Hanazono Shrine Festival

There is a festival (matsuri) every day of the year somewhere in Japan, when local shrines or temples celebrate whatever they deem worth celebrating. Yesterday, I went with a Japanese friend to a festival at the Hanazono shrine in the middle of Shinjuku, called Tori no Ichi (literal translation of that is “bird market”). There are no birds around though, but small or big “Kumade” = “rakes”. These rakes are heavily decorated and come along in tiny version for 2000 yen (~ 15 Euro) to giant arrangements that probably sell for half a million yen (~ 4500 Euro). Since all pieces are handmade, there might be similar ones, but not one is completely like the other and the big ones are truly unique pieces.

Now why would you want to buy a huge, decorated rake worth 4500 Euro? These rakes are supposed to bring you luck for your business. You first go to the shrine, which is hidden behind thousands of lanterns and ask the resident god that your business shall thrive, then you go to the stalls and look for a rake of your desire and adequate to the size of your purse. You put the rake into your office or home and hope that it calls luck to your business, until you go again in November of the following year, throw your old one away and get a new one.

Not all of the rakes but many are designed around the animal whose Chinese zodiac turn it will be the next year. Since next year is the year of the wild boar, many had figures of those inside the rake.
The Hanazono shrine is not the only one with such a rake market of course, but it seems to be the biggest or one of the biggest in Japan. It’s quite impressive to walk through the rows of color explosions.
I bought a little rake off of a guy who looked like he was a hundred years old 😉 and shall hope that it will help me to sell a few more books next year 😉 It’s a bit of a funny wild boar, because it sits upright and calls luck (and money) with its paw like a “Maneki Neko” (a cat) whose job that usually is and on top of that it holds a dragon ball in the other paw (there are tons of interpretations about the dragon balls, they can represent power, water (good harvest) or simply the dragon’s treasure). Now if that maneki neko, dragon ball wielding wild boar won’t bring me luck then I don’t know what will 😉
Apart from the rake booths there are of course tons of stalls with food and sweets around to create a proper festival atmosphere. The Hanazono Tori no Ichi comes along with one other specialty, the old style Japanese version of a “tunnel of horror”. It was not allowed to film or take photos inside. This is definitely a dying art and I wonder how many performing troops are still out there. A narrator announces the weird people and monsters, then actors jump on stage performing a short act. They had a “crazy office lady” who was stapling herself with an office stapler. A group of wild guys was eating dry ice, a girl was drinking burning wax and spewing fire, a guy with a long needle through his cheek was dragging a cart around with it and the highlight was a “wild woman” who was eating live worms on stage, yuk yuk yuk! 😉 It was interesting to see this and it gave a bit of an insight into what happened at such festivals two hundred years ago.
I guess I have to go there now every year. Because I have to throw away the boar end of 2019 to get a rake with a rat, since 2020 will be the year of the rat 😉

Heavy Metal in Open Water

What’s happening on board of the 70,000 tons of metal? 3000 or so fans, 60 bands and their staff. Every band plays twice. The gigs start at 5 pm on the first day and the last gig ends at 5 in the morning. On day two, a full day at sea, there are gigs from 10 in the morning to 5 the next morning. Landfall in Labadee was at 8 in the morning of day 3. No gigs during landfall, all aboard again at 16:30 and off we go back. Gigs again from 17:30 to 5 in the morning. Another full day at sea with gigs from 10 to 2 in the morning, since arrival back in Fort Lauderdale was at 8 in the morning again = you are busy! Lol.
The boat has four stages, the two main stages being the Alhambra theater and the pool deck, the two minor stages being the ice rink and the so called Pyramid lounge, which is a large bar under normal circumstances. The pool stage is literally built over the largest (for the occasion drained) pool of the ship, and only the hot tubs around the pool are in operation. There is a small pool in operation towards the bow and another water park foot bath, waterfall and hot tubs area towards aft.
The Pyramid lounge was kinda sucky, because of a too low ceiling. The stage could not be elevated and if you were not in the front row you literally saw nothing of the bands. You could only get from the Alhambra to the ice rink via the full fledged on-board casino and you were actually walking several miles a day to get from one stage to the other, lol. The elevators are not the fastest, so if you are fed up with waiting for one, up the stairs you go, not to speak of dancing and headbanging. Despite the good food, I don’t think anyone gained weight, since you find yourself jogging through the ship half the time, lol.
The first full day at sea saw high winds and the pool stage was in trouble, especially Haggard with half an orchestra on stage had great sound trouble in the wind and all in all sound trouble was quite common, also in the Alhambra. Apart from that there was a great atmosphere all over the ship. It’s a five star festival with good food, decent beds, showers and clean toilets, no mud! And of course the band members are on the same ship as you are and can’t go anywhere 😉 you keep running into them, and they’re always up for a photo or so. During breakfast especially you can spot them in the Windjammer cafe but usually the fans leave them alone there and respect their privacy. There is no “stalking” going on and everybody is just enjoying the time on the boat in this special atmosphere. It’s simply awesome. More or less all bands do meet and greet signing sessions. You are allowed to take photos any time anywhere. There are official photographers running around taking pics and you can buy them as prints if you happen to find yourself among the hordes of photos. People are drunk, yes, but there was no brawl, smashing stuff or anything like it. I ran into completely drunk Olaf from Norway who kept babbling to me for a while, but somehow there is still restraint. A sexy girl next to me at one gig, half drunk too, was proudly announcing that she can’t believe nobody’s grabbing her ass! Lol.
There are people from all over the world there, many Europeans, North- and South Americans, but there are also Australians, a few Asians, I met a guy from South Africa. The organizers say that people from 74 countries were on board. It’s one big happy community that treats each other with respect and that has fun together. I didn’t know that on the last day there is a costume thing going on, if I go again, I shall bring something, lol. We had unicorns and nuns and storm troopers on board and what not. Many bands play special sets for the occasion. There is a jamming thing going on which has developed over the years with some forty band members playing old metal hits. Not to forget the belly flop contest on Sunday noon where the least graceful and most water displacement belly flop is honored.
With sixty bands you cannot see everything, but as usual I discovered some new bands, which I had not yet known before. It’s the special treat of festivals like that to discover new bands. Of the bands I had not yet known Pain, Devil Driver and Trollfest were my favorites. Then I finally finally saw Grave Digger, twice of course. Since I’m an Amorphis fan that was a first row must on my list for both gigs and I accomplished the mission. They were crowd surfing like hell during the first Amorphis gig on the pool deck and it’s quite something to have wet, mostly naked, hundred kilo guys who were in the hot tub doing crowd surfing! Lol.
As nice as it was, four days are kinda the limit, lol, everyone is hung over, lacks sleep and is quite finished after four days of festival 😉
If I can make it holiday wise and money wise, you bet I will be on board again. I’ve been to quite a number of festivals – 70,000 tons of metal is the best so far. Cheers!

Loudpark 2016 Report – Day 2

The morning of the second Loudpark day saw heavy rain and again: thank goodness that the festival is indoors! I went there before opening, due to wanting to line up for signing session tickets and the guides and guards made us wait in front of the hall. They are changing the layout of things a slight bit every year in the attempt to improve I suppose, and while it was easier this year to get from the main hall to the side stage, they let people only in through gate A in contrast to opening gate B for the two-day ticket holders the year before. To open both gates is definitely the better choice, I don’t know why they didn’t do that this time.

Anyway, once inside I lined up for getting a ticket for the signing session of amorphis. Got one after an hour, which was nicely spent with chatting to other people waiting in line. Due to that, I missed most of the Savage Messiah show, a power metal/melodic thrash formation from the UK. The bit that I heard sounded nice. Next up were two Japanese bands “Kuni”, some musicians supporting a Japanese guitar legend and on the side stage, which that day was devoted to “extreme” metal, a band called Nocturnal Bloodlust, also Japanese only. I sampled them both, but they weren’t knocking my socks off. Neither did the Dead Daisies, a “super” band formed from members of bands like INXS, Guns N’ Roses and others. More hard rock than metal to my ears.

But then a first highlight. I pretty much liked Lacuna Coil from Italy. They go with a two vocal strategy, a lady singing clean vocals and a guy with rough vocals. Unlike most metal bands they dress in white and kinda look like staff from the asylum ward of a horror movie. The lady on vocals was excellent and I liked the whole atmosphere and sound of the band. I shall sample some of their albums.
I had seen “Riot” before, didn’t care much for them and took a lunch break, then watched the beginning of “With the Dead”, a doom metal band with members of other former doom metal bands, but oddly their sound was “too slow” for my taste! So I went to sample “Sixx A.M.”, the second band of Motley Crue’s bassist, but guess what, my general fatigue took over again and I dozed off sitting in the ranks… lol.

I woke up in time for the amorphis signing session though and got that done, then rushed to the extreme stage hall where Enslaved was playing which I wanted to see and to get a good spot for amorphis.
Enslaved turned out to be the second discovery of the day. Enslaved is a Norwegian black/progressive metal band and very much of the kind that I like. They also have a two vocalist strategy, with one guy on the guitar doing rough vocals and the keyboardist doing clear vocals. Yes, I have a weakness for that combination 😉 I shall definitely sample their studio albums as well.

But then it was time for the highlight of this year’s Loudpark, at least for me, the master of rough and clean vocals who is able to combine both in one person – Tomi Joutsen from amorphis. They played a fantastic set, finishing it off with my favorite “old” amorphis song “Black Winter Day”. The audience was totally behind them and you could see how much fun they had playing this gig. The Japanese audience is simply a treasure. This show was one of the best festival shows I’ve seen from amorphis.
Quite exhausted after the amorphis gig, I went into the big hall to see Nightwish, who also delivered an excellent performance. It was their last show of a long world tour and they were all quite relaxed about everything, I think 😉 The only thing that was odd about their show were these people in (bad) werewolf (?) costumes stumbling about on stage. That looked pretty ridiculous, but other than that, great gig!
The last gig of the day was Whitesnake, but I must confess I only saw the first two songs, way too soft for my taste. Considering the long way home, I called it a day.
The two Loudpark days were excellent and I’m already looking forward to next year – what will be the line up?? Who’ll come to Japan?? Hehe. Cheers!

Loudpark 2016 report – Day 1

This weekend, I took a break from packing and throwing stuff away because:
October = Loudpark: Japan’s probably biggest heavy-metal festival and it was my fifth time in a row to go there. The line up with in total 39 bands was quite impressive also this year, not falling short of the “special” lineup of 2015 where Loudpark celebrated its tenth anniversary.
I think the organizers limited tickets this year, doing some lessons learned from the painfully packed Saitama Super Arena last year and it was the first time ever that people asked for tickets on the way to the venue. Not sure if it was really sold out or whether they hoped for cheaper tickets?
I started day one with goodies hunt and then sampled the bands.
The first thing I saw was an act called Zardonic, a one creature show. He is sort of a DJ and appears only with a mask on. It didn’t throw me off my feet, it’s damn difficult to interact with your audience with that mask. I guess it’s good for a disco but for a concert it’s a bit “boring”.
Aldious turned out to be a Japanese all girl heavy metal band. They were okay, more adult than Baby Metal but their Cinderella-like costumes didn’t really fit to the music. Interesting but not overwhelming.
Myrath from Tunesia was more to my liking. They kept an Arabic touch in the music and are a nice solid metal act, if on the soft side. I heard they wanted to bring a violinist and a belly dancer but something went wrong and thus a Japanese lady danced in the beginning and the end with scarfs which looked nice, but admittedly, a real belly dancer would have had more impact 😉

Next, I ventured down into the arena for Candlemass – “doom metal” from Sweden. Cool guys, more to my liking if the lyrics are a bit too much dealing with graves and crypts and stuff like that 😉 well, its “doom metal”.
Also this year, Loudpark had 3 stages and the “side stage” in the entrance area was dedicated to power metal on day one called “Kingdom Stage” and on day two to a bit harder notes entitles “Extreme Stage”.
After Candlemass, I ventured to the Kingdom stage for Masterplan, a Halloween offspring and they are what I’d like to call old-school heavy metal.
Next up, I sampled Armored Saint, old school US heavy metal, but I’m afraid I dozed off during their stage time… Behold! There is good napping to heavy metal! lol. My job change and also the moving to another apartment is exhausting me, guess that’s why I napped. By the way, I wasn’t the only one. There were plenty of exhausted fans holding one or the other nap in the ranks 😉

I woke up again for Exodus, because they are thrash metal 😉 and watched the first circle mosh pits of this year’s Loudpark.
Then I ventured to the Kingdom stage again to stay there for a while, watching Queensryche with the purpose of securing a relatively good place for my personal highlight of the day Blind Guardian. Queensryche did not knock me off my feet, way too “soft” for my taste.
Then it was Guardians time! The Kingdom stage was full and while I had a relatively good place at the middle cable walkway. I was not as far in the front as I would have liked to be, but anyway.
The Guardians were superb. They made a special show (I think) and played the entirety of the Imaginations From the Other Side album and finished off their performance with their famed Mirror Mirror. The crowd was roaring and very pleased 😃
I ventured back to the main hall, where I caught the rest of “Dokken”. Sorry to say, but the singer looked like he had returned from one of the crypts of Candlemass. Way beyond their prime is the only thing that comes to my head.
Also the Scorpions are way beyond their prime, but in a far better way than Dokken. Meine and Schenker are both 68 years old, but they can still rock! They are a bit stiff, yes, but they are still running around stage and know how to engage their audience. I’m quite amazed that I still got to see them and they were a worthy conclusion of Loudpark day 1, day 2 (which I liked loads better than day 1) up next weekend 😃

Nummirock and Elks

I’ve been to quite some heavy metal festivals in recent years and many of them are off the beaten track so as to not disturb the neighborhood. Nummirock resembles Wacken in terms of remoteness, however, Nummirock is even more remote. In Wacken you at least have Hamburg a hundred kilometers away, which is a two million people city and which has a real international airport. Nummirock is the remotest thing I’ve been to so far. Brutal Assault in the Czech Republic is also pretty much nowhere, but at least it’s only twenty kilometers from a train station that has a direct link to Prague some 90 minutes away. Further, Assault is laid out for international fans and they have a bus service to a contracted hotel at that train station, which brings you back and forth for free every day. Brutal Assault remains the best organized and most non-camper friendly festival I have yet been to. Nummirock is a truly local festival and you can only get there by car, period. I heard two three words of English but the international fans at the festival were few.

Arriving there at 12:30 was shocking. There was nobody there! If they have one thing in abundance it’s space and there are a staggering four stages. One amateur stage where local bands play and also cover bands, and three professional stages, the Main stage, the Inferno stage and the Chaos stage. It’s next to the beautiful lake Nummi and the weather was gorgeous.
Luckily there was no need for rubber boots, the ground was astonishingly dry. Well, the water flows down softly to the lake. I estimate the total number of visitors at below 10.000, was it even only 5000? It was hard to tell since there was a lot of coming and going between the festival ground and the camping ground across the street.
The festival grounds are lovely, trees here and there that give shadow, since even in Finland it can be too hot when the sun shines end of June, and plenty of tree trunks to sit down on. Further some bars with sofa areas. While there is no sitting down in Wacken anywhere inside the stage area, Nummirock offers plenty such opportunities.

The first band that played on the Chaos stage at 13:00 or so had seven customers? Poor guys!
Everything was super laid back and it was even kinda weird if you were eager to see your favorite band. Never has getting into the first row been so easy as at Nummirock. I was prepared to wait for 90 min in the first row but nobody stayed there and I could wander off again seeing something else and half an hour before the gig, the first few fans strolled to the front row of the next gig, lol. In the central area were a few food and goods stalls. The food was the crappiest I have yet eaten at a festival 😉
The toilets were among the crappiest yet too. Dixie stuff of the worst kind, unattended to by anyone and messy beyond belief.
Many festival goers I bet pissed into the lake. There was no lifeguard on duty but you were allowed to jump into the lake. Many people did so and many men did so entirely naked. I saw no women daring to go without a bikini, but many dudes just jumped into the lake in nothing but their skins. Half the fans were of course enjoying the festival under a constant level of alcohol, though I saw no one puking or seriously misbehaving. The Finns can hold their liquor.

The bands playing that day were mostly Finnish, with the exception of Dragonforce and Dark Tranquility. Of course they were all talking only in Finnish to the audience and I have no clue what they said 😉
Although you see nicely, the sound in the first row is rather crappy I guess and with Amorphis as well as Dark Tranquility, which were my first row candidates, you couldn’t hear much of the vocals. I wonder if it was better in the back.
I might sample into the band “Celesty”, one of the few clean vocal acts around with a classic heavy sound and kind of an “Arthurian” theme. They looked fun live even if the main vocalist (they have two) might have drunk too much alcohol and was having trouble singing 😉
Amorphis was great as usual, but kinda weird for me, since Tomi of course spoke Finnish and I didn’t understand one word except for Kiitos = thank you 😉
My recent new favorite Dark Tranquillity was quite an experience. I “discovered” them at Japan’s Loudpark last year and it was my second time to see them live and for the first time knowing most of their songs, though I’m still not up to date with their real old albums. It makes such a big difference when you know the material of a band well. It was also nice because they are from Sweden and spoke English to the audience, so I didn’t feel excluded from what was going on 😉
All in all it was a great festival, though it was a huge pain to get there and costly too…
But hey, those are the hustles of the festival goer 😉

My taxi came as ordered at 22:30 and I was quite happy to be driven back to a civilized hotel through the Finnish wilderness. There were elk crossing signs every few kilometers and woooowwww actually an elk did cross the road in front of us! I was shouting, “Ooh, moose! Um, elk!” And the taxi driver lady who didn’t speak much English said, “ah, baby!”
It looked pretty big for a baby elk but I shall trust the local who has seen more of the beasts than me 😉 Lets say, young elk, a girl apparently for lack of horns, or maybe they hadn’t grown yet. If my driver called that a baby I wonder just how huge the grown ones are. The elk hopped into the woods across the street and I promptly bought an elk crossing sign (in form of a refrigerator magnet) at Vaasa airport, since it actually happened that such a creature crossed my path and luckily far away enough for us to break and slow down to let him or her pass 😉 It also helped that it didn’t get dark. There was kinda twilight after midnight and at 23:00 or so when we crossed the elk’s path, the sun was still over the horizon and let us spot the elk from far away 😃