash, Shonen Knife, M-Flo and Polysics will all be there.

Up North

Time for the big one: Fuji Rock is Japan’s answer to Glastonbury. It takes place on the green slopes of Naeba Ski Resort in Niigata—a venerable summit meeting of top international and Japanese acts. This year’s line-up includes Red Hot Chili Peppers, Franz Ferdinand, Super Furry Animals and the Strokes, among others.

Ravers will delight in the Solstice Music Festival, and then, what better place to watch the sun sink on the horizon than the Sea Of Japan Sunset Concert on Aoyama Beach.

Before we leave Niigata altogether, the mighty rhythms of the Earth Celebration on Sado Island draw us in. The Kodo drummers are the focal point of this three-day music, dance and arts festival, which encourages musical and cultural collaborations with artists from around the world. This year they welcome Tamango Urban Tap from French Guiana.

Anybody see that? I’m sure it was a white rabbit heading north. We roll along rugged coastlines, through rich, virgin forests on our journey to the natural wilds of Hokkaido.

In Sapporo, we find a couple of events of classical splendour. Leonard Bernstein founded the Pacific Music Festival in 1990. His wish to contribute to world peace through classical music is carried on here every year. At the 19th Sapporo Asahiyama Music Festival, we get a breathtaking view and feel the power of a 700-person chorus as fireworks explode overhead.

Where do we stop? Our long and winding road trip through the magical wonderland of the Japanese summer music festival season ends where it began – by the sea.

The harbour city of Otaru, with its canals, beaches and great seafood, hosts the Rising Sun Rock Festival. This hefty event for all generations has been highlighting the Japanese rock scene since 1999. Camping is available and this year boasts sets from Kazuya Yoshi, Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra and Kodama, the Dub Station Band and many more.

As we reel in the remaining stragglers and head back to our rabbit holes, we thank you for riding along. As you alight from the OJ Magic Bus, we hope you’ll leave with some great summer memories to tide you over until next year…because the music never stops!

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Filed under 2006, Articles, Features