Happy Halloween - Gojinjo Taiko

Happy Halloween. We took a little road trip last weekend. We had been hoping to travel to the Osaka/Kyoto area, but it did not work out, so we stayed closer to home and traveled up into Ishikawa's Noto Peninsula to Wajima. This is the town where the group, Koshu Taiko, which played at our school festival is from. It is a small town right on the Sea of Japan. It is known for it's morning outdoor market, which is nearly all fish related products.

Although unintended, the trip turned out to have a bit of a Halloween theme. Noto is mainly countryside and the people who live there are probably either fisherman or farmers. We drove up on Friday evening, after it was dark, so we could not see much of the scenery, but on the way home it was light. One of the most frightening things I saw was in a rice field. A farmer had set up two scare crows in his field, but instead of making a traditional looking scarecrow, he had used two fashion mannequins! It was rather surprising, a little scary, and I was glad I wasn't walking past them at night.

The other Halloween themed event we attended was planned. The Wajima area is well known for a certain style of taiko playing called Gojinjo Taiko. There is a performance of this style nearly every evening in Wajima in a small theater on the second floor of what used to be the Wajima train station. This style of taiko drumming uses only one drum, and there are about 5 players. For most of the performance, there are only one or two people playing at one time, at the most, three. One of the most unique points about this song is that the performers all wear masks of demons, or what are meant to be ghosts of the deceased. Most of the masks also include long, straggly hair, which was originally made out of dried seaweed. While one performer plays a base rhythm of straight eighth notes, the others take turns striking menacing poses and playing sporadic rhythms on the taiko. For the majority of the piece, there are only two players on the stage at a time, but for the climax at the end, all the players come out on the stage, each playing a measure or so before moving out of the way for the next player.

This is a well known style of taiko in this area and this was probably the third time I have seen it performed this year. Of course, there is some history and a story that is behind this piece. The original performance of this piece was actually more of a military defense tactic, than an entertainment event. Back in 1576, the village of Nafune, on the Noto Peninsula was under the threat of attack from a warlord named Kenshin Uesugi. The townspeople, realizing they were at a large disadvantage, decided to attempt to frighten away the army. Some of the villagers were able to sneak behind the enemy lines in the middle of the night. They brought with them a taiko drum, and frightening masks made of bark and seaweed for hair. They began playing the drum in the manner described above. The opposing army, being awoken from their sleep by the sound of a war drum, and subsequently seeing the “unearthly beings” who were playing the drum, were thrown into confusion and fear and fled, and the village was saved.

I intended to take a video of this performance and post it. I even brought my video camera with me. When I went to set it up, however, I realized that I had forgotten the battery, as well as the wall outlet adapter. I did attempt to take a short video on my cell phone, but the quality is so poor, it would be worthless to try and watch it. I was able to find someone else’s recording of another performance on youtube, though. In my opinion, this performance is not as well performed as what we saw, but perhaps it is just the recording and/or editing. At any rate, you can get a better idea of what the piece looks and sounds like. There are two parts.

Finally, following the performance, there was an opportunity to take pictures with the performers. My wife took our two children up, while I prepared the camera. Both of our children (4 years and 1 year) watched the whole performance, with the scary masks and all, without any indication of being scared, so we figured they would be fine for a picture. As my wife went up on stage to stand next to one of the “demons”, he reached out, to hold our son for the picture. I guess this was a bit too much for our son because he began to cry. My wife offered to take him back, but the “demon” just asked, “Where’s the camera?” I suppose he is used to that kind of thing. Also, the Japanese tend to think it’s cute when little kids get scared. We snapped the picture quickly. You can see how unhappy he is below. But he cheered up very quickly, as soon as he was back in his mama’s arms.



When I was in high school, I had a friend. He played the bass guitar and the cello. In the high school orchestra, he was principal cellist. He was two years older than I, and when I was a freshman, he was already a junior. Soon I heard that he had also been a rather talented football player on the varsity squad, but after his freshman year, or so, he went to the coach and said he wasn't going to continue because he was worried that he would hurt his fingers and wouldn't be able to play the cello any more.

This past summer, my whole family was together. My younger brother and I were shooting some baskets and we asked our older brother if he wanted to join us. He is also a working musician, who relies on music to put food on his table. He declined our invitation, saying that he doesn't do any types of sports where he could injure something like fingers, making it difficult or impossible to play music.

I think in both cases, I felt like these guys were maybe taking things a little too seriously, but the last couple weeks, I think I may have changed my thinking to be more in line with theirs. This summer, my family attended a pool party. I was looking forward to trying out the diving board. In junior high and high school, I was pretty fearless on the diving board, trying out just about any crazy dive I could think of. I wanted to try those out again, but it had been probably 15 years since I had tried any of them, so I was a bit nervous about injuring something. At the end of the party, I had tried most of the dives I could remember from my teen years, and hadn't hurt myself (nor anyone else). I thought, "I've still got it, I'm still young." The last month has given me reason to feel that I may still have it, but I'm not so young as I used to be.

At the start of October, the school where I work held their field day. Teachers were expected to participate and I was signed up for three or so events, including the 100 meter dash. I would not say that I am out of shape. After all, I am running several times a week and practicing taiko several times a week as well. But I have probably not participated in track and field events since elementary school. I never realized how many of your muscles you use in a all out sprint like in the 100 Meters. I gave it my all and ran as hard as I could. I could hardly move the next day because of sore muscles.

About two weeks ago, the school held another athletic event, this time just for teachers. I played softball. The following day's sore muscles again reminded me of my age. Baseball may look like a slow game, but reacting quickly from a stationary stance to a hit ball uses a lot of muscles that I was unaware of. Again, I was giving 110%, but I'll have to remember next time to take it easy, especially if it's a sport I haven't played in many years.

Of course, the sore muscles were not what changed my thinking to be more in line with my brother's. It was at the softball game, though. At one point, when I was trying a little too hard, I actually attempted to slide into first base. After thinking this through, this action probably showed my ignorance of baseball/softball because I don't think you should ever slide into first base. Anyhow, through that action, I believe I hyper-extended my left elbow. For a day or so, it was quite painful and I couldn't do much with it, but soon I was able to do most of the activities I could before. There was a pain in my forearm, however, which was not going away, and it would even wake me up at night sometimes. After about a week of undiminished pain, I began to worry that I might have fractured a bone or something. Although I was fairly certain this was not the case, some of the feelings were similar to those I had when I broke my thumb practicing kendo about a year and a half ago. This led to 6 or 7 weeks where I could not practice kendo. I began to think of the implications of a broken forearm. That would mean 6 weeks, at least, of no taiko practice. It was my left forearm, which is already weak as I am right handed, and after 6 weeks in a cast, it would be even weaker. When I have to miss one taiko practice because of a cold, or whatever, I am actually quite down. Thinking about missing 6 weeks was rather depressing. Then I began to think of my brother, and when he turned down our invitation to play basketball, and I started to understand why he turned us down.

Last week I finally went to see the doctor. He took x-rays and said there were not fractures, it was just taking a while to heal. Thank goodness. It was a bit of scare, but I am glad it was nothing serious. I do not think I will be cutting out all sports from my life now, but I believe I will certainly be more careful.



It's getting pretty cold here finally. I'm starting to wear sweaters around the house, and for more than a week now, I've been wearing a coat when I go outdoors. The leaves, however, are only just starting to turn colors. If I recall, the peak season for fall color in this area of Japan is closer to the beginning of November. I would imagine that in Michigan, and the mid-west (where many of my readers probably are) it is about the peak season for fall colors. Actually, if you compare latitude, I believe Michigan is around the same spot as Hokkaido, so it makes sense that the colors would turn a little later down here in Kanazawa, which is probably more like Kentucky, as far as latitude is concerned. (And I hope I have not mixed up latitude with longitude, if I have, what I am refering to are the lines circling the globe from East to West)

Before this turns into a weather blog, I suppose I'll get back to the topic of taiko. Things are moving right along, as far as our training goes. We are practicing with different groups/classes about three times a week, and our daughter is attending twice a week. She is 4 years old, and we are wondering if twice a week isn't too much for her, or if she should maybe be a bit older. She is very reluctant to join in the practice for the first half. After a great deal of arguing and so on, she finally joins in, and although before the practice she is insisting that she does not like playing taiko, after the practice, she says how much fun she had playing. Anyhow, when this class finishes (in March) we are thinking about giving her a break, or finding a group where the parents and children practice together. She seems to do better in that type of setting. Furthermore, she is not the only child reluctant to join in at the start of practice. There are a few other classmates (close to her age) that also make a fuss about practicing, which is what makes me wonder if she would do better in a year or so. The other option I just mentioned is a parent-child group so that we could practice with her. This seems to be the way that the Kojira group, taught by Jige san of Hono Taiko, which I mentioned in the last post, is set up.

Over the past two weeks, my wife and I recieved several very encouraging comments from some of our instructors/mentors. In the Kaga taiko class this week we were each asked to improvise a solo. We each had two chances to play. In the end, we learned that the instructor was trying to gauge each of our ability in order to decide what each of us would be expected to do at the recital coming up on December 9. So it was sort of like a test. Most of the class, actually, has been practicing about a year longer than we have, so they did quite well. I think there were only three of us who just began learning in August. Since we started, we have learned probably about 20 different rhythms for this style of drumming. The improvisation, of course, is simply stringing these rhythms together in different combinations. Actually, I shouldn't say simply, because there is some style and guidelines about how they should be connected, so it is not necessarily simple. Anyhow, when it was my turn (both times) all I could remember was about 3 rhythms, so my improvisation was very short and very repetitive. Needless to say, I didn't feel all that great about my "performance". My wife, however, was by far the best of the beginners. Of course, I may be a bit biased, but the instructor validated my feeling by his statement after she finished her turn. He looked ever so slightly impressed and said, "Well, you've certainly been studying (practicing) haven't you." Of course, she played down the comments, when I mentioned it to her, but in my opinion, he wouldn't say something like that unless she had exceeded his expectations.

Although I didn't perform so well this week, I did receive a compliment from the same instructor last week. We were practicing a set phrase of about 8 measures or so over and over. The instructor was moving around the class, giving advice to each individual about areas to improve and so on. When he came to me, he stood and watched for minute, kind of smiled, and sincerely said, "you're doing really well!" Not to say that I'm suddenly an expert Kaga taiko player, (as was shown at this weeks practice), but I guess, last week, I was just "feeling the spirit".

The other compliment came after our hozonkai practice on Tuesday. I mentioned in the last post about the group named Yume Mitai, which advertised that they were looking for new members, and that we are interested in joining. Three of the members of the Hozonkai are also members of Yume Mitai, so I mentioned my interest to them after our Tuesday practice. One of them said, "Actually, Kinoshita san suggested to us that you could join Yume Mitai". Just to remind you, Kinoshita san is one of the members of Hono Taiko. Needless to say, I was filled with pride to hear that she had actually suggested that I join the group, without any suggestion from anyone else. Again, I don't take this to mean that I am suddenly a virtuousic taiko performer, but the fact that in professonal, internationally known taiko player saw enough potential in my playing (after only seeing me play twice) that she would suggest that was a great encouragement to me. After all, if I wasn't any good, she wouldn't have said it, and I probably wouldn't have been able to play with the Hozonkai in the first place.

Just in case we are getting too much encouragement, we are attempting to arrange a visit to some other well-established professional taiko friends in Nara next week. These friends will almost certainly give us a healthy dose of reality. Which is always good to balance things out, and keep focus and perspective.


Another Concert

Yesterday we had another performance with our hozonkai (Matto Bayashi). This time it was more like a recital sponsored by Asano Taiko. The concert was in a nearby hall in a town called Mikawa. The program included the regular groups that practice at Asano: Hono Taiko, Hikari, Sasuke, Matto Yume Mitai, and our Matto Bayashi Hozonkai. In addition, there were performances from some of the beginning level classes at Asano and a children's group led by Jige san of Hono Taiko.

The Children's group is called Kojira, which is a play on words in Japanese. "Ko" means child in Japanese, and Gojira, is the Japanese pronunciaton of Godzilla. I guess it's almost like saying "Kidzilla", I think it's a creative name for a kid's taiko group. The other neat thing about this group is that the parent's played with the children. The kids were up in front, and their parents played taiko at the back of the stage. I think the youngest member was about 3 years old, and the oldest probably was not much older than 6 or 7.

Trying to motivate my own daughter to participate in her taiko lessons is sometimes a chore. After all, her class is early Sunday morning, and she would usually rather sleep a little longer. I think she would probably be more willing to participate if one of us could practice with her. I was encouraged, though, to hear other parents talking about the difficulty motivating their own children to come to taiko practice, so it is not only my daughter. In any case, once she gets going, and finishes practice, she always says she enjoyed it. In contrast, my son, who is 1 year 3 months, can hardly wait to play taiko. If we leave a pair of sticks lying around the house, he will go straight for them and pick them up with a big smile on his face. He loves going to the concerts, too. He would probably get right up on stage and try to play, if we didn't hold him back.

Yesterday was finally a concert with Hono Taiko, where we were allowed to take video. Wouldn't you know it, our battery ran out before they performed. We were able, though to get some groups, including our hozonkai, so if you have been wanting to see me actually play the drums, instead of watching other groups, you will finally have your chance. I even was interviewed by Kinoshita san of Hono Taiko, following our performance. I thought that we would be playing the song along with the members of Hono Taiko like we did last week, but this time, only Yamada san played with us. If you watch the video, she will be the lady with short hair playing the flute.

Unfortunately, I still was only able to play the very end of the song. There are two Odaiko parts/solos, of which the second is the only one I have memorized so far. I am still working on the first Odaiko solo. I have memorized more than half of it at this point, and I hope to have the whole thing memorized by the next practice. Our next performance isn't until March, so I should definitely have it committed to memory by then.

Here is the video of our performance. By the way, this is only half of the whole song. The whole song is more than 20 minutes long. From what we've been told, because it's so long, it's rarely performed in its complete form.

The interview at the end is probably hard to hear, and if you don't understand Japanese, even more difficult to follow. So here is a brief, rough translation:

Kinoshita san: For one of the members of this group, it is only the second time to perform on stage, and I'd like to ask him a few questions. Brian, could you come over here for a moment?
How long have you been practicing with this group?
Me: I joined around the middle of August.
Kinoshita san: So in only 2 months, you are already able to play at this level. Isn't that great, evryone? And where were you from?
Me: I am from the United States.
Kinoshita san: Isn't playing the taiko difficult?
Me: Yes, it's difficult, but it's a lot of fun.
Kinoshita san: Well, thank you for your efforts, and please continue to work hard and play taiko with the Matto Bayashi Hozonkai. Thank you very much.
Me: Thank you very much.

Also, by March, I hope that we will have joined another group. One the other groups that played yesterday (Matto Yume Mitai) announced after their performance, that they were looking for new members. If we can arrange our schedule, I hope that we can join them as well in a month or two. Then, at the March event, we can perform with two groups. My daughter's class will also have her recital at that time, so it will be a whole family taiko event.

Anyhow, I was able to record part of Yume Mitai's performance as well, so you can see an example of what they sound like. The recording starts in the middle of the opening Odaiko solo, so I missed the first minute or so, but the rest of the song is good also.

The first group that performed yesterday was called Sasuke. I do not know the meaning, or origin of their name, but they play quite nicely. They also performed last week and at Extasia in July as well. I mentioned already that their group is made up of junior high and high school students. Here is a video of the piece they performed yesterday.

So that's about it from Sunday's concert. I started writing this on Monday, but the video editing took sometime and I am only posting it now. So when I say "yesterday", I mean Sunday, 7.October.


More on Kaga Style Taiko

I am becoming infected with taiko. It seems that I go to bed with taiko going through my head, and when I wake up in the morning, it is still going through my head. I suppose this is a good thing, seeing as we are hoping to eventually get our bread and butter from playing the taiko.
Perhaps we are just filling our schedule so full of taiko, that it is saturating my mind. The performance last week took a lot of preparation and time, and it turns out that I will get to perform again this Sunday. It's kind of unbelievable for me. Within 7 days, I am able to perform twice with Hono Taiko. This performance also will take up a lot of time. There is a rehersal on Saturday night, and then the performance on Sunday will take up part of the morning, and most of the afternoon, by the time we load the drums and unload the drums. Video may not be allowed at this performance either, but if it is, I shall definitely try to get it recorded and post it.

In the meantime, perhaps you can enjoy learning a little more about Kaga style taiko, which we are also learning. The more we learn, the more we realize how little we know. Often, the result of learning, is realizing that I made inaccurate statements on this blog. For example, I believe I said in an earlier entry, that taiko is never improvised, or nearly never improvised. Hopefully I wrote nearly, because it seems that Kaga taiko is one of the rare styles that is improvised. We have been learning set rhythms in the class, but when the style is performed, the performer strings together the different rhythms any way he likes.

The instructors seem to emphasize being relaxed while we play, and enjoying ourselves. It seems to have a fairly long history, at least its roots go back several hundred years, I believe. I think the style we are learning has been developed more recently, and was developed almost as a style to be played in restaurants and such places, where people might not necessarily be coming strictly to see taiko. It was sort of meant to be entertainment during dinner, or a drink.

In case my earlier descriptions of Kaga taiko have been insufficient, or have, perhaps, left you wanting to know more, we located a site with a couple of short videos demonstrating the style. The site is in Japanese, if you cannot read Japanese, just look for the videos and you can enjoy them.

A Milestone?

I've been waiting several weeks to post this blog. I waited, because I was not sure if it would actually happen or not, but it did. On Sunday, I was able to perform on the Odaiko on the same stage, at the same time as Hono Taiko. For those of you who do not know, Hono Taiko is an internationally known (they just returned from a tour in Spain) group of three women taiko players from Matto. I wrote about them back in July or August and noted them as the first real live taiko performance I experienced. When I saw them 9 years ago, I never would have dreamed that I'd be sharing a stage and performing along side them.

Just to make it clear, it is not necessarily through any great ability of mine, that I was able to have this opportunity. It wasn't as if they invited me to perform with them, but rather, I was allowed to perform with them. It also was not just the three Hono Taiko members plus me. It was the three Hono Taiko members, plus about 20 other people as well. It was a big finale to an outdoor concert. At any rate, it was quite exhilarating to play along side performers of their caliber. I do not think I will ever forget it, and it has only furthered my resolve to continue with taiko studies.

I was sincerely hoping to have a fair amount of video from this concert to post, including a video of my own performance. We were all set to tape, and right before the concert began, they asked people not to take videos or other recordings of the performance. We weren't even able to get pictures. Oh well. There is a chance, though, that we may eventually be able to get our hands on something.

The concert was an outdoor concert in the parking lot of a large shopping center located in Togi, Ishikawa, Japan. Togi is located on Ishikawa's Noto Peninsula. Some may remember about 6 months ago, there was an earthquake in Noto. It was unfortunately soon forgotten because of the larger earthquake in Niigata a few months later, but there are still many people in need and recovering from the Noto earthquake as well.

It has been several years since I have been up in the Noto Peninsula and it was nice to return there. It is very beautiful. The shore is often rocky, and sometimes reminds me of the coast along the Pacific Northwest. One of my favorite parts of Noto are the pine trees near the shore line. They are always slanted about 60 degrees, facing inland, as a result of the constant wind off the ocean.

It seems that the festival where we played was in its second year. It was about 4 hours altogether, but the first 3/4 was filled up by local performing groups, including other taiko groups, high school bands, and dance troupes. The main attraction was, of course, Hono Taiko, along with 3 other taiko groups sponsored by Asano Taiko. These groups are not known internationally, but are still quite good, and are well known in the area. They are Hikari, Sasuke, Matto Yume-mitai and the Shin-Mattobayashi Hozonkai (of which we are members, and why I was able to have the opportunity to play).

Our group was playing in the middle of the program. I think I have mentioned before that the piece, Shin-Mattobayashi, is quite long. I am playing the Odaiko (large drum) part, which does not play for the whole song. There are two sections, though, where it is featured. I have learned the shorter section, but am still memorizing the longer one. Since I have only learned the shorter part, I was not able to play when our group performed. Fortunately, the encore planned to be only the shorter part of that song, which I have learned, so they allowed me to perform with them for the encore. As I already mentioned, it was quite an experience and I will never forget it, and hopefully, it won't be my last opportunity to perform with these people.

There was one more thing I learned from this experience, but it has more to do with fashion, than taiko, perhaps. All four groups met at Asano Taiko in the morning to carpool up to Togi. I wore a dark green shirt, and jeans. When we arrived, I felt a bit out of place. Every single person there was wearing all black. When I thought about it a little more, the taiko groups I've seen here always wear black, when they are together as a group, and not performing. I guess I'll wear black too, next time we have a performance to go out to.