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Chibi Taiko in Onomichi

IMG_2901There was a moment towards the end of the July 25 performance by Chibi Taiko and Onomichi’s Betcha Taiko that will be forever etched in my memory. The two groups were playing a piece together called Ishizue, an original Betcha composition that Chibi members had learned over the course of the past week. Night was falling as the nearly three dozen drummers filled the small public square in Onomichi’s shotengai (shopping district) with a thick wall of sound. The young Chibi drummers were playing with a ferocity and sense of purpose I had never witnessed before. As the piece drew to a conclusion, the drummers swooped low to the ground, their faces glistening with a combination of sweat and exhilaration. I was surprised at the emotion that welled up in me. A lump came to my throat as I watched the members of Chibi Taiko, including my two daughters, give everything they had to a common purpose in the true spirit of taiko. At that one moment, the members of the two groups—who shared a common heritage but little else—emphatically bridged the cultural divide.

Making the moment all the more poignant was the knowledge that with the performance, our time in Onomichi was drawing to a close. The twenty members of the Chibi Taiko family, including drummers, parents and two instructors, had spent the past eight days in the small port city near Hiroshima as guests of the Onomichi Ruri Lions Club, Betcha Taiko and the city itself. Given the relatively short duration of our visit, our days and nights had been jam-packed with activities and it was difficult to fathom that we would soon be returning, first to Tokyo and then home to Vancouver.

We had travelled from Tokyo to Onomichi on July 17 aboard the shinkansen (much to the delight of eight-year-old Kyle, who likes going fast), and were met at the Fukuyama train station for the last leg of the journey by Linda Ohama and her crew of camera-men who would document our entire visit. Linda had spent months laying the groundwork for our arrival and after communicating by e-mail for so long it was almost surreal to see her happy, smiling face in person. After a reception at a local elementary school, where we were enthusiastically greeted by a gymnasium full of school kids who were themselves preparing for the start of their summer vacation, the Chibi kids went off with their homestay families, leaving us parents to our own devices. Our visit was officially underway.

Most of our ten days in Onomichi (including side-trips to Hiroshima and Osaka) were divided between workshops with Betcha Taiko and cultural workshops arranged by the Lion’s Club. The cultural workshops encompassed ikebana (flower arranging), a noh workshop/demonstration, shodo (calligraphy) and sado (tea ceremony).

It became apparent early on that our hosts had prepared for our visit with exceptional attention to detail. Each workshop was arranged in such a way that all members, from the youngest (age six) to the oldest (age 23), were able to participate in his or her own way, no small feat given the rather arcane subject matter. As parents, we were invited to participate in the cultural workshops alongside our kids, and we not only enjoyed ourselves but gained a deeper understanding and appreciation of the traditional arts and their window into the Japanese psyche. The care that had been put into ensuring that we all had the best possible experience was truly astonishing. And who knew that flower arranging could be so rewarding?

I first visited Japan almost thirty years earlier with five other members of Katari Taiko (including Shinobu Homma, founder and leader of Chibi Taiko), making a pilgrimage, as  novice taiko players, to taiko’s birthplace. To share this trip with Amy and our kids, along with the other Chibi kids, had a special meaning for me. I have to admit, though, that I was somewhat apprehensive how the Chibi Taiko style of drumming would stand up against the more traditional Japanese drumming of Betcha Taiko, with its emphasis on power and unison drumming.

Those fears were dispelled at the first taiko workshop, held at a local elementary school. Once Chibi Taiko began running through its repertoire of pieces, it became evident that the two very different styles would complement each other, rather than compete. It’s not easy to walk into a strange rehearsal hall in a strange country where one doesn’t speak the language or understand the culture and play on unfamiliar drums, but right from the first drum beat, the Chibi kids showed they were ready to give it everything they had. For their part, the members of Betcha Taiko generously shared their style of drumming with us—imparting not only their technical skills but their philosophy and attitude as well.

Over the years, Chibi Taiko has taken part in many taiko workshops in Canada and the US, but working with Betcha Taiko provided  a real glimpse into another way of approaching taiko, an approach that is informed by the Japanese ethos and stands in stark contrast to our own western approach to not only drumming, but life itself. It was revealing to watch the respectful way the Betcha members interacted with each other (and us) and to see the focus they displayed while practicing. If the Chibi members were somewhat taken aback by the more formalized atmosphere of that first practice, they soon figured out the lay of the land and began to enjoy themselves. By the second practice both sides began to feel more comfortable with each other and things began to gel. By the day of the concert, a bond had formed between the two groups.

If one focus of the trip was the collaboration with Betcha Taiko, the other was to introduce the members of Chibi to Japanese culture and Onomichi was an ideal place for that. Although it is a tourist destination, it attracts almost exclusively Japanese visitors and is off the radar as far as western tourists go. It has a casual atmosphere, as Japanese towns go, a relaxed charm that comes from being off the beaten path. It is also small enough that getting around is relatively easy, particularly if one is prepared to walk. Uphill, that is. Linda lives on a mountain with a spectacular view of the harbour and the town. If one is on foot, her house is accessed by a series of steep paths that wind their way through temples and forest. There is also a ropeway that will take you up the mountain if you’re tired or weighed down with bags.

What free time we had was spent exploring the town, marvelling over the many temples and trying the various meals on offer in the town’s restaurants. Osamu Otani, a filmmaker and restaurateur (and president of the Lions Club) owns a waffle restaurant at the foot of the ropeway and most of the Chibis had at least one meal there (some more than one—they are delicious). As one of the driving forces behind our stay in Onomichi, we owe him (among many others) a huge debt of thanks.

Visiting Japan in the summer wouldn’t be complete without attending at least one matsuri and we were able to witness two—one in Onomichi and another in Osaka, where we had a chance to watch Ikaki, a Burakumin taiko group, perform. Ikari’s children’s group played several powerful pieces and provided more inspiration for our younger drummers. Osaka is one of the traditional taiko-making centres of Japan and during a visit to a taiko store we were able to load up on jika-tabi (heavy-duty two-toed slippers) and other taiko supplies. In a park nearby there is a giant taiko cuckoo clock. Several times a day a mechanical life-sized taiko player emerges and plays a taiko composition. Unfortunately, our timing was off the day of our visit and we weren’t able to see it do its thing.

Many Canadian school children are familiar with the book Sadako and the Thousand Cranes, and a day-trip to Hiroshima brought the story home for the Chibi kids. It was incredibly powerful to stand at the spot where the bomb went off and to stand in the shadow of the iconic dome that survived the blast, its skeletal frame a mute testament to the terrible force unleashed that day in August . . .

Chibi Taiko’s visit to Onomichi came to a conclusion with a sayonara party hosted by the group at a hall provided for the occasion by the City of Onomichi. Although we were unaware of it until we were already in Japan, Torin and Kyle’s father Dennis used to be a professional chef and with his help (“priceless”, as the ads say) we were able to put on a delicious “Canadian” feast replete with pasta, Caesar salad and Rice Krispie squares (a big hit) for our new friends. It was our small but heartfelt way of saying “arigato” for the boundless hospitality we experienced during our stay. In typical Japanese fashion, many people stayed behind to help clean up, continuing the spirit of “international cooperation” that was so evident throughout the trip.

The following day we bid farewell to our hosts and homestay families at the train station and made our way to Tokyo for the final leg of our trip. Linda travelled with us part way and then said goodbye as we transferred to the shinkansen bound for Tokyo Station. As I watched Linda recede in the distance, I was reminded how this all came about: with her quest to trace her grandmother’s story back to Onomichi and the filming of Obaachan’s Garden. And I reflected on the twists and turns that face us in life, often taking us in strange and wonderful directions.

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