In the past month I have started to play taiko at Kitanotenmangu shrine. Taiko practices and gatherings have been the highlights of my time here in Kyoto so far. All of the members are Japanese and don`t speak any English so it is a great opportunity for me to improve my Japanese, learn more about the cultural customs, and interact with more Japanese people in a social setting. The members consist of mostly middle-aged men and women and their children. Spending time with a group of people ranging from 5-50 years old has really made me understand the stratification of Japanese communication. For example, when our teacher speaks to his 10 year old daughter he uses casual form and is very expressive in his tone. However, when he speaks to the supervising monks at the temple, he immediately switches to keigo and often bows throughout the conversation. One thing that I was surprised at was how quickly the other members came to use casual with me. I noticed this more with the female members and young children. The taiko teacher’s wife even began calling me Julia-chan. I thought it would take a while to break down social barriers and speak as friends, but after one lesson they invited me to a dinner party and welcomed me in with open arms. The group teacher’s wife added me as a friend on Facebook and showed me videos of her daughter dancing. I sat by her the whole night and we chatted about taiko, school, her daughter and the drunk people around us. At the party, everyone drank and laughed and spoke very informally to each other while joking around. I felt so lucky to be included in the group and treated as a fellow member.
One cultural difference I noticed was the social involvement of the monks at the shrine. When I see the head monk at the shrine during practice, he is always dressed in traditional garb and is always nice but extremely formal. At the party, he came dressed in a western suit and joined in all the festivities. When people got particularly rowdy or drunk instead of sternly lecturing them, he would tease them and speak informally to them. I was surprised that the monk interacted with us so freely in a social setting. I was so happy to talk to him and get to know him over nice sake and good food.
It seems that joining the taiko group has been a great experience to learn about Japanese culture, as well as insight on how a Japanese community may be like.
Are you the first international student that they have let join their group?
Other than joining events which included food, were you ever invited by any of the members to ‘hangout’ or to go to any exhibition/performances with them?
No, I know that another KCJS student practiced with the same group last year. This year, Yeuting, Melody and I all go to taiko together. I’ve only had the opportunity to hangout with them once at the party. However, every week after practice we have announcements and share delicious wagashi provided by the temple. So much mochi and chocolate.
It sounds like taiko has been a very good social experience! Especially for interacting with people of different ages.
Have you ever spoken to the monk yourself? Also, do you know how long your teacher has been doing taiko at that temple and maybe how long he has known the monks there? I wonder if their language changes as their personal relationship changes, despite the difference in their societal roles.
Yes, I have. He’s been so kind to me both at in practice and outside of practice. I’m not sure how long my teacher has been teaching there. That would be very interesting to find out. I’m sure that the nature and length of their relationship has an effect on their language.