While the rest of us toss away our cares, DJs will be slaving behind the decks on New Year’s Eve, looking to pocket a month’s salary before the dog days of January. As per usual, some of the world’s leading groove riders will fly in for gigs at Tokyo’s superclubs.
But before we pass the velvet rope, here are a few events too big even for the likes of Womb et al. Now in its third year, Electronic Tribe at Yebisu Garden Hall consistently brings out the top dogs. Following Laurent Garnier in 2010 and Derrick May in 2011, the 2012 event is helmed by illustrious DJ Francois K. With roots stretching back to New York’s infamous Studio 54 and decades of house and techno under his belt, Francois’s sets unfold at a deliberate pace that should build to an appropriately ecstatic countdown. Backstopping him are Japan’s scratch master par excellence, DJ Kentaro, and England’s Rob Smith of Bristol dub sound system Smith & Mighty.
A new edition to the 2011 rave scene was the Freaks festival, held twice in spring and fall. For New Year’s, the event takes over Differ Ariake—an arena usually used for pro wrestling—and turns it over to DJ Harvey for the entire night. A DJ of near-mythical status, Harvey Bassett acquired his cult-like following by being one of the first British DJs to bring house music to the UK. His name calls to mind formative late-’80s parties in Cambridge and Brighton, where he would blend disco, hip-hop, house and rock in epic sonic journeys. Recent years have seen him based on the US West Coast holding his Harvey Sarcastic Disco warehouse parties.
Back in clubland, we look at the biggest and brashest of Tokyo’s bashes…
Take in the propitious first sunrise of the year over Tokyo Bay at Ageha’s Countdown 2012 [main image above]. A slew of domestic DJs front the festivities, ranging from electro scene-leaders Dexpistols to techno veteran Ken Ishii and hip-hop stylist Masterkey. A live set from sampledelic scratch duo Hifana will enliven the night with a mystery special “sunrise performance” also planned.
Shibuya’s Air hosts two lynchpins of the Japanese house music scene for Countdown to 2012. DJ Emma has been at the wheels of steel since the dawn of the electronic music boom in Japan. His marathon sets reference classic Chicago and New York house. Cohosting will be Kaoru Inoue, the resident of Air’s Seeds and Grounds events, and the purveyor of a more psychedelic, free-ranging sound.
Club Asia is bringing together its most popular resident DJs for Countdown 2011 to 2012 All Stars. Among them are Taku Takahashi of hip-hop unit M-Flo and Yasutaka Nakata, the producer of electro idols Perfume and a dozen other wonderfully disposable J-pop acts.
Liquid Room turns to techno mischief-makers in chief Takkyu Ishino and Fumiya Tanaka for its Countdown→Count Up Party. One-half of techno-pop act Denki Groove, Ishino also has a penchant for hard-hitting underground club techno. Tanaka on the other hand was one of the first Japanese avatars of Detroit techno, but also does a pretty good IDM under his Individual Orchestra moniker.
Up Roppongi Dori at venerable Eleven, Toshiya Kawasaki’s Mule Musiq imprint presents a New Year’s Eve Countdown to 2012 edition of its Endless Flight events. For the occasion Kawasaki is flying in Hamburg-based DJs Koze and Lawrence for a night of Teutonic beats. Koze emerged from the scratch world and took home the Runner-Up prize at the DMC DJ Championships, but is more associated these days with the German techno scene. In tow will be DJ Lawrence, sometimes described as the “Larry Heard of Europe” for his steady prowess behind the decks.
Over at Daikanyama’s Unit, heavyweight turntablist DJ Krush heads up a pack of over 30 DJs for the club’s annual 2000 countdown. What must surely be the most crowded New Year’s bill (as well as its cheapest) sees the downtempo master joined by an all-domestic bill ranging from the crazed eclecticism of the Boredoms’ Eye in his DJ incarnation to the chilled-out groove-tronica of Aoki Takamasa to the dubby flavors of DJ Kensei.
Brand-spanking new Shibuya superclub Vision announces its arrival on the countdown scene with a bang. Two Detroit techno originators, Derrick May and Jeff Mills, will be at the pulpit ministering to the faithful for Countdown to 2012. While they emerged out of the same scene, May’s loose, irreverent DJ style and Mills’ precision three-turntable athleticism couldn’t make for more of a contrast.
For its New Year Countdown 2012, crosstown Shibuya competitor Womb has roped in storied techno veteran Josh Wink, the creator of classic acid house track “Higher State of Consciousness.” With two decades on the scene, Wink was one of the first American DJs to take the techno revolution outside its Detroit birthplace, and hasn’t stood still. His 2009 When a Banana Was Just a Banana was one of the tightest techno outings of the year.
Warehouse702 is the place for boy-toys and fruit-flies when revered gay/mix party The Ring offers its version of a countdown. A Ring countdown isn’t for the faint of heart, so be sure to put on your glad rags and steel yourself with mind-altering agents for a night of retro disco courtesy of longstanding Ring DJs Shinkawa and Yo-C.
Last but not least, expat promoter Eggworm returns to stylish Nihonbashi Xex for a repeat of last year’s decadence in the form of The Whistlebump New Year Special. Down a glass of Belvedere as you while away the night to the sounds of French DJ Franck Rogers. A lynchpin of Paris’s ’90s deep house scene, Rogers’ sound is moody, sexy music for the singles scene.
ROCK & INDIE
Tokyo’s myriad rock dives will be humming with guitar noise but magazine Rockin On’s annual Countdown Japan at the Makuhari convention center is by far the longest and largest of all the New Year’s events. Launching on Dec 28 and running through countdown, CJ reflects the industry approach to rock defined by Rockin On. Notwithstanding, there will be some great acts for J-rock trainspotters, ranging from Kinoco Hotel, the latest in a long line of kitschy, uniformed girl groups, to the authentically talented roots rockers Soul Flower Union.
Back downtown, Vintage Rock, which manages some of Japan’s more successful indie acts, has an omnibus all-nighter slated for Akasaka Blitz. Vintage Rock Std. Countdown is headlined by hard-edged J-rockers 9mm Parabellum Bullet and will also include sets by melocore outfit Totalfat and synth-driven rockers Avengers In Sci-Fi.
Shibuya’s live houses will naturally be popping. Duo Music Exchange at the “O” complex hosts veteran rockers the Pillows’ Countdown Bump Show. The Pillows are pretty middle-of-the-road but nonetheless possess a convincing live show, which with the assistance of storied chick rockers Noodles and Pop Chocolat should make for a rather enjoyable evening.
Over in Shinjuku, venerable basement dive Loft is seizing the disaster bull by the horns and will a host an all-nighter themed around Sea Jetter Kaito, the local action hero mascot for tsunami-hit Ishinomaki city (think: Kamen Rider with a jetboat). The charity event benefitting the city’s hard-hit Mangattan Museum, built in honor of Sea Jetter Kaito creator Shotaro Ishinomori, will see the hero himself make an appearance alongside anime-themed bands Sister Mayo and Nob. The name of the event is 340 presents Ishinomaki Ishinomori Mangakan Ouen “Fukko Toshi Koshi Sai~Kaito to Mukaeru Shinnen.”
Out in the counterculture capital Shimokitazawa, scene-defining live house Shelter celebrates its 20th New Year’s with The Final of 2011. Fronting the night is candy-core grrrl group Who the Bitch, who always seem to enjoy themselves far too much on stage. Backing them is Kyushu pop-rock trio No Regret Life, a dependable draw and consistently strong live act.
Another historic Shimokita basement club is 251, which this year hosts 2011 251 All Stars Special. Beginning in the afternoon, no less than 15 bands will have the club heaving all night. Countdown duty falls to Detroit7, the alt-rock trio led by sexy Tomomi Nabana, who have experienced some of the most recent success for a Japanese rock band abroad.
Koenji out-countercultures Shimokita in some respects, and is the epicenter of Japan’s avant-noise scene. Appropriate then, that noise godfather Keiji Haino will again be hosting his traditional pre-New Year’s event at Show Boat. As per custom, Haino will start the event at 1am on Dec 31 and continue through the wee hours with associated noise-nicks providing backup. Despite the strange hours, this event is always packed.
JAZZ & R&B
From jazz-fusion stars on to the evergreen pioneers of disco and funk, Tokyo’s posh supper clubs will lay the luxury on thick this New Year’s Eve.
At the dean of the lot, Aoyama’s Blue Note Tokyo, fusion supergroup Fourplay will host a countdown with the US Embassy’s imprimatur. The group was created by smooth jazz keyboardist Bob James (author of the theme song for the TV show Taxi) along with guitarist Lee Ritenour (replaced by Chuck Loeb), with Harvey Mason on drums and Nathan East on bass. The only music outfit ever to be recognized by the US Congress, Fourplay has a new album out in the form of the silky smooth Let’s Touch the Sky.
Blue Note sister club, the Cotton Club in Marunouchi, offers a more upbeat New Year’s with vocal boogie group The Whispers. Formed in LA in the ’60s by twin brothers, Wallace “Scotty” and Walter Scott, the group left its mark on music history in the form of the 1980 #1 hit “And the Beat Goes On” and are still going strong.
Crosstown rival Roppongi’s Billboard Live Café has a group whose tragic history makes its signature contributions to funk all the more poignant. Formed by Cincinnati’s Troutman brothers, Zapp created oft-sampled 80s hits like “More Bounce to the Ounce.” With brother Roger’s pioneering talk box vocals, the group provided the link between ’70s funk and ’90s hip-hop. Roger’s solo career began to take off when he provided the chorus to 2Pac’s 1996 comeback hit, “California Love.” But this proved too much for brother Larry, also his manager, who shot Roger and then killed himself. After a few years of mourning, the group reformed around brothers Lester and Terry. Looking to outdo its rivals’ glass of champagne, Billboard’s Countdown is an all-you-can-drink affair.
Those on smaller budgets are not without options. For one-third the price of the out-of-town talent, punters can set their countdown to the sounds of some of Tokyo’s better jazz groups.
JZ Brat in Shibuya’s Cerulean Tower has a jazz-funk evening lined up in the form of Jazz Jungle Vol. 6 “New Year Countdown Party.” Fronting the bill is swinging group Quasimode, who recently proved their mettle at the Tokyo Jazz festival. Jill-Decoy Association sounds a bit like the jazz version of Dreams Come True, while rabble-rousers Calmera are an eight-member powerhouse that combines swing with salsa and samba.
From 7pm on the 31st until the first train on the 1st, a gaggle of Japan’s leading jazz lights will take turns on stage. Among them are sax skronker Kazutoki Umezu and his Special Band, and pianist Hiroshi Minami, whose group featuring sax polymath Naruyoshi Kikuchi will host the actual countdown itself.
Unique to Japan is its quaint addiction to concerts of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in the days before New Year’s Eve. Stagings of nenmatsu no daiku reportedly started when German World War I POWs taught it to their captors at camps in Japan. Most established Kanto orchestras hold their own performances, but the one to catch will be the Leningrad State Orchestra with the Metropolitan Chorus of Tokyo on Dec 28 at Yokahama Minato Mirai Hall and Dec 29-30 at Tokyo Opera City. If the concerts are sold out, the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra will also be performing the Ninth no less than eight times in December. For true enthusiasts, the Iwaki Memorial Orchestra will perform all the Beethoven symphonies from 1 through 9 over ten hours on December 31 at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan in a marathon tradition that started in 2003.
A more recent addition to the Japanese classical New Year is the staging of late-night countdown “Sylvester” concerts. These take the form of homages to Viennese waltz composer Johann Strauss (December 31 is Saint Sylvester day, and Austrians call it “Sylvester”), such as the Suntory Hall Sylvester Concert 2011, again featuring the charming Vienna Folk Opera. Meanwhile in Shibuya, Bunkamura Orchard Hall’s 17th Tokyu Sylvester Concert 2011-2012 will ring in the New Year with Ravel’s spicy Bolero featuring renowned soprano Shinobu Sato. Across town at Tokyo Opera City, the Yukio Yokoyama Beethoven Sylvester Concert pairs virtuoso pianist Yukio Yokoyama with the Yokohama Sinfonietta in a program of popular works including Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.
The megalopolis offers plenty of non-musical New Year’s distraction as well. If expense is not an issue the Park Hyatt’s fabled New York Grill, immortalized in the film Lost in Translation, offers a six-course menu. Not to be outdone are spots like the Ritz-Carlton’s Azure 45 or the Peninsula’s Peter.
For something less staid, Tokyo Bay dinner cruise ship Vingt Et Un has a Countdown Cruise that offers superb views of the entire downtown. One preschool child per adult can even participate for free.
Head to Disneyland and start off your day by taking in the final show of Cirque du Soleil’s Zed on Dec 31, which will leave its purpose-built theater empty next year. Spend the rest of your evening at Disneyland or DisneySea, both of which will be open through 6am on the morning of Jan 1.
New Year’s is also a good time to head to Yokohama’s Hakkeijima Sea Paradise, which combines dolphin shows and an aquarium with an amusement park. Happy Island Countdown ’12 will see the park alight with fireworks till 8am for hardy revelers, at the remarkably friendly price of ¥3,500.
Westerners equate New Year’s with revelry, but in Japan oshogatsu is historically a sober affair. When New Year’s Eve hits the Kanto plain, many of its 30 million inhabitants head not to clubs but to Tokyo’s shrines. The first visit of the year, or hatsumode, best undertaken on the first day of the year, is considered the most auspicious. Crowds jostle their way through popular shrines like Meiji Jingu in Harajuku, which usually gets somewhere in the region of three million visitors, and Sensoji in Asakusa, which is a popular place to pray for health and wealth (or success in university entrance exams). Preferred visiting hours are during nighttime, when the shrines are brightly lit and gussied up for the occasion with yatai food stalls and omiyage souvenir shops. Those looking to steer clear of the crowds should avoid Jan 1, or head to your local neighborhood shrine.
Another New Year’s tradition is Tokyo’s annual firefighters performance and drill. Japanese firefighting skills were honed in the Edo era at a time when the entire city was made of wood and was subject to repeated devastating fires. Thousands of firefighters and over 100 engines and helicopters gather at Tokyo Big Site for the Jan 6 Dezomeshiki (New Year’s Fire Review) and stage daring acrobatic performances atop six-meter ladders.
The 2012 sumo season kicks off on Jan 8 at Kokugikan with the Grand Sumo Tournament. All eyes will be on whether Japanese ozekis Kotoshogiku and Kisenosato can knock off reigning sole yokozuna, Mongolian Hakuho.