Wadaiko, Yatai-bayashi, and fitness

Disclaimer: I’m going to ramble about taiko for a while. This post has no real rhyme or reason behind it.

So it’s probably no secret that people who play taiko drums professionally are extremely lean and fit, right? Just search for “taiko” and you’ll be confronted with pictures of mostly-naked, wire-lean men killing themselves on giant drums.

If you go a bit deeper searching for documentaries or articles on the profession, you’ll discover that a lot of these folks go running in addition to practicing their music. “We like to run 10km every morning at 6am” seems to be a (horrible!) mantra among a lot of these guys.

My class, while claiming to be a “beginner” level course, does a really good job of introducing us to multiple techniques and styles that challenge us to improve. Right now, we’re working on a song called “Yatai-bayashi”. Go ahead and look it up, I’ll wait.

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Gourds, gourds everywhere: a peek at Naoshima

“Can I do a day trip to Tokyo from Kyoto? To Okayama? To Kyushu?” I found myself musing one day, at a loss for what to do on a national holiday. I looked at bus routes, at trains, and then finally a lightbulb went over my head: anything is possible if you have a bullet train ticket.

Which is why my friends and I decided one early autumn day to make the trek to a little place called Naoshima, in the Seto Inland Sea.

Naoshima is known as a Modern Art island, where you can wander around and see various structures set up outside for you to marvel at and, in some cases, even mess with. There are countless museums, several cafes, a couple of guesthouses, and buses to get you everywhere you need. Or bicycles, if you’re into that whole biking on the road thing. (Spoiler: I’m not. I’m a chicken.)

Pictured: art! (You could move the squares so they captured the light in different ways.

Bright and early I arrived at Kyoto Station and went to the ticket office. The trip to Naoshima from Kyoto is three legs:

  1. Kyoto Station to Okayama Station
  2. Okayama Station to Uno Station in Okayama Prefecture
  3. Ferry from Uno to Naoshima

(Okayama, by the way, is a lovely place that I recommend you check out. I’ll post about it another time.)

Do you have a JR pass? Are you a tourist? Great! Use your JR pass and the first leg of the trip will be really cheap for you. For the rest of us who live in Japan, the one-way price for unreserved seating is 7,010 yen. If you want to reserve a regular seat, make that 7,850 yen. I opted for the former because I figured I could use that extra money for a cafe or whatever, and in the morning there were plenty of seats to choose from on the Nozomi bullet train (the fastest of the trains available).

We got to Okayama in about an hour, at which point we were faced with multiple options for getting to Uno. Regardless of what you do, it’ll take 45 minutes to an hour. We opted for the regular trains at 580 yen one-way. You can get slightly faster trains (those 45 minute deals) for about double the price, but we didn’t think it was worth it. The train was comfortable enough, albeit tiny!

Once at Uno, we were bombarded with friendly, English-speaking staff who saw our non-Japanese faces and ran at us full-tilt.

“Are you going to Naoshima? The ferry leaves in twenty minutes! Go this way!” one exclaimed, pointing dramatically at the ferry port (which was in sight).

“Here’s a brochure in English!” another added, shoving several into our hands.

“Go to the store over there for discounted souvenirs!” a third exclaimed.

We fled toward the ferry instead.

The ferry was the cheapest and fastest part of the journey- about 20 minutes at 290 yen one way. When you get on it, there are multiple floors for you to choose from, and lots of seating arrangements. When you get on, you’ll be greeted with adventurous music ala Jurassic Park that makes you question if you accidentally walked into a theme park.

Finally, you’ll arrive at Naoshima, likely at Miyanoura Port. Now the fun begins: finding all the little things there are to do here.

Aki-can (空き缶) art

First off, of course, there’s the outside art that I mentioned before. There are multiple gourd structures on the island of varying colors. Some of them are solid, but others are hollowed out so you can climb inside and take silly pictures. There are also mysterious modern-art things that I can’t possibly hope to understand as I am, admittedly, not a huge art person.


(Reader: Why did you bother going if you’re not into ar-
Me: Shhh, don’t question it, just go with it.)

In addition to the outdoor stuff, there are the countless museums. Some are good only if you’re purely into the museum-going thing. We popped into one place, the Ando Museum, that was all of two rooms and cost us 500 yen-not massively recommended. There are other, much more interesting places to see: the Benesse House, the Chichu Museum, the Art House Project, etc. However, keep in mind these are expensive options- plan to pay as much as 2,000 yen for entry!

You can even hit up a bathhouse, cleverly titled, “I love Yu.” (Yu, or 湯、 means hot water, so it’s a play on words.) While bathing with strangers you can enjoy yet more modern art built into the place. I believe they switch up the men and women’s sides regularly so you can theoretically come back to view the other side without causing a scandal.

What did I like about the island most, though? Two things.

One: this little cafe/sleeping space called Shimacoya we found while looking for a place to take a break. It’s by the water, though you can’t see the sea from it. Part of it is a cluttered little book cafe and the other part is an old-style Japanese house with wooden flooring where you’re meant to pitch a little tiny tent indoors to sleep in if you stay.

Yes. A tent. Under a roof.

It was a quiet space, and the sun hit the area just right that me and my traveling companions all expressed the sudden urge to take a nap despite just having helped ourselves to some coffee. The staff were fairly friendly, and offer an unusual option on the menu: Hato Coffee, or Pigeon Coffee. Fear not! It isn’t made with pigeons. It is instead coffee with caramel syrup included. Why caramel = pigeons? Who knows.

Two: The shores of this island. It was a really gorgeous day, obnoxiously bright, and the weather was warm. I took so many pictures of the water hitting the sand, of the sunlight bouncing off of various things. It was truly lovely.

Would I go again? Nah, maybe not. I’m fairly satisfied with all I saw and did there.

Would I recommend the trip to others? Yeah! Even if you need something a bit more budget-friendly, there are buses you can take instead that’ll get you there from Kyoto in about 3.5 hours. I know that sounds like a lot but considering the number of buses in the States that offer day trips from say, D.C. to New York City? I think it’s doable for some.


Inoda Coffee, Kyoto

It’s one of those places you walk by hundreds of times, going, “Oh, that place looks nice. I should pop in someday and check it out.” Yet somehow, every time you walk by, you never actually set food in the venue.

Well, I finally did it. I finally checked out Inoda Coffee.

This is a branch of coffee shops you’ll find scattered throughout Kyoto. The one I decided to try was the Sanjo location, in a quieter part of the street. It wasn’t particularly busy, as it was about 3pm on a weekday- perfect for me to step in and try out a late lunch.

When you first walk in to the Sanjo branch, you’ll see that the place is split into several sections. The first section on the righthand side by the windows is the nonsmoking area for dining. To the immediate left is a shop where you can purchase coffee and related goods to take home. In the back, you’ll see the cash register, and beyond that a round, raised counter where the smoking patrons get their caffeine fix.

Upon entering, someone will approach and ask if you want smoking or non-. Then, you’re seated and given a menu. My menu had pretty thorough explanations in English, especially for the different blends they offer for the coffee, so even if you don’t speak the local lingo you should be able to pick something you like. It was also a very simple menu- cake sets, sandwich sets, toast sets, and coffee.

I opted for the “mixed sandwich set”, which had ham, egg and cucumbers in it. No cheese, according to the person serving me. I also opted for the coffee included with it, which in total cost about 1,300 yen. When you ask for coffee, the waiter will ask if you want it to have the sugar and milk already included; if you ask for no sugar, they won’t bother bringing any to the table.

Also, that small container they provide at your table? It’s salt, not sugar. Just FYI.

Anyway, the coffee came first, with milk and sugar included. Shortly after came the sandwich, and as I ate I was able to get my feelings sorted out about this place.

“Businesslike” is what I think of when I recall Inoda Coffee. Everyone kept to themselves, and while there were people chattering with their companions, I got the feeling that this wasn’t the sort of place you were encouraged to linger. Oh, certainly, you can take your time drinking your coffee, but once it’s finished, you ought to think about getting up and on with your day. This is a bit unusual in Kyoto, as most places give the impression you could set up camp for years without being bothered by the staff.

That said, it wasn’t uncomfortable in the least. The waiters were attentive, the food was nice, and yes, the coffee was tasty (this coming from someone who doesn’t normally drink black coffee- I tend to go for lots of milk). The seats by the windows are great for people-watching, and bring a lot of light into the cafe. The sandwich I got was very sizable and I was satisfied with my food. Enough for 1,300 yen? …Eeeh.

If you pass by Inoda Coffee and you need a quick cup to rejuvenate yourself, do check it out! The coffee by itself tends to cost about 500 yen.


When you’re putting the flash cards away, make sure they’re going in the right pile,” I said in my best Japanese. “Sometimes they get mixed up because we have multiples.”

Understood,” the new staff member said, using the polite form, or keigo. “Should I do anything else after that?”

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Travel Bucket List?

I found myself looking at travel blogs the other day and sighing heavily at all the stuff I haven’t done yet.

As time ticks by, I’ve found I’ve accomplished quite a bit. I’ve been to several countries, I’m working in a foreign country now and approaching fluency in the language, I’m getting so close to getting rid of my dreaded Student Loans, blah blah blah.

But there’s still a million things I haven’t done, and I thought I would keep track of them in this list to see if I get around to them anytime soon. I doubt it but hey, ya never know.

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American Maple, or Japanese Maple?

This time last year, I only had one set of drumsticks–the original set of bachi I’d been given upon signing up for wadaiko. My taiko-sensei wanted us to play the shime-daiko, a small, high-pitched drum, which required a different type than what I had.

“What should I buy then?” I asked her.

Sensei hummed thoughtfully for a moment. “Get maple bachi,” she suggested. “Can you buy them by next class?”

I reassured her I could, and three days later found myself in a shop looking at a veritable mountain of wooden sticks.

There appeared to be more than one option for “maple” drumsticks, so I called over a young staff member.

“Excuse me, I need some maple drumsticks,” I said. “To play the shime-daiko.”

“Okay,” she said brightly. “What kind of maple?”

“I… don’t know. My teacher just said ‘maple’, and I didn’t realize you carried multiple sorts.”

Her bright smile faded into a thoughtful look, and she moved beside me, staring at the offered types. “You said you needed them for the shime-daiko, right? Will you be playing only the shime-daiko or other types of drums with it?”

“Other types too, I think,” I said.

“Hm,” she said, and called over another, senior staff member. All of us stared at the drumsticks in confusion.

“What kind of maple did you need?” the senior staff member asked.

“Just maple,” I said.

“Yes, but what kind?”

I shot her an exasperated look. “Okay, how about this,” I said. “I’m going to buy the Japanese maple. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll get the American maple next time. Sound good?”

“But what if you need American maple?”

I suppressed a sigh. “Like I said-”

“If you want the Japanese maple type, let’s take a look at a couple lengths and weights,” the junior staff member said, brightening up now that someone had made a decision. “Do you want to try a few different ones? The weight can make a big difference.”

I picked up two pairs of Japanese maple drumsticks meant for the shime-daiko. They felt exactly the same to me. Glancing at the two staff member eyeing me expectantly, I pretended to think over them. “Hmm. I’m just not sure which is better. Should it be heavier or lighter?” I said.

“Well, that’s up to what works best for your performance,” the senior staff member said, still looking concerned. “Are you certain Japanese maple is all right?”

The only thing I’m certain of is that I want to get out of here, I thought. But instead, I set one of the sets of bachi down and held up the other. “I think these’ll do. I’ll check with my teacher later,” I said.

The staff members exchanged a look. “Is the weight okay?” the junior one asked.

Why are you asking me like I have any clue? Mustering confidence I didn’t really have, I nodded. “Yep. Can you ring these up for me please?”

“If you’re sure,” the senior one said. “But you’ll come back if you need the American ones instead, right? We don’t really do exchanges, though.”

“That’s fine, at least I’ll be prepared if I have both types,” I said.

Her expression cleared. “Sou desu ne. That’s very true,” she said, slowly starting to smile.

So I got rung up, paid for my drumsticks, and escaped, hearing the two discussing the incident behind me as I fled.

A few days later, I went to class and showed the drumsticks to my teacher. “Are these okay?” I asked. “They’re Japanese maple.”

My taiko-sensei barely glanced at them. “Oh yeah those’ll do nicely.”

I paused. “Sensei, which is better? The American maple, or the Japanese maple?”

She grinned. “Doesn’t matter one whit.”

And that is why I need to remember to ask specific questions before going on wadaiko shopping excursions.

The magic of enkais

One of my pet peeves is being used for English practice without being asked beforehand.

It’s one thing when I enter a shop and a staff member attempts to speak English to me–that’s someone who is just trying to do their job and make our transaction go as smoothly as possible. If you speak Japanese, all you need to do is tell them so and you can continue on as normal. And if you can’t speak the lingo or they’re asking you something complicated, it can be a godsend to have someone explain what’s going on in English.

It’s another thing when you’re in a hurry somewhere and you feel someone tap your shoulder… and upon turning around you’re confronted with someone who wants to go through the whole “Welcome to Japan”/”Where are you from”/”How long you stay in Japan”/etc. script with you to practice their language skills.

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