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Festival Daze

A red pizza truck and a motley crew of out-of-work ski bums set out on a 40-day road trip around Japan where they battled the elements, thousands of kilometers of hot pavement, hot pizzas and hungry partiers at Japan’s top summer music festivals.

It was a misty spring morning when the red pizza truck arrived in Niseko. The last of the snow was evaporating from shaded corners of the ski fields, and the sound of power tools echoed across empty farms. As the new season arrived in Hokkaido, a legacy was beginning.

The red pizza truck, and the proprietor, Cezar Constantin, became a fixture in Niseko. A friendship between Cezar and me grew over time as did the plans for local events over many espressos. One day, in a mad fit of enthusiasm, an idea was born: a road trip to Japan’s top summer music festivals.

A concrete plan developed for a 40-day mission, and it was time to find a crew. Cezar’s recruiting was devilish. He chose the most desperate, out-of-work ski bums lurking around Niseko and offered them the chance to earn some cash while on the “summer road trip of their lives.”

Sure enough, it wasn’t long before our motley crew rolled out of Niseko in a circus-like convoy. Cezar and his wife Keiko, a yin-and-yang couple with an indefatigable can-do attitude, led the charge in the red pizza truck.

Kent led the merry kitchen team that included Pops (Cezar’s dad), Tom, Murray, Dai, Eba, Watanabe, Waza, Tom and Dylan. Smooth-talking Chook and Jerrod would be the face men, out in front taking orders and working the crowd and the popular gelato fridge.

The crew was eager, oblivious to the reality that awaited—spending 16 hours a day in a 50-degree pizza sauna, serenaded by the merry sounds of festival-goers having the time of their lives.

I was recruited as the photographer to document the tour and escaped much of the “real work,” but I got a true behind-the-scenes feel for being cramped in a pizza van in the middle of summer in Japan.

FUJI ROCK (Naeba, Niigata)

If there’s a harsher baptism by fire than kicking things off at the biggest music festival in Asia, I can’t imagine what it is. After a late departure (engine failure, a car accident and a generally naive group of pizza boys the culprits), we rolled into Naeba and beheld the spectacle that is Fuji Rock.

When we arrived, it was late and raining. Not the refreshing kind of rain that provides respite from the summer heat; this was a heavy rain intent on drowning you.

We were two days in, had driven for 18 hours with a few hours’ sleep and were running on excitement, Red Bull and adrenaline. The rain tried its best to wash away our enthusiasm as we began assembling our mobile pizza shop.

The “test run” in Hokkaido had gone perfectly. Replicating this in these challenging conditions was more difficult. The entire set-up was an engineering masterpiece when complete. Two enormous pizza ovens, three freezers, two fridges, a coffee machine and a gelato fridge all needed to fit into a set floor plan.

A small scaffold was built on one side of the bus with a floating floor to lift the entire operation three feet off the ground. A heavy plastic tarpaulin was stretched tight, creating a canopy that would, in theory, drain away water.

Scattered around a muddy parking lot, it appeared less impressive. We had less than 24 hours to be operational, and nothing seemed to fit together right. The clock was ticking before a steady stream of hungry festival-goers would descend upon us.

Desperation is a great motivator.

The crew worked most of the night, caught a couple of hours’ sleep and awoke soaking wet to some hungry Fuji Rockers.

Fuji Rock is enormous. No other festival in Japan comes close in terms of size, number of spectators and sheer amount of music. Stages are spread out at the foot of Naeba Ski Resort like small villages linked by forest trails. Tents cling to the hillside campsite at steep angles, while below guests line up orderly for neatly organized rows of toilets.

If it rains at Fuji Rock, and it usually does, trudging from one stage to the next in deep, sloppy mud can be treacherous without the proper footwear. When the sun breaks, people lounge on rocks along a creek that runs through the center of the festival like lizards.

Farther down the valley, a gondola transports guests to stages higher up. Everything runs like clockwork, and music plays 24 hours a day if you look around.

The first 100 or 200 pizzas were fun, but after that it was a hot, grueling routine. We closed the shutters on the pizza truck at 2 a.m., opening again at 7 for weary-eyed festival-goers craving the infamous breakfast pizza: two soft-boiled eggs and two rashes of bacon on a half pizza dough.

Served with a hot coffee or morning beer, this was breakfast of champions for thousands of Fuji Rockers and what sustained me most of the trip.

ROCK IN JAPAN (Hitachinaka, Ibaraki)

After surviving Fuji Rock, we lethargically broke down our camp (a 12-hour process), loaded the convoy and labored across Honshu to a small mountain village where we would rest for a day. The team showered, slept and then prepped. Dough was made, rolled and cut into pizza-ready balls, then frozen.

Signs and scaffolds were chopped and cropped to fit the new set-up. We’d sold twice what we had planned at Fuji Rock, and we were now critically low on stock for Rock in Japan. Collecting what we could from the local shops, we replenished supplies and headed off to feed the fanatics.

Rock in Japan is centered on a main stage area that spreads from wooded parkland to the ocean. Here rain was replaced by a chronic, life-sapping heat. The kind you do not want waking you up in your tent at 11 a.m. when you’ve overslept from a hangover.

Set-up went relatively smoothly until security evicted us from the festival site at 10 p.m. We hadn’t had time to claim a campsite, so we trundled to the beach where we crashed beneath the stars until a rain shower woke us at 3 a.m. Hot, sandy and wet, Rock in Japan began.

Bam! We hit the ground running. For two days, Rock in Japan is a super high-energy event complete with its own Ferris wheel and mini-theme park. It rocks from the moment the gates open until the closing act stage-dives into their own drum kits.

This is big, loud, fist-pumping fun. The heaving crowd seemed to thrive in the incessant heat, and the lines at the pizza van were just as insistent.

Where Fuji Rock hosts a multitude of international acts and subsequently draws a large portion of the foreign community, Rock in Japan is nearly as big with a mostly Japanese crowd.

What it may lack in size it more than makes up for in volume. The stages can be heard from kilometers away, and when the headliners hit the main stage, the coordinated bobbing and bouncing in unison must be seen to be believed. The vibe was super friendly, bubbling with positive energy; it was one of the most polite rock festivals I’d witnessed.

RISING SUN (Otaru, Hokkaido)

After Rock in Japan, the crew and the truck looked as if they had been rolled in flour, covered with cheese and cooked in an oven. A sleep-deprived team slowly packed down as sweat streaks ran down dust-covered faces. The set-up had survived but was in need of repairs. The team was exhausted.

We loaded the trucks and set out north on the long drive to Hokkaido and the biggest festival on the north island, Rising Sun. Being back on home soil brought renewed enthusiasm and determination. We made repairs and modifications, re-designed the layout for a quicker set-up-and-take-down and got rid of one supply truck.

Rising Sun is Hokkaido’s main summer festival, and the stages rise to the occasion. The main stage is a musical monolith, while the secondary stages are impressive in their individuality, if not size. The festival is set in a wide-open field. A consistent haze of mist seems to hang in the sky, kicked up by tens of thousands of feet stamping the dry grass into a fine dust.

“Hammockville” lies at the outskirts of one of the marquees, while another stage is adorned by enormous totem poles soaring well above the crowd. Wander farther past a psychedelic stage pulsating and glowing through the blackness, and you’ll drift into the chill-out zones.

The music is a Japan-centric collection of bands with diversity and creativity in the collation. Revelers drift from the campsite to stages day and night, and just as things seem to slow down, fresh faces of day visitors re-ignite the crowd. We pumped out pizzas constantly without any sort of adherence to the normal breakfast, lunch and dinner routine.

Rising Sun passed by in a blur and, when it finished, the exodus was swift, perhaps due to the desire for a shower or an onsen. It was a lonely feeling packing up the pizza van in a post-festival desert.

A fine dust powder covered everything, including my camera gear. Almost a month on the road, and we were showing signs of serious wear-and-tear.

It took five days to completely clean the trucks, vans and equipment.

As we prepared for the final show, our team shrunk as Cezar assembled an elite strike force to re-pack the trucks, reload the freezers and head for the ferry at Tomakomai.

ARABAKI ROCK (Michinoku, Sendai)

We landed in Aomori at first light after an overnight ferry, now 32 days into the tour. The demands of the mission had far exceeded our expectations, yet tensions were kept in check as the end was now in sight.

After the three massive festivals, Arabaki Rock was a dream. This eclectic festival sprawls from the forest where festival-goers meander beneath a tree-filled grove into fields of stages, a small food street and tents punctuated by a full-blown wrestling ring (complete with crazed wrestling teams and mechanical bulls).

The more you explore, the less you understand how this festival was conceived. The setting, atmosphere and diverse collection of music and people made things interesting. From catchy punk rock to celebrity cover bands, the days drift into nights of fire twirling and small gatherings in the many multi-purpose tipis.

Arabaki Rock demanded a consistent stream of pizzas produced at a reasonable speed, gelato through the warmest part of the day and beers in the evening. The challenges of the previous three festivals seemed to pave the way for a smooth final event.

The four days drifted comfortably by, the crew getting ample rest in the cool, lush grass beneath the shade of the pizza truck. As the festival drew to a close, we finished the beer kegs while braking down the operation. We wrapped up on a high and woke up with a hangover.

During the daze of the last 40 days, we had traveled more than 6,000 kilometers and pumped out more than 20,000 pizzas. When we pulled into Niseko, the cool, fresh air suggested the leaves would soon be turning. We couldn’t wait for a nice, relaxing dinner of anything but pizza.

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