In this guest post by YR (@yrunde), we take you into the deep end of Japan’s techno scene, up in the damp mountains of Japan where the infamous Labyrinth festival takes place.
My good friend YR has already made many appearances on my blog. One of my best dance music travel buddies, YR and I have derped around 3 continents together, from big festivals as Ultra Europe to exploring the underground in Detroit. He’s one of the most demanding people I know when it comes to listening to quality music. That’s why when he said he was going to Labyrinth, a techno festival deep in the foggy forests of Japan’s countryside with a mystical reputation internationally, I knew I need to get him to share his experiences.
To step into the world of Japan’s techno and festival scene from YR’s eyes and ears, read on.
Written to the tune of:
“We try to create a soundtrack to nature, but sometimes, nature likes to create its own sounds. So once again, Mindgames presents: The Labyrinth”
When I first began listening to I suppose what is referred to as modern techno, I admit that it was a difficult transition.
Being heavily influenced by new age and softpop electro in my early childhood before cementing myself as a seriously uplifted trancehead for most of my late teens/early 20s, the lack of lyrical themes and repeating melodic chords made it confusing for me to understand how to enjoy this particular world of kicks, snares and reverberating synth rhythm held together by a pounding bass line.
However, as put best by Berghain’s front man Ben Klock, there is just something nice and warm about that bass drum, powerfully dark yet welcoming at the same time. Over time, I have had the privilege to attend many events across the world exploring various types of techno music, from the shades & polos party vibes of Drumcode labelers to the relentless drive & power of Richie Hawtin’s ENTER series. Or the mystical and tribal ultra-chill of Guy J’s Lost & Found, the signature coarseness of German techno vs. the industrial complex of Detroit.
The style that I have recently liked the most is not focused on the body experience, but that of the mind – and with those intentions I ventured off to the vast forest greenland of Naeba, Japan for Labyrinth with some of my best friends.
Labyrinth Festival Preparation
Before we dive into the main event, a little background about the event and the island nation where it’s held.
Dance music in Japan has never had the level of commercial success as that of Europe or North America, partially due to the complicated (and somewhat outdated) legal system. Up until very recently, there had been a strict ban on dancing in public non-authorized venues. Back in the 1960s, dancing was used by escorts and would-be prostitutes to solicit business in a discreet-but-everyone-knows manner, as is typically Japanese. And as it turns out, most nightclubs were registered as restaurants, making dancing in nightclubs illegal!
Although it was a rarely enforced law, it made any venue subject to random police raids at any time. Furthermore, Japan holds a no-nonsense-no-exceptions attitude toward drugs and cultural scorn toward bothering others (with noise). As a result, the support structure for those wanting to have a dance event centric lifestyle within even big cities such as Tokyo was meek at best.
According to a fellow I met who was on his 11th Labyrinth, back in the day, the event was much smaller, the music went on for 24 hours, and it felt slightly more like a camp and get-away than a production. The point here is that this event, although extremely minimal in presentation, has quite a long history and its organizers have very clear intentions on the experience they want to bring – especially considering the country they are in. More on this later.
Labyrinth plays music from roughly noon to 2am, but the focus is clearly on the nighttime and the event is notorious for its torrential downpour and extremely high risk of being interrupted by typhoons. So instead of tank tops, daisy dukes and feathered headdresses, the most important things to bring are ponchos, rain boots, rain pants, waterproof bags, and (discreet, non-overbearing) headlamps/flashlights. Out of the 48 hours we were there, the rain only stopped for 4 or 5 of them.
You can camp at the venue, but due to its remote location (and typhoons…) many choose to come from Tokyo via train and stay at a hotel in the neighboring small town of Yuzawa, relying on shuttles going to and from the venue. Cash is also quite important as the food stands have very tasty offerings – one place calls itself “Fuckin’ Yummy Burger” – and they 100% deserve that title. But probably the most important thing to bring to Labyrinth is an adventurous, free, and positive attitude – your endurance will be tested, and your experience will then be dependent on your mental preparation and perspective
The Labyrinth Venue
As I mentioned before, Labyrinth is quite minimal. There is only one stage. There is no VIP area, no selfie booths, no ferris wheels and definitely no bikini girls walking around with an Instagram cutout telling you to include hashtag #labyrinth.
What it does have is one of the world’s best offerings of the indomitable Funktion-One system. You either come for the music or there is nothing for you at all – a clear no-nonsense intention by the organizers which is very much appreciated. On a roughly circular oval shaped field w/ radius of ~300m, the stage is roughly 1 o’clock and occupies half of the area. Various teepee and other tribal-esque structures are spread out in the middle until you reach the back. In the back you find the marketplace, bar and covered areas forming an arc from roughly 4 o’clock to 10 o’clock, with a break in formation around 7 o’clock to extend out to the food stalls and camp areas.
One of the best parts of the Labyrinth venue is its relative openness to surroundings. There are various offshoots that branch off from the main area. Exploring them may unveil a forested area, a bridge overlooking a river, an overlook path surrounding the main basin, and other mini-adventures which are worth exploring both during the day and at night. Just like the music played here, the offerings are plentiful, but the responsibility is on you to decide how you want to enjoy it.
The Labyrinth Festival Experience
To describe the Labyrinth experience, the focus must first be on the music. The set of acts that perform year in and year out is very consistent. Guys like Peter van Hoesen, Ness, Donato Dozzy, Minilogue – they have significant experience with the festival and thus know what to expect and how to move things in the right direction. As one would expect, the afternoon starts off fairly mellow and slow, with mixes of ambient tech, lighter tech house, and some progressive sets that will allow people to get acclimated with the vibe of the current day and socialize. Then all of a sudden the sun is gone, the music picks up significantly into various flavors of minimal and progressive techno, until roughly 12:30am when the psybient begins. This is usually a turning point in the evening, as those who don’t enjoy this particular fare rally out toward afterparties (all self-organized) or the comfort of their beds.
That leads me to the crowd – there are quite a few mini-raves throughout the summer season, most of which are spread out across Kanto region, and the participants are mostly acquainted with each other. All of them congregate in Labyrinth, which is an annual get-together for many who do not live near and get to each other very often. As such, many families bring their kids and are specific and private with those they know – not because they intentionally want to avoid people they don’t know, but because they have so much to catch up on with the ones they already do.
On top of this, due to the nature of this event, there is less focus on the social aspect than your typical festival. This can make people seem unapproachable, but the truth is quite the opposite – the people here are some of the most genuine and lovely individuals I met all year. Rather than forcefully making conversation and possibly (even if unintentionally) being an asshole, following the natural course of events will allow you to meet the people you are supposed to meet. And that goes along with the theme of the whole event – natural, minimal, no-nonsense.
Speaking of themes, though, maybe it’s not so productive to discuss Labyrinth in terms of facts and specifics. Whenever I go to an event, I usually find that the successful ones – music festival or otherwise – do have a consistent and persistent theme. Awakenings is a high-energy, clean & physical production. Burning Man is a celebration of human potential.
But Labyrinth – I couldn’t put my finger on what it was going for at first. In one moment, I found myself looking around the venue, sheer darkness on every side, interrupted by the dim glowing lights of the marketplace in the distance. The faint, hollow timbre of the bass drum and surrounding inaudible chatter brought me imagery of the siege camps of the shogunate raid parties of centuries past. Then in a different moment, I could barely make out the slight rustling of leaves and echoes of the forest, barely audible (but definitely audible) under the eerily clear but punchy hi-hats.
While exploring those elements, I was embraced by the delicate and soft reverberated synths, somehow drawing out an aggressive dancing energy from within me. In the corner of my eye, the stage light shined upon a kid in a onesie, carried sling-style by her mommy, who stuck her tongue out at me before going back to her lollipop. Fast forward to another jump in time, finding me in a brightly lit teepee, dancing in silent unison with a group whose hearts had fully synchronized, despite the differences in style, gender, and perspective and having no knowledge of each others’ names. In all these moments and more, the rain is there, it is cold, persistent, over-encompassing. And somewhere in the midst of this wetness, this confusion, this discomfort – I found victory in my being and my person, my survival, surrounded by the warmth of the music and friends, who were moving around in a fluid wavering motion similar to my own. A self-generated, full-ownership euphoria.
The playground, the adventure, the challenge, the Labyrinth. Will you join us next time?