Feel the Beat: The ‘Taiko’ Experience

Until recently, if someone asked me to compare ‘Taiko’ with another aspect of Japanese traditional culture, I wouldn’t have known where to start! I have to confess that I did not know much about Taiko at all until I took a class at Tohoku University (where I am studying as an exchange student). When anyone mentions Japanese culture, I automatically think of ‘Sado’ ( 茶道 chado) or ‘Noh’ which are Japanese symbols well-recognised around the world. However, the Taiko workshop was honestly the most interesting workshop that I have participated in until now.

“Taiko” generally refers to the art of Japanese drum ensemble, however the word also refers to the instrument itself. Literally, Taiko has a meaning as “big drum”, although there are actually several different types and sizes of Taiko drums. The art of Taiko ensembles has developed over the past fifty years or so with close to 8000 Taiko groups in Japan according to some statistics. Taiko is most famously known as the very first traditional Japanese music to be shared with the wider world.

We entered Aobayama campus’ gymnasium on the coldest Sunday. I looked around and it confused me a little bit why we had to use this room instead of a warmer room! I also wondered why, even though I was wearing socks and gloves, the Taiko performers were only wearing one thin gown and yet still looked really energetic. However, all confusion disappeared as soon as the music burst out of those special instruments.  The sound is very different to that of other instruments I have known, though we also have a similar type of drum in Vietnam. It made me excited to hear a combination of all kinds of drums.

That day we were lucky to enjoy three performances and one practice. Each performance left me with an indescribable feeling! First there was a performance with three big drums and six people. I was able to feel their concentration during the performance, with each drummer showing their power and synergy. Every movement had a specific order that they followed strictly. Even though the first performance was extremely attractive, the second one created an even more animated atmosphere. We saw many different instruments that were all played at the same time. The Taiko performers also danced and invited us to dance with them. After a few minutes of feeling shy, I subconsciously started moving my body with the rhythm. The performers warmed up the atmosphere in the room and made us feel an invisible connection between one another. I completely forgot the coldness I had to bear and enjoyed the most wonderful atmosphere I had ever experienced.

It looked quite hard to play the Taiko drums, and it was truly difficult to play them by myself! Even though the Taiko performers carefully taught us each action, it was still impossible to imitate them exactly. However, I was obsessed by the sound that they made for the Suzume Odori, and I hope to have another opportunity to play them again.

This was a precious chance to study more about not only Japanese culture but also Japanese history, by observing and experiencing the way Japanese people used to entertain eachother long ago.

After coming home, I couldn’t get the wonderful music of the Taiko performance out of my head! I decided that I should learn more about it and hopefully someday share my own experience with someone else who is interested!

In Sendai, I am pretty sure that there is at least one famous Taiko group belonging to Tohoku University. One of their annual activities is performing at the “Tanabata” festival , usually held at the beginning of August. Along with another volunteer group, they play and dance the “Suzume Odori” along “Jozenji” street. If you have a chance to travel to Sendai, please arrange your schedule to come to Sendai at this time so you too can enjoy the wonderful atmosphere and experience “Taiko” for yourself!

Japan is a place where each cultural characteristic can lead you to a new discovery, and make your love for this land grow more and more.

 

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