8 Tips to Surviving Concerts in Japan

This post also appears over on Mind Equals Blown. When I posted the piece I wrote about music and relationships, I’d mentioned that I would hopefully get to write for MEB more in the future. I’m pretty stoked to announce that they asked me join their staff as a bi-weekly columnist, so that hope is now firmly grounded in reality.  Hurrah for that!

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When I first moved to Japan, one of my major concerns, right after figuring out how to buy stamps at the post office and how to order extra pickled ginger with my sushi, was getting to shows. I am absolutely that kind of person who saves their concert tickets for years (and frames them too, for the favorites bands), gets rib bruises from hanging over the barrier, and coaxes setlists from the guys behind the soundboards. And I was worried that when I shipped off to rural northern Japan, those opportunities would disappear, that, for whatever reason, I wouldn’t be getting to any shows at all.

Now that I’ve lived here for over a year and a half, I can safely say that I’ve got the art of Japanese concertgoing down to a science. Of course, there are similarities. But showing up to a concert in Japan and expecting it to be the same as one in America or England is largely like waltzing into a ramen restaurant and trying to order a hamburger. If you ever find yourself in the Land of the Rising Sun when one of your favorite artists is playing a show, hopefully my tips will help make things a little bit more understandable.

1.) Get to a convenience store. While online ticketing is the most popular purchase method in most places, most concertgoers in Japan definitely get their tickets from convenience stores. More specifically, from Lawson or FamilyMart, two of the larger chains. At Lawson, you buy them at a goofy-looking red contraption called a Loppi Machine. Each show has a specific numeric code assigned to it; plug that code into a Loppi and select the kind of ticket you want. The machine prints out a receipt, you pay at the counter, and the cashier hands over your ticket. FamilyMart uses a similar machine, called a Pia. As long as you have fast fingers, have the concert code, and know how to spell your name in Japanese, I’ve found it to be way less stressful than refreshing a web page every five seconds.

2.) Entrance isn’t a free-for-all. If you want to be on the barrier at most shows, that means queuing up a few hours in advance, but in Japan, the “early bird gets the worm” philosophy starts the day you buy tickets. Depending on the show, you get admitted based on the purchase time, which is denoted by a number on your ticket. It’s not true for all shows (and doesn’t apply to festivals), but for the smaller ones I’ve been to, a venue employee has stood outside and yelled out ticket numbers. If your number is below the number called, congratulations, you’ve been granted entrance.

I was ticket number 155 for this show.
I was ticket number 155 for this show.

Because of this, there usually aren’t lines for smaller shows; instead, it’s just one amorphous crowd waiting for numbers to be called. This system rocks if you find a show before tickets go on sale. You can park yourself in front of a Loppi or Pia and count down the minutes until you can nab your tickets, which I have done on several occasions. Unfortunately, if you find out about a show only a few days in advance, that might mean you’ll have to fight your way to the front. Of course, depending on the show, that might not be a problem, because…

3.) Japanese crowds have manners. Personal space doesn’t exist at concerts…unless you’re in Japan. At Summer Sonic festival in Tokyo last summer, I managed to get from the very back of the sizable crowd to the fourth or fifth row for Franz Ferdinand’s set within half of a song, and I didn’t have to worm my way through sweaty throngs. Of course, some crowds still get rowdy and exhilarating, but you can bet that no one will start throwing ‘bows or stomping on your feet. The downside to this is that it can make some pits seem downright listless. But on the other hand, it can be an absolute blessing. I saw Sigur Rós in the closing slot of that same festival. The crowd was dead silent and still for the entire ninety-minute set, and for a band like Sigur Rós, that atmosphere was perfection. Nobody screeching out song requests. No obnoxious whooping. Everyone just stood there in awe and let the music wash over them. It’s one of my favorite concert experiences to date.

3.) Expect rarities. For many artists, tours in Japan (and Asia in general) only happen once every three or four years. Sometimes it’s even less frequently. Because of that, you can usually count on a few rarities and surprises to be trotted out. Exhibit A: In January, I saw Muse. The highlight of the show was Exogenesis: Redemption, a track from their 2009 album, Resistance. (Accompanied by a dead silent crowd!) It’s never been played live before. Ever. And Sigur Rós opened their Summer Sonic set with “Í Gær,” a track that’s been played less than sixty times in the five and a half years since its release. Japanese crowds have awesome luck when it comes to setlists.

4.) You’ll be trekking to Tokyo or Osaka. Though Japanese artists tour the country more extensively, foreign bands usually only play shows in Tokyo, Osaka, or one of the smaller suburb cities around them, like Chiba, Yokohama, or Saitama. Of course, getting there is a piece of cake, thanks to the bullet trains. Plus, you won’t be stuck in a city in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do before or after the show, so it’s not such a bad thing.

5.) You’ll be home early. Most shows start around 6:00 p.m., because it means they’ll end before the last train. Doors open even earlier; I’ve gotten into some shows as early as 4:30 for a gig that starts an hour later. If you’re heading to a club event, though, that schedule gets flipped on its head: doors usually open around midnight, and the event lasts until the first morning train.

6.) Expect to fork over some extra cash at the door. For smaller shows, an extra 500円 (6-7 USD) is charged at the door to cover one drink. Whether you use your drink ticket or not, you still have to shell out the extra money. It’s slightly annoying, but such is life.

7.) Leave the camera at home. Stereotypically, the Japanese are known as shutterbugs. Unfortunately, that doesn’t apply to concerts. I’ve never been to a venue that allows professional cameras. In other words, nothing with a detachable lens. For some shows (like Summer Sonic), point-and-shoot cameras are allowed in, but can’t be used to photograph the show itself. Many venues ban the use of cameras outright, and security is stationed both at the barrier and throughout the seats to ensure that no one tries to snap a rogue picture. Of course, that doesn’t stop people from trying. If you’re sneaky about it, you can still grab a few choice shots. However, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ll end up with lots that co-star a random member of security trying to block your lens.

Success!
Success!
...abject failure.
…abject failure.

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