Sanaa Ali-Virani: Kitano Tenmangu Taiko

​In the fall of my sophomore year at Swarthmore College, I took a Taiko class for the first time and was immediately hooked. The following semester, I went on to join Swarthmore’s Taiko troupe. In Taiko, both the auditory and visual aspects of the performance are important, meaning that it makes physical as well as mental demands upon the body. I found that this combination energized me and heightened my concentration—something which I very much appreciated and that I was loath to give up upon deciding to study abroad. Luckily, KCJS has a long-standing relationship with a Taiko Association sponsored by Kitano Tenmangu (a large shrine not too far away from Doshisha University). When it came time for us to choose our Community Involvement Project (CIP) placements, I knew immediately that I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to continue practicing Taiko and hopefully improve my skill level.

​The first time I went to Kitano Tenmangu for Taiko practice, the other KCJS students and I were very nervous. We arrived half an hour early and ended up sitting awkwardly in the practice room and making stilted conversation with the Taiko Association teacher. Later, I found out that he was quite personable and relatively approachable, but at the time he seemed very intimidating to talk to. I think a lot of that had to do with our own nervousness. Nervousness is probably unavoidable in those sorts of situations, but I would just recommend trying to interact with the people at your CIP as much as possible. Hopefully interacting with them and gaining a sense of familiarity will help ease that nervousness as fast as possible.Now, as I approach the end of my time as a member of the Taiko Association, I do feel as though I have developed a rapport with some of the Japanese members. The children, in particular, are happy to talk and joke around (especially if the topic in question is Pokemon) now that they have gotten used to me. The adults, while always incredibly welcoming, are more difficult to get to know, but taking advantage of the relaxed atmosphere of group dinners is a good way to do so. I would recommend always taking part in group dinners if you at all have the time.

Having been involved in Taiko groups both in my home institution and in Japan, I have noticed several differences in the ways in which they run. That is not to say that American Taiko groups function in a certain way and Japanese Taiko groups function in some other way. Rather, Swarthmore’s Taiko troupe functions in a very different way than Kitano Tenmangu’s Taiko Association and, as it is possible that future students may be coming from a Taiko group similar to Swarthmore’s, I feel that it may be of some value to share the differences I have noted. First, the Taiko Association here is significantly larger than the troupe I was a part of back home. During the semester I was involved in Swarthmore’s Taiko troupe, there were seven members (including the teacher) and only five of the seven were full-time members. However, Kitano Tenmangu’s Taiko Association has forty members on paper and about twenty-five or so will show up to a given practice or performance. In addition, unlike a college troupe, the Taiko Association includes members as young as eight and as old as around forty-five. By far the most difficult aspect of the Taiko Association to get used to was the fact that there are very few practices compared to performances. Swarthmore’s Taiko troupe practices for three hours a week every week throughout the semester and then performs once or twice. In contrast, during the semester I participated in the Taiko Association, there were only two practices. On the other hand, there were performances almost every week. While this made for many opportunities to perform, I was a bit frustrated by the lack of opportunities to learn the songs so that we could perform. However, despite the lack of formal practice sessions, we did manage to learn one of the songs well enough to perform during the shrine’s annual foliage season. One the other hand, precisely because there were few practices, I fear it would have been next to impossible for someone without any Taiko experience to both learn the basics of Taiko and pick up the rhythms of one or two songs on the fly. Two KCJS students who did not have Taiko experience participated in one or two of the Taiko Association events before deciding to switch CIP placements. To be honest, I would have done the same in their position. For any beginners who are interested in pursuing Taiko with the Kitano Tenmangu Taiko Association, I would recommend figuring out how frequently they plan to hold practices as early as possible and making your final decision based on this information. In the end, joining the Kitano Tenmangu Taiko association has been a very fruitful experience for me, both in terms of Taiko practice and in terms of the inter-personal relationships built. Nevertheless, I think that CIP experiences vary greatly depending on the individual person, their interests, and their personality. As such, while hearing about others’ experiences is always helpful, I would recommend allowing what you know about yourself to lead you in making your CIP decision.

2 thoughts on “Sanaa Ali-Virani: Kitano Tenmangu Taiko

  1. Wow. I’ve never done Taiko before, but I’ve seen some of the videos (mostly the videos you showed me, actually), and I’m amazed that you could pick up one of the songs in two practices. It must have been exciting getting to perform for real at the shrine, if a bit nerve-wracking. Was it hard trying to coordinate a troop with that many people? I can’t imagine figuring out how to get eight year-olds to rehearse with forty five year-olds. Was it ever a little chaotic?

  2. That’s very kind of you to say, but the one I managed to learn was much simpler than the ones in the videos I showed you. Plus, I got to see it performed a couple of times as well. And even then it was a bit shakey, but I think I finally got it half-way through the third performance ;).
    To be honest, I never really noticed any chaos! I know, I’m pretty impressed myself, but the kids who were there are very into Taiko (and much better at it than me) and so don’t need much encouragement to practice. There were a couple of times when they kind of disappeared during set-up and clean-up, but I can’t really blame them since the drums are a bit too heavy for them to really help anyway. I think the difficulty in coordinating the group probably comes from trying to figure out who’s coming to what performance and making sure enough people show up to round out the numbers.