by Yuta Kato
Coming back to my tiny dorm room in Tokyo, I receive a phone call from a taiko friend that lives in New York, Hideaki. The conversation goes something like this, “Hey Yuta! Hitomi and I are visiting Japan for a bit. We’re planning on going to Hachijo since we made friends with some of the folks there, you wanna come?”
“Sure, when are you going?” I ask.
“This weekend, they have a festival going on, get your ferry tickets.”
Up until now, the encounters with Hachijo-Daiko had been limited to a few performances I’d seen growing up as a taiko-kid and one beautifully demonstrated by Chieko Kojima at a Kodo concert. Although I had been impressed with the style, I never felt inclined to know more about it, it just wasn’t for me. But I take this sudden (and quite random) opportunity to do some research. I find that Hachijo-daiko is a completely improvisational two-person-one-taiko style, influenced by the outcasts that were sent away from Tokyo during the Edo period – often political activists of the educated samurai class. Legend has it, when taken away their swords the samurai picked up bachi and used taiko as a means of martial art, recreation, and artistic expression. That is why to this day, Hachijo-daiko is geared towards the community, allowing people of all ages and gender to perform in any occasion. Comparing it to the many taiko traditions that only allowed youthful males to perform at festivals associated with gods and rituals, the style all of a sudden strikes my interest.
The event is Gousha no Omatsuri, a festival that places taiko and players on the back of mini-trucks, making sure that the sound of the drum never ceases as the vehicles makes its way throughout the whole of the island (26.8 sq/miles).
Amazing drummers with grace and power, along with simple yet tasty foods and party after party…the weekend ends with a farewell party that the group, Getsuyoukai organizes for us visitors. As the party nears its end, Takashi, the leader of Getsuyoukai asks all of the guests to say something about their experience on Hachijo. As each guest eloquently speaks of their touching taiko-experiences from the weekend, I sit there nervously awaiting my turn, not knowing what to say. Within moments though, the cue is given “hai, Yuta-kun.”
What I blurt out in the next few seconds will even surprises me…
“Can I come back again? for longer? I have one-whole-unplanned month before I fly back to the US after my schooling, can I spend that month here?”
Suddenly, a man who appears to be in his late 50’s raises his hand and says, “Sure, come over. I’ll take care of you, and if you need a job, I’ll find one for you.” I remember him. Mr. Sakurai, a left-handed taiko awesomeness with the sweetest aura.
My long awaited Summer break arrives, and I board the same ferry as I did 9 months before, only this time it’s hot. Mr. Sakurai is waiting for me at the dock and in no time I am introduced to my employer of the hotel that I am to work at as the laundryman. I situate myself in the ancient, spooky dorm room with no air conditioning for employees and start work right away alongside Mr. Sakurai, washing, ringing out, drying, and ironing all of the hotel towels and sheets. The job is a laborious sweaty ordeal, but is filled with Hachijo folk song practice and smoke breaks of meaningful talks. At 5pm everyday, we’d finish our duties, separate for a bit to take our respective dinners, and meet up again at 6:30 for Mr. Sakurai to take me to a taiko practice. Every day of the week, someone was practicing, somewhere on the island. Such heavenly times continue for 30 days straight.
On my last weekend on the island, the local town holds its Summer festival on the playground of Ookagou Elementary School. Although playing different roles during the day, by this time I recognize many faces working at the festival. Mr. Sakurai is in charge of putting up lanterns, so I help, and merge myself into the warm night filled with food, kids, grandparents, dancing, and of course, taiko.
Tonight, Mr. Sakurai’s wife, Yoko is here. She had supposedly started practicing taiko a month prior to my arrival, and wanted to seize the low-pressure opportunity to play in public. She takes turns with her husband playing the shitauchi (backbeat) and the uwauchi (improvisational solo).
It is apparent that Yoko is a beginner. Her hits produce barely any sound, timing a bit shaky, and still unconfident about the beats she wants to create. What attracts my attention though is not Yoko, but what is happening on the other side or the drum. As mentioned before, Mr. Sakurai is an awesome taiko player. But when playing uwauchi for his wife, he would simplify his beats, tone down his volume, and make sure that she is able to practice her shitauchi. And when playing the shitauchi for her, he keeps the volume low as to not over power her soloing, yet you can see his unwavering strength hidden deep down. All I can hear from his steady and warm strikes are “You can do it, you can do it, I’m here for you, I’m here for you, you can do it…I love you.”
At the end of trading solos, Mr. Sakurai pats Yoko on her back, “good job,” and with a smile like a little girl, she shrugs, and together they sit down on a bench meant for school kids to observe the rest of the festivities unfold.
I didn’t know that taiko, an artform often associated with manliness, youthfulness, strength, and sometimes even aggression, could be so subtle, warm, and romantic.
On my last night, yet again a farewell party is planned by Getsuyoukai for my departure. After many drinks, tasty foods, taiko, songs, and cheers, Takashi sits the crowd down and asks each of the members to give parting words. Mr. Sakurai is last.
“So, in Japan we have this thing called gankake, where someone gives up a vice to wish for something special. I’ve been smoking now for many many years. This cigarette will be my last so that Yuta becomes the taiko professional that he dreams of becoming.” With a serious look on his face, he puts out his last cigarette.
I go on tour as a performing member for a professional taiko group based in Los Angeles, California. Although struggling at times to make ends meet, I fulfill my dream as a professional taiko player.
Our group travels to Japan to compete in the International Taiko Contest. I fly to Hachijo right after the contest to tell Mr. Sakurai, “I did it! Thanks to your gankake I am now living my dream. We even placed first at the contest!”
The smile on his face gives justice to any struggle associated with being a young starving taiko player.
Although content with my taiko career in the U.S., I decide to follow my heart and change plans to become a student of taiko once again.
Destination: Tokyo, Japan.
In the midst of my studies in Tokyo, I face a dilemma of continuing on to Sado Island as an apprentice for Kodo, or going to Hachijo to live a life of an islander. I consult a respectable friend in the industry, and she strongly pushes for the latter option.
I take her recommendation to heart.
With suitcase in hand, I aboard the ferry to start my new life as a Hachijo islander. I rent a $450 apartment and find a job as a baker at the deli of Hachijo’s biggest supermarket.
A typical day on Hachijo looks like this:
5:30 – Wake up
6:30-12:30 – Work at the bakery
12:30-13:00 – go free diving
13:00-13:15 – eat lunch
13:15-13:30 – wash up and get back to work
13:30-16:30 – work at the bakery
16:30-18:30 – cook and eat dinner
19:00-21:30 – go to taiko practice
22:00-23:00 – do emails, drink beer and/or shochu
23:00 – sleep
Halfway through my 14-month Hachijo life, my job switches over to working on a farm with Takashi. During my off days, my times are spent surfing, diving and relaxing in one of their amazing onsens (hot spring baths), while the alcohol intake increases tri-fold as we sing and play taiko at the local bars through the night.
I am in heaven.
I fly to Barcelona, Spain to assist one the most distinguished and beautiful taiko players of our time, Chieko Kojima. My experience in Hachijo-daiko plays a key role in giving me this wonderful opportunity.
When I think about accompanying that beautiful dancer in the video of Kodo I saw as a kid in the early 90’s, it’s hard for me to find the right words to say…
But all summed up, the experience to play alongside Chieko Kojima, priceless.
Connections and dumb luck would have it that I become responsible in heading a taiko school at one of the world’s most amazing taiko facilities in Los Angeles, California. I know I am living my dream; waking up walking into a huge sound-proofed room surrounded by all the Asano Taiko drums that I would ever need. But as a startup company, life isn’t always easy. When you have to administrate, practice, and are required to teach 10+ classes per week, taiko isn’t all about just fun anymore. There are mornings that I wake up sighing, thinking to myself, “what am I doing?” And when business and curriculums don’t run as planned, situations can get depressing. When the hardest of times come to haunt me in the middle of the night, I am reminded of that one magical night on Hachijo. The night that gave me a glimpse of what taiko is capable of doing for people. This simple concept reminds me constantly that taiko is for the people, and inspires me to work hard in making sure that it is available for any person that shows even the slightest interest.
Hachijo’s population is dwindling. Currently at a little over 8,000, 15-20% of the inhabitants have left or passed away since I was first there in 2001 (I was told there were 10,000 people back then).
The biggest reason for this situation is that there are no colleges on the island. With Japan having the 4th highest college graduation rate in the world, there is not much choice for high school graduates but to fly to Tokyo to receive their higher education. With admiration built up from TV shows, movies, celebrities, fashion trends, and the news all talking of Tokyo, Tokyo, Tokyo, there’s no wonder why most people never come back to the island.
Although this may be the natural flow and trend of our current culture, it’s saddening when I see folks that don’t understand all the beautiful things the island and its history has to offer.
As an outsider with a perspective that allows me to see such things, I’ve decided to make it my job to opportune others like me to experience the magic of Hachijo-daiko. My hope is that they’d eventually visit the island. I imagine a day when the islanders will be connected to friends internationally, kids inspired to do well in their mandatory English class to communicate better with friends, and for all Hachijo-raised college students to speak of their home with pride.
If you come across the chance to take a Hachijo-daiko workshop, or find yourself in Tokyo with a few days to kill, I strongly recommend that you take the opportunity to learn the art form. I guarantee you will fall in love, and it will give you the tools necessary to enjoy taiko for the rest of your life. And if learning the art form touches you in any way, help me out by letting an islander know how lucky they are to be surrounded by so much beauty.
So “why Hachijo? and not some other folk taiko tradition?”
Because of one random phone call from a friend in 2001, another friend who believed in my future, and Mr. Sakurai with his lovely wife.
COMMENT BY: Chieko Kojima (KODO distinguished member)
Yuta is such a hard-working and pure-hearted person. Hachijo Island probably called him in because of how he is.
He supported me as a manager when I went to Spain in 2013 for my work. During that one month we spent together working, it was so fun and enriched. His talent for Taiko, humbleness, kindness, honesty, and moreover, his cooking skills all made me so happy. I am very thankful for that.
When he helped me with my Taiko Workshop for women playing, he was also learning with enthusiasm, which he ended playing Shita-Uchi (base beat playing) when I performed “Hana Hachijo” on stage. Playing Ura-Uchi (back or the opposite side of Taiko) has such important role although it isn’t much visible to the audience. There aren’t many Taiko players who are able to do this part. Of course this show I played ended very successfully. I could end the show pleasantly because of his strong but yet humble and gentle Ura-Uchi playing.
I too had connection with Taiko of Hachijo Island. Being a female had minority in KODO, I met Taiko of Hachijo Island, my heart got set free with its rhythm being open to anyone, and that made me able to compose a piece called “Hana Hachijo” which incorporates elements of celebration of females.
Taiko of Hachijo Island plays the rhythm which connects many people. I believe Yuta was directed by that rhythm, and was chosen as a messenger to connect people of the Hachijo Islands and many others. His way of teaching to children is filled with love, and I wish his activities will spread widely.
This comment was written on: January 19th, 2014
Translated from Japanese to English by: Ai Matsuda
This article was written on: November 14th, 2013
Original language of this article: English
Author: Yuta Kato
Nationality: United States
Yuta Kato was born and raised in California. Introduced to taiko by Kagami-Kai, a local rice-pouding group, he decided to further his studies with San Francisco Taiko Dojo at the age of 11. Since then he has been a part of UCLA Kyodo Taiko, Nihon Taiko Dojo, TAIKOPROJECT, ON Ensemble, Portland Taiko, and Getusyoukai. From Fall 2007 until Winter 2011, he resided in Japan to study under masters of various traditional Japanese music. In 2011, Kato serves as the Coordinator for the bienniel North American Taiko Conference held at Stanford, CA. He currently resides in Los Angeles, California and serves as the principal and instructor for LATI (Los Angeles Taiko Institute) housed at the Asano Taiko US facility.