Earth Celebration - Kodo Concert

The Concert

In the evening on all three days of the Earth Celebration, Kodo presents a concert along with some of their international guest artists. Kodo headlines all three performances, but the guests artists change each day. This was actually my first time attending the Earth Celebration, but from what I have understood, that is how they have done it for 20 years now.

We were able to attend the first night’s (Friday) performance. The guest performers were the Miyake Taiko Honkzai (about whom I will make a separate entry), so this concert happened to be pure taiko, … The encore, however, involved some international guests. The concert began at 6:30 and must have lasted nearly 3 hours, by the time we they finished.

When we arrived on Sado we were not actually sure if we would be able to attend the concert. We did not have tickets before we left, because the pre-sale tickets were sold out. Uncertain whether there were any same day tickets left, we were forced to wait until we arrived on the island to purchase them. Luckily we were able to still get tickets when we arrived.

It is a bit different, the way they organize the seating. All the tickets are the same price, except that if you are able to purchase a pre-sale ticket, there is a slight discount. Once you have your ticket, you must go to Kisaki Shrine (it is where the entrance to the concert venue is) to receive a color coded seating ticket. Depending on the color you receive, you are given a time and a place to line up for the concert. There are no reserved seats for the concert, so the earlier you can arrive at Kisaki Shrine, the better seating you are likely to have.

The concert venue is called Shiroyama Koen (park) and was built by Kodo specifically for the purpose of giving concerts there (I believe). For those that understand Japanese, you will recognize ‘yama’ as meaning mountain. While the park is not on top of a mountain, it is situated at the top of a rather steep hill. Once we had our color coded entry cards, which we picked up earlier at the shrine, we knew what time we could line up for entry into the park. Our call time was 5:30. Not the earliest, but also not the latest time. We were still able to get quite good seating. Once all the 5:30 people were lined up, each color group began the climb up the steep path to the park.

Towards the top of the hill, some of the concert goers began to rush a bit towards the seating area, in the hopes of getting better seating, I suppose. We chose not to rush and were pleased that we could still secure dry seating, where the view was quite good.

By about 6:15 or so, the park was full. Off to our left, we heard some applause and cheering. I looked and saw several people wearing the traditional Kodo Happi (a style of festival coat). I then looked to my right and noticed a man in a mask, carrying an Okedo taiko making his way towards the audience. His mask covered the upper half of his face and that, combined with his clothing style, reminded me of a character out of Grimm’s fairy tales. Soon, an announcement was made, explaining that these Kodo members were collecting donations for the benefit of victims of the Niigata Earthquake, which occurred in July, I believe. The highlight of this was when the man in the mask finally set up the drum he was carrying and played a short piece. The nice part was that it was not part of the concert (officially) so we were able to take video of it.

As the concert was getting ready to start, there was the pre-concert announcement, asking people to turn off their cell phones, refrain from using cameras and recording devices and other general guidelines and instructions. I was rather surprised to hear them advise guests who wished to stand or dance to use the open areas on either side of the seating area. Dancing at a taiko concert? I couldn’t imagine that. Granted that taiko are drums, and most of the time, drums help to provide a beat or rhythms to dance to, but taiko drum rhythms are often mixed meter (if there even is a meter) and I don’t think I’ve ever heard a piece that lent itself to dancing, or made me want to stand up and shake my bootie (booty? No, that’s for pirates. Perhaps bootay? anyhow…). That’s not to say that I haven’t been moved by taiko performances. As I mentioned in earlier posts, several performances have nearly brought me to tears. Perhaps the pre-concert script was set and was not changed from night to night. After all, the other concerts involved music styles other than taiko, like Latin music, and that certainly will make quite a few people want to dance, you almost can’t help it.

To my surprise, before too many songs had been performed, there were audience members up on the sides of the seating area dancing around. I guess some people just need to dance when they hear any type of music. My son would actually be one of those people, he is only 1, but if he hears music, he swaying back and forth, squatting and standing, leaning back and forth, all to the beat of the music. It’s quite amusing.

Back to the Earth Celebration… The last time I saw Kodo in concert was 7 or 8 years ago I think. I remember the program for that concert was very traditional and rather serious. This time, the concert seemed to have more variety. The traditional and serious pieces were still there, but there were a few “newer” (newer, at least to me) songs which seemed to be more in the modern taiko styles. It was a nice mixture. They ended with their standby crowd favorites: the Odaiko solo, followed by Yataibayashi.

The Odaiko solo is played on a large drum (about 1 meter or more across), which is wheeled onto the stage on a cart surrounded by lanterns. The drum is situated so that the head is facing the audience, and the soloist’s back, therefore is facing the audience. There are actually two people playing the drum, but one is playing the back side and is hardly visible to the audience. This part is more of an accompaniment anyhow.

Yataibayashi is one of Kodo’s most well known pieces, perhaps because of the position in which it is played. The drums are horizontal and placed low to the ground, slightly angled. The performer must play in a position sitting down, yet leaning back like he is midway through a sit-up. Needless to say, it is very physically demanding. These two pieces seem to always be played wearing Kodo’s other signature outfit, the fundoshi. It seems almost disrespectful to describe it as being like a diaper, so if you are unfamiliar with the term, ‘fundoshi’ do a google image search on it and you will get the idea. It seems that only certain members, who have attained a high level of skill, are permitted to perform wearing this “clothing”.

The encore was quite unexpected. By that, I do not mean that I was not expecting an encore, but rather the content of the encore was surprising. By the time it was finished, had lasted more than 30 minutes. I was expecting more taiko for the encore, but the first half did not even feature a taiko drummer, nor a member of Kodo. The first encore performer was Tamango, a West African tap dancer, who lives in New York. He was joined by a Puerto Rican percussionist, Giovanni Hidalgo. You can learn more about them at the following:

They performed for 15 or 20 minutes together. It actually took me a few minutes to figure out what was actually going on. Although the two performers were very talented and fun to watch, I thought that an encore should be more of the same type of performing that was in the concert. After all, isn’t that what prompted the audience’s response? I finally realized that they would be performers in the following night’s concert and they were just doing a little promotion for the next day’s show. Either way, I did enjoy their performances, and they were eventually joined by members of Kodo. The performing group grew as the members of Kodo joined Tamango and Hidalgo on stage one by one, building up to a climax, featuring more than 20 members of Kodo all playing at the same time. Perhaps it is because it was newer to me, but this was almost more impressive than the Odaiko/Yataibayashi finale.

After close to 40 minutes of encore, the concert finally ended and I would guess that the audience went home very satisfied (except for the one fellow who was removed for disorderly conduct).


Earth Celebration - Weather

As I mentioned in the last post, if I am able to return to the Earth Celebration next year, I would really like to participate in some of the workshops. Otherwise, the options seem to be somewhat limited. Our options were even further limited on the first day because of the weather. After two or three weeks of very hot weather and blue skies, it decided to rain on Friday morning and afternoon on Sado Island.

We had heard rumors of the possibility of such weather, but the only preparations we had made were two umbrellas. This might have been sufficient, except for two problems. First problem: both the fringe event and the evening Kodo concert were outdoors and seating was on the ground, which became wet, of course, after it rained. Second problem: umbrellas were not allowed at the evening's concert because they block the view of other audience members. (Keep this in mind, if you ever have a chance to go). So we were expecting to watch the concert sitting on wet grass while being soaked by the rain.

I also mentioned in my previous post that we had miscalculated our budget by forgetting about $80 worth of fares and fees. As soon as we arrived in Ogi, we sat down and wrote down everything we still needed to buy (meal, parking, hotel, etc.). We had just barely enough, as long as we didn't eat to fancy, or do any of the touristy things, like boat rides and such. We set aside about $20 in an emergency fund because we were not sure if we had enough gas to get home or not. Anyway, we decided that sitting in the mud and getting soaked while watching the concert was enough of an emergency to dip into the $20 and get some rain coats. As it turns out, we were not the only ones unprepared for the weather. Of course many of the other guests had not expected rain and were buying raincoats, but the shop owners in Ogi were also ill prepared and had not stocked up on coats. They were quickly selling out. The first three or four stores we went to had just sold their last ones. Luckily we found a little shop that still had some and we bought their last two. We were relieved to know that we wouldn't get completely soaked for the concert.

A little side story, as we were leaving the shop where we got the raincoats, I saw something moving on the floor. At first I thought it was an enormous spider. Japan, being a semi-tropical country, large insects and such are not uncommon. It turned out to be a little crab. This section of the town was quite a ways from the coast and the shop keeper was about as surprised as we were to see it. She shooed it out of her shop with a little broom.

How does this story end? It rained on and off just about up until about 5:30, when they began seating people for the concert. After that, it didn't rain again that evening. Our raincoats ended up being a barrier between our bottoms and the soggy grass. The grass was actually not even that wet and we were able to enjoy the concert fairly comfortably.

Here some unedited video of the Okinawa dance and music performance at the fringe festival. I apologize for the poor vantage point. I'm not sure if you can tell from the video, but there was quite a steady stream of rain coming down. We were sitting under a tent to stay dry. Unfortunately it was situated to the side, and somewhat behind it.

Again, I will close with some pictures.

The Audience at the Fringe event trying to stay dry.

Okinawan dancers performing at the Fringe event in the rain.

Waiting in line at Kisaki Jinja to go up the hill to Shiroyama Koen (Park), where Kodo would perform that evening.

The stage at Shiroyama Koen before the concert.


Earth Celebration

We woke up at 4:40. We meant to wake up at 4:30, but the first alarm did not go off. It was lucky we set two alarms. We finished packing last minute items into our bags and were on the road by 5:07. My first road trip in Japan went smoothly overall. We did, however, neglect to figure in highway tolls in our budget. If you're American, you might be thinking no big deal, but in Japan, tolls are quite a bit more. The ca. 200 km drive (120 miles?) cost about 4150 yen ($36?). So this was not such a minor mistake, yet we survived. We did not get lost, though, which was my biggest worry. We had to drive from Kanazawa to Naoetsu harbor in Niigata prefecture. From Naoetsu, we boarded a ferry to Sago Island, which was another 2.5 hours or so. The drive turned out to be about a 2.5 hour drive, so we arrived at the docks with plenty of time to pass before our 9:30 ferry.

We traveled to Sado Island to see the Earth Celebration put on by Kodo each Summer. The festival lasts three days. There are many events going on during the day, such as workshops by the drummers and guest artists, cultural presentations and what they called a "fringe event", which took place at a shrine near the concert venue. From what I understand, anyone can perform for the fringe event, as long as they register. The fringe event sometimes featured taiko, sometimes dancing, other times just a soloist and a guitar. It's kind of a nice way to pass the time, if you haven't registered for any workshops, or if you don't have a way to get around the island. There is also a harbor market/flea market right when you get off the boat. The harbor market seemed to attract a lot of Japanese hippie type of people. It was interesting to look around at what people were selling, and the people watching was interesting as well, but I didn't see much that I would have wanted to buy. By the time we decided to go to the Earth Celebration, all the workshops were full, but I think that if we are able to go back next year, I will definitely want to participate in some workshops.

Most of the workshops are put on by members of Kodo or other musical guests. An example of some of the workshops available:
Miyake style taiko drumming
Onna Uchi taiko - Women's taiko drumming styles
Making your own taiko - a small one
Okinawa style dancing
and many others.

There's much more to write, but for now, I'll close with a few pictures.

Arriving at Ogi harbor, Sado Island

View from the 3rd deck of the ship.

Our ferry in port at Sado Island, Ogi

A street in Ogi. It was near the restaurant where we finally were able to eat dinner. I know that 4:30 is a bit early to be eating dinner, but almost every restaurant in Ogi seemed to be closed. The first one that we found that was open told us they were just closing up because they had run out of rice. I guess it is an island and it's difficult to get supplies, but one would think they would be better prepared for what is probably the biggest weekend of the year for the island.


The Heat

"The heat"

Summer Haiku often end with this short phrase, such as here in this haiku.

a pigeon pacing
at the edge of bamboo...
the heat

But perhaps there is a better haiku, by Issa, to summarize the feeling in Japan right now:

so hot! so hot!
is a chore

It has been very hot in Japan for the past couple weeks. I guess it is also hot in the States from what I hear. I was about to say that Americans are better equipped to deal with the heat than Japanese are, but perhaps this depends on what you consider to be well equipped.

Japanese homes are very poorly insulated (in my opinion) In the summer they quickly become hotter than the temperature outside and in the winter, it is often just as cold, or colder than it is outside. There are heating and cooling options, which have improved since I last lived here (9 years ago) but they are mostly too expensive (air conditioning) or unsafe to use for extended periods of time (kerosene heaters). This results in several rather uncomfortable weeks for those unaccustomed to these conditions at the summer and winter peaks.

Although it is very uncomfortable for me, Japanese do not seem to suffer to the same degree that I do on account of the weather. Many foreign visitors to Japan will observe that many Japanese hardly seem to sweat at all, while non-Japanese walk around outside looking like we just put on our clothes straight out of the washer without bothering to dry them (which you might as well do at this time of year). Another reason foreigners tend to stick out in Japan is because they always wear shorts in the summer. Although it's been very hot the past couple weeks, most Japanese people I see are wearing long pants or jeans. Today, in fact, with temperatures in the upper 90s and a fairly high humidity, I saw a middle aged man riding his bike in the sun, WEARING A COAT! I could hardly believe it.

In the winter there are obvious differences between Japanese and non-Japanese who live here. Elementary school boys' uniform requires shorts to be worn year round. Girls' junior high and high school uniforms require skirts year round. Although it seems that most schools give the option of wearing tights during the winter months, from what I recall, most girls do not opt to wear them. When I lived here 9 years ago I also remember walking through my neighborhood after a snowfall and seeing more than one person out shoveling snow in thongs (heh heh heh, no, not that kind, I mean flip-flops).

In the US, however, we will often heat our homes in the winter so that we can walk around inside comfortably in shorts and a t-shirt. Our central air systems allow us to economically cool our homes in the summer, sometimes to the point that we need to put on a sweater. We have constructed homes and places of work so that they can be comfortable regardless of the weather outside. America seems to be more "convenient" in this way, I suppose.

Here is where a key difference in Japanese and American thinking becomes evident, I believe. Americans have adapted their surroundings in order to make themselves more comfortable. Japanese seem to have adapted to the environment instead. Although you will still hear complaints about the heat and the cold from Japanese people, they seem to be less affected by it than those of us not accustomed to living here.

When I lived here before I remember trying to make the extreme temperatures more bearable by taking on the mindset that I was living closer to nature. Traditionally I think the Japanese have viewed themselves as being a part of nature, as opposed to the more Western idea of controlling nature. (I could be wrong, but it seems so) I think that one of the messages of the animated film, Princess Mononoke from Hayao Miyazaki, 1997?) was finding a balance between these two philosophies.

So who, after all, is better equipped to deal with the extreme heat and cold of winter and summer? Americans are probably more comfortable, as long as there is no power outage or other complication, but I think I would say that the Japanese are better equipped. Since they have conditioned themselves better to the elements of nature, they seem be overall better adapted for extremes. I've always believed that the more technology we use, although it makes our lives easier, the more dependent on it we become.

This post has not ended up as what I had originally planned. It's not even necessarily taiko related, but seeing as we are in the middle of a two week holiday, where we won't be having any taiko practice, it's a good filler. Not to worry, this Friday and Saturday is when we finally travel to Kodo's Earth Celebration on Sado Island. I imagine I'll have a good deal to share following that trip, hopefully with pictures and videos.


Matto Hi Matsuri

The Matto Hi-Matsuri took place last Sunday evening (8/5). I mentioned this in an earlier post. It was more or less what I expected. I hope that doesn't make it sound like I was unimpressed. It was definitely something to behold. Again, I'm certain my words are a poor subsitute for the actual experience, but I will share what I can. I will also share a few pictures, but their quality is not at my usual standards.

This festival was held in the middle of a large park in Matto, Japan. It is actually where I first saw the Extasia taiko festival back in 1999. Being a fairly large festival, parking was scarce and we had to park quite a ways away and walk back. As we approached the entrance to the park, we could hear the beating of taiko drums in the distance. Walking towards the field where the events were taking place, the drums grew increasingly louder and the wind began to blow the smell or smoke in our direction. Occasionally we could see sparks rising up into the night sky. I thought they might have started in on the main event (burning the huge hay barrels) earlier than we had thought. But when we reached the steps down into the field, we could see that they had not reached that point. There were four large bonfires around the field. In a large circle in the center, there were about ten large taiko being played. Each taiko was part of a smaller group of players, and each group was playing their own song, so there was no unison in what they were playing. As this was going on, groups of 20 - 50 people (or more, I'm not good at estimating numbers of people) carrying around the hay barrels that would be burned. The one pictured here is one of the larger ones, which weighed several tons and I think I hear that it was 7.5 meters long. It is pretty much all hay and wood, imagine how fast it goes up in flames. The people riding on the top stayed there until the very last minute, meaning that probably at least 60% or more of the thing was burning before they jumped off.

After parading the 5 or 6 hay barrels around the field, the taiko groups each took a turn playing a short song. After each group had played, they began playing all at once again as the hay barrels were brought back onto the field and into the middle, making a star shape and lit on fire. I was only able to get a couple pictures of the start of this before my card was full. I did get some pictures on my film camera of the inferno in its full glory, but I'll have to wait and see if they came out and post them at a later date. Anyway, here is the last picture I took:

When they first lit the fires, I was probably about 100 yards away. Once it got going, I could feel the heat from that far away. I did move in closer once it got going and that was extremely hot. As the fire was burning at its brightest, the groups that had been carrying these hay barrels were running around the fire with various banners. The drums were playing the whole time, of course. I was describing this all to a friend of mine here, and she said that it all sounded wonderfully primitive. I did feel something ... primeval about the whole thing as well.

This whole event was part of something called "Mushi Okuri", which I believe happens all over Japan, especially in agricultural areas. What Mushi Okuri means is "send bugs". It's getting to be late summer, and fall is approaching. Most people have probably noticed that the amount of bugs increases at this time of year. I always notice an increase in spiders and bees/hornets/wasps. Here, in Kanazawa, there are spiders all over the place, and the cicadas are practically flying into our apartment. Fall is also a time for harvesting crops, and bugs/pests are usually not good for agriculture. These mushi okuri festivals were meant to make a lot of noise and commotion in order to scare away, or send away the bugs before the harvest. That is why taiko were/are used in these festivals.

Asano Taiko Museum

I'm getting more and more backed up every day, and I'm don't mean that I'm having trouble adjusting to the diet here. We are involved in something taiko related practically every day, from buying bachi (sticks) to attending live performances, are schedule is full. Writing detailed accounts of every taiko event is becoming more of a challenge every day. I will try to get caught up, starting with our trip to buy bachi.

Asano Taiko
We went to Asano Taiko again last Saturday (or was it Friday?) to buy the style of bachi necessary for Kaga style taiko. I don't recall if I mentioned in the previous post about the sticks used in this style. One set is normal size, but decorated with reflective tape in one or two colors. The other set needed is for playing the ji-uchi (base rhythm). These are made of bamboo slats about 2 feet long and maybe a centimeter wide. We needed to go to the Asano store in order to buy these sticks.

After purchasing our sticks, we went over to the Museum (just on the other side of the parking lot). It is not that large so one does not need a great deal of time to visit it. It deals with more than just taiko. There are exhibits about drumming and percussion in all parts of the world. There are also several mini "theaters" set up in the museum showing different taiko videos. What captured my attention (and my daughter's) the most, however, were the two O-daiko (Large drums) in the museum. Taiko drums are measured in a unit called "shaku", which is equal to about 30 cm, or one foot.

The smaller of the two drums was a 3.3(?)shaku drum. The people working at the museum were not certain of it's exact measurement. Anyhow, that would make it somewhere around one meter wide, large enough to look impressive. What captured my interest in that drum (besides its size) was that we could play on it. I must say, when you strike a large drum like that, it sends a shiver down your spine, partly because of physics, but also because of the feeling it gives you. My daughter also played it a bit, I took a short video:

The other O-daiko was impressive because of its sheer enormity. Unfortunately, it was not available for guests to play on. Its size is 6 shaku; do the math and you get 180 cm, nearly two meters! I also have a picture of me in front of it with my daughter on my shoulders, which gives one an idea of the size.

There aren't many drums of this size around, probably for several reasons. Since this type of taiko are made from one tree trunk, a very large tree is needed. The trunk must be more than two meters diameter because the middle is wider than where the drum head is. You also need a pretty large cow for such a large skin. Finally, the cost must be fairly significant. Normal size taiko from Asano (40 - 50 cm) are probably around $3000 to $7000. A 2.5 shaku (75 cm) drum is already around $40,000 +. A 5 shaku (150 cm) drum is maybe at least $100,000. I would guess that a 6 shaku drum is at least close to $200,000, if not more.


Kaga Style Taiko

We live in Kanazawa. That is a city on the western coast of Japan in the prefecture of Ishikawa. Ishikawa is partially a peninsula sticking out into the Sea of Japan, and the southern half is attached to the mainland. The Peninsula is called Noto and the southern half is called Kaga.

After attending the Exstasia concerts last week, we immediately began searching out taiko learning opportunities. There were several options listed in Taikology magazine (a publication all about taiko), like beginners class, advanced class, classes teaching a specific style and classes taught by different teachers, some more well known than others. The only class which started meeting in August, however, was a class for Kaga style drumming. Since we wanted to start as soon as possible, we registered for this class.

Last night was the first meeting. The class meets at Asano Taiko, in Matto. Asano is actually divided into three or four buildings. One building is the factory, another is a taiko/percussion museum and then there is a store, with a practice facility upstairs, which can be rented out by groups wanting to rehearse. It felt good to finally be receiving some proper instruction and to be able to play nice Asano drums.

As it turns out, Kaga style drumming is the Mittsu Uchi style drumming I mentioned in the previous two posts. I also stated that this style was rare these days. Funny how in the past two weeks, I've encountered it twice. As it turns out, I may have misunderstood what was said regarding Mittsu Uchi style in last Saturday's lecture (big surprise there). After discussing this with my wife, it seems that the style Mr. Mogi spoke of as being rarely performed these days was only based on Mittsu Uchi style. The style which has died out I believe is called Hokkai-Uchi. If I have a chance, I will research this style a bit more and perhaps elaborate on it at a later time.

So what is Kaga style? I had better not attempt to give any type of comprehensive explanation of Kaga style taiko seeing as I've only had one lesson. For now I will just give a description of what we did in class. We were split into groups of three. Each group had two drums to play on. On the floor was a nagado style taiko. Nagado taiko are shaped like a fat barrel and come in various sizes, from 30 cm all the way to nearly two meters. The body is usually made from a single piece of wood and the heads are stretched and tacked on. The nagado taiko we were using were probably around 45 cm or so. The second drum was an okedo taiko. This style of drum also comes in all different sizes. It is constructed more like a barrel from slats and the heads are tightened and held in place by ropes. The okedo drums we were using were maybe about 150 cm long and perhaps 60 cm or so wide. They were placed horizontally on stands just below shoulder height. (You can find better, more detailed descriptions of different taiko drums at the Rolling Thunder Taiko Resource http://www.taiko.com/index.php?option=com_wrapper&Itemid=39)

One person in the group of three beat out the ji uchi, or base rhythm. There are three basic types of ji uchi, the one used in Kaga style is an 8th note followed by two 16th notes repeated over and over. Taiko is usually learned through vocalizations of the drum beats called kuchi sho ga. This ji uchi would be vocalized as "ten te ke ten te ke ten te ke ten te ke" etc. The ji uchi was played on the okedo. The other two members of the group practiced three rhythms. All three were based on 8th notes, with rests placed at different spots. Here are the three rhythms in kuchi sho ga

1) don don tsu don don don don
2) don don tsu don tsu don don
3) tsu don tsu don tsu don don

The "tsu" represents rests. The last don is accented and followed by another 8th rest before repeating the rhythm again. We rotated so that each person had a chance to play on both drums and both parts.

It probably doesn't sound like much when I write it here, but it was a very enjoyable 75 minutes and a good work out. My arms were a bit sore the next day and I had three blisters on one hand.

Since Thursday, we returned to Asano Taiko to buy new sticks and visit the Museum. We also went to a neighborhood festival this afternoon where we heard a small taiko group, and we are now preparing to go out this evening to the Matto Hi-matsuri, where there is almost certain to be more taiko. So I have plenty more to write about, if I have a chance. The Hi-matsuri is a fire festival. From what I've seen, it looks like they basically light huge haystacks on fire. Fire is always exciting. Hopefully I'll have some nice pictures to post.