It’s that time of the year again: Fuji Rock returns to Niigata’s Naeba this weekend, welcoming a beefy lineup that includes everything from big-name stadium-fillers to local indie upstarts. That makes it quite a challenge to decide what’s worth catching, but if you’re looking to expand your musical horizons this year, these ten Japanese artists are sure to satisfy.
Keigo 'Cornelius' Oyamada has laid rather low in recent years, dabbling in various commercial projects and collaborative schemes while performing sparsely and usually alongside fellow big-name indie artists, including electronica legends YMO. But 2017 saw him release Mellow Waves – the first Cornelius album in 11 years – a wildly inventive and sleekly produced compilation of intricate but ever so pleasant melodies.
When and where? July 29, Green Stage
2. Shugo Tokumaru
Indie prodigy, multi-instrumentalist, psych-pop wizard – Shugo Tokumaru is a man of many labels, and one that always manages to surprise his audience. An adherent of the Cornelius school of conceptual, often minimal pop tunes, he took a step in an even more experimental direction on 2016 album Toss, but Tokumaru’s gigs are usually far less sleepy than his recordings – largely thanks to the guitar magic this Tokyoite likes to display on stage.
When and where? July 30, White Stage
3. Takio Ito
A folk singer who’s constantly strived to develop the tradition he works in, Hokkaido-born Takio Ito is a pioneer of a more energetic, rock- and jazz-influenced style of Japanese minyo. The owner of a piercing voice that simply needs to be heard live, Ito turns the melodies of a bygone age into something decidedly danceable.
When and where? July 28, Orange Cafe
If you grew up in Japan in the ’90s, chances are you’ve heard of Judy and Mary. The reason that this rock outfit’s songs still strike a chord can be found in the masterful voice of vocalist Yuki, who embarked on a successful solo career in 2002. Her powerful pop brings to mind a young Björk and is supremely enjoyable even if you don’t understand the lyrics.
When and where? July 30, Green Stage
5. Never Young Beach
One of the top representatives of Tokyo’s new breed of indie bands, ‘Nebayan’ give off an unmistakable tropical vibe with their super-laidback psych-pop. Now a household name at major festivals across Japan, they could very well be the next domestic outfit to make an international breakthrough.
When and where? July 29, Red Marquee
Dynamic duo Keiichi Utsuki and Shinsuke Takagi are Soi48, a DJ unit specialised in the music of Thailand’s Isan region. After countless trips to the area, they’ve put together a unique collection of records so groovy that you won’t even care to ask what’s behind this singular focus. If you’re looking to dance the night away, make sure to catch their Fuji Rock set.
When and where? July 29, Crystal Palace tent
For a swinging intro to contemporary Japanese jazz, look no further than this five-man supergroup. Fronted by trumpeter Takuya Kuroda, who has performed with the likes of José James and effortlessly incorporates anything from world music to indie rock in his utterly groovy compositions, J-Squad also counts pianist Takeshi Ohbayashi, Juilliard graduate Yasushi Nakamura and Snarky Puppy's Keita Ogawa among its members.
When and where? July 30, Field of Heaven
This year's Fuji Rock also features blues greats Elvin Bishop and Marcus King, but Tjiros are the ones flying the Japanese flag among such megastars. Upholding the legacy of domestic genre greats Ukadan, guitarist-vocalist Taeko Ito and bassist Tomohito Shinoda put on an energetic, emotional show that'll have you begging for more.
When and where? July 29, Crystal Palace tent
9. Ogre You Asshole
Taking their eye-catching name from a random scribbling allegedly written by ex-Modest Mouse bassist Eric Judy on the arm of the band's then-drummer, Ogre You Asshole have gradually switched from easily digestible guitar rock to a Krautrock-influenced, rather psychedelic sound. Their gigs tend to build up slowly before hitting a wild climax.
When and where? July 28, Field of Heaven
10. Emerson Kitamura
A veteran of influential dub-rock and reggae bands Jagatara and Mute Beat, keyboardist Emerson Kitamura's solo output has focused on rocksteady-inspired, simple but endlessly attractive melodies. Although he performs alone, employing only a keyboard and synthesiser, Kitamura has the ability to capture the full attention of everyone in the room with his intense rhythms.
When and where? July 30, Naeba Shokudo