Art and Tradition: JETs Practicing Japanese Culture: Taiko Drumming

Art and Tradition: JETs Practicing Japanese Culture: Taiko Drumming
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Emma performing on a chuu-daiko.

One of the coolest Japanese instruments has got to be the taiko drum. Just watching a group of taiko players leaping around hitting drums in unison is an amazing experience in and of itself, but some of our local Fukushima JETs have joined taiko groups and have performed it themselves!

The term “taiko” in Japanese refers to all types of drum, and the term “wadaiko” specifies the traditional Japanese style of drum. They can range in size from the shimedaiko (about the diameter of a large dinner plate) to the huge festival o-daiko whose face alone can be almost as tall as the players themselves! Accompanying the drums are a variety of other instruments, such as small gongs called “atarigane,” and bamboo flues called “shinobue” or “takebue.” The performers’ voices themselves can be part of the song, chanting or yelling to add to the rhythm, or signalling a change in the song.

Diana performing taiko at a local lake festival.

Diana Truong, a fourth-year JET in Showa-mura, Aizu, has been playing taiko for almost four years. “During my first year, I heard about a local taiko group in one of the towns that I teach at. I was invited to join the group by one of the local families.” The taiko group members include some of her elementary and junior high school teachers and students. “I really enjoyed spending time with my students and some of their parents outside of class! It is also a good stress reliever,” she jokes.

Fifth-year Shirakawa JET Emma Gibson joined her taiko group in a different way. “I told my BOE kachou when I first arrived in Japan that I wanted to learn something traditional while I was here.  I was thinking ikebana.  He suggested taiko because his friend was the kaichou of a local team.  I had no idea what it was… so I said yes.” She has been playing with this group for almost five years now! “I love my team members.  After such a long time you get very close.  I also love that I’ve been able to travel and perform.  I’ve performed in Okinawa, Ishikawa, Saitama, Kanagawa, Yamagata… and all over Fukushima.”

Emma and her taiko group. They will be back playing in Minamisoma for the first time since the Great Earthquake at the Soma Nomaoi festival.
Emma and her taiko group. They will be back playing in Minami Soma for the first time since the Great Earthquake at the Soma Nomaoi festival.

Playing taiko involves a lot of time and commitment, to both practices and performances. It is impossible to play taiko casually without giving it your full effort. “Once I’d proven that I was serious, the senpai accepted me and taught me.  It took a long time to get that acceptance, but now my senpai are like my Japanese family,” Emma says.

Of course, in the beginning you will be at the bottom of the totem pole. Emma explains, “I’ve learnt a lot about status.  When you start you are at the end of the line.  You play in the back corner and clean the floors after practice.  But slowly over time you move towards the centre of the stage and someone else has to wipe the sweat off the floors.  And eventually (for me, after four years) you finally get to play the solos and really become an essential part of the team. It’s a good feeling when you get to that stage.”

And of course the taiko songs themselves can be a challenge. Diana says, “It can be difficult playing your part simultaneously with completely different rhythms being played by the others. It’s easy to get lost! Also remembering  so many different pieces!”

Playing a single drum together!
Playing a single drum together!

Despite these challenges, Diana believes that taiko is a great representation of Japanese culture. “The beating of the drums represent the sounds of the Japanese in its own unique way. Often times, the pieces are reflective of the nature and culture of Japan. When you hear the songs, you can picture a story from the mixtures of melodies produced by the drums, flutes, cymbals, and the shouts of the performers.”

Emma agrees, “Our main performance piece is called Natsu and is about the samurai horse races.  You can hear the thundering of hooves and the rising tension as we play.” You can hear this piece at this year’s Soma Nomaoi Festival in Minami Souma City on July 26th, Saturday night, 9pm with the fireworks.  “We are/were the local team from that area and it’s the first time we’ll be back at the festival since the Great Earthquake.  I’d love to see everyone there!” For more information about this festival, see the link here:

Diana has this advice for JETs: “If you’re interested in experiencing new things, I definitely recommend trying out taiko. You will easily fall in love with the rhythmic beats. If you are not sure where you can find a taiko group, ask your predecessors, talk to the locals and teachers (especially at enkai), go to festivals and keep an eye out for local groups and ask them about it. Once you become a member, just keep beating and enjoy the sounds of the drums.”

FuJET Beach Bomb Welcome Party 2013

FuJET Beach Bomb Welcome Party 2013

beach_bomb_bannerby Bradley York

This September, many JETs, current and former, braved cooling temperatures and the threat of rain to enjoy one of Iwaki’s great stretches of beach at what has come to be known as the “Beach Bomb.” For over ten years, the Beach Bomb has offered the warmest (formerly held in the hotter days of August) welcome to Fukushima’s newcomers and provided a great chance for others to reconnect at the end of summer.
Just north of Iwaki City, Yotsukura Beach, a broad strip of soft, inviting sand has long been a haven for surfers and others keen to enjoy one of the prefecture’s fantastic ocean fronts.  Easy access to showers, public restrooms, parking, and a nearby train station all aid in its accessibility and appeal. Sadly, the beach and its surrounding community were hit quite hard by the 2011 tsunami and today amenities such as running water for showers and restrooms still remain in a state of disrepair.  Progress in rebuilding is ongoing, however, and construction crews and their cranes now toil along the waterfront, shifting tetrapods and fortifying the coastline, while convenience stores and local shops re-appear day-by-day.
Against this backdrop, FuJETs gathered on the first weekend of September with tents, barbecues, and lots of beach sandals. Some swam, others tended the makeshift bonfire and a few pitched their tents. The Koriyama club event, PULL brought over a sound system and provided some background music throughout the evening. Thus this year’s attendees helped carry on a long tradition of seaside fun at Yotsukura Beach.

Beach Bomb 2006
Beach Bomb 2006

From its humble beginnings of Iwakians (Iwaki JETs) gathering on the beach to camp, swim and play music, the Beach Bomb grew as former Iwaki JET, John Loynes and his Phoenix Iwaki group endeavored to bring local businesses, community groups and performers together year after year until attendance of the two day party reached the thousands. Myriad attractions including beachside bars, food vendors, taiko performances, live stages, skateboard half-pipes, motocross showcases and beach volleyball tournaments would all eventually contribute to the Beach Bomb’s status as Fukushima’s premiere summer party.

Beach Bomb 2006
Beach Bomb 2006

By 2006 the successful beach party was well known and complaints of noise (fireworks!) and subsequent visits from the police had become an annual occurrence. Even with the support and participation of many local community members, the ever-increasing size of the Beach Bomb required more resources and commitment than were available and roughly seven years ago the massive summer event ceased to exist. A few intrepid Iwakians and FuJETs would continue the summer beach tradition, but the earthquake and tsunami put a stop to everything for a while.

Setting up for the 2013 BOMB!
Setting up for the 2013 BOMB!

  In many ways, this year’s modest gathering might seem reminiscent of the Bomb’s early days: a smattering of JETs eating and drinking around a bonfire in the spirit of welcoming newcomers and making new friends. There is a difference this time though, as participation in events like these can serve a much greater purpose in the revitalization and growth of Fukushima during this critical period. Many Fukushima residents, and particularly those in Iwaki whose livelihood depends on tourism, still worry greatly that foreigners and others from outside the prefecture are too fearful to come here.

Beach Bomb 2013
Beach Bomb 2013

Our public, respectful appreciation and enjoyment of Fukushima’s varied and great nature can once again be a point of pride for those living here and our sharing of these experiences with the outside world through social media can have a near instant impact on its future.

I hope you’ll continue enjoy all that Fukushima has to offer and share it with all of the world.

Volunteering in Fukushima- July 2013

by David Tacoronte

Playground of Hope

On June 22 and 23, the Playground of Hope team led by Michael Anop and a group of 12 Fukushima ALTs came together on a 2 day endeavour to brighten the days of the Shinchi town daycare children. The new playground, sponsored by Eyes for Fukushima, was built over the weekend and stands over 3 meters tall! In addition, the existing jungle gym, bar sets, and slides were all sanded, cleaned and re-painted. Check out the completed project and photos here. Make sure to like their page, and check to see if they will be sponsoring any builds close to you!


Want to listen to live music? Want to help a great cause that supports volunteering organizations all over the prefecture? Like all you can drink hard and soft drinks? Them come out to FUKU ROCK 13! Eyes for Fukushima is hosting the live music event at “Club Neo” on July 6. All types of music will be played including acoustic rock, hard rock, electronica, dance, etc. All proceeds will benefit the ON THE ROAD charity who are doing great work around the disaster affected areas. It will definitely be a great time, and for a great cause. Check out the event page here.

Odaka Volunteering Center

Odaka, the southern ward of Minamisoma city, was badly affected by the Tsunami and Earthquake disaster, and still remains mostly evacuated till this day. Fortunately, the city has organized a volunteer and clean up center aiming to restore Odaka by creating projects to clean up, maintain, and rebuild the necessary parts of the town, along with the houses of currently evacuated victims. This volunteer center runs everyday, morning through afternoon, 10:00AM until 6:00PM. If you are interested in volunteering, you may reach the center at 0244-26-8934 (JAPANESE ONLY) between the previously mentioned hours. They offer room board for overnighters, and bus service from Haramachi station when requested (though self transportation is preferred if possible). Groups are also welcomed! Check out the webpage here (JAPANESE).

Sendai Jazz

The Sendai Jazz Festival is this coming weekend, September 12-13! Sendai is a great place for people to come and feel the life of a city. Last year was my second year going to the Jazz Fest and it was just as good as the first. Sendai is a pretty nice city as it is, but when over 700 bands converge on the city and perform on over 90 stages, it gets pretty lively. There are many small stages set up through a roughly 10 block radius of the city. However, there are three “main spots” at the grounds. The biggest one, located in Enkei and Koutoudai Parks, are where the main action is. There are three large stages, three small stages, and about 20 various food booths at this location. Read more