大掃除 - "Spring" Cleaning

I went to Asano Taiko today, but not to play or practice taiko. They are actually closed for the winter holidays. Not Christmas, but New Year. One of the Japanese traditions leading up to the New Year is to have a big house cleaning, or business cleaning. It's called "Osouji". It's religious background has to do with creating a clean space to welcome in the New Year spirits. I suppose it has psychological symbolism as well. Practically, it is an excuse to clean all of those places and objects that usually get overlooked. In the US, at least, most of us probably do this type of cleaning in the spring time. In Japan, however, it is done sometime during the week leading up to New Year's Eve.

Today was Asano's Osouji day. Whoever had a couple free hours headed over to Asano to help out with cleaning windows, polishing taiko and sweeping up all the places that usually don't get swept. My job was cleaning windows. I brought my daughter along in hopes that she could help out, but there wasn't much work for her to do. So she became my photographer.


Kaga Taiko Recital Videos

It's Christmas Eve Day here, in Japan and we are sure busy. You see, Christmas is not a holiday in Japan and most people have to work today and tomorrow and the next day. Thus, for those who wish to celebrate Christmas in a major way, like in Europe or the States, it is a challenge to get everything ready because you are often working right up to, and through the holiday. It's rather depressing, actually. At least working at a school, the winter holidays cover the Christmas holidays so I have never had to work on a Christmas in all my years of working in Japan (well, it's only been four years I guess).

Anyhow, before I spend too much time writing, I just wanted to post videos of our most recent taiko recital. This past Sunday we had our Kaga Taiko recital, which was held at an Onsen (Hotel Suiko) in Katayamazu, near Komatsu Japan. Here is a link to the Hotel Suiko website, in case you want to see pictures.

It was much different than last year's Kaga Taiko Recital, and not just because it was in a different location. This year, we had both our children with us and as a result, we were unable to see many of the other performances. A two and half year old can only sit still for so long, even if he does like taiko. Also, last year's recital featured only Kaga and Fukui style taiko (traditional styles, dating back nearly 400 years), but this year there were also groups that would be considered "Sousaku Taiko" (創作太鼓) which is the more modern form of taiko that most of us probably are more familiar with. On personal level, it was also much different because my wife and I felt much more confident in our playing. I don't know that you can see a whole lot of difference between the technical difficulty of what we played this year and what we did last year, but (at least I like to think) our stage presence is slightly more confident than last year.

Anyway, here is where I will post the videos of this year's and last year's recitals, and you can decide for yourselves. (Please feel free to leave your comments, positive or "constructive")

We'll start with me (Brian)
Last year's recital (2007):

This year's recital (2008):

And now Mayumi's...
Last year (2007):

and this year's (2008):

And I'll just say goodbye with a little bonus video. My son, Kenji, seems to really be starting to "feel" taiko and he will pick up bachi (sticks) any chance he gets and start "playing" the couch, cushions, whatever he can find. The interesting thing is that when you watch him, he has a very serious, focused face, and he seems to be doing more than just "hitting". If he is playing a real drum, this is even more apparent. I was telling my mother this the other day, and she said it was the same way with my older brother (who is now a professional musician). He started learning piano at 3 years old, and although he wasn't necessarily playing songs right away, my mum said that what he played, although random notes, it was very musical. Anyway, decide for yourselves. Here is video of my son playing a cushion. You may think that my judgement is clouded by being a parent, but even if that is so, it is still kind of cute to watch...

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.
From Raion Taiko


Can Playing Taiko Drums Cure the Common Cold?

I caught a cold earlier this week. It isn’t so bad, but there were a couple days of a sore throat and now it has moved on to my nose. No matter how many times I blow it, there always seems to be ... well, leftovers. So I was looking forward to my Kaga Taiko class yesterday (Thursday). Why is that? Because taiko always seems to help my ailments. Whether it is a small cold, or the flu, if I have enough energy to drive myself to taiko practice, taiko is the most effective medicine I have found. Without fail, playing taiko will clear up my nose, lower my fever, soothe my sore throat, not to mention the inherent health benefits which come from the exercise.

Last Sunday I discovered that I was not the only person to feel this way. I visited Ichikawa Juku, a “school” in Komatsu where you can learn Kaga Taiko. It’s a very interesting place and sometime I will have to write extensively about what it is like to learn there, but not today.

A significant amount of time there is spent not playing taiko, but talking (which is actually part of learning Kaga Taiko). The head teacher asked me what jobs my wife and I did in the States and I was telling him how my wife had studied music therapy and was hoping to do something with music therapy and taiko when we return next year. He was a little skeptical about whether taiko could be therapeutic until I began sharing with him all of the research I've read about how drumming has been shown to increase antibody levels in your immune system, and how drum circles have been shown to be effective in helping people recover from addictions or strokes and so on. (Want to read those articles too? Here are the links: Sound Healing, Drums, not Drugs, Should Drums be Sold in Pharmacies?)

I guess it sort of made a connection in his head somewhere, because he then said, “Come to think of it, playing taiko always seems to cure my colds too. I’m in my 50s now and have been playing Kaga taiko since I was in my early 20s. Whenever I got sick, I hardly ever went to the doctor, except for major ailments. I found that playing the taiko always cured whatever it was that I had.”

Last Thursday was the final class of this year's Kaga Taiko course, and Sunday we will have our recital. This year we will have it at an Onsen (Hot Springs Resort), which is kind of exciting because that is the type of place where this style of taiko playing was traditionally peformed. Besides, we'll get to eat nice food and have a good bath. It will probably be a lot different than last year's recital, which included a lot more guests. Still, we'll try to get some videos, at least of ourselves, and we can post them and we'll see if you think we've improved since last year.

In the meantime, I'm curious about the rest of you taiko players out there. What types of experiences have you had with illness and taiko? Does anyone else find that playing taiko helps your colds get better more quickly? Leave a comment below and share your own stories.


A New Way of Training for Taiko

Professional taiko teams are well known for their rigorous exercise and training programs. Some of you may have even heard the story about Kodo running the New York Marathon and then performing a concert on a stage at the finish line. I've never run a marathon, but from what people who have, have told me, performing a physically demanding taiko concert at the finish line is probably not the first thing they would want to do. Nevertheless, performing taiko is a physically demanding activity and anyone who doesn't want to be huffing and puffing on the stage ought to engage in some sort of regular physical exercise.

Since we have set our aspirations on creating a premier taiko group in the Mid-West, we have also tried to keep to a fairly regular exercise program. It's not always easy when you have a full-time job, two small children and practice taiko 3 or 4 times a week in the evening, but we try to do it whenever we can. Sometimes we run, swim, bike, do dumbbell workouts, sit-ups, push-ups, stretches and so on.

Yesterday, my wife discovered a new, challenging and effective way of doing push-ups. As she was doing a set of push-ups yesterday, our two-year-old son came into the room. He said, "Wait, Mama, I'm getting on," and before she could do anything else, he was climbing onto her back. As she finished out the set with him on her back, he kept saying, "Wow! Mama, that's great!"

So, if you don't have a two-year-old, I suggest that you go out and get one as soon as possible so that you, too, can try this new, innovative way of physical training for taiko!


How is Classical Ballet Like Learning Taiko?

Can I write about classical ballet today? My daughter had her first ever ballet recital on Monday. The whole event was a pretty impressive production. And it should be, considering the cost. In the end, after paying our share of renting the hall, renting costumes, printing up programs, making a professionally produced DVD and so on, we probably payed between 8 and 900 dollars! *A warning to anyone who is thinking of having their children take ballet lessons in Japan: The teachers are wonderful, the lessons are reasonably priced, but the recitals, which happen anywhere from annually to every 5 years, are incredibly expensive.*

The last two or three months have been pretty busy with extra practices and rehearsals gearing up for the recital. I was able to attend some of these practices and I was impressed with one particular aspect of how my daughter's teacher, Kawamura sensei ran the rehearsals. When she first started taking ballet lessons, about 14 months ago, when the recital was still a long ways away, the one hour lessons would begin with 30 minutes of basic, fundamental stretches and exercises. Then there was a short break, one to two minutes, when the children (between 4 and 6 years old) could have a quick drink, and the remaining 30 minutes was spent working on pieces for the recital.

What impressed me was that as the recital drew closer, and the pressure to perfect and polish the performance numbers grew, Kawamura sensei never once changed the lesson format. No matter how much work needed to be done on the recital, the first 30 minutes of the lesson were strictly basic exercises and stretches. I think this type of teaching will produce some excellent ballet dancers in the future.

Such dedication to basic skills is also important for taiko playing and performing, I believe. Practicing fundamental exercises with a metronome is not necessarily the most exciting part of playing taiko. Playing the songs is much more fun. Furthermore, when there is a performance approaching, there is always the temptation and the pressure to skip over the basic warm ups and jump right into the song, to make sure that all the wrinkles are ironed out before the show. In my opinion, however, remaining dedicated to fundamental metronome practice, will likely improve your taiko playing, and perhaps, smooth out some of those rough areas all by itself. I am willing to bet that the more you practice fundamentals and basics, the less time the group will need for polishing the song.


Eitetsu Fu-un no Kai Concert - Precision Taiko!

Even though I was deathly ill last Sunday (Nov. 2), I did manage to drag myself out of bed to go and see the Hayashi Eitetsu Fu-un no Kai concert with my wife and daughter at the Ishikawa Prefectural Music Hall (a wonderful concert hall, and facility). I may have had a dangerously high fever, but, as is usually the case when I hear, or play taiko, I felt the sickness leave my body and enjoyed the performance with minimal discomfort. Of course, as soon as it finished, the fatigue and sick feelings were back. I am glad that I could go, especially because I had to miss the Fujimoto Yoshikazu (Senior Kodo member) workshop the day before.

I had seen Fu-un no Kai for the first time this past summer at the Exstasia concert in July. They performed two songs at that time. One was played on okedaiko, which they carried, but not in the usual katsugi style. In katsugi style, the drum is carried at a slight angle by your side. Both sides of the drum are played, but mainly the front of the drum. The sticks are also held in a different style. It is similar to a traditional snare grip in some ways. Fu-un no Kai's okedaikos were carried perpendicular to their bodies, with the drum heads facing sideways on the right and left. They also held their sticks in the standard taiko grip, only they were striking the drum from the sides, instead of from above.

This Okedaiko song was performed to open the concert, and their final number this time was played on five Odaiko. The Odaiko piece was also the closing number for the exstasia concert this past summer. At Exstasia, because there were four other groups performing, Fu-un no Kai was limited to only those two songs. Last Sunday's concert was only Fu-un no Kai so they were able to play two more pieces that I hadn't seen before. One featured an Odaiko player centered towards the back of the stage with the other four members playing yoko-uchi on two nagado taiko. Yoko-uchi is playing the drum from the side, instead of the top. It is similar to the way Miyake Taiko is played, but in this case, the stands were much taller, so the players were able to play standing up nearly straight, as opposed to the strenuous crouching position used for Miyake.
The other song featured four of the members all on Shime daiko. In some ways, the song was reminiscent of Monochrome, by Kodo, but only in very subtle ways.

As a general impression, Fu-un no Kai has a very conservative style of Japanese taiko playing. Many of my readers may have seen performances by Yamato. Yamato uses voice, dance and even comedy very liberally and freely in their performances (of course, they are also from Kansai/Osaka area, which is known for being more "fun" than other parts of Japan). In contrast, Fu-un no Kai's use of voice and movement are all very calculated and precise. Fu-un no Kai is a precision taiko group. All their movements seemed to be exactly in unison and it is quite impressive. While both groups (Yamato and Fu-un no Kai) are probably some of the top taiko performers in the world, their styles are completely different. There are also those in the taiko world who have fairly strong preferences to one style or the other. It was interesting, after Exstasia, the audience could see Yamato and Fu-un no Kai performing right next to each other, one after the other, so the contrast in styles was very clear. I talked to many people after the concert and there were about an even number of people who either liked Yamato and were not all that impressed with Fu-un No Kai, or else they loved the calculated precision of Fu-un no Kai and thought that Yamato was not serious enough for taiko drumming.

Personally, I find aspects of both groups that I really enjoy. But these differences in opinion are to be expected because modern taiko drumming does not necessarily have a very long history. It has only been around for 50 or 60 years, so there are many differing viewpoints as to what "proper Wadaiko drumming technique and style" actually is.

A Week of Diarrhea Will Sure "Wipe" You Out!

As it turns out, I was probably too sick to attend the Fujimoto workshop mentioned in the previous post anyhow. That afternoon, as I was at work, wishing that I could be at the workshop, I began to feel very fatigued and my muscles started to feel sore. But I attributed this to having gone running the day before for the first time in a month as well as increasing my dumbbell workout on the same day. The next day, however, I woke up feeling even worse. I took my daughter to her Sunday morning taiko class, but realized that I had something serious and after I got home, I spent the rest of the day in bed. (Oh, except I did drag myself out for the Eitetsu Fu-un no Kai concert.) When I checked my temperature, it was 39.5 (Celsius), which is pretty high, for those who don't know Celsius. Warning: those of you easily disgusted may want to skip this next section...

And then the diarrhea started, and kept going and going and going. I was on an hourly cycle of bed, toilet, bed, toilet for 3 or 4 days. I had no appetite and was eating nothing, so after a day or so, I guess I was having the equivalent of anal dry heaves. For at least a week, nothing even remotely resembling solid feces came out of my back side. Yes, I know it's disgusting, but I warned you.

Finally I went to the doctor. After describing my ordeals and symptoms to him, he said, without hesitation, "This is almost certainly a case of food poisoning. Have you eaten any kind of questionable food lately?" I thought back to the day before the full blown sickness began, and sure enough, I had bought an egg salad and chicken sandwich at a Family Mart convenience store for Saturday's lunch. That had to be it, because before that I felt fine, and that evening I ate dinner with my family and none of them became sick. Curse you, Family Mart! I'll have to get a letter from the doctor and then go and ask the shop for reimbursement for the doctor bills.


A Missed Opportunity

Yesterday was Saturday and I had to work. Usually I can leave work on Saturdays around 1:30, but today I had to stay until 4. Not only did it force me to miss JIGEN practice, but I also missed out on a (perhaps) once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. At least my wife was able to participate in it.

What was it? It was a free, private workshop by Mr. Yoshikazu Fujimoto of Kodo. When I say private, I mean that it was not open to the public, but rather only a few members of groups studying at Asano Taiko. I guess altogether there were about 20 people there. If you follow the link on Mr. Fujimoto's name, you'll know this already, but if you are too lazy, here are the main details on him:
He is one of the founding members of Kodo
He is usually the featured player for "Odaiko" and "Yatai Bayashi" at Kodo performances
He is currently the most senior member of Kodo
this year, he'll be 58 years old!

So it was pretty frustrating to me to have to stay at work while one of the taiko world's greats was giving a workshop. At least my wife was able to go and she will have to give me the details.

Today I can make up for missing the workshop a little bit because we will get to see a short concert in the afternoon. In a sort of indirect way, this concert is also related to one of Kodo's founding members, Mr. Eitetsu Hayashi. Mr. Hayashi, does not perform with Kodo anymore and mostly does solo work on the Odaiko.  He also has a group of several young men, which he has hand picked and trained from all over Japan. They are called "Fu un no kai" (風雲の会) When he has a performance where he needs more than just his solo Odaiko, he will assemble them to play with him. They also perform in concerts without him. In fact, they were a guest at this past summer's Exstasia. This afternoon, they'll be here in Kanazawa again. We will take our daughter to go and see them perform. It's kind of a short concert (only about an hour) and the tickets are quite reasonable (only 1500 yen).


How Hard is it to Play Shime-Daiko

We've been practicing taiko at Asano Taiko for nearly 14 months now. Up till now we have mainly been learning to play nagado taiko and/or Odaiko. But this past Saturday, at JIGEN practice, we learned that our next song to learn would be all shime-daiko. All nine of us (possibly 11, we may get two new members) lined up on the stage playing shime taiko.
We are pretty excited because we have always wanted to learn the technique for playing shimedaiko. It is where you can show how good you really are. Why is that? Because when you play shimedaiko, every little mistake, or uneven stroke is obvious. A group that can play shimedaiko well is likely to be a good group all around. On the other hand, sometimes a group that looks to be pretty good all around is exposed to be amateurish as soon as you hear them playing shimedaiko without the larger drums accompanying them.

You see, the shimedaiko are very high pitched and do not reverberate nearly as much as the nagado or Odaiko. With the bigger drums, little inaccuracies and mistakes are covered up by the sustained sounds. But the piercing sound of the shimedaiko holds a magnifying glass to your technique and stick control. I knew this already, but it was reinforced to me at practice, as we lined up the shimedaiko, sat down and our instructor, Yamada sensei of Hono Taiko, began giving us drills to practice. We played them all together, then we played them one at a time. Playing one at a time, as expected, you can easily hear all the little mistakes and uneven sticking. Our next big performance isn't until March, but even so, at the end of practice Yamada sensei gave a sigh and said, 「道が長い」loosely meaning, "You guys have a long ways to go."

This was no suprise to any of us. After the practice, it was painfully obvious that we had a lot of work and practice to do. Knowing the difficulty of playing shimedaiko well, and having wanted to learn to play it for a long time now, I had asked my older brother (drummer for Chicago Super-Band, the Detholz!) for some practice exercises and suggestions when I was at home this past summer, which, of course, he gave me. Now that there is some added urgency to quickly learn shime technique, we are trying to find every opportunity to practice these drills even just a little bit each day.

We are lucky to have a pair of cheap shime daiko of our own. Although they may not sound as great as Asano drums, they are sufficient for practicing. On the other hand, just like almost any drum, they are pretty loud and living in attached condos makes it difficult to practice. Our downstairs neighbors have complained more than once (oops). Anyhow, we are trying to find ways to muffle the sound enough so that it doesn't bother the neighbors, while at the same time, not losing too much of the stick action. See the photo for our latest attempt.


Asano Taiko Fall Recital 2008 - 今響きが風になる。

Yesterday we successfully completed the 2008 Asano Taiko fall recital. I played in three groups (four, if you count the finale) without making any major mistakes. After all the strenuous work, and moving large taiko around, unloading and loading trucks on Sunday and Monday, I am not even sore. My back doesn't hurt either.

The actual playing in three groups was not so demanding. Each group only plays for about 10 minutes or so. Altogether, that means that I played for about 30 minutes. Weekly practices are 90 minutes, so physically, this type of concert is not so demanding. What was actually the "hardest" part of the thing was changing outfits for the three different groups. For the first group, Yume Mitai there was plenty of time to change after lunch, and it was an easy outfit, white pants and a white sleeveless shirt. After that, I had to change into the JIGEN clothes, which are not so complicated to put on, but there are a lot of pieces to it: pants, shirt, blue thing that goes over the shirt, apron type thing that goes around the waist, blue and black cloth to be tied around the waist and black wrist bands, that need to be tied (It's rather tricky). Then there was Matto Bayashi. This is actually the most complicated to get into because I need to tightly wrap my torso in white cloth, which I need help doing. Then there is another sort of apron thing, a special kind of Japanese pants called Matabiki tabi shoes (which take some practice to put on quickly) and wrist bands. For the finale, the members of JIGEN wanted to finish the concert in JIGEN costume, so for the four of us in Matto Bayashi, that meant changing back to JIGEN clothes following Matto Bayashi's performance. So altogether, I had to change costumes 4 times. That actually exhausted me more than the playing itself.

Sometime I may write more about the performance, but for now, I'll just post a few more pictures from the concert.

Yume Mitai performance (I'm the furthest person on the right)

The members of the new group, JIGEN!

The "boys" of JIGEN

The "girls" of JIGEN


It's a Beautiul Day!

It's a brisk, October morning, there's a beautiful sunrise and today is a taiko concert. There is something about performing that I really enjoy. I'll be performing with three groups today, playing Odaiko for two of them. Mayumi will be playing in two groups. Can't wait.


Lost Luggage Update - ANA disappoints (but they did give us some money)

If you're a regular reader of the raion taiko blog, you may be wondering if the situation with our lost luggage/bachi every got worked out with ANA. If you're not a regular reader (why not think about becoming one?) Here are links to the previous entries to bring you up to date:

ANA Lost my Luggage

Lost Luggage Update

Finally, after a month of searching, ANA decided to declare our bag as officially lost and unrecoverable. (How you can completely lose luggage is still a mystery to me) So they said they would give us a cash payment to cover the lost items. Anyone who finds themselves filling out a claim to the airlines in a similar situation, be aware that you will not get the declared value of your lost items.

When we filled out our claim form, we added up the cost of all the sticks that were there to be 46,260 yen (or around 463 USD). ANA first said they would pay us about 35,000 yen to replace the items, and when I complained, they offered 37,000. What did I complain about? I complained about the nearly 20,000 yen we had to spend replacing sticks that were needed while we were waiting for them to find our luggage (which they never did). They still said they can't be held responsible for that and then offered to throw in the extra 20 dollars. I felt that there wasn't much point in fighting this because I didn't really have the resources or the time to pursue it to the end, so I agreed to the 37,000, a 20% reduction from my original claim.

A couple days later, the money came in the mail (yes, they send cash in the mail in Japan) and it came with a long letter of apology (in Japanese) and a release form. I am being asked to sign the form acknowledging that I received the money and that I will not ask them to give me any more money in regards to this incident. I haven't signed it yet, and I do not think I will until I have sent them the receipts from the bachi we had to buy while we waited for them to "resolve" the situation. I don't know that they will give me anything else, but if they want me to sign a release statement, they will first have to consider the inconvenience they caused us. And by consider, I mean, give us more money. After all, it's money we wouldn't have had to spend, had they not lost our luggage.

I have to say that over all, I am disappointed with the way the lost luggage situation was handled. All in all, it wasn't not difficult to get the money. I have heard of airlines taking much longer to pony up the replacement money, and once they said that they would send the money, it was here within a couple days. There was no messing around with vouchers for future travel or anything, it was cold, hard cash. Still, with the reputation that Japanese have for exceptional service, and the fact that I even wrote a rather long complaint letter, I was expecting more. Honestly, what I was expecting is that they would give at least a small inconvenience allowance to help us out while we were waiting for them to right their mistake. They didn't, and after two requests, they have refused both. I think I'll see if they'll refuse a third request.

At any rate, my thinking right now is that for our next overseas trip, I'll be looking for tickets on JAL.

I apologize to readers for ranting a bit about our lost luggage. I actually have a lot of taiko stuff to write about. So much, in fact, that I don't even know where to start... probably with the farting story. Anyhow, today is our rehearsal for the fall concert/recital and tomorrow is the recital. So I hope I will have some pictures and interesting stories to post about that next time, in addition to the farting story, of course.

Photo Credits:
Luggage Purgatory


Performance in Noto with Hono Taiko

Sunday marked another milestone in our taiko journey. It has been one year since my first stage performance in Japan. Looking back, I actually find it funny that I called last year's performance in Togi a milestone. Maybe it was more like a step in the right direction than a milestone. Anyhow, on Sunday we (Matto Yume Mitai) traveled to Togi in the Noto Peninsula for a concert with Hono Taiko, Sasuke and Wajima Toranosuke. I remember a year ago I was simply thrilled to be sharing a stage with Hono Taiko. Now, I am still thrilled (and it's an honor), but in the past year, I have been on stage with them several times and the novelty that was there last year has worn off a bit. Still, it's one of those events that makes you realize how far you have come. Last year we were had been practicing taiko at Asano for only about two months and were a part of one group, Matto Bayashi and I had barely learned one, easy song. A year later, we are part of three Asano groups, have learned numerous songs, performed several times and comparing video from a year ago to more recently recorded ones, I can see a great deal of progress. (I can also see that there is still a long way to progress).

Now that the Togi performance is done, we have moved on to focus on our recital on October 13th. This time I will be performing in three groups and Mayumi will be in two.


Another Reason to be a Fan of Wadaiko Yamato

Have you heard of the group, Yamato? If you've been around taiko for very long, it's likely you know of them, and if you're a regular reader/visitor to this taiko blog, then you probably recognize that I have written about them before. (a visit in May, their concert in January) and you also probably know that I have called them "the best taiko group in the world". I suppose that point could be argued. Everyone has different tastes, and their are even different opinions on what is considered good/proper taiko technique. Still, this past summer, while I was volunteering for the Hakusan Exstasia taiko festival, I had a chance to meet and "work with" Yamato again. And again, they gave me more reasons to be impressed with not only their awe inspiring taiko performance, but their attitude and character in general.

They arrived the day before the performance (as did all of the performing groups) and unloaded their drums. Later in the afternoon, apparently when they had some free time, I noticed that several of the guys were helping to erect the huge flags (look for the pics at the bottom) we were putting up around the concert venue. No one had asked them to help (you can't ask the talent to help), it seems they just saw people working and went to help out. When they finished helping out with that, Takeru (one of the sub-leaders) came over to me and said, "Brian, let us know if there is anything you guys need us to help out with, we are pretty free until the dress rehearsal". Again, none of us volunteers would dream of asking "the talent" to help out with the "menial" tasks we were working on (not that guests/performers were stuck up in any way, it just wouldn't be appropriate), but it was impressive that Yamato would make that offer anyhow. I also found out that they didn't need to be asked to help out. If they were free, they helped us out without being asked.

I was most impressed on the day of the Exstasia performance. If you read my entry about volunteering at the taiko festival, you may recall that the skies began to cloud up around 11 in the morning. In the afternoon, only a few hours before the show, a thunderstorm came through, soaking the venue. The venue was a sort of outdoor amphitheater and part of the seating were stone steps. These stone steps were now soaked with rain and there was not enough time for them to dry before the concert began. We couldn't have wet seats for the guests, so all the volunteers were given old newspapers and told to use them to soak up whatever water we could from the seating area. We all set to work on this slightly tedious task with urgency since the venue would be opened in less than an hour. After working at drying the seats for 15 minutes or so, I happened to look over to the other side of the seating area. I saw every member of Yamato over there with newspapers, working as hard as we were to dry off the rain-soaked seats. Now nobody would have ever thought anything bad or negative about them, had they not helped out to dry the seats. But that they noticed there was important (however menial) work to be done, that they were glad to help out, and that they did it without being asked really impressed me.

It reminds me of something I just read yesterday in a book about being a successful entrepreneur. The book describes people who are exceptionally good in business are "...down to earth, in touch with the seamy reality of ordinary life." (Michael Gerber, "The E-myth Revisited). Even though Wadaiko Yamato has seen worldwide success over their 15 + years of existence, it's obvious they have not let it go to their heads. They are great, considerate and generous people. Oh yeah, and they are really awesome taiko performers as well.

Check out a couple pictures of Yamato performing at the 2008 Exstasia Taiko Festival.


ANA Lost My Luggage Update

An update of the lost luggage/lost bachi mentioned in the previous post. Today I finally received a phone call from All Nippon Airways (ANA) regarding the status of the search for my luggage, which they lost. Actually, they have been trying to contact me for several days now (ever since about two days after I mailed the letter) but we are always gone at taiko practice, so when they call, we're not home, or unable to answer.

Miss Sato, with whom I spoke, did mention that she had read the letter, and that the description of the bag being wrapped in ANA packing tape may help to locate it. Although, if they haven't found it by now, I don't hold out much hope for it showing up. I still cannot understand how it could get lost, other than someone just stealing it. I mean, honestly, how does something like that get lost? Anyhow. She said that if they are unable to locate the lost bag with in a month, they will give us a monetary settlement to replace the bag. That means that if they haven't found it by the end of next week, they will give us some money. The question is "how much?" I have read that airlines will not reimburse for replacement value. Rather, they estimate how much the contents of your luggage have depreciated and will give you an amount based on that. Of course, the only people who think that is fair are probably the airlines themselves. Furthermore, I don't understand why they make you get your own travel insurance to get reimbursed for the lost luggage. It is their responsibility to take care of the luggage from your boarding point to your deboarding point, and if they lose it, they should pay for all of it. To be fair, I suppose their would be room for some insurance fraud with people claiming a much higher value of the contents than what was really in there, but it seems like it would be pretty tough to commit insurance fraud with a lost luggage claim. Furthermore, since it seems that only 2% of all people that fly ever truly lose their luggage, it wouldn't be that much of a risk. Out of those 2% that do lose their luggage, I bet 90% of them are honest. Suffice it to say, I think the airlines should pay for your luggage if they lost it (pay for all of it).

We'll see how things play out next week. If they can find it, great. If they can't I will be disappointed unless I reimbursed enough to replace all the taiko sticks that were in the luggage, plus the cost of the luggage. Stay tuned...


Should you fly on ANA if you're going to Japan?

If you follow me on Twitter, you are likely already aware that upon our recent return to Japan from a visit to the US, the airline we were flying on, ANA (All Nippon Airways) had lost our bag of taiko bachi (sticks). So far, the response from the airline (ANA) has been less than impressive. Normally, this would not be a surprise, but from a Japanese airline, I actually am surprised that the situation has not been dealt with in a better way. After three weeks, or so, there is still no sign of our bachi bag, and ANA has now begun dragging their feet. (Again, a big surprise coming from a Japanese airline, which are known for their impeccable customer service.) Actually, I feel somewhat fortunate that all we lost were our bachi, after learning that Meantime Taiko recently had a van stolen, which contained their large, Asano made, 3.5 shaku (ca. 105 cm) Okedaiko. (I hope you guys are able to replace it quickly and easily)

But still...

Since many of my readers are friends and family, who are likely to see how this whole situation plays out, and the other readers are probably taiko enthusiasts, who may be traveling to Japan themselves one day and would like to know about the airline choices out there, I am going to post the letter which I will mail to ANA Customer service today. I imagine it will get a response, which I will also post here. Then we can all see whether or not All Nippon Airways will earn a distinction as one of those Japanese airlines respected all around the world, or whether they are going the way of the US airline industry, whose motto seems to be "bend over just a little bit further." On that rather crass note, I give you my letter to ANA Customer Service:
16.September 2008

All Nippon Airways Co., Ltd.
Customer Relations, CS Promotion
3-3-2 Haneda Airport
Ota-ku, Tokyo 144-0041

To Whom It May Concern:

Back in June my wife and I had a decision to make that meant the difference in more than 1000 USD. A good friend was getting married in the US and we had to decide which airline we would use to return to the US from Japan. The choice was between US airlines, such as Northwest and Continental, or Japanese airlines, like ANA or JAL. The US carriers were advertising fares three or four hundred dollars cheaper than ANA and JAL. For a family of four, this adds up to more than a thousand dollars, a very significant amount of money for a family trying to get by with only one working parent.

A person with less experience traveling back and forth to Japan, would likely have chosen the cheaper airline without a second thought. In our case, however, we have been traveling back and forth between the US and Japan at least once a year for the last 10 years. We have traveled on both Japanese and US airlines and have come to be acutely aware of the superiority in the quality, service and overall experience offered by carriers like ANA and JAL. Knowing this we decided to purchase tickets for All Nippon Airways at nearly 2000 USD a piece. In 10 years of travel to Japan and the US, I had never paid so much for tickets, not even during the high travel seasons. For us, buying ANA tickets at this price actually meant spending an extra thousand dollars, which we did not even have at the time of purchase. That is how much we value the superior service we are accustomed to getting on Japanese airlines.

Until this past summer, I had only flown on ANA domestically in Japan. I had always flown internationally on JAL, but was impressed with my domestic experiences on ANA and was looking forward to experiencing that same impressive service on an international flight.

After paying this extremely high airfare of 2000 USD per person (again, more than I have ever paid for an airfare to or from Japan in 10 years), and my based on my past positive experiences with ANA, I was extremely saddened to return to Narita and discover that ANA had lost one of my bags. This was a bag that was small enough to be carry-on luggage. I had actually hoped to keep it with me on the plane, as its contents were important and were needed soon after arrival in Japan. The ANA representative at the check-in counter, however, insisted that I check the baggage. I explained that it was important that it not be lost and that I needed it within a day or two of arrival. She assured me that it would be fine, and put it into a plastic bag, taped with a generous amount of “ANA” tape and made sure that the name tag, as well as the routing tags were clearly visible.

At 2000 USD per person, how is it possible to lose a piece of luggage, let alone a piece of luggage so clearly marked as this one was?! 2000 dollars and ANA cannot even keep track of one little piece of luggage! 2000 dollars that we didn't have! 2000 dollars we had to borrow in order to fly on an airline we thought had a superior service! 2000 dollars is a lot of money to little people like us!

I understand that situations like this are not common. According to statistics, out of all the people that fly, it seems that only 2% ever lose their luggage permanently. Those are pretty good odds, but when you are part of that 2% (as I am now) the odds don't matter. I know that for almost all of your passengers, you are able to safely deliver their luggage to them, but it is when something goes wrong that we can really see what kind of service an airline offers its passengers. What type of service does All Nippon Airways offer?

For me something has gone wrong. My luggage is still missing and is not likely to be found. The representative at the airport was very polite and apologetic as she took my information for filing the missing luggage report. I was surprised, though, that I was not offered any type of “allowance” to ease my inconvenience. A couple days later, when the contents were needed, I asked what I should do because I would need to replace them. I was told to contact my own insurance company. Honestly, I was quite surprised. Was this the impeccable Japanese service that I had heard about and was used to? No, it wasn't. The instructions from the ANA representative: “Replace it yourself and submit a claim to your insurance company,” was very disappointing. At this point, we have submitted a claim form describing the contents and value of the lost luggage to ANA and we are awaiting further instructions. (It has been more than a week, and there has been no further contact, I might add.)

As I mentioned, this was the first time we chose ANA to fly internationally. As far as we can see, our future continues to have annual trips (for all four of us) between the US and Japan. The question for us is will those trips be with ANA or with JAL. How this luggage situation is resolved is what will determine with whom we chose to fly.

I am posting this letter on my blog (http://raiontaiko.blogspot.com) and linking to it from several other websites as well. I will also be updating it with your responses (or lack thereof), and how the situation is resolved (or not). Will ANA’s response give people looking for a plane ticket to Japan re-assurance that ANA will take good care of them if anything goes wrong? Or will it encourage them to fly on a different airline.

In the eyes of the whole world, Japanese companies are admired and respected for their unmatchable service and care for their customers. This situation is a chance for ANA to continue that image and become yet another example of incredible Japanese service for the world to admire. It is also a chance for ANA to tarnish that image and become example of poor customer service to be ashamed of.

The Sole Family

Perhaps an ANA rep will even stop by and leave us a comment on this page, but whether they do or not, I will post their response to this letter, as well as any updates as to how the situation is being resolved (or not).


Where Have I Been? Practicing Taiko, for Another

I would like to post one more excuse for my lack of blogging efforts in August. If you are a regular reader, then you know that designing t-shirts was my first excuse. If you don't know what t-shirts I am talking about, read the t-shirt excuse blog. Or just have look directly at the t-shirt store where you can order them.

Anyhow, the other thing that kept me away from my taiko blog for most of August was practicing taiko for a performance at the wedding of my closest friend. (Thanks again, Jim and Elaine, for letting us play.) The song was Raijin, which I wrote close to a year ago. In spite of that, we hadn't had an excuse or an opportunity to practice the song until this summer.

So, when we went back to Michigan this summer, and we found out that we would be able to play the song at the wedding reception, we had to learn it and get it up to a somewhat satisfactory performance level. We only had about two weeks to do this, with small children, and practicing outside in a neighborhood, while trying not to practice so much that we anger the neighbors.

Based on the reaction at the reception, it seemed that everyone was very happy with our performance, even though we thought it could still use a significant amount of work. Some mistakes were not noticeable, but others were (like when I dropped my stick.)

Even though our performance level is not quite at the level that we would like, I will share the video of the performance with you. The lighting was quite low, so it is hard to see, but at least the camera was not on me when my stick flew across the room.

(Don't forget to leave comments and rate!)
We'll have another chance to perform this in Japan at the end of October. Hopefully we will have ironed out some of the wrinkles by then.

Now I think I am out of excuses for my August absences. I will try to be more ...uh...regular from now on.


Where Have I Been? Making Taiko T-shirts, for one...

My apologies for the long hiatus. There were many factors inovloved in my extended absence from updating our taiko blog. It must have been tough for the one or two of you who check here every day to find out the latest taiko adventures of Brian and Mayumi. These days I'm trying to juggle a lot of online hats combine that with a three week trip back to Michigan and Chicago, returning to Japan to find that the airline lost my bag containing all of my taiko sticks and going back to work the next day even though my kids wake up at 2 in the morning from jet lag and I'm bound to drop a few of those balls. Anyhow, things have settled down a bit and hopefully I can now get back into a regular routine, which means you ought to see weekly updates here (more or less).

Let me share with you one of the specific reasons I was not able to update on a regular basis this past month. It is because I was working on designing a few taiko inspired t-shirts.

This is the one (above) which took most of the time. It centers on the Mitsudomoe, which is featured often on large taiko drums, and other taiko related items, with Raijin, the Japanese God of Thunder in the foreground. It was Mr. Raijin who took up most of the time. First the background of the original picture had to be removed, and then various areas of Mr. Raijin, himself had to be touched up. In the end, it took probably nearly ten to twelve hours of tedious work in Photoshop. (Many thanks to my understanding wife, who must have been frustrated as I sat in front of the computer.)

This design did not take nearly as much time to complete. It was inspired by a shirt I have seen worn sometimes by taiko players here, in Japan. Although, my design is a bit more fancy than what I have seen here. Anyhow, it again uses the mitsudomoe as a backdrop. The two kanji mean "drum" (鼓) and "soul" or "spirit" (魂). Therefore, the meaning is roughly something along the lines of "soul of the drum" or "drumming spirit". Those of us who play taiko, I think, can easily identify with this idea, seeing as how the taiko seems to somehow reach beyond our physical senses and reach into the depths of our spiritual and psychological beings.

These two taiko t-shirts are available at the site of good friend of Raion Taiko, Freddy Benstein, who has graciously agreed to host these designs on his cafepress store, EntropicTees. What's more, he has agreed to pass on 100% of the profits made from these designs to us in order to support our efforts to bring taiko drumming to Michigan.

I hope this isn't too much like a sales pitch. Sorry if it feels like that. I'll soon be back with new video, possibly some audio and more about the Exstasia concert back in July. Until then, keep drumming.


Do Volunteers work harder than employees? Working at the Exstasia Taiko Festival

Four days of outdoor, physical labor in the hot sun, usually lasting until 10 pm or midnight and the only physical payment received was free meals and iced tea.

That is one way to describe volunteering for the Exstasia Taiko festival hosted by Asano Taiko. Although it was hard work, I don't have any complaints.

To be honest, I rather enjoy hard, physical work. One feels a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day, and the results are often concrete. Secondly, the experience of volunteering at a large event like this provides invaluable learning, especially for someone like me, who may be trying to put on my own taiko events in the not-so-distant future. It was almost like a mini-internship. Finally because I really enjoy playing taiko and being around other taiko people, and meeting such fine, professional taiko performers (Hono Taiko, Asano Machiko, Wadaiko Yamato, Fu-un no kai). I was very glad to volunteer for four days at Exstasia. I actually wish I could have volunteered more, and I hope to do it again next year.

It's kind of funny, but I was thinking while I was working that people will give a lot more as volunteers, when they are not getting paid, than if they are employees. I was imagining that most people, if asked by their employer to work 15 hour days for several days in a row, even if they were getting paid for it, would probably not do it nearly as gladly as those who might volunteer to do the same work. I guess it has something to do with having a choice to be there, as opposed to being told one has to be there.

Anyhow, I'll try to give you a quick idea of what the volunteer work was like.

Last year's Exstasia was at an indoor concert hall, so there was much less work to be done (or so I hear, I couldn't volunteer last year). This year, they returned to the traditional outdoor venue, the Matto Undo Koen/Park. I believe this is Exstasia's 15th year, and out of all those years, it has only been held indoors twice.

The main work on preparing the venue started about a week before hand. I was able to volunteer on Monday, and we spent the day filling sand bags and assembling partitions for a barrier, which would surround the venue so that passers-by could not watch the concert without purchasing tickets. Tuesday and Wednesday were slow days, and they said no volunteers were needed. Thursday I volunteered again starting around noon and spent the day driving metal stakes into the ground with a sledge hammer and using a fire hose to wash off the stone amphitheater seats where guests would sit. Friday I had to work (at my job) in the afternoon, but was able to show up to volunteer around 5 pm. We worked till about 10 putting up huge 10 meter banners around the sides and the back of the concert area (there were about 30 in all). On the banners was written this year's theme for the Exstasia Taiko Festival, which was: 烈火 挑発, which means "raging fire" and "provocation". These banners were hand "written" by a Japanese calligraphy artist, and took him around 14 hours to complete all thirty of them. He used a huge paint brush/pen. Writing them was not only physically, but mentally tiring as well, and he needed breaks between each banner as well. Here he is painting a banner:

And here is one of the finished banners standing up outside:

(These two images are from the Asano Taiko "Asano Tsushin" blog)

The whole process was quite impressive, and to top it all off, the artist did not make one single mistake while painting all 30 of these banners!

Saturday we put the finishing touches on the concert venue, and were pretty much done by 7 pm, which was when the dress rehearsal was to start. Traditionally, volunteers are able to watch the dress rehearsal, because most of us would not be able to watch the concert the next day. I was reminded of how it is often the little details that make a difference between a good and great performance as I listened to Mr. Asano's comments after the rehearsal. One of the areas he said was not yet at a satisfactory level was in the movement of the stage hands. These were the people responsible for moving around the drums to the correct locations between each group/number. He told them they still looked a bit sloppy and as if they weren't always sure exactly where they should be or what they should be doing. He asked them to study the diagrams more, meet together and even to walk in step as they moved onto the stage. Stage hands walking in step is not something most people would expect or even notice, but I guess it's one of those things that give the whole experience that extra something, the extra sparkle or whatever that just makes you feel like you are seeing something really special. After the dress rehearsal, there was one last quick meeting for the different departments and it was off to bed.

Sunday was the day of the performance. Volunteers had small jobs to do to prepare for the evening. For example, I was to work at the entryway, taking tickets as guests arrived, so my job for the morning was to fold programs which would be handed out at as people came in. Depending on there responsibilities during the concert, everyone had some jobs like that to do, but it was all pretty low-key because we had finished most of the major work on Saturday. But Mother Nature had other plans in mind...

During the morning and the afternoon, there were some final sound checks for the performers. Wadaiko Yamato had the first sound check in the morning, then at 11, we had the opening ceremony, and the other groups were scheduled to have their sound checks after that. During the opening ceremony, however, dark clouds began to roll in and the wind began to pick up.

We tried to keep a positive attitude and told each other that it would blow over and we all went to lunch. After lunch, Hono Taiko was doing their sound check. The clouds got darker, the wind got stronger, there were a few distant rumbles of thunder. I said to one the other volunteers, "I guess the dress rehearsal last night called up the thunder gods." She responded to me with a story about Jige san (of Hono Taiko) in Mexico. Apparently, she was playing an Odaiko solo on top of a Aztec pyramid for a concert there. Before she began, the sky was clear, as she began to play, dark clouds began to creep across the sky. They remained covering the sun during her whole performance, and as she finished, they disappeared and the sun came back out. The power of taiko? The power of Jige san?

Sure enough, during Hono Taiko's sound check, the storm broke. Rain, thunder, wind... it was a major storm. In fact, the wind was strong enough to knock over about 6 of the large banners, and broke about 4 more. Once the storm passed, we had 4 banners to repair (it took two days to get them all up, so taking down four and getting them back up again in just a couple hours was not a small task) and wet seats and wet grass where the guests would sit. Needless to say, what looked like a fairly relaxing day, turned into a rather hectic afternoon. Although the clean up and repairs from the storm seemed to be impossible to complete before the concert began, we all set to work and were able to start on time (we even dried to seating area) and no one would have known that a few hours before, a storm had passed through. The concert was a success.

Next time, perhaps I'll write a bit more about the concert and why I think Wadaiko Yamato are not only excellent taiko performers, but good, quality people as well.


How Hot Does It Get in Japan? Not Too Hot for Taiko!

"Does it get this hot in Michigan?" "Does it get this cold in Michigan?" Japanese people seem to enjoy asking these types of questions. My answer is usually "Yes, sometimes it gets even hotter (or colder)." Now we are approaching the hottest time of the year in Japan and a typhoon that passed to the north has brought with it hot and sticky weather. It's actually only in the 90s (and in the winter, it rarely gets much below freezing) but the poorly insulated buidlings (and the humidity as well) makes it feel so much hotter. Everyone seems 10 times more irritable than usual because of the heat (especially kids).

Oh well, the nice thing about this time of year is that it means Asano Taiko's Exstasia is not far off. In fact, it is this Sunday! Today, I am heading off to the concert venue (a huge, outdoor park) to help work on setting up. Last Monday we had a meeting about how the stage and so on would be set up and what it would look like. It looks pretty cool. I'll try to get a few pictures today while I'm working. I am looking forward to helping out for this huge event. It will be a lot of work, and most of us are not getting paid for it, but it will be an excellent learning experience, I'm sure.

Anyhow, I just had a few pictures to post today, so that's what I'll do. First, on Saturday, our neighborhood had their 夏祭り (natsu matsuri - summer festival), which we attended. The neighborhood taiko group, Togashi Fujin Taiko was one of the performers, so I took a few pictures of them. Usually there are 5 members, but for some reason, only two of them could perform that day.

And yesterday, my wife had her recital for the Ishikawa Taiko Federation Intermediate Course (石川太鼓連盟中級講座). I was impressed by her Odaiko playing. Here is a picture, but the lighting was not so good, so the picture is a bit dark.

The recital was for three classes, the "first time" taiko class, the beginners taiko class, and the intermediate class. They had also invited several other groups as guests, though, the most well known being dazoku (打族) of Komatsu. They were quite good and have a lot of influence from Kaga Taiko style. The rhythms were very similar and there is a lot of stick twirling as well. Here is picture of their performance (again, in poor light).


How to be a Professional

As promised, here is the second half of the list (How to be an Amateur),I began a couple days ago. This list is called (naturally) How to be a Professional.

1. Never consider your product "good enough", you should always look for something to improve

2. Be confident in your strengths and take pride in what you have accomplished

3. Have clearly defined goals for today, tomorrow, this week, next week, next month, next year, in 10 years... you get the idea

4. Celebrate with others when they succeed

5. Challenge your one perceived limits and abilities

6. Believe in yourself

7. Have consistent, effective practicing habits

8. Be able to manage your time wisely and efficiently

9. Find ways to succeed instead of worrying about how you could fail

10. Make sure the way you spend your money is aligned with the goals you have set

11. Have a clear "vision" for your success

12. Focus on solving problems instead of finding out whose fault it is

13. Define your success by meeting your own goals, not by comparing yourself to competitors

So, there they are. I would say that after reading through these, many people would probably say that most of these are common sense. I would agree, but I also think sometimes we don't realize these things until someone points them out to us. It's kind of like the riddle you couldn't figure out and then when someone explains it to you, you slap your forehead and say, "Why didn't I think of that?"

Anyway, for all my fellow taiko amateurs (or aspiring athletes, musicians, Internet marketers, whatever) out there striving to reach that next level, I hope that these two lists are helpful to you and help you to stay on track to realize your goals. Best of luck to you. Remember: 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration... or is it 1% , 90%?


How to be an Amateur

Some people have a lot of talent, but never seem to be able to find their big break. I think there are a lot of talented musicians out there who are struggling to make ends meet. Unfortunately, just having talent is usually not enough to pay your bills. Perhaps you've seen the bumper sticker that says, "Real musicians have day jobs". It would be nice if having talent was enough to put food on the table, but anyone who wants to earn their money through their talent, needs to have a certain mindset in order to make it past that amateur stage, and break into the professional world of whatever area they are in.

My Mother-in-Law has a modeling agency. (The b/w picture on the right was taken by me, by the way). The agency also runs a school for children and teens who wish to become models, performers or actors in the future, called "Actors Studio". Students enrolled learn modeling, singing, dancing, acting and even taiko. The classes are held in the company's studio, where we are able to practice taiko sometimes when it is not being used for other events. A while ago, I noticed an interesting poster hanging on the wall titled "The Differences Between a Professional and an Amateur". I thought it was very interesting and whether you are striving to be a professional sports player or to create a new taiko team, the ideas would be useful to you.

So today, I am straying a bit from the "taiko" theme in order to share with you the first half of these guidelines entitled: "How to be an Amateur".

1. Be satisfied with the way things are
2. Make sure you can always find something to complain about
3. Don't worry about setting goals (short term, or long term), just take things as they come
4. If something is difficult, awkward, painful, etc. don't bother with it. It's not worth it.
5. Don't take risks, stay with what you know is safe
6. Always question your own ability. After all, there are a lot of other people out there and most of them are probably better than you at whatever you're doing.
7. Change your mind easily and often
8. Become a procrastinator and find lots of useless activities to fill up your extra time (like watching TV, playing solitaire)
9. Try not to do anything where there is a chance you could fail
10. Spend your money how you want, when you want
11. If you try something once or twice and it doesn't work, give up on it, it will probably never work
12. If something goes wrong, make sure you find out who's fault it is, and make sure they are blamed for it (because it definitely isn't YOUR fault)
13. Always compare yourself to your competitors and define your success by how you stack up to them

After reading the amateur guidelines, I think you can get a good idea of what NOT to do if you wish to make it into the professional world. Tomorrow (or more likely in a couple days) I will post the other half of the poster, "How to be a Professional".


More Pictures from Sunday

No taiko until Saturday for me. Of course, I would be happy to play for every day, but because of practicing for five hours on Saturday, two performances on Sunday and then practice on Monday and Tuesday night, the blisters on my hand are not complaining about the break. I made a couple new blisters over the weekend, and they actually need the time to heal up. Saturday it will be back to taiko, though.

Anyhow, I discovered yesterday that there were several pictures of Sunday's performances posted on the Asano Taiko blog. The pictures were taken by Azuma san, who does a lot of volunteer photography for Asano. I also shared his pictures from the March recital this year. Unfortunately, in the pictures they posted from Sunday, I am always located at the furthest possible spot away from the photographer, so you probably cannot see me.

Still, here is the link to the blog entry. If you can read Japanese, then you can read the post as well. If not, just enjoy the pictures. Sunday's Exstasia Campaign Performance at Kaga Jusco


Extasia Campaign Performances

I really enjoy performing. When there is an audience to play for, I always feel like I have more energy, and if I can feel that the audience is enjoying themselves, I get even more energy. I am always excited when we have a performance.

Today I performed twice with Matto Yume Mitai at the Jusco shopping center in Kaga (Ishikawa prefecture). This was a campaign performance to promote the upcoming Exstasia Taiko Festival, July 27. In fact, I just noticed yesterday a big billboard that was put up near Asano Taiko to advertise the festival. Here are some pictures:

The three ladies are the members of Hono Taiko, from left to right: Yamada Mizue, Kinoshita Chieko and Jige Akemi. The smaller pictures are of the guests who will be performing: Wadaiko Yamato, Asano Machiko and Hayashi Eitetsu Fu-un no Kai.

Members of Sasuke and Hana Kagami also performed with us. We had our first performance at 11 am, with a second at 2 pm.

The morning started with a little stress because one of our trucks broke down as we were leaving. Fortunately, it was repaired fairly easily and quickly and made it to the shopping center on time. It broke down again on the way home, and was again, quickly repaired. I suppose it will need to go into the shop, though.

We performed outside in the parking lot. We were expecting it to be quite hot, but after we arrived, it clouded over and a breeze picked up, so it wasn't as bad as it could have been. By the time the afternoon performance arrived, it actually started to rain lightly. We were able to set up some tents and perform underneath them (except for the Odaiko, which were too large) In spite of the rain, the second performance seemed to go better than the first.

I'm always impressed with how organized the concerts are at Asano. Everyone seems to know exactly what needs to be done, and they always seem to plan for things going wrong. Then, when things go wrong (like trucks breaking down), it doesn't become a problem. And when things go right, we get to finish earlier than scheduled.

I wish I could take pictures of our performance, but since I am performing, I can't. Anyhow, here is a picture of us during set-up:


Daihachi Oguchi 大八小口 R.I.P.

I learned the sad news this evening as I opened my Internet browser and saw the headline on Yahoo: "Master Japanese drummer, Oguchi dies".

All of us who play and perform taiko today owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Oguchi, the grandfather of modern taiko. Oguchi is credited as having established and developed the style of taiko performing that most of us practice today. Without his work, taiko would likely still be secondary percussion instruments, limited to use in shrines, temples and local festivals.

Daihachi Oguchi, a jazz drummer, laid the foundations of modern taiko performance styles back in the early 1950s. He also helped to establish several top taiko groups, including the San Fransisco Taiko Dojo, the very first taiko group in the US.

For my wife and I, taiko has given us an incredible amount of happiness, joy, energy and more. Without Mr. Oguchi, we likely never would have known the wonders of taiko. We are truly grateful. We wish to express our condolences to his family and those who knew Mr. Oguchi. May he rest in peace.


A Practice Space

Because of the noise, practicing taiko in your home is always a challenge, especially in Japan. In fact, other than patting out rhythms on your knees with your hands, there is not much you can do, without bothering the neighbors. It has, therefore, been a challenge for us to find a time and place to practice our own music. We do go to Asano three times a week, but we cannot practice our own music then. My wife's parents have a studio in the basement of their company, but it is all concrete (which makes it quite loud), and there is a juku (cram school) right next door. We practice at the studio occasionally, but we always have to be careful about how long and how loud we practice.

Several months ago, I learned about another option. I asked a friend, who used to have a band, where bands in Japan practiced (or at least bands in Ishikawa) because you certainly could set up in your garage or basement here, since most houses don't have a basement, and garages are either too small, or merely a carport. She told me about a place here called Kanazawa Citizens Art Village, where they have several studios available to rent. I had been to the Art Village many times, but I didn't realize you could rent studios there. (When I say "studio", I actually mean large practice room) And it turns out that one of the studios even has four taiko to use. Here it is:

What's more, the price cannot be any better. For a two hour reservation, you only pay 315 yen. That's only about $3!

Since we learned of this option, we have been trying to line up our schedule so that we could go and see what it was like to practice there. Yesterday, about four months after we first learned of this option, we finally got everything to click just right, and were able to get in a good two hour practice from 7 - 9 in the morning. It was the first time we had a real chance to work through our first original piece, Raijin, which I wrote back in December. Before that, we hadn't really known what it would sound like on drums. (It sounds pretty good, by the way, and we are supposed to actually perform it for a small group of friends in a couple weeks)

This actually wasn't the first time we tried to practice at the studio at the art village. Last week we had a bit of free-time in the evening and the studio happened to be open, so we went to try it out. There was no one to watch our children, however, so we decided to take them with us and see if they could play quietly while we practiced for an hour or so. We packed up our drums (we brought our new shime taiko along) and brought some legos with us so they could play while we practiced. For the first 10 minutes or so, they were interested in playing the drums with us, then for about 5 minutes, they played with the legos, and after that it was constant whining, "I'm bored, I want to play outside, Can we go outside? I want to go home". Now a five year old (my daughter) is able to understand things like, "Mama and papa need to practice a little bit, can you just play by yourself for awhile?" But it is pointless to try and reason like that with a two year old (my son) who eventually just sat down and cried. In the end, I took the kids to play outside, while my wife practiced on her own for a half-hour or so. Needless to say, it was not a very productive practice, and we have decided that unless we can find a babysitter, there is not much point in trying to practice there.

But it is still a great discovery. We can practice there for minimal cost, without worrying about making too much noise, and I'm sure that we will be back in the near future... assuming we can find a babysitter.


New Drums

We were able to order a couple new drums over the past two months. Unfortunately, they are not Asano drums. They are only a tenth of the cost of Asano, but they do allow us to practice on or own, so for the time being, we are satisfied to use them. They are two shime taiko, the small, high pitched drums that one often sees being played in taiko groups. Here are a couple pictures of them. (At least the sticks are from Asano)

Actually, this puts us slightly ahead of our goals for buying drums this year, and there is only one more that we planned to buy before the end of 2008. So we have about six months to save up the money for that.


Taiko Practice and Sato Kensaku (佐藤健作)

Yesterday was a productive day from a taiko standpoint. I woke up early enough to go jogging. Unfortunately it's been too long since I have been running. I hope to get back into the habit of going three times a week, but we are just heading into the rainy season, which means nearly daily rain showers for a month or more. Not that a little rain will keep me from running, but if it is heavy, I likely won't go. At any rate, I pushed myself a but harder and ran all the way to the top of the "mountain" that I usually only run halfway up. (Read about my running route) It actually only added about 5 minutes onto my total time. It was good to go running, though, after not going for so long.

Yume Mitai has a small performance coming up at the start of July for Extasia promotion and for this, they added an extra rehearsal yesterday afternoon from 1 - 2:30. This was in addition to the Jigen practice we already had from 2:30 to 4. So altogether I was able to practice taiko for 3 hours yesterday. It felt good, but my fingers were starting to hurt by the time we finished. If we are lucky, we'll have an hour or so this afternoon to practice some of our own music.

On Friday evening, my wife was able to go and see a taiko concert. I was unable to go because of work. The concert was given by Kensaku Sato and Hono Taiko played one song (Mitsu Uchi) as a special guest. I had known about this concert for sometime because one of the other Odaiko players in the groups I play with is a big fan of Kensaku Sato, and he has been talking about the concert for about the last three months or so. Yesterday he was telling us a bit more about him. Apparently he had an Odaiko specially made (by Asano Taiko, of course) just for this tour, called The Fuji Tour (不二). Fuji is the name of the Odaiko. (Many particularly large Odaiko get their own names) Fuji is over 4 shaku, which means it is over 120 cm. You can get an idea of the size from the picture posted on his website. He also had Asano construct some sort of special stand for it as well. All together, it cost around $400,000. If the price was not surprising enough, we learned that once he completes this tour, he is going to "offer" the drum to Mt. Fuji. I don't know exactly what this involves, but we were relieved to hear that it would not be burned. After it is offered to Mt. Fuji, however, it will not be played again.


Two Birthdays

I forgot to bring my music to Yume Mitai practice yesterday. It wasn't a big deal, because I have most of it memorized, except for the brand new songs. On the other hand, it sort of was because there was also a piece of music that I was supposed to pass on to another member, who is in Jigen and Matto Bayashi with us as well. Since he is also in Matto Bayashi, and we practice on Tuesdays, I told him that I would bring it for him then (the next day), but he told me that he won't be at Matto Bayashi practice this week. Why? Because the whole company, or nearly the whole company, is traveling today to Mie prefecture to visit a famous shrine, Ise Jingu. They are going to this shrine to pray for blessings for a good year as they approach their 400th anniversary. You see, as of yesterday (June 2) Asano Taiko is 399 years old.

Do you know what this means? It means that our son was born on the same day that Asano Taiko was "born". No wonder he enjoys drums and taiko so much. The stars certainly seemed to be aligned in the right spots for him to be a taiko drummer. Anyhow, he is two years old (a bit younger than Asano Taiko) and for his birthday present we got him a Winnie the Pooh drumset. He seemed not quite sure what to make of it at first, but once he figured out what to do, we could barely pull him away from it.

I remember my dad had one of these kiddie drum sets and he used to get it out for us to play with sometimes on weekends. I can't be certain, but it must have been from when he was a kid, and I bet he still has it somewhere. Then I think my younger brother had one too (correct me if I'm wrong, Mark). I wonder if that one is still around somewhere. It is impressive that my dad's kiddie drumset was sturdy enough to still be available for us to play with when we were kids. Unfortunately, the use of plastic has significantly increased since the days when my pop was a child and I worry that this drumset will last until me son is 3. We'll just have to be careful. Anyway, here's a picture of him rockin' out with Pooh!


Promotional performance

A couple weeks ago, we went to a mall near our house, where Asano Taiko was doing a PR performance for the upcoming Extasia Taiko Festival on July 27th. The group performing is Sasuke, consisting of all junior high or high school age students. Earlier this spring, they took part in the All Japan Youth Taiko Competition as a representative of Ishikawa Prefecture, and they received an award (not the top prize, though). Furthermore, I just learned yesterday that they have been selected to compete in another national contest in Tokyo later this summer.


Shipping your taiko around the world

This past Tuesday, we had our Matto Bayashi practice as usual. Our practice area is called Asano-EX and it is a mile or two down the road from the main Asano Taiko buildings. It is also not available as a practice space to the general public, like the practice area (新響館)at the main building is. So it is where most of the Asano sponsored groups practice, like Matto Bayashi, Sasuke and even Hono Taiko. When we came in, there were many taiko near the doorway in cases and wrapped up as if they would be shipped off somewhere. I asked Yamada san (our teacher, and member of Hono Taiko) if Hono Taiko was going anywhere for a concert. She looked slightly confused and asked what I meant. I pointed towards the taiko in the doorway and she said, "Oh yes, we're going to Spain and Russia in July and August." July and August are quite a ways away. It is only the middle of May right now, but I realized that sending taiko, which are extremely heavy, by air would be outrageously expensive and sea and surface mail would be the only affordable option.

In fact, we had a similar conversation just last week with some other taiko friends of ours, Wadaiko Yamato, of Nara. Last week we had some business to take care of in Osaka, and since Nara is not that far from Osaka, we stopped by to visit them. It was one of the rare times when they were all present in Japan, instead of touring all over the world. (Last year, they were on tour for almost 11 months and I think they played something like 200 concerts) Anyway, I was also asking some of the members of Yamato how they moved their drums all around the world and coordinated between concerts in Europe, N. America and Japan. They, as well use sea and surface mail, sending their drums out two months ahead of them. But they also said they have about three sets of drums, because sometimes the times between tours is too short to get the drums from Europe to the US, for example. This amazed me when I thought of the cost involved. I recently researched the cost of Asano drums for the 12 - 15 drums that we would ideally like to have and the cost was over $100,000! Yamato certainly has more drums than 12 - 15 and what's more, they have 2 or 3 sets of them! Amazing.

At least this year's schedule is a little more relaxed in comparison with last years. They are based in Nara for the next 3 months or so, before they head back to Europe (?) for the fall. They have quite a nice facility, with a large practice area in the basement in their hometown of Asukamura, which is in the southern part of Nara Prefecture. It is surrounded by hills and rice fields and they even have a nice keyaki tree in front of the buidling. A keyaki tree is known as a Japanese Zelkova tree in English. Why is this significant? Because most taiko are made from keyaki wood. They said, maybe in 200 years or so, it will be big enough to make a taiko from it. I will write a little more about keyaki trees and Asano taiko another time. In the meantime, here are a couple pictures from our visit to Nara.

Here is a view of the hills surrounding their house.

and the keyaki (zelkova) tree in front.