A Red Fuji sunset, the Skatalites, and so much more!
by Dave Frazier
Japanese music fans variously refer to Asagiri Jam as “the real Fuji Rock”, “the festival with the original Fuji Rock idea” and “the Fuji Rock afterparty.” I was also told, “The music is not even that important, people just want to go there and hang out.”
The 2-day event, which attracts around 10,000 every year, saw performances by the Skatalites, Todd Terje & the Olsens, Kurt Vile and the Violators, Floating Points, Toe and others bands, was held Oct. 8 and 9 on the lower slopes of Mount Fuji, and the main stage and camping area afford incredible views of the mountain when the weather cooperates. It is organized by Smash Japan, which also organizes Fuji Rock, and has been held in early October — about two and a half months after Fuji Rock — annually since 2001.
What’s unique about Asagiri Jam is that everybody camps, even many of the staff. The site is a campground, with no permanent structures. The music finishes early on Saturday night at 10pm, so everyone has time to sleep. On Sunday, the festival’s second day, performances begin at 10am and continue till just after sunset, giving people time to return home the same night. The weather can be cold, and campers must prepare for the elements. Nevertheless, most of the tickets are sold before the lineup is even announced. What’s on offer? Two band stages, a DJ tent, a kids play area, a dog run, and the great outdoors. For the regulars, it is simply Japan’s best camping festival.
The site is called the “Asagiri Kougen”, or Asagiri highlands, and was originally scouted by Fuji Rock founder Masahiro Hidaka in the late 1990s. He imagined it as a possible new location for Fuji Rock, which saw a disastrous first year in 1997 when a typhoon swept over the festival site. The fest’s second year was held in Tokyo, and the third it moved to Naeba in the mountains of Western Japan, where it has been held ever since. But Mt. Fuji remains its spiritual inspiration.
At Asagiri, the main field forms a giant natural amphitheater very similar to that of Fuji Rock’s Green Stage in Naeba. But the Asagiri location is still exposed to typhoons, and other factors like neighbor who don’t like loud music late at night, limitations to vehicle access and so on meant that it wasn’t suited for a three-day festival of 30,000+. But the venue was just too good to pass up, so in 2001, Asagiri Jam was born as a festival based on the simple premise of camping + music.
Despite Asagiri’s “camping first” prerogative, the music was fantastic. The Skatalites show will likely be their last in Japan (or possibly anywhere else) to feature the last remaining original member, Jamaican saxophone player Lester Sterling, who is now 80 years old. Sterling has not been playing with the Skatalites since December 2014 and joined specially for this Japan tour. After Asagiri, he did not join the band for their tour in Mexico. The set also came less than a month after the passing of one of the Skatalites greatest collaborators, Cecil Campbell, aka Prince Buster, who died in September. Sterling attended his funeral in Jamaica.
At Asagiri, the Skatalites simply blazed with ska glory. They closed their set with “Guns of Navarone”, “Pheonix City” and the closer “Freedom Sound.” Their set was also treated by a break in the clouds and a glorious sunset over “Red Fuji”, a rare occurrence that gives the mountain a warm, reddish glow. Afterwards, I got messages on my cellphone from friends, who were sharing the famous 18th century woodblock print by Hokusai showing the same scene, as if to say, “We witnessed timeless beauty!”
On Asagiri’s first day, Saturday, the festival opened under a thick fog — “Asagiri” literally translates as “morning mists” — and at times the main stage was barely visible from 100 meters away. The music that evening was a more cerebral mix of intelligent dance music and avant jazz. Norwegian producer Todd Terje and his live band were the most upbeat, playing a disco-tinged jam to end the night on the Rainbow Stage. The UK’s Floating Points pushed out a very solid dark groove on the second stage, playing trippy electronica as a 4-piece live band. Japanese post-rockers Toe performed to a reverent crowd, starting their set with acoustic guitar finger picking, making it feel like an experimental jazz tribute to Django Rheinhardt, and waiting a full 20 minutes before tapping on any of their distortion pedals. They are showing themselves to be hardcore intellectuals of music.
Sunday, after some heavy rain in the early morning,the skies cleared, Mt. Fuji became visible, and the Asagiri finally began to party. The Japanese DJ collective Caribbean Dandy was already tearing it up at noon in the Star Caravan area, and that flowed into a wild set by Oi-Skall Mates that saw lead singer Wataru Buster chugging multiple beers on stage and a crowd of drunken rowdies moshing in the mud. Next came Catalonia’s Band Itaca, which played a raging set of high-energy Spanish ska punk. They finished by coming to the stage barrier and hugging everyone in the crowd. It would have been a let down to walk away, but then we all rushed back to the main stage to see the Skatalites.
Asagiri info: http://smash-jpn.com/asagiri/
OCT 8 (SATURDAY)
OCT 9 (SUNDAY)