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.