Episode 18: Strong Sun Moon
  It's a lovely morning / And the sun is shining...

Boo-yaa!  How on earth can I possibly even attempt to describe
an event that will never again be repeated on this Earth, the
Equinox "Strong Sun Moon Festival" of 1998?  The spiritual snob
in me is compelled to say "it can't" and give up, but yet I shall
endeavor to enlighten the masses.

First the facts.  SSMF is by most reckonings the largest goa party
on Earth, drawing some 5000 people each year.  This year's event
was the largest and and most elaborate so far, and most probably
also the last.  The festival lasted 3 days and was held in
Nenoue-Koogen, a plateau high in the mountains of Gifu, theoretically
4 hours away from Tokyo by car.  3-day entry was a mere 4500 yen
and transport back and forth 5500 yen, a veritable steal given that
one-night techno parties often cost 4000 yen and transport one way
on a local train would have been over 6000 yen.  For lots and lots
more info, check out http://www3.tky.3web.ne.jp/~equinox/.  And
of course my own pictures (now indexed with thumbnails!) are at

So on a sunny Saturday morning our merry crew consisting of yours
truly, fellow Finno-expat Antti, his girlfriend Masae and her friend
Atsuko piled into a bus (along with dozens of randoms) to begin the
journey.  Getting there was not even one thousandth the fun, as
massive traffic jams (30 km in length!) extended the voyage's length
to no less than 10 hours in a cramped little minibus.  Despite
carrying a metric ton of baggage, our belongings did not include a
tent. Instead, we camped out as parasites at the ultra-spiffy base
camp of a group of Boy Scout acquaintances.  And a wild crew they
were too: one of the guys was a Buddhist monk, another a future JASA
astronaut, and needless to say they were all party animals.

Mountains at dusk, Gifu

A view of the party

Masa, Antti & Atsuko
But I'm getting ahead of myself, a word about the grounds is in
order.  The party was held at a large camping site, deep in the
forest, surrounded by mountains, bordering a lake.  The main stage
and primary party place was the large open area in the middle,
filled to the brim with absolutely insane decorations.  Next to
it was the large flea market with food stalls and the like, and on
the other side of a small river was the ambient area with some
camping space.  The other tents were in the surrounding hills
(like ours) or surrounding the lake, there were also some simple
cabins available.  Unfortunately, taking pictures was technically
forbidden, which meant that I had to sneak my shots mostly without
my trusty monopod, and the decorations were almost all meant for
ultraviolet, which meant that normal cameras could only capture
them in daylight.  Just the same, Decorations.JPG should give some
idea of the scale and complexity of these things: some were up to
5 meters tall and full of strobe lights and internal motors for
rotating geometric shapes and (in one case) pulling an alien
along a track within the structure.  Video projectors were also
heavily used, the plastic bubbles visible in some shots were used
as projection screens, along with the surface of the lake itself!
The "past parties" link of the Equinox home page has some shots 
of previous parties' decorations, taken with UV filters.  And
once you were tired, you could retire to one of the many chill-out
teepees (complete with warm roaring fire instead) or gather around
the massive outdoor blaze (we're talking flames 5m high here!).
Or just lie down on the grass at the ambient island.


Pyromania at night

A few party people
The party had started on Friday and the main event was Saturday,
but due to the bus ordeal I was already tired when we arrived and
had to retire at 2 AM.  Until then, the music was good, but not
extraordinary; the same cannot be said for the outstanding speaker
system in use, around 50 kW in strength and perfectly calibrated --
even 500m away the earth vibrated with the bass, but treble tones
were just right even right next to the speakers.  After a mere 2
hours of sleep it was time to wake up to witness the festival's
number 1 star, Juno Reactor.  I had thought of JR as a rather dull
derivative goa band, but their live act turned out to be experimental
in the extreme: they started with half an hour of taiko drumming,
high-pitched female vocals, eletric guitars and weird synth sounds
until the first techno beat appeared.  Unfortunately, these
intriguing combinations rarely worked, the few outstanding songs in
the set were quite "traditional" in their approach.  Even the few
attempts to unite taiko and techno failed, though largely because
the 50 kW drowned out the o-daiko no matter how hard it was struck
(and the drummer certainly tried!).  But watching the sunrise during
the set was nice and the goa continued until noon; this did have
the side effect of making sleep a bit difficult, but the DJs
eventually switched to ambient and I managed to grab a few hours of
shut-eye.  They were to be needed...  I spent the rest of the
afternoon poking around the perimeter of the party area, doing
the obligatory Nature Study Course around the lake.  The route was
mostly on little walkways above the swamp, except for some spots where
you got to personally interact with mud in its natural habitat; quite
fun especially given that the place was infested with vipers, I
spotted a number of these usually reclusive creatures lolling about
in the sunshine.  Just the same, the scenery was very nice.

So far, so good, eh?  Not really: it was certainly a good party,
but not one to leave an indelible impression.  Little did I know
what was to come...  and the omens on Sunday night certainly didn't
look good.  The party was supposed to start again at dusk, around
7 PM, but at that time we were kicked out of our borrowed tents
(the Scouts had to leave), we found the main stage being busily
packed and only the chill-out stage operating, and to top it all off
it started to rain.  So there we were, huddled in a cafe tent with
a leaking roof and dejectedly tapping a toe to the odd but distinctly
un-dancy tunes played by the ambient DJ.  By midnight, I was
starting to be annoyed and I remember stating out loud that
unless they start to play real goa, I'm off to bed early, again.
Lo and behold:

  OK space cadets, prepare to hurtle through the cosmos!

A bassdrum started to bang away from the other side of the river, and
it turned out my wish had been granted.  The rain had stopped, a new
stage had been built while we were away, and the DJs were spinning
absolutely insanely good, hard, dancy goa trance. I literally ran to
the dancefloor and started bouncing away.

  And then I danced till daybreak in singleminded pursuit of
  the groove...

By 1 AM, it was obvious that this was by far and away the best goa
I had ever heard in my life.  After a mere hour I was starting to
be tired, but there was absolutely no way I could stop, and there
were 10 hours left!  Jamaican mythology features a Shiva-like character
known as the Steppin' Razor, a godlike warrior who wields enormous
power through his dancing.  Occasionally at techno parties one
will see someone so taken by the music that their dancing suddenly
evolves into an art form: straight from the heart, unconstrained
by the ego, energetic, elegant, pure and precise motion in perfect
harmony with the music.  Creating a Steppin' Razor requires a
positive ambience and an excellent DJ, who can first whip the crowd
into a lather and then issue the "challenge" in the form of a song
difficult enough to be dancable only someone with the beat in their
heart.  And that night, it was my turn to be the Steppin' Razor.
Wearing only a pair of pants and a yin-yang amulet, I unerringly
stepped my way through countless tunes, feeling better than ever,
even though only minutes earlier I had been shivering under 3 layers
of clothing.

  Imagine the most beautiful song in the world...  and add a beat.
By 2 AM, I had been forced to give up my mantle and return to being
a normal person again, and my resolve to stay on the floor was
starting to weaken.  Then I suddenly heard a song with the refrain
that subsequently became my new mantra, if not life philosophy:

  FORWARD fuck the pain!

...intoned the track, over and over again, encoded as a beat quartet,
FOR-ward fuck-the-pain-!, LEFT-left-RIGHT-right.  The crowd went
wild and I along with it.  Sensing a good vibe, the DJ continued
the general theme and, to general applause, played back-to-back
tracks sampling female moans (cliche as hell, but it works) and,
more unusually, a male Native American chant -- the traditional
"Heyahoohoo" which, for once, also worked.  After enough of this the
crowd was sufficiently worked up for the climax, which was
provided by a song whose vocal portion consisted of screaming.
In any other situation, I'm sure that the 4-5 screams spliced
together and mutated would sound like hideous cacophony, but at
the moment sonic overload was precisely what the crowd wanted
and the screams from the captive audience were almost as loud as
those of the tune itself.  Utterly amazing!

  Leave sleeping for tomorrow -- the time to dance is now.

And there was no escape.  With the exception of a brief excursion
to ambientland for an immensely tasty curry (not having eaten in
12 hours helped) and a brief stay listening to the DJ spin tunes
off the previously mentioned Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan remix album
Star Rise, I literally danced all night, from midnight until
11 in the morning.  For inspiration, all I needed to do was glance
forward at Atsuko, whose simple outfit of bra and pants with UV
designs turned her into a veritable goddess, black as night
and sexy as hell when bathed in UV light.  (The picture, taken
in the morning, really doesn't do her justice.)  Or any of the other
5000 people in various states of undress dancing wildly around me...
Towards the morning, when even the mantra was not enough, I would
drift off towards my sleeping mat to stretch out, only to hear the
DJ play yet another great tune that forced me back on my feet yet
again.  I have never in my life heard such an amazingly long stretch
of amazingly good music.  Even during the bus trip back, I kept
hearing the distinctive drum patterns of goa trance and moving my
feet to the beat.

And that was just me, what about the 4999 others?  A few characters
immediately spring to mind.

* The Japanese shaman or hippie in his 60s who danced wildly all
  night, climbing atop the speakers to wave his UV-painted magic
  stick and cast good vibes towards everybody.
* The blonde woman who breast-fed her angel-wing-decked baby while
* The fellow decked out like Confucius in a rice straw hat and
  long flowing robes.
* The middle-aged beer-paunched salaryman who danced all night and
  then some wearing nothing but gray flannel pajamas pants.
  Turns out he drove his 14-year-old son to the party and decided
  to join the fun himself...
* The gaijin with "butterfly wings" attached to his back, who literally
  bounced all over the place for two nights in a row.
* The Israeli girl with (flourescent) red hair who quizzed me on
  my Ptzatzot T-shirt.
* The guy with the "Obscene Art" T-shirt (appropriately named), who
  also had an obscene amount of joints with 3 degrees of freedom.
  He had a disconcerting tendency to sidle up to you, flip pelvis/
  ankle/wrist/arm/all of the above into impossible positions in
  smooth connected moves, stare at you cross-eyed for a second from
  under a massive thicket of hair and move on to his next victim.

And all the rest.  Clubbers and deadheads; hippies and zippies;
men, women and androgynes; the entire area was a riot of bizarre
fashion and clothing.  It was probably the first time in Japan that
my 7 feet and blonde hair weren't interesting enough to draw
stares.  I did receive a number of comments about my way-kool
plain white T-shirt with the kanji for matsuri (festival and/or
offering to the gods) printed on it, acquired in Asakusa for the
whopping sum of 800 yen.

  I'm so high...

The Woodstock comparisons are inevitable, and while the weather
may have been better, the people certainly weren't more sober
and Eden Transmission's classic (1990!) track, quoted above, was well
in tune with the general feeling.  When talking with random strangers,
the next question after the inevitable "Where are you from?" was
usually "What are you on?".  Most people found my (truthful) reply of
"Nothing" surprising.  But to each his/her/its own, I for one
find hugs from random strangers and statements like "I want EVERYBODY
on the PLANET to have a REALLY good morning!" far preferable to drunks
throwing up on my shoes.

And finally, the obligatory weird advertising slogan of the week.  The
Sapporo Chuu-Hai (vodka highball) vending machine was hilarious enough
to merit a picture for posterity, archived as Chuhai_Machine.JPG,
but for those of you with better things to do than download 150K
pics of vending machines, here's the transcription:

  To contribute to the creation of a vital society and a healthy
  lifestyle for its members through our fermentation technology,
  and, at the same time, to achieve harmony with nature.

Now is that a great mission statement or what?  So remember, next
time you feel vital, healthy or at harmony with nature, remember
to thank the Sapporo Beverage Corp's fermentation technology.


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