The first thing that struck me at the concert, was the precision: Doors open at 2:00. Exactly. 2:25: the usual announcement (from what I could make out). Exactly. Show start: 2:30. Exactly. Tokara starts at 3:00; interval at 3:15. Interval 10 minutes; after 5 minutes the bell rings. Exactly, exactly exactly. Only for the encore everybody allowed themselves some more time. Let’s just say, this is not the Mugenkyo way … But it’s one of those moments where I feel at home in Japan. And: There is a clock next to the stage and visible throughout the performance. Just to make sure, I guess.
One of my major aims for this stay in Japan is finding ways to combine taiko and shakuhachi. Even though they are rarely used together, some groups have done it, and one of them is Wadaiko Tokara, who have a longstanding collaboration with Ensemble Liberta (shakuhachi, koto, double base and keyboard). I first saw them performing together at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2011, and the shakuhachi in particular had made quite an impression on me.
They were again performing together on 16 July in Kariya near Nagoya. Although that is quite far from Chichibu, I had my JR Rail Pass, which made the decision to go easy. I was a long day, though: I took an early train at 6 am and, thanks to Art and Yukari dropping me off at a station in Kariya, I just made the last train back. Continue reading
During the first days in Chichibu, the taiko teams were preparing for a small festival on the 20th (when I was due back in Fukui), so when walking around in the evening I could see the teams practicing (except one – the doors were closed). I’m also trying to keep up a more or less regular running regime, and this way I think I spotted all 6 of the teams, including the ones outside the city centre. Yes, running in this humidity takes getting used to: there’s double the sweat, half the distances and slow times.
On the Monday after the last Fukui rehearsal I finally travelled to Chichibu. But of course it wasn’t as easy as that. I had to take the train at 5:30am, because I hadn’t realised that only special ticket offices exchange vouchers for the JR Rail Pass. Fukui is not one of then, so I had to schedule extra time in Kanazawa.
However, I had not yet paid the hotel. After a spontaneous dinner on Sunday night with Wendel Broere, who had come to watch the rehearsal, there was nobody at the hotel reception. And I didn’t have enough cash. And – a common trap for Japan visitors – no ATM accepting foreign cards was open. Yes, I walked around central Fukui for an hour trying to find one. So, I either had to leave without paying or change my plans at 1am. In the end I came up with the – in my mind ingenious – solution of writing a note in my best hiragana (and with the help of some translation technology) giving my apologies and card number. Of course that didn’t work, because without the PIN the card couldn’t be charged. To be continued …
Chichibu is a small town in the mountains at the foot of Mt. Bukoh with a population of about 60,000. In the taiko world it is obviously famous for its 夜祭 (Yomatsuri, Night Festival), but this is actually only one, albeit biggest, of a large number of festivals and ceremonies. Chichibu is the home to 34 Buddhist temples, which constitute a pilgrimage route, the Chichibu 34 Kannon Sanctuary (秩父三十四箇所, Chichibu Sanjūyon-kasho).
On the Saturday Kurumaya sensei, Yokota san and Nishide san of Wadaiko Za Miyama took me to see a show in Kanazawa. I had no idea of what to expect.
The journey to Kanazawa takes about 45 minutes by train or car. But that’s not travelling Kurumaya style. Because we stopped every 20km to take a break, get out, go to the toilet and visit the konbini. Or visit a café. A special one, of course. You see, there is a café chain here (Yutori) that has very spacious seating. And there was one roughly on the way to Kanazawa. I’m saying roughly, because it us about 20 minutes and some detours to get there. But I’m not really complaining – this way we got something to eat before the show!
This is what I figured out happened that day. The venue was a traditional Japanese theatre called 金沢おぐら座 (Kanazawa Oguraza). The troupe was 劇団大川 (Gekidan Ogawa). The show was … I’m still not sure. There were three parts. The first was an improvised comedic theatre performance of which I maybe understood two percent. After a break there was singing. After another break there was advertising of more Oguraza shows, including a discount ticket sale and a sale of flower garlands, which audience members could put round the necks of the performers in the last round of singing and and dancing.
Once I had arrived we dropped off my big suitcase in the Fukui Central Hotel, famous among taiko visitors to Fukui and infamous for low door frames. Then Kurumaya sensei took me to his dojo to start with a first two person rehearsal. I think he needed to make sure I really could play shakuhachi. Of course, we had never played together, so he was taking a gamble in inviting me, relying just on Mugekyo’s reputation. Later that day he said 「安心です」 (I’m relieved).
After lunch in his favourite restaurant (also famous among dojo visitors) we playing some Fukui style with members of Wadaiko Za Miyama (和太鼓座美山), the group playing at the concert. For me this took a bit getting used to. Even though we are playing Fukui style at home, there are slight differences, eg here the mitsu uchi (三つ打ち) has a slightly stronger headbeat than I am used to. Continue reading
After quickly packing my things and rushing to the lobby I had to figure out a way to contact Kurumaya sensei, who had already been waiting for me at Fukui station for more than half an hour. Because my UK phone company had told me that I couldn’t make any phone calls in Japan, I tried to call Kurumaya sensei from reception, but the receptionist apparently entered the wrong number. It took me a while until I understood that I wasn’t speaking to Kurumaya sensei at all but some random local person. Poor man – I don’t think he spoke any English and my Japanese is atrocious at the best of times (incomprehensible otherwise). As it turns out I can call mobile numbers here after all, so 1 minute later (and £4 the poorer) a haphazard mashup of English and Japanese on both sides worked to let Kurumaya sensei know what had happened. Continue reading
My plan was to start lessons with Kaki sensei in Chichibu as soon as possible. However, Kurumaya sensei (Neil and Miyuki’s teacher, hence my ‘grand-teacher’) invited me to perform in his concert on 21 July in the Fukui Newspaper Wind Forest Hall (福井新聞風森ホール). That’s an big honour of course, but the question arose: what about rehearsing?
So there were some hectic and lengthy phone calls from the breakfast table in Malta to Kurumaya sensei. Luckily Miyuki was there and – as always! – offered her tireless help in coming up with a workable plan. In the end, I had to be in Fukui on 6 to 9 July for rehearsals, go to Chichibu after that and return on the 19th for the concert. Continue reading
To answer some important questions first:
- No, I didn’t eat a rabbit burger, I was too busy eating delicious Maltese/Italian pizza before living mostly off rice and fish for the next months.
- Yes, there are many stray cats on Malta, very skilled at relaxing and getting food of tourists (especially Fi).
- Yes, Malta is very busy and the buses are often overcrowded.
- Yes, in the times of the looming gloomy Brexit it was nice to see so many EU flags everywhere. (Malta, the smallest EU member state, just finished its EU presidency at the end of June.)
- Yes, the view from the hotel room was spectacular.
Rather than going to Japan directly, I went to Malta first to play a concert with Mugenkyo at the International Malta Arts Festival. We were booked to play a full concert, so had to take a lot of equipment. Unsurprisingly, the most difficult challenge to playing taiko abroad, in particular as we are based on an island, is transporting the drums. After plans to take the van turned out to be unrealistic, because of the distance and the number of ferries needed, the decision was to optimise the amount of equipment and fly – not an easy task for a full show.
While it is still quite straightforward to take nagados as checked luggage, transporting an odaiko on a plane is nearly impossible, not so much because of the size but because of the standard maximum weight of 32kg. So, for the concert in Malta, taiko maker Dave Samuels from Arran modified one of our existing odaiko to make it fit for purpose. Which means: we now have an odaiko for going abroad!