I think many taiko players around the world must dream from time to time about what it might be like. Taking the big leap. Dropping everything, quitting your job, getting on a plane to Tokyo, hunting down a legendary taiko guru deep in a bamboo forest on a remote mountain, and wholeheartedly devoting yourself to mastering taiko; living, training, reshaping yourself in Japan.
There is something captivating, inspiring, even adventurous about the idea of learning taiko in Japan. Discovering the true origins of the art form, experiencing its traditions firsthand, maybe training in a communal setting like the members of Kodo or Ondekoza, or perhaps apprenticing with a master of a particular style…all in the midst of an exotic, vibrant, mysterious culture.
But…would you ever take the leap?
What is it actually like to study taiko in Japan? To live in Japan? Who actually drops everything to start a new life in a foreign country…for the sake of learning taiko? What about a career, or family and friends? What if you don’t know Japanese? Could you even find a taiko group there? One that would let a foreigner learn from them?
I used to have those questions, and I used to be inspired by that crazy dream, too. And for the last four years, I’ve been living it.
My taiko story started off like many players’ around the world. I was introduced to taiko in college back in the U.S., while studying (Western) music theory and composition and joined my school’s group, St. Olaf Taiko, as a charter member. After graduating, I moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota to start a job at a music software company, and as soon as I could, I enrolled in classes with Mu Daiko, a mainstay group in the Midwest region. After a year of apprenticing, I eventually became a member of the core performing group, all the while devoting more and more of my time and energy to learning, performing, and composing music for taiko.
Like many before me, it didn’t take long for me to realize that taiko had become much more than just a hobby for me, and that I was feeling a burning desire to “go deep,” as a wise taiko player once put it to me, into this world.
When I decided that I was ready to quit my job of two and a half years, leave my family and friends, and the wonderful taiko group I grew so much with, and move to Japan, I have to be clear it wasn’t only because of taiko. I had a passion for teaching that I wanted to explore through Teaching English as a Foreign Language (I’d studied it before coming), I had always wanted to live abroad, and I was ready for the change in my life. But without that dream of having the chance to study taiko in Japan, it wouldn’t have happened.
But coming is just the beginning. Seeking out groups and actually studying taiko here, in the midst of becoming a part of my local communities, trying to become a better teacher, struggling to learn Japanese, traveling all around Japan and Asia, and challenging myself in more ways than I ever thought I could, has made my time here exactly the kind of adventure I’d always dreamed about.
In my next two articles in this series I will share my experiences finding, learning with, and becoming a part of the groups I’ve been studying with here—I’ve studied with both a matsuri-bayashi group in rural Tochigi Prefecture as well as Kiyonari Tosha-sensei’s Nihon Taiko Dojo in Tokyo, both at the same time—as well as why discovering the context around taiko here has been just as important to me as playing drums. I hope reading about my experiences might be helpful to you if you too have been dreaming about what it might be like to learn taiko here in Japan.