Up until this past April, my taiko performances have been purely indoors. I’ve performed at Biwako Hall, Rohm Theater, and even out in Uji at the Community Center. But that all changed on April 29, when I was asked to join my group and perform at a little place in Yawata-shi, Kyoto.
Iwashimizu Hachimangu Shrine is located at the top of a hill (given the very generous name of “mountain” and can be reached on the Keihan line. If you hop on a Ltd. Express Train at Gion-Shijo station, you’re looking at a 25 minute ride to Yawatashi Station. Once there, you’ll spot signs for a cable car that will take you up the so-called mountain. The cable car and the ride itself are both tiny- one car, and one minute or so to get to the top. Once there, you need to walk a few minutes to get from the cable car station to the shrine proper.
We arrived in the morning and had time to wander the grounds. The shrine itself is impressively big, and not nearly as crowded as others you might check out while in Kyoto (I’m looking at you, Fushimi Inari). There are multiple buildings, and upon consulting the Internet after my visit I learned the grounds used to be more of a shrine-temple complex, rather than being “mainly” one or the other. These days, it’s referred to as a pretty important Shinto Shrine.
Our performance stage was set up before the main hall, and at first I was a little confused as to why we were facing the shrine to play, as opposed to the audience (which tended to stand behind us, rather than between us and the shrine). It didn’t take long for me to realize we were paying our respects to the shrine with this setup, though.
Everyone performed fairly traditional taiko songs that day, including us with Yatai Bayashi （屋台ばやし). While there was still a lot of excitement leading up to the performances, there was a certain reverence to it all as well that I found fascinating… especially when we were brought into the inner area of the shrine to pray before we got started.
My knowledge on Shinto services is extremely limited, but the way we were led through the prayer reminded me of a Christian service in many ways. We were given lots of cues (when to stand, when to bow our heads, when to lift our heads, when to put our hands together in prayer) while the priest walked in front of us, chanted, read his texts, and what have you. However, one interesting thing that I’d like to touch on sometime (in a future post, maybe?) was how the tone of the chanting was very different from what you’d expect in a Christian church setting. When I think of my own experiences attending a church as a child, the priest’s voice tended to lilt in a very particular way when he or she spoke. In the case of the Shinto services, the priests’ voice was flat and as monotone as possible, each syllable of the prayer given the same space and intonation as the one before it. I found it very difficult to follow what was being said as a result.
After that, we were sent back out, and the performances began!
The day had started with sunlight streaming down through the trees, but as the performances went on, clouds began to gather and people began casting worried glances up at the sky. Before one particular performance, titled Ametsuchi (天地), our announcer gave the sky a mock-stern look and said, “I would kindly request the gods to note that when I say ‘Ame’ I do not refer to rain (雨) or sweets (🍬), but to heaven (天). We don’t need any rain at this time!” He got a laugh out of the audience for that.
Unfortunately, it seemed like whatever gods were listening didn’t care for that joke, as later in the day, one performance got badly rained on. Given that this performance included not only the taiko drums, but everyone wearing kimono and dancing on the stage, it became an experience that was amazing to watch… but also made me wince in sympathy to think about how hard it must have been for the performers.
Rain-drenched, careful not to trip on the stage that was quickly becoming slippery, and careful not to let drumsticks go flying, they laughed in the face of lightning flashing in the background and sang louder than the thunder so we could hear. Not only did they avoid getting hurt, but they were able to absolutely kill the performance despite the hardships they were facing.
Immediately following it, the stage was swarmed with teachers and helpers who covered the drums in plastic sheets and helped the performers get off the stage.
It was a bit difficult for anyone to follow an act like that.
Luckily, after thirty minutes or so, the rain let up and sunshine began peeking through the clouds once more. Perhaps the gods had gotten over their irritation at the bad joke. Whatever the case, the remaining groups were able to do their own performances and we were able to go home, all satisfied that we’d given our best performance.
Have you ever been rained on during a big event? How was it handled?