A byte of life from the Land of Sumos and Sushi

Friday, August 26, 2005

Road Trippin' Hokkaido: Part 1

Road Trippin' to Hokkaido. Did the Jeep have what it takes to get us there?

Summers in Fukui are unpleasantly hot and humid and having already experienced one last year, I had no intention of suffering through another. Hence, early on in the year, an escape plan was born; I would head north, fleeing the equator, to the northern most island of Japan – Hokkaido, where it’s said summer temperatures are pleasantly warm and walking to the car doesn’t leave you drenched in sweat.

So, I set about searching for road trip crew members. Lewis, who has yet to leave Japanese soil since his arrival and has no intention of doing so, was an obvious choice, but the other three members were specially selected and shipped in from the UK, for their road tripping credentials. Chris P, Gary M, and Danny G, good mates I’ve know since I was 9, are all highly qualified road trippers, and in various combinations, we have together road tripped around Europe (the summer of ‘99) and Canada (the summer of 2001).

So, after the Fuji Rock festival, we reconvened in Fukui to check out the local high lights, before packing the Jeep full of tents, tunes and beer and hitting the road. With no plans aside from heading north, we were free to enjoy our time on the road, wherever it would take us. Which was Hokkaido.

However, after a long day of driving and looking at how little we had travelled on the map, we realised that Hokkaido was actually quite a long way away, and that perhaps being stuck in a hot car for the next three days wasn’t going to be as much fun as we had originally thought. Yes folks, less then 12 hours in, the future of the road trip was in jeopardy.

Enter the ferry. Conveniently, on the first night we camped by a beach in Niigata, which happens to have a ferry service running to Hokkaido. Whilst taking an evening swim in the sea, Danny claimed to have been stung by a jellyfish, but later admitted that is was just his swim shorts brushing against his leg, an easy mistake to make.

We had some trouble getting a ferry booking, as it was the “Obon” holiday period (probably the busiest week of the Japanese calendar, where Japanese families return to their home towns for family gatherings) but we eventually succeeded and we boarded the large ferry, happy to be free from the confines of the Jeep. Forget road trippin’, now we were boat trippin’.

We slept in the third class accommodation, which is simply a large room, where about 20 people sleep side by side on the floor on a thin blanket with a square pillow. Here we met some of our fellow travellers, two young students, and a couple of old truck drivers, who provided us with much entertainment. The very first thing one of our new friends told us was that all Japanese men had small dongers, but that he had a big one. It was not the ice breaker that I would have chosen, but it served its purpose all the same.

The 21 hour journey gave us plenty of time to chill, sunbathe, read and relax. Chris and Gary enjoyed their first taste of a Sento (a large communal hottub – the only place on the boat to wash), and we chatted to our new friends, watched the blue waters of the sea pass before us, often seeing shoals of dolphins leaping clear of the sea in an impressive display of grace.

We arrived the follwoing day in the late afternoon to the port town of Tomakomai, an ugly settlement, with seemingly little worth seeing, so immediately headed north east to the Shikotsu-ko, (in the Shikotsu National Park) a huge, deep, perfectly clear lake, encircled by volcanoes, some of which are active, and we heard and saw an eruption during our stay.

We spent two days camped at the shore of this beautiful body of water, swimming in its cool waters, watching fish dart around our feet, bbqing to eat, and hiking up a small extinct volcano.

It was when we first arrived at the campsite, undercover of darkness, that the Japanese yet again showed their amazing kindness and generosity towards foreigners. We had a bbq, but no charcoal and hence no means of cooking our food. I humbly went to explain our predicament to some nearby campers, who judging by their camp set up, looked like they had moved in for the week, and in broken Japanese eventually got the message across.

No sooner had I requested a little charcoal, when immediately a full scale famine relief effort was in effect. Our neighbours rallied round, not only providing us with charcoal, but with their own bbq set up, a huge gas light to cook by, a grill, cooking implements and offering beer and food too. We gratefully, but slightly guiltily accepted their kind offerings, vowing amongst ourselves to buy them a crate of beer come morning, but by the time we had risen from our drunken slumber the next day, the entire family had gone.

Next time on the funky drummer: The crew get naked in the onsen (exclusive pictures included) after taking on an active volcano.

The ferry was quite pimp and provided two open air jacuzzis on deck.

The ferry crossing was sublimely calm and sunny. We saw several shoals of dolphins arcing out of the water during the 21 hour journey.

Gary gives us the "Vs" with our new Japanese friends on the ferry.

Danny watches as Gary and Chris head out for a swim in Skikotsu-ko.

Danny G cooks up a feast on the BBQ.

A lone child tosses a stone into the second deepest lake in Japan, guarded by ancient volcanoes.

Reflections of the road trip crew, halfway up an extinct volcano hike in Hokkaido. As you can see, Danny was a broken man.

The sun sets through a crate of Sapporo beer bottles, somewhere on a beach in Niigata.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Hot Off the Press

This month's copy of the American publication "Student Traveler", contains an article about teaching in Japan written by yours truly entitled "The Jet Set and Beyond".

To read a shorterned version of the full article check out the website.

Part One of the Road Trip report coming soon.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Fuji Rock Fesitval 2005

One of many Japanese festival fans we befriended over the weekend displays her decorated cuticles.

Long time no blog eh? Well, I’m back from a month out – travelling around this fair land and collecting new adventures for your perusal. Now follows the longest ever post on thefunkydummer. I considered breaking in into two parts, but eventually decided to go with just the one because you are all grown ups now. If you think it’s too long – tell me about it in the comments section. Then go back to your Mr Men books.

One of the best things about Britain is its abundance of summer music festivals. No other country in the world has as many massive 3 day gatherings as good old Blighty, and it’s one area where the Brits truly excel. The formula is simple; book the best live music of the time to play in a huge field, and invite some 100,000 + fans to come and enjoy the show, all of whom spend three days living in a tents.

To some, this may seem like a total nightmare – battered by the elements, which in the UK often means rain, forced to use skanky portaloos, and paying high prices for food and drink many people would rather lie of a beach for 3 days, for a similar cost.

However, the UK’s festival scene is thriving now more than ever, with the biggest and best event – Glastonbury, continuing to sell its 150,000 tickets in less than 24 hours, BEFORE even releasing the line up. The knock on effect of which is that most of the other big festivals now sell out too. This is obvious proof that festivals are a firm favourite with the Brits.

Fuji Rock was inspired by Glastonbury. In 1985 and 1986, a Japanase guy called Masahiro Hidaka (who is the now the main man behind Fuji Rock) attended Glastonbury, and was so impressed that he took the concept back to Japan. He knew at that time, Japan wasn't ready for a large scale festival, but he cultivated the idea, eventually founding the Fuji Rock festival in 1997, so called, as it was held close to the base of Mount Fuji, in Yamanashi prefecture.

However, in the first ever event, disaster struck in a cruel way, the festival being battered by typhoon on day one devastating the site and leaving no other option but to cancel the rest of the second and third days, leaving punters and musicians unhappy. It seemed the gods of the Fuji Volcano, were not happy with the invasion of their sacred land.

8 years on, and now located in a different part of Japan (Niigata), Fuji Rock festival has proved itself worthy of its mother. This year saw the first complete sell out, and although the tickets were still available up until a couple of weeks before the festival, it proved that Fuji Rock has found a permanent home in the Japanese music scene.

Having attended Glastonbury and Reading festivals five times each now, as well as a number of smaller events in the UK, I was extremely keen to see how Japan’s biggest festival would differ from our own.

At approximately Y44,000 (£220) for a three day ticket including camping and parking, Fuji Rock is by far the most expensive music festival I’ve been been to, and is probably the most expensive in the world. But your money does permit you access to the only music festival that requires a ski lift to reach the chill out zone.

We hired a large Jeep Cherooke to carry the crew up to Niigata, which consisted of two brits (Me and Lewis), two Americans (Jesse and Ryan), and a South African (Ruan). We were later joined by another five Brits, and a kiwi.

Pulling into a service station for a bite to eat, I initiated the “guess who’s going to the festival” game; a sport of which I consider myself to be highly proficient with some 10 years worth of experience under my belt. At that service station I proved I still had the magic, by correctly identifying 4 Japanese people, who were not only attending the festival, but were actually playing there. A ska band called Kemuri and a DJ who we later saw playing a pumping set were our first encounters with Japanese festival goers, and served perfectly to get us in the festival spirit.

The first huge difference between the UK festivals and Fuji rock is the location. Held in a Naeba Ski Resort and golf course, amongst lush forested mountains, and ice cold rushing streams, the setting is far removed from the flat grazed meadows and pastures of rural England.

But the fact that you’re camping on piste, brings a few difficulties with it. I was amazed at some of the angles that people deemed suitable to pitch their tent, perhaps out of desperation that they wouldn’t find anything better – some were camped on what looked liked black runs, their possessions bulging out of the bottom of their tents, as gravity took its toll.

We managed to find a flat piece of ground on which to set up out base for the duration, which even had a garden; the putting green of the seventh hole, which was off limits to campers. Thus brings us to the second big difference: the Japanese culture of obeying all rules, no questions asked.

Had this been in England and a group of Stellar swigging young lads had been presented with the choice of:
a: camping on a ski slope, or
b: camping on a lush, soft, perfectly flat, manicured putting green, guarded only by a single piece of rope and a sign politely asking punters to refrain from pitching there, all 18 holes would have become prime real estate for the weekend.

In Japan – this was not the case. Admirably, that polite sign and the single rope marking off the green, was enough to keep them safe from encroaching tents, and even the many foreigners that were present, refrained from pitching on these precious oasis of flatness, in the predominately off-horizontal landscape of blue, red, and double black ski runs.

The rain however was a little more familiar. Having attended some of Glastonbury’s wettest, muddiest years (namely 1997, and 1998), the rain did little to dampen our sprits, but it did succeed in turning the surface formally known as grass in the main arenas, into mud baths.

The mountain weather had a distinct pattern, at 6am on the dot, I would be burnt out of my tent, unable to bear the greenhouse effect in my humble two man abode, to be greeted by a beautifully clear blue sky framed by forested mountain peaks. As midday approached the heat would rise to around 30C , before the humidity rose enough and then we’d endure a couple of hours of tropical downpours, huge, warm rain drops battering our gazebo, which held up well, providing a communal shelter.

Unlike Glastonbury, Fuji Rock has a number of cool streams and rivers in which to bathe down when the temperatures were too high. The wild life also differed somewhat to that of the UK’s. Information on the Fuji Rock website warns against snakes, mosquitoes, bears, hornets and tics, and one member of our crew, the American music lover Jesse, had a run in with one such tic, that left him needing medical attention.

The stages were all situated on flatter ground, at the base of the slopes, in amongst the beautiful setting of lush coniferous forest, which was often shrouded in a soft blanket of mist. To get to some of these clearings you would have to walk through the forest, sometimes on a raised wooden boardwalk through the trees, which every now and then would harbour some strange sculpture - very Glastonbury-esque.

I saw a number of bands, probably more than I normally do, including Fat Boy Slim, the Foo Fighters, Coldplay, Beck, Primal Scream, Asian Dub Foundation, but to be honest I wasn’t overly impressed with most of them. Fat Boy Slim was particularly disappointing, despite having produced some wicked tunes on his albums, he barely played a single tune of his own, instead filling the airwaves with very medicore house, admittedly spiced up with the odd dash of genius. The Japanese didn’t seem to mind though, and despite the clouds unleashing a heavy downpour for the duration of his set, they seemed happy to watch Norman hunched over his decks, dwarfed by the enormous stage.

Similarly, I wasn’t won over by many of the other big names, but I will say that the Foo Fighters put on a great show, with the legendary Dave Grhol, proving his showmanship by departing from the safety of the stage, and running through the crowd, all the way the to control tower, and then ascending the scaffolding. The other highlight for me was Asian Dub Foundation who pumped the crowd full of drum and bass fury, with some wicked live tabla drumming, over their usual politically driven lyrics, which had the audience in a frenzy.

Another notable difference was the lack of activity in the campsite areas. The campsites in the UK festivals are just as much fun as the main stages, centres for mischief, mayhem and much high jinx, especially after the live acts have finished. Sitting round a flickering campfire, inhaling the buzzing atmosphere amongst thousands of other people is just as much a part of the UK festival experience as moshing in a crowd, dancing in a tent, or trying to find a clean portaloo.

Fuji Rock’s campsite in comparison was dead, with seemingly little going on after lights out. Perhaps the fact the campfires are not permitted went a long way in dissuading campsite congregations, of perhaps just out of respect that the Japanese thought that campsites were for sleeping, not partying. Either way, I felt that this was one important element of festival life that was lacking. With that said, the “Red Marquee” was pumping until 5am, so there was plenty of fun to be had well into the early hours.

Another thing that was lacking, was litter. Amazingly, I barely saw a single piece of debris on the ground for the whole weekend. Recycling points and portable ash trays combined with Japan’s ability to follow rules meant that the clean up crews would have little to do once the festival was over. Every other festival in the UK I have attended is, by the end of the event, a sea of burger boxes, beer cans, and chip wrappers, so in regards to cleanliness: Fuji Rock: 1, Glasto: 0.

Drugs were also very obviously absent. Anyone attending any of the big festivals in the UK would find it impossible to avoid the call of the passing drug dealers, offering a wide variety of wares, from double dip super skunk, through to magic mushrooms, speed, ketamine, and the ubiquitous ‘pills’. In comparison, the closest I came to any illicit substances over the four day period was a faint whiff of some backy, which I believed to be wacky, just once in the Red Stage tent.

The most interesting feature of Fuji Rock was the Dragondra (also wirtten as Dragondola); a gondola ski lift which took punters high into the mountains, to the “Day Dreaming and Silent Breeze” area. Although it cost a cheeky Y1000 (£5) extra, it was worth it for the views of aqua blue lakes and endless peaks alone, and was the basically a chill out zone, with some small bands, and a DJ. Having a ski lift at a music festival is something that could never happen in the UK, as it would be just too dangerous; I can visually inebriated punters jumping out of it, or vandalising it.

Other amusing observations included the ticket touts who were touting tickets for face value, the insane queue to buy an official t-shirt (we’re talking one hour plus of line up time) and the main arena area that although forebode entry to bottles and cans, did provide an area at which you could check in your contraband if discovered and pick it up later.
Overall, a solid four days, and a definite recommendation for any festival fan.

Whilst everybody else exchanged tickets for wristbands, ticketless Ryan headed deep into the undergrowth, crossing streams, scaling mountains and crawling though dense undergrowth to bypass the security systems, re-emerging several hours later, wet and dirty. We later discovered he could have just walked in.

This is a LADIES camp. Else over there. Jesse knew where he was heading tonight.

Sun streams over the mountains into the campsite. It's the start of another day rocking it Fuji style.

The crew chills in the campsite after getting burned out of our tents by 7am.

The Dragondola takes you high into the mountains, to the place of "Day Dreaming and Silent Breeze".

The down sides of camping in a ski resort. No, this aint camera trickery, that really is a 30 degree slope they're camped on.

Ryan looks on as Ruan downs a entire can of Asahi beer in one go, under cover of the gazeebo during a tropical down pour.

One of my favourite elements of Fuji Rock was the strong Japanese influence. Many of the punters were dressed in traditional Japanese robes - called Yukatta and here a group enjoys a tipple in a Japanese style cafe, under the trees, complete with laterns, and note that shoes have been removed.

Glittering disco balls were a common site - here we see one suspended over a path using a bamboo frame. Beautiful mountains and forest sit in the backround.

The ice cold streams running down through the site provided a perfect cooling off and cleaning zone for hot and bothered festival fans.

The camsite complete with a Dragondola flag. The dranodola was a ski lift that took punters high into the mountains to a chill out zone. On the free maps, this lift was written as "dragondra" - make your mind up.

The stages we set in small pockets of space within the forest, with a back drop of wooded mountains shrouded in low cloud.

A clever advert for the isotonic drink; Pocari Sweat. After seeing this sign in the sky, Gary, completey devoted himself to the Pocari Sweat brand for the rest of his stay

Lewis and Ryan dressed in make shift rain gear; Gore Tex bin bags.

Watching the crowds of the main stage through the trees.

My home made t-shirt (courtesey of the Levis stand) says it all: Fuji Rock - the Dog's Danglers.