Onēsan at Last

Tuesday, March 10th, 2009 by Steph

The honorific おねえさん (older sister) was first bestowed on me by the kids in my taiko group simply as a consequence of my age: I’m considerably older than they are, but not quite as old as their parents. My first two years here in Noshiro, I taught practically all of them, and Onēsan seemed like a convenient enough title when we were going about our business in taiko rehearsal.

This year, however, I was relocated to a bunch of new schools, and I now no longer teach any of my taiko kids. This has had some unexpectedly delightful side effects, as I’m now free to act more like a sister and less like an authority figure.

Last weekend we all attended a 2-day taiko workshop. At the evening’s enkai,  I finally felt the taiko kids fully embrace the title of おねえさん and all of the responsibilities that it entails. All you older siblings out there know the drill, but I’ll break down my role for the rest of you.

Being おねえさん means:

  • issuing orders and having them carried out. In this case it meant getting an unusually bossy 10-year old to go and fetch a rag to clean up my drink, which she spilled while exhibiting excessive exuberance. The miracle is that she complied immediately and without complaint.
  • allowing fingers to be dipped in beer foam. Foam swiping is all good fun (who doesn’t like a finger or two in their drink?), but the problem was that this then escalated to whining and pleading for beer. When I looked to their usually no-nonsense mother for help, we found her curled up in a corner next to a friend giving us a hopeful and encouraging “thumbs up” sign.
  • making sure that one of the kids keeps my glass full of beer at all times during the enkai. I left this somber and sacred duty to the 14-year old to my left.
  • wiping up spilled alcohol with the children’s socks that litter the floor. This is an excellent alternative which is readily at hand, in case those rags are just too far away.

and, of course, just generally inciting them to silliness.

Other pieces of information gleaned from the taiko workshop include:

  • A time-tested method for finding an enkai’s after-party, which is this: Wander the halls of the hotel which houses all of you, listen for the loudest room, and burst in with a full bottle of JINRO to join the party. I know this because that’s how the TWO roving bands of drunken Japanese taiko players found my modest post-party. By the end of the night, my small two person room contained 9 drunken men (some of whom had to be extricated by force) and one set of bongo drums.
  • How to drum for two days straight with a broken rib, as demonstrated by one participant from Kamikoani. Taiko people are hard core.
  • The first hard evidence I’ve seen in Japan of the global meltdown: enrollment in the workshop was visibly down from last year.

And, lest you think that taiko workshops are all about drinking beer and mistreating children, here’s the new piece we learned in 8 hours:

I Can’t Hear You

Friday, March 14th, 2008 by Chris

As you surely know if you follow us religiously (and who doesn’t?), Steph and I have been playing with Noshiro Belabo Taiko,* a local drumming group, since last summer. We’ve had a few performances around town, and have gradually gotten better as we settle into the physically demanding technique that this activity entails. But as much fun as we have had, I don’t think anyone would describe us as “hard core.”

Well that all changed last weekend, when we attended a two-day taiko workshop on the nearby Oga peninsula. This is a yearly event put together by Akita-area taiko groups, where master senseis come and impart their wisdom to us regular Joes.

Most of Belabo attended, including all three of us foreigners (Frank, Steph and me), and we were happy to see a few other JETs from around the prefecture as well.

There were a variety of courses to choose from. Being the manly men that we are, Frank and I chose the ?daiko (???, literally “big drum”) course. We even went so far as to purchase the biggest sticks we could find for $25. This course consisted of seven guys and the teeny instructor (Go sensei, who I believe was 27 years old) who whipped our asses into shape. After the first day’s three-hour session, I had more blisters in a smaller area than I had ever known possible. Fortunately the second day (and four more hours) didn’t make them much worse, thanks to some strategic taping.

Steph took the “new song” course, which is the general one for experienced players who don’t need to develop any particular skills. Since most of the people attending the weekend are experienced players, “new song” was by far the biggest course with around 85 people.

At the end of the first day, everyone (about 130 people altogether, as Go sensei gleefully kept reminding us we’d be performing in front of) gathered at the conference hotel and got together for a giant dinner and drumming party. A huge tatami room was lined with four rows of exquisitely apportioned individual dinner tables, complete with every kind of gross seafood you could ever not want to eat. After the food was out of the way, the room was cleared and a rollicking drum party commenced. I hope there weren’t any other guests in the hotel because this was one seriously loud party. (I love a country where you can even have drumming conventions in a room with paper walls.) Each visiting taiko group got to get up and play a piece, and there were even a few widely-known pieces where everyone who knew it was able to get up and play whatever drum was available. At the end of the night, a spontaneous pulsing beat started up and everyone was either dancing or drumming. It was probably the most fun I’ve had in Japan.

We all dreaded the second day, with our bleeding hands and sore muscles. Fortunately it was less painful than I had feared, and Sunday afternoon closed up with a fun performance where all the classes showed off all the fancy skills they had acquired over the weekend. The ?daiko performance was a big hit (am I right, ladies? <wink>) and the 85-person new song was amazing. If you ever get the chance to see 85 people beating the crap out of some big drums, don’t pass it up. Here is a postage-stamp-sized video (starting with Steph at the very beginning!) taken with my cell phone from the second floor:

New Song

Although the pain and fatigue were intense in the course of the workshop, we had a huge amount of fun and are excited for next year. Perhaps then I’ll take a decent camera and get some better pictures and videos.


* If you follow that link, there is a (very bad) picture of us on the front page! It’s our first performance after we had been playing for all of two weeks. ?