Katie Saibara: Taiko

One of the reasons I chose to come to KCJS was the CIP program and the opportunity to further immerse myself into Japanese society that it offers. As a member of my home institution’s taiko drumming club, I knew that I wanted to pursue taiko as my CIP. This semester, along with two other KCJS students, I have been participating in the Kitanotenmangu Taiko Association. Though previous taiko experience is not a prerequisite, it is definitely very valuable; for those who do not have previous experience, I would not recommend this CIP.

Unfortunately, due to scheduling conflicts and lack of practice time, I have not been able to integrate as fully as I would like into the taiko association.  Because the practices are few and far between (there have been only two this semester), there is little opportunity not only to learn taiko but also to get to know the other members. Unlike with many student groups, there are no nomikai at which to bond and speak casually. Most of my interaction with the taiko association members has been limited to simple instructions (often given in English) and small talk (for instance, “the momiji is very pretty, isn’t it?”). There is also unfortunately little time before or after practices and performances in which to converse.

The practices are also regimented in such a way as to not provide much time for conversation. The members will roll in individually and after setting up the drums together the leader will typically give a few announcements. Practice usually consists of running through each song in the repertoire once or twice after which everyone (men, women, and children) will assist in putting away the drums. After that, everyone will gather in a circle for more announcements and information regarding upcoming performances. One time, in order to share that he had received a coveted promotion, one of the taiko association members used extremely humble, keigo speech. This was surprising to me as before I had thought of the taiko association as an informal group in which most of the members had known each other for a long time. After this episode, however, I began to realize that when discussing plans and logistical information in regards to taiko, the members always used polite (albeit not as polite as keigo) speech. Whether this is simply a cultural custom or to show their respect for taiko and their activities, I cannot be sure.  When eating dinner together after performances the members will use casual speech when speaking amongst themselves and to us.

But despite the lack of regular contact and difficulty in learning all of their pieces without practicing, the Taiko association has proved to be a welcoming group. As a collegiate player in the U.S., my previous exposure to taiko had led me to view it as a serious musical and performing art led by professionals who have honed their skills over decades of intensive study and practice. The Kitanotenmangu taiko group is quite different. Though they do take on professional gigs, taiko is not the full time profession of any of its members. Yet, in practice, performances, and simply in eating dinner together, their love of taiko and happiness at being able to do what they enjoy is clearly evident despite the language barrier and skill disparity. Before I leave Kyoto, I hope to be able to participate in a performance and be able to bring back what I’ve learned about the taiko community to my college taiko club.

3 thoughts on “Katie Saibara: Taiko

  1. It certainly seems frustrating not having regular interaction and contact with other members. The Taiko Club seems to have been less interactive and more focused on the Taiko performance.

    So you say you have an experience in Taiko! That is great. What do you specifically like about Taiko, and how did you develop your interest in it?

    • Well…I actually didn’t have much of an interest in Taiko before I went to college but during my first semester, I saw Wellesley’s taiko club perform and decided to give it a try. Though I’m really not very good at it, I’ve found that it’s a nice outlet (especially for stress relieving purposes) and I’ve met many amazing Taiko professionals who inspire me daily. Seeing a live Taiko performance by people who can play well is an experience like nothing else in the world! So powerful and thrilling…But more than just the actual music, Taiko is about camaraderie with the people you’re playing with and indeed, I’ve made many of my best friends at school through Taiko.

      Have you every thought of trying Taiko at Wesleyan? I hear its intense (but phenomenal)!

  2. I originally wanted to join you guys over at Kitanotenmangu, but the skill barier you mentioned was definitely an issue. It is unfortunate that it was organized in such a way to make it difficult for newcomers. However, you seem to have made the best of an unfavorable situation. Is there anything about the Kitanotenmangu group (such as playing techniques, songs, group structure etc.) that you have thought about bringing back to the states?