Fuji Rock to mark 20 years as Asia’s premier music festival

After headlining the debacle that was the debut event, Red Hot Chili Peppers will join Sigur Ros and Beck on anniversary line-up at the region’s biggest music event

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 June, 2016, 8:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 June, 2016, 9:44am

Fuji Rock couldn’t have got off to a worse start. “I remember being backstage in 1997 and saw [Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bass player] Flea bouncing up and down, screaming into the horizontal rain: ‘This is f***ing insane!’” recalls Hong Kong-based Australian Silas Hickey.

However, not long after the Chili Peppers – the headliners of the debut Fuji Rock – took to the stage, the plug was pulled on the festival as a typhoon raged through the site near Mount Fuji, marking a dramatic and inauspicious ending for the inaugural event. “It obviously had great potential and got people super-excited, but ultimately people were wandering around in waist-high mud, getting electric shocks from the equipment. I even remember hearing that hypothermia was a concern,” adds Hickey.

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Two decades later, this July, the Chili Peppers are again headlining but in dramatically different surroundings. The three-day festival kept the name but in 1999 was moved to Naeba, a ski resort in the stunningly beautiful alpine region of Niigata Prefecture, where it has remained since.

Someone else who was there in 1997 was former Boomtown Rats keyboard player Johnnie “Fingers” Moylett, who has been working with the organiser, Smash Japan, since the festival’s beginnings. He admits that the cancellation of the second day in 1997 was his lowest point, but says Fuji has come a long way since those dark days.

“We have grown up – or should I say, have found our own identity,” he says. “Although we put on the festival, select the artists, set the themes and run it the best we can, there’s a large audience that comes back year after year for the spirit of the festival itself.”

In the years in between, Fuji has made a name for itself as the Glastonbury of Asia. In fact, Masahiro Hidaka, president and founder of Smash, modelled the event on the UK festival and was a frequent visitor. With Fuji having attracted every major name in music, from Radiohead to the Pixies – and pulling crowds in excess of 100,000 – it’s easy to see why. Great bands, great scenery, great food and orderly toilet queues – it’s Glastonbury but without the grime and the squelch.

Takahiro Kishimoto, who works for a TV station in Tokyo, doesn’t remember how many times he has been to Fuji Rock, but think it’s about 10. “There are so many events of this kind nowadays in Japan, but Fuji Rock was the first so people respect it as the originator. Personally, when I was a high school student in a town close to Osaka, I remember reading articles about Glastonbury and the Reading Festival in the UK. They were always top of my bucket list. I had never imagined such an event could happen in this country.”

Fuji’s growing interest to international festival-chasers cannot be overestimated. Anecdotally, the number of non-Japanese visitors has increased substantially over the past 13 years since this writer’s first Fuji. The Hong Kong-based Ticketflap ticketing organisation will be selling tickets to Hongkongers for the first time this year.

Martin Haigh, CEO of Ticketflap, is a Fuji Rock regular. “I’ve been four or five times and each year I see familiar faces from Hong Kong. This year I expect to see even more now that Ticketflap is helping to raise awareness here.”

Maintaining Fuji Rock’s reputation and brand over two decades obviously doesn’t come easy, and line-ups have definitely wavered in quality over the years. This year, the headliners are Sigur Ros (who’ll be at Clockenflap in November) and Beck (who’ll be celebrating 20 years since the launch of his album Odelay), which for many won’t match up to the likes of Foo Fighters, Coldplay, Arcade Fire and Massive Attack, who have all appeared in previous years. There is also a healthy smattering of names whose best circuit days are over – think Kula Shaker and Travis. Lee “Scratch” Perry is the one other act from the original cast to return in 2016.

This year has been a tragic one for the music industry, losing characters and talent including David Bowie, Motorhead’s Lemmy (who played Fuji’s Green Stage in 2015) and Prince. And it was the latter who Moylett sees as the biggest name that got away. “We made approaches many times and had high hopes, but now very sadly it’s not to be.”

Fuji Rock festival continues to evolve – and change with the realities of an increasingly competitive festival scene. One of the fringe stages, the Orange Court, has been axed in recent years and “all-night Fuji”, catering to electronic music fans, has been dropped completely some years and reduced in size others.

But that doesn’t bother Ken Ayugai, a vocal character within the Japanese entertainment industry as a musician, actor, radio DJ and TV personality. “It’s an annual event you just don’t want to miss. Some people just save up and live for that one weekend. For me, Fuji is about listening to the music, but it’s also about getting drunk and enjoying all that great food. Above all, it’s the nature and the surroundings that just take you away from your daily life.”

Earlier this month, 72 people were hospitalised as a lightning storm halted a German rock festival. And who were headlining? The Red Hot Chili Peppers. Fuji Rockers attending this year’s 20th-anniversary event will be hoping that lightning doesn’t strikes thrice.

Fuji Rock Festival ’16, July 22-24, Naeba, Niigata prefecture, Japan. For more information, visit