Wednesday, September 24, 2008

2008 Japan Taiko Matsuri

The Japan Taiko Matsuri (Nihon Taiko Matsuri) is held at Ise Jinguu annually and is hosted by the main professional Ise taiko group, Shinon Daiko. This year there were 20 groups invited to perform from around the country, including my group, Shippu Uchi Daiko. There were 3 stages for 2 straight days of non-stop taiko--heaven, right?

I was there as “staff” this year with instructions from sensei to “learn” by watching the different groups and become familiar with some of the best players in Japan.

Friday night we arrived late at the guest house and were instructed to bathe quickly and go to sensei’s room for a meeting. After a quick overview of the next day’s schedule, they went through the entire set by tapping on the table. I was really struck at that moment how lucky I am to be with such a talented group of drummers, their fingers moving effortlessly on the coffee table, bodies exhausted from the 5-hour drive.

Saturday morning started at 5:30am, dressing in warm-ups, doing preliminary hair and makeup. Then we headed down to the stage to help with set up, tightening okedo and bringing out drums. At one point I remember standing (wouldn’t be surprised if my jaw was hanging open) in awe as the o-daiko was lowered down through the ceiling of the pagoda right onto the performance space.

There was continuous honoring of other players throughout the weekend. I was prepared for this because sensei gave a lecture the night before to make sure that everyone was making an active effort to say good morning, よろしくお願いたします, et cetera whenever anyone passed. So, there would be frequent pauses from the hectic preparations to stand and bow and say おはようございます whenever any group would pass. This did make it quite difficult for me initially to differentiate any sort of status because everyone was treated as equally important as performers at the festival.

Anyway, after everything was set up, we walked down one of the walking streets and took photos with the big banner saying Shippu Uchi Daiko (疾風打太鼓) and then went to eat and get into costume.

I was “working” (mostly I was towel/water girl) the first performance for Shippu Uchi (they had 4 over the weekend), but was then free for the rest of the day on Saturday to study other groups. I saw Miyake Daiko first and was impressed by their playing, but bored by the repetitiveness of their show. They played for 30 minutes–the same rhythm we (taiko players) all know well–getting faster each time. Wachi daiko was next. I was surprised that they, too, only played one song, switching out people.

In the afternoon I was wowed by Honou Daiko, a powerful all-women group. Their leader was very dramatic and very much a dancer, but in a very defined, rigidly graceful way. She was one of my favorites to watch and the group was very creative and choreographed. They made good use of the drum tones and their songs often sounded melodious.

Next was Wa Daiko–a fairly young group from Chiba-ken who utilized an amplified koto. They had quite a few members and different sections had their own choreography which was fun to watch and never boring. Their atarigane player was very dramatic, waving his body around the stage to the point of near comedy.

The most skillful show I saw the whole weekend was a combination show by Shinon Daiko (now one of my favorite groups for their drumming skill), Yamabei Daishi (Okayama-ken), Kirishima Kumen Daiko Wakana (all-women professional group), and Fujimoto Sensei (KODO o-daiko player). In fact, I watched this show twice, once each day.

Sunday, I was staff for Shippu Uchi the whole day, so no more “studying” for me until their shows were done. After their 4th and final show on Sunday, most of the members went home, but Ryo Sensei, Itsuka, and I stayed for the closing dinner and came back on Monday.

Dinner was crazy! I had enough trouble as it was that weekend trying to understand because everything was always in a rush and words were spat faster than bullets. But, then the alcohol flowed! There was a speech by one of the sponsors (the whole weekend is paid for by corporate sponsors) and a big Kanpai! The food was on the tables, but most important was the act of filling others’ glasses and toasting them, so everyone was drunk first and ate later.

I’d been in the background quite a bit the whole weekend, and left to fend for myself, but Sunday I actually got to meet a few people. Katsuji Kondo (former KODO member and Ryo’s teacher) insisted on only speaking his short English phrases to me and had quite a sense of humor (therefore, I didn’t always understand what he meant). Here’s an example of one of the better ones: (points to Ryo) “He’s your teacher. I’m his teacher. So, I’m your grandteacher!” Then, he leaned over to me and said, “I’m sorry. I’m a little… drunk.”

The table next to me was all the younger players (in their 20s) from Miyake Daiko, seated across from the masters from KODO, Shinon Daiko, and someone else I didn’t know. It was fascinating (did I stare too much?) to watch the boys sitting in their tallest seiza and bowing and pouring beer and sake without pause. And the volume! I couldn’t hear the person next to me unless they shouted in my ear. Ah… the enkai.

An announcement was made that we needed to leave the restaurant within 45 minutes, so everyone stood up to bid farewell. However, this only seemed to escalate the festivities as it encouraged more movement and loud singing (shouting?). We were on our way out when we noticed that Fujimoto sensei (KODO) and a few others had wrapped bandannas around their heads and tied them like little old ladies. I got a few shots of this silly moment.

Leaving the restaurant, Shinon Daiko, as the host of the weekend, was lined up to bow and thank everyone on the way out. Unfortunately I was sick with a cold the whole weekend and opted to go to bed as the party continued in Sensei’s room across the hall back at the guest house.

The next morning we had to wake sensei up by pounding on his door and he claimed, on the way down to breakfast, to be still slightly drunk. Breakfast was slow for once because there were no performances to rush to and everyone was hungover. More visiting to and from people for last minute business card exchanges. Just as we were finishing up, Fujimoto Sensei came over to give Ryo his card. Then he asked if everyone at the table was a Shippu Uchi member. Ryo explained that just the 3 of us were members and Fujimoto sensei asked about me.

Ryo introduced me and my taiko background, told him that I was from Seattle Kokon Taiko and Fujimoto Sensei immediately spoke up and said he knew of SKT and then told me that he knows Seattle has many taiko groups and started to list quite a few of them. (Ryo was impressed that he’d heard of SKT) Then the conversation steered to how Stan from SKT doesn’t drink sake–-then a look at me, “doesn’t he?” I tried my best to explain that we don’t really have enkai in the US and that it’s not really a tradition for taiko groups to toast each other to drunkenness. The best my comments did was steer the focus away from Stan and turn it to a general discussion of how Yes, Americans just don’t drink sake like we do here in Japan.

Katsuji-sensei (former KODO), and Fujimoto-sensei (KODO) saw us off in the lobby before we left that morning. The deepest of bows from us to them. They both gave me words of encouragement and we were on our way.

4.5 hours drive, a 1 hour wait at the train station in Yuasa, and 2 hours back to Susami. I arrived last night, exhausted, motivated, and enlightened. It was definitely the taiko event of the year and I can say, in all honesty, even though Ryo confided in me his feeling of being an underdog, that Shippu Uchi Daiko’s performance was one of the best. I was honored to be there with them.

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