Fukui Concert 1/2


Due a misunderstanding, no room was reserved for me the at the Fukui Central Hotel. I was lucky in that there still was one room available but unlucky in that it was a smoking room. I’m not sure when I last saw a smoking room in a European hotel, but in Japanese business hotels that is still very common.

If you follow this blog, you may remember that I had previously left Fukui without paying my hotel bill, and was quite worried about what to do. So I was a bit anxious of how this would turn out. And … of course it was no problem. The ママさん (mama-san) just laughed, and waved my apologies aside.

I can also report a minor linguistic victory: Yes, I managed to make myself understood, although my Japanese must be torture to a native speaker’s ears: Stay one more night, no problem. Swap to a non-smoking room for the following night, no problem. Get WiFi for my room, no problem. Understand the instructions of how to combine power socket, USB box and LAN cable – well it took some fiddling, but then all Informatics studying must have been of some use! High tech Japan meets oh-but-this-still-works Japan!

Kurumaya sensei and I had one more short rehearsal on the day before the tech rehearsal. Playing together got easier, showing again, that it is easiest to play together when you’re familiar with each other’s playing style.


As I had nothing to do the next morning, I had planned to get in some shakuhachi practice. But – as everywhere in Japan – it was impossible to find a rehearsal space, so Kurumaya sensei kindly offered that I practice upstairs in his dojo. This way, I finally got the experience of walking from 小和清水駅 (Kowashozu station) to the dojo, which will be very familiar to the participants of the international courses.

There were many fishermen in the 足羽川 (Asuwa river), which seems to be very popular in the fishing community. There were cars from as far as Kyoto or even Kyushu.

A downside of the picturesque location of Kurumaya-sensei’s dojo is it is the only place where I couldn’t get a connection with my fancy mobile data device. This is true 田舎 (inaka, countryside).

The preparations for the concert were on a whole different scale compared to what I am used to at home: We had a day and a half to set up for just one show. (Even when we played a full three week run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe we only had a few hours at the venue to set up.) And there were eight members of staff involved: a person for lighting, one for sound, organisation, more organisation and a few I couldn’t really figure out.

The concert venue was in the 風の森ホール (Kaze no mori Hall) in the building of the 福井新聞 (Fukui Newspaper). It has great acoustics: very nice natural reverberation, but not picking up every little movement like most concert halls. Ideal for shakuhachi. But, as always, these same characteristics make it problematic for taiko – lots of reverb results in a mushy sound and the many reflections make keeping time difficult.

As a consequence all drums were individually mic’ed, resulting in loose cables all across the stage. This made moving drums quite awkward, because the drums got caught easily in the cables. Luckily I didn’t have any drum moves. Whether that was because of my ‘special guest’ status or my difficulties communicating I don’t know.

I also noticed that there was considerably less equipment compared to a Mugenkyo show – it helps to only play one style. After the load in we spent most of the day with the soundcheck and then running the whole show with sound. (On the next day, we would run the show again, and then do a full rehearsal.)

For you taiko geeks out there: One interesting difference I noticed was the different style of spiking the stage: Instead of using two marks on either side or behind the drum, all marks were corners on the back right leg of the drum, using the same colour. The name of the piece was written on it and then it was sealed with clear tape.

Further geeking out: When I was supporting Kensaku Satou at the Fringe Festival in 2016, he used the same method of single colour plus name plus clear tape but used two spikes for each position. What do we learn from this? Use a system that works for you!

Tokara Concert 2/2

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.

Kariya Concert Curtain and Clock.jpg Continue reading

Tokara Concert 1/2

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

ATM Woes, Chichibu and Trailer Life

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).

Mt Bukoh from Seibu-Chichibu Continue reading

Kanazawa Show Visit

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.

Continue reading

Fukui Rehearsals

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

Kanazawa to Fukui

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

Malta to Kanazawa

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

Inaugural post

So … How to start this blog? Well, maybe by confessing that I’m a shakuhachi and taiko nut. A more proper way to phrase this would be: I am a shakuhachi shihan (master), teacher and performer (licensed by the KSK (Kokusai Shakuhachi Kenshukan – 国際尺八研修館; see here for KSK Europe), and I am a senior member of the Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers, Europe’s only fully professional taiko touring group.

Because I have been awared the first KSK Europe scholarship earlier this year, I will be living in Japan for three months, from July to September 2017, studying with my shakuhachi teacher Kaoru Kakizakai sensei. This seemed a good point to start a blog about my journey into taiko and shakuhachi. I do love both equally and cherish practising shakuhachi in solitude just as much as being on stage with my fellow taiko nutters and working up to the grand finale of a big show. Continue reading