A night to remember: Yoimiya and Motomiya Festival at Fushimi Inari Taisha

My first memory of Fushimi Inari Shrine is hiking up the mountain and getting so turned around that a wandering worker had to help me find my way back down it before sundown.

Since then, I’ve had a fondness for the winding torii gates, the little fox statues, and the views from the mountaintop. I guess you bond with a place when you get stuck for a few hours, huh? But over the years as it’s become more and more crowded, I’ve visited it less and less, reluctant to face the wave of humanity that hits it. And when I did visit it, it was purely to grab an omamori charm or to lead a visiting friend through. I didn’t visit it for myself anymore.

At least, not until I performed there.

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Taiko: Back to the heart

When I was a kid, I thought the U-shaped desk arrangement in classrooms was the dumbest thing ever. There was no privacy there; you were staring your classmates in the face, and there was this huge awkward space in the middle of the room. Also, there was that much less of a chance of sitting near your friends because you only had some people to either side of you, not in front or behind.

I was reminded of this sentiment today in taiko class… and how my opinion of it has changed.

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Let it go: the wadaiko way

Every few months or so, my taiko group goes through the basic forms/movements when playing the drums. Some of them are fairly straightforward: your stomach must be in line with the drum, not turned to one side; when hitting the drum, your drumstick should be angled down toward the drum, not parallel to it, and that sort of thing.

The hardest part for a lot of people, however, is the act of actually hitting the drum.

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Revving the wadaiko engine

Yatai bayashi (屋台林) is a hard song to play, you guys. My group isn’t even learning how to do it at full speed and it’s still kicking our butts. I’ve mentioned before it’s a pretty traditional song. The beat can be repetitive to those who haven’t been exposed to it, and don’t hear it properly played. It can be boring, in fact.

Tonight, I got to see Taiko-sensei show us how he intends for us to play.

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Why I’m glad Taiko-sensei corrected me

In four years of taking wadaiko lessons, I can say that I’m pretty decent at picking up on what my Sensei is teaching us at any given moment. Granted, the teachers I’ve worked with have all been incredible and vivid in their imagery (many times humorously so). I will never forget the Ichigo Miruku rhythm one Sensei taught me, or how another taught me to compare a particular beat (dokko) to how a horse trots.

One thing I’ve noticed, however, is how rarely I’m singled out for correction.

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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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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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What do I get out of it?

I attend a taiko drumming school, as I’ve mentioned before, in the midst of my city here in Japan. Once a week I go to an hour-long class where we practice a particular song for six months. At the end of it, we go to a Culture Center in the area and perform for our family and friends. It’s all a very expensive hobby when you get down to it–the lessons are 2,500 yen per hour, the performance costs about 9,000 yen to take part in, and if, heaven forbid, you want a DVD of the experience, that’ll cost an additional 7,000 yen.

But there’s a moment when you’re on stage and raising the drumsticks over your head, anticipation pooling in your belly as you await the first “DON” that resonates through the room… the tension and excitement before you share this passion and excitement with people is something I’m starting to really enjoy.

From elementary school through university I took part in chorus groups, so being on stage is nothing new to me. What is new to me is using something other than my voice in a performance, and while I’ve only done it twice so far, it is rapidly growing on me.

People say when you live abroad you should do something that you can only do in that place. Now, mind you, I’ve looked up taiko groups and they are widespread throughout the world, whether it’s in the States or other Asian countries or what-have-you. But here’s what I get out of this experience I really appreciate:

  1. Being in an all-Japanese environment. Can the teachers speak English? Yeah, some of them! But the teaching is all in Japanese, which forces me to keep up with my language practice. By extension…
  2. The lessons push me out of my comfort zone. I’m learning something in a foreign language with foreign context, with references to things I might never understand. I’m the only expat in my taiko group, as well, and while others take part in the other classes we don’t often get to meet and chat about our experiences.
  3. Performing on stage with this background makes me feel all the more accomplished, because to me it means I’ve succeeded in more than just learning a 5 minute song on the drums (though that’s an accomplishment in and of itself!).

I’m a little sad right now because I’ll be switching classes in April–my work and fun schedules are clashing and I needed to change it up–but I’m also excited about what else is going to happen with a new taiko group and teacher.

Eleanor Roosevelt is credited with the famous quote, “Do something every day that scares you.” While I think every day is a bit ambitious, I find that pushing myself to be out there and active in ways other than my job really help me make friends and have a better sense of community in my neighborhood here.

So go, do something that only you can do, only in that place. If it’s learning tea ceremony, or a martial art, or scuba diving, or whatever, get out there and do the thing.