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.