It all started with a conversation about missed Saturdates, bucket lists, and the year we are turning 30. Then my friend Hazel and I realized we both had a dormant dream – to dance and jump around with our shirts sticking to our skin in a music festival. And boy did it happen.
Why Summer Sonic? Hazel – being a European dame in her free time – dreams of Sziget. I haven’t even been to a single UP Fair (easy to see who’s the bigger nerd right there), but have had my fair share of Saguijo gigs and open space concerts. We wanted the full music festival experience, but then we also wanted to survive it with our bodies (and wallets) intact. So we kept our eyes on Asia, found out that we missed Laneway in Singapore, and learned that Tokyo had great plans for its summer. Fuji Rock’s lineup seemed awesome (Muse! Foo Fighters! Noel Gallagher! FKA Twigs!), but it was also going to be held in Niigata, a bullet train and thousands of pesos away from the nearest airport, at a ski resort, where you sleep inside a tent for three days with no hope for a shower. Take it slow, we reminded ourselves. And that was when we found Summer Sonic.
History of the Hottest Summers. Summer Sonic is Fuji Rock‘s younger, smaller, more urbanized younger sibling. Founded in 2000, it is an annual music festival usually held for 2 days in August, Tokyo’s hottest month (tss). This year it was held on August 15 and 16, Saturday and Sunday. Gates opened at 9am and closed about 11pm. You can take your pick from the Makuhari venue in Chiba, Tokyo, or Maishima, Osaka. Most, though not all acts, from the Tokyo stage perform in Osaka, and vice versa. We chose the Tokyo leg, because it was Tokyo, and because a high school friend who lived there offered free accommodations. No further questions asked.
So it happened like this. First order of business was getting to Japan, and THEN securing the music festival tickets. We scored round trip tickets to Narita airport during a February seat sale for only P7000 (hello, Cebu Pacific), and then got our Tokyo gaijin friend Mark to buy the tickets as early as March/April. The two-day pass was JPY28,500 (P10k+), and came with a free shirt! It was easier to purchase tickets if you are in Japan, while it required a math solution or similar for an overseas purchase to happen, and Mark was kind enough to free us up from the trouble.
What to bring, what to wear, and other rules. I admit to have spent a good chunk of my life researching this (check my browser history. Or, um, don’t!). In the end, it was a simpler list than I imagined.
- Wear the coolest, most comfortable thing you have. And that goes double for shoes (Fitflop sneakers for me and floral Doc Martens for Hazel). There will be a LOT of walking (we did see ladies in heels. They must be robots. Or they must have been carried from one stage to the next). A cotton tee, shorts (maybe boyfriend jeans), sneakers, sunglasses, a hat, and you’re all set. Some people came in bikinis (not required), some in their Coachella boho chic, some in all white (why??), some with flowers on their hair and paint on their skin. This is Japan, after all. Do what you will.
- Umbrellas (they called it parasols) are not allowed. It might rain, and it did for us during Pharrell‘s set, but it was a light shower blessing a very hot day. And Pharrell was making us dance, and nobody just effing cared about getting wet.
- Other essentials: wet wipes for cooling off and wiping the grime away (cooling pads if you could find them), spray sanitizer, cash (credit cards are useless here), and your powder and lipstick in case you still feel like bothering to look good for pictures. In between touch ups, an awesome facial mist was our best friend.
- Our real best friend though was Pocari Sweat. Ever had an ice cold bottle of Pocari Sweat after jumping up and down under the angry Tokyo sun? No? It was zen. It was heaven. It was also JPY300, 100% more expensive than one you could get off a vending machine. And there are vending machines around, but the gatekeepers would know that you bought it there and not from the food stalls. So make sure you drink it all up before you enter a stage, or else they would confiscate it (yep, happened to me).
- Speaking of food, they have stalls in strategic locations inside both Messe and QVC. In QVC, they even have the cafeteria open, so dying of hunger is not a possibility (unless you are a pescetarian or similar. Some principles had to be compromised in order to survive). They have fries, burgers, noodles, takoyaki, ice cream (green tea and chocolate via a vendo! Soft serve from a counter!), wraps, a pickled thing on a stick (that we missed #regret), and all sorts of yumminess. Oh and alcohol. Mmmm Smirnoff. There are tables and chairs provided, or you can camp on the floor, or eat inside the stages. It’s your own problem though if Baby Metal was playing and you still have a hot dog in your mouth (good imagery if I say so myself).
How to get there. Or, how to not get lost and miss Echosmith like we did. We were coming from Shim-Matsudo train station, and for us the route was thus: from Shim-Matsudo, take the train going to Minami-Funabashi. Hop off. Get on the train that goes to Kaihim Makuhari station. Get off that stop together with about the entire contents of the train in their music festival best. You will be welcomed by rows of Summer Sonic signs. Follow the streaming mob. Summer Sonic staff (maybe interns, because nobody would choose to stand alone under the scorching heat holding up a sign) were also strategically planted like breadcrumbs on the way, bearing their This Way to Festival Site signs.
The way forks into two – a shorter walk to Makuhari Messe where you will find 3 indoor stages, and a longer walk to QVC Marine Field for the 5 outdoor stages, including the main stage/baseball stadium Marine Stage. If you have a 2-day pass, head to QVC first and exchange them for your lanyard. GUARD THIS LANYARD WITH YOUR LIFE, but maybe don’t pull it too tightly around your wrist like this idiot (waves hand) did. Anyway, do not lose it because the organizers won’t replace it. This is your pass to all the stages for the next two days. (The lanyard does hold up even if you shower with it, in case you’re wondering.)
After getting the pass, it’s time to go around the stages with the trusty map (they give this to you with your lanyard, containing the schedules of all stages), and the ever helpful Summer Sonic staff (interns?) to guide us. It’s a humongous space, and that’s not even combining Messe and QVC. Fret not though. They have a bus that shuttles people to and from Messe and QVC. It’s a 5-minute ride. The line could be long but goes really really quickly, which leads me to my next observation.
What to expect. The Japanese do music festivals like no one’s business. Below are some things I thought I’d never see in my life in a setting where music, booze, food, and 235,000 people congregated:
- No trash or food scraps in sight. People ate virtually anywhere, but made sure their trash hits the trash bin, and the right trash bin at that. Summer Sonic staff (interns?) stand guard to make sure everyone (gaijins included) segregate their trash properly.
- The toilets are clean. Sure you’d see some soil and gravel on the floor, but the toilet seat sanitizer dispenser is full (there is such a thing), and so is the tissue rack. And did you know that Japanese toilets had bidets for ladies? Look it up. (I didn’t try the Portalets though *shivers*)
- You keep your personal space. Yes, even while moshing. True that the closer you move to the stage, the less space you have, but people don’t push you around, or jump so hard on you they break your neck. This is a safe zone, sisters!
- Lines are sacred. And go really fast. Lines for the free shuttle bus, lines to get in stages, lines to get out of stages, lines to get merchandise, lines for food and drink. All these go really quickly, and are respected by everyone. No chance someone will skip the line and push you off, unless of course they are drunk. And really–
- Drunks not allowed. We only witnessed two drunk girls during the event. They hopped on a low wall and started gyrating to the tune of Ariana Grande‘s Bang Bang. House rules say the organizers had a right to throw them out. It was in the middle of Ariana’s set so we didn’t care very much what happened to them.
- Time is gold. Acts were simultaneously playing on eight stages across that effing wide expanse. So if you want to see Carly Rae and Imagine Dragons both, you have to let go of Call Me Maybe at Messe so you can catch Radioactive (done shirtless) at QVC. It was a good deal. Anyway, my point is, the sets start on time, and freakishly so. So if you didn’t catch Zedd or Sheppard because you were caught up on free WiFi, that’s all on you #regrets #letitgo.
- All sets are worth it. They last at least thirty minutes, to one hour and thirty+ for the main acts (i.e. Ariana, The Script). It’s just a matter of you liking the music (*cough* Baby Metal) or not so much (Hazel wanted to see people, not just lights, Chemical Brothers!) We should have seen more stages (we saw five out of eight), and discovered more new acts, Japanese or otherwise, but time, space and physical limitations were against us.
They say if you’re a music festival virgin, it’s best to have your first time in Japan. They were right. Tokyo summers are a bitch, but nothing a tropical girl drenched in sunblock can’t handle. If you’re lucky, the sun would hide some minutes under the cover of gray clouds, and the breeze would sneak in to toss your hair around. The people are nice, courteous, and very disciplined, qualities that don’t make dancing around with them any less fun.
The two-day fest ended with Pharrell howling Freedom, light rain cool on our skin, fireworks exploding on the darkening sky above us. Pharrell bows and leaves the stage, the host says his farewell, and the screen flashes the same words already spinning in my head: See You Next Summer.