Inside Japan's wild psych raves

As Osaka police crack down on clubnights, meet the kids moving the party outdoors

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Japan's Psych Raves

It's 9.30pm on a Friday night when police roll into the club. The mirrorball is ripped off the ceiling before the party is shut down. Eight staff are arrested – three getting 40 days in jail – people pour out onto the street with their civil liberties left wanting. Just another night in the saga of Osaka's police crackdown. In a reinterpretation of adult entertainment laws from 1948, Osaka city mayor Toru Hashimoto has begun hiring city police to enforce a curfew on dancing in the Amemura district and clubs are closing down. The only natural response: take the party to the mountains.

Like many areas of Japanese culture, when you repress it it only comes back stronger in more wonderful forms. The Amemura district was the birth place of street culture in Osaka, blossoming from the pressure of being a place for outsiders. Since the 1970s, designers and small fashion boutiques have set up in the cheaper rental spaces here at the western end of the city. The area's street style crosses designer vintage labels with ethnic clothing, Rasta-style and punk, drawing also on the African and Turkish minorities that base themselves here. Where fashion led, music followed. Since 1979, Osaka's underground parties – made infamous by performance-noise bands such as the Boredoms - have defied the mainstream, creating an intensity not possible in the pubic domain. 

Japan seems to incubate subcultures. In a high-pressured society that can sometimes shun individualism, new mutations evolve here in the gaps inbetween social norms. Kids in Osaka have been into Psytrance almost as long as DJs on Indian beaches have twisted techno in weird and wonderful directions in the early 90s. Almost all the bar owners in downtown Shinsaibashi look like they've had at least a gap year in Goa. Now these days, as clubs are being shut down and equipment develops, technology allows parties to move out into the hinterlands. Equipment is packed up into the back of cars, and driven out into Osaka's wild, mountainous border with Hyogo prefecture. Here in the southwest of the Japanese mainland lies a magical forest wilderness where Pikachu meets LSD and technology meets nature in Japan's psytrance mountain raves.

“The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness"

You have to drive about an hour to get out of the industry and infrastructure of Osaka, but then it's rice field after rice field as we head west to get as far away from the law as possible. The dance crackdown is not the only thing forcing parties to the hinterland; Japan's drug laws are also no joke, to the point where simply getting caught with Hash can land you a five year jail term. On the way to the mountains a police car happens to stop in front of us, and someone asks: "What would happen if he actually pulled us over?" Our driver comes back with: "We'll probably get the same sentence if we just kill the guy." We take a left turn and start climbing towards our mountain setting.

When we arrive, Chen has just started setting up his gear. He is the guitarist in psychedelic band AQATUKI. In about eight hours time it will be dark, and his band's hyper-melodic music would join the rave - amplified through the forest trees as people in Pokemon onesies move around like woodland creatures to a sound that only the mountains can make. But for now the theme is less fantastic. “Osaka shows are some of our most chaotic” he says, “they are crazy people! But the clubs we play at are closing down because of the anti-dancing laws. If I could say something to the mayor, I'd say “Hashimoto, lets just dance together!”

His band, like this mountain party, are the culmination of lots of time spent dancing on beaches in 90s India. “Our sound is based on travel, both physically and within ourselves,” he says. “We've lived in Hawaii, India, Thailand, Morocco – stints in Goa and Manali in the 90s.” Journeys into 90s rave culture also took the band to Strawberry Sundaes in Vauxhall. “That London party definitely had an effect on our sound” he says, adding to other strands of psych inspiration that came in the form of Japanoise bands like Boredoms and C.C.C.C. “People were more crazy back then, and here in the mountains I think we reconnect with these things somehow.” 

Naturalist John Muir once said that "the clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness." Tonight we have a clean shot at it. It's getting late, the lines between technology and nature blurred by MDMA and Acid. Surrounded only by trees and a big purple sky above, the makeshift PA system makes music sound more like air-strike scenes from Full Metal Jacket. The mountain forests are home to snakes and bears, but now ravers join in, dancing and searching for firewood in what feels like a timeless primal ritual, against a soundtrack of relentless future music that reverberates through the trees. The party was to last for another 48 hours; forgetting the rules of the city, following only the rules of the mountains.

When I next see Chen it's 9am. He lends me his jump leads for our run-down car and I make him a cup of tea. There seems to be a stark contrast between this mountain setting and the bleak industrial cities like Osaka that we've all driven from, but to Chen there is a link between the two. “The town where we grew up, Amagasaki, had a big influence on us,” he says. A big industrial town, Amagasaki is peppered with factories, smoggy air and polluted water. “Growing up I'd go for a run wearing a veil of black smoke around my head, the sound of industrial machines and grinding iron in my ears. This was our natural soundscape.”

Chen insists that the combination of modern industry and nature have had equal influence on his music and these raves in the wilderness. “This is one of Japan's strengths,” he says, as the relentless revolutions of trance continue to play out across the mountains. “We have old and new here, temples and bullet trains – technology and history can co-exist.” To Chen and his band, it is when the party moves to the mountains that a rare moment is created, where technology and nature become complimentary forces. “Basically,” he explains, “a psytrance party in the mountains feels like the most natural thing for us to do.” 

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