Kodo: the heartbeat of the drum

Have you ever visited somewhere which totally enchants you? You know when a place has captivated you when you are leaving and you look back at the island, city or countryside and say to yourself “I will come back someday”. Yet at the same time, knowing that you may never get the opportunity again, and the memories you’ve made there will be forever romanticised in your mind.

Last summer, some friends and I visited Sado Shima, a small island in Niigata Prefecture, off the western coast of Northern Honshu. We were going for the Earth Festival to see the internationally renown taiko group Kodo play on their home island. It was by word of mouth that we heard about this festival, and it didn’t disappoint.

Taiko in Japanese refers to any kind of drum, but it is the performance of an ensemble of drummers playing for performances that taiko is now become known as. These drums had previously been used to motivate troops in warfare, to accompany Shinto dances and as a key component of Noh and kubuki theatre. In the 1950s a master taiko drummer named Daihachi Oguchi helped transform taiko from its traditional roots in shrines and a festivals to kumi-daiko, playing for the sake of performance. This energetic style of taiko took off in popularity and soon groups sprung up all over Japan. Nowadays children learn it in elementary school although the arcade game Taiko no Tatsujin is more popular than playing the real thing!

If you have heard of taiko before, you may be familiar with the group Kodo. They have toured the world, shaking stages and impressing audiences wherever they have played. They are a group who don’t do anything by halves.slide06

Only the best taiko drummers in Japan have a chance of becoming part of Kodo. Apprentices have to endure two years of rigorous training and practising to even audition to become a performer. The daily routine for members is gruelling, starting with a 10 km run, then the rest of the day spent drumming until they are too tired, or they have two many blisters-on-blisters to drum any more. It is not just their bodies that the forty men and the seven women of Kodo that are in training. Being part of Kodo is also a training of the mind to forgo selfish desires and to make decisions as part of a collective. Watch this video to find out more of the hardships apprentices go through to become part of Kodo.

Although playing taiko is no longer associated with religion, it does still possess a deeper meaning than just a musical performance. “Kodo” has two meanings, the first being “heartbeat” referring to how the taiko resembles a mother’s heartbeat as felt in the womb. The second reading is “children of the drum” that reflects Kodo’s desire to play the drums simply, with the heart of a child. Yet it is certainly not children you think of when you watch Kodo play.

The men of Kodo are the gladiators of drumming. Wearing just a fundoshi, a white loin-cloth, it is not just the rhythm of the drum that will impress you. The strength and stamina of these men is exhibited in various musical pieces, and they play the drum in various positions. In one piece, three men sit reclined on the stage with an odaiko drum between their legs and their toes curled around it. They play in this half-sat-up position for over ten minutes, their stomach muscles tightened, their buttocks clenched and their quads in tension, whilst their arms swing back and forth as they beat the drum. From the shouts of passion and pain that they make, you can be mistaken for thinking you are watching a primal ritual, not a drumming performance in the twenty-first century.Kodo-5-Epworth

Yet that piece was just a warm up. The real jaw-dropper was when two men stood on opposite sides of a two metre high and three metre long odaiko and played it like they were at war. With their backs arched, their legs apart and their arms above their heads, this type of drumming is so athletic it could become an Olympic sport.Kodo12_main1

As a member of the audience you can feel the deep rumble of the odaiko reverberate through your chest, and the beat is infectious. My friends and I found ourselves dancing with a crowd of energized fans, all wanting to be part of the performance, not just the audience.

After two nights of watching Kodo, my friends and I were enchanted by them. All we talked about was who our favourite player was, the man we met who was an ex-taiko player and sightings of their van going through the town. So we visited Kodo Village, where the group live and train for the months they are not on tour, to find out more about them. We learnt about the strict rules of being part of the ensemble; no television, radio, alcohol, cigarettes, or sex. Members also have to plant rice, cook and clean together. Their sole purpose it to give their whole selves to the community and the philosophy of Kodo; spreading the spirit of the drum.IMG_1405

It was when we were leaving on the ferry back to the mainland that we were treated to an unexpected performance from the Kodo performers. They had come to see some of their members off, who were leaving on the same ferry as us. They set up a few drums on the port, and as the ferry engines revved up, they began to play. This time, they were not in their traditional outfits but were wearing shorts and t-shirts. Nor were they performing for money, they were doing it for the love of playing. Band members from apprentices to directors took part in the impromptu farewell party. As they boat was making its way out of the port, I could still see the group playing and waving goodbye. And the Kodo members on the boat were still waving their shirts in the air, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they had some tears in their eyes. From this farewell, it was clear that the group were very close to each other. Undoubtedly their monastic lifestyles and the long hours of practising their performances created deep friendships.DSCF1110IMG_1427

It was a privilege to see this group, and one I’d recommend to anyone. If you can visit the Earth Celebration Festival in August on Sado Shima you should visit other places on the island; beautiful beaches, century-old cedar forests and mountainous roads with vast ocean views. It’s definitely on the unspoilt, and underrated list of places to go in Japan, but one that has a lot of potential for becoming popular. Even if you just visit to watch Kodo, you may become enchanted with it. I did.DSCF1103


A wild sea

In the distance over Sado

The Milky Way


Squeezing the sunshine out of summer

When I went home I asked my Grandad if he read my blog. He said, not really, “Isn’t it just you writing what you did each week?” I explained to him I put more about Japanese culture and things I find interesting here, than my daily life in it. But this post is unashamedly me-centered.

Basically, what Sophie did in the last two months whilst she hasn’t been blogging. This one’s for you Grandad. 

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Summer was not as sweltering as I remembered from last year, and the warm nights were perfect for late night BBQs, beach parties and midnight swims, and many laps of the local pool. Since the August humidity lifted, September and October were perfect weather for enjoying Japan.

Sado Island Earth Celebration Festival 

My best trip in Japan so far was to Sado Island, in Nigata Prefecture. With five girls in a car, camping by a beach and watching sweaty men play taiko drums, the trip was always going to be a winner. I recommend seeing the amazing Kodo to anyone and everyone, especially at the Earth Celebration Festival on the island they train at. 


Mud Volleyball Tournament

I took part in a local mud volleyball tournament that has to go on near the top of my “Best Moments” list. We squelched, jumped and fell over in the paddy field filled with dirty, brown mud. The funniest match we played was against a team of “New Halves”, or transvestites, who were dressed in bikinis, had gorgeous long hair and were wearing plenty of makeup! They were also terrible at volleyball, and before the game had even started had fallen over and lost their fake eyelashes to the heavy mud! A crowd gathered around, mostly to watch as the floundering who did a little dance every time they won a point. We won the game easily, but the cheers went to the muddy New Halves who had entertained us all.


Climbing Mount Haku

Another weekend my friends and I climbed one of the three sacred mountains in Japan, Mount Haku. The start of this 2000m high mountain is only an hour out of Fukui Prefecture, so it is really a must for anyone who likes hiking in Fukui. Unlike the torturous and monotonous climb up Mount Fuji, this mountain is covered in dense forest and has brilliant views from the start. We began in the morning, and with ample breaks and photo-snapping time, we were at the top by 4pm. We had booked a night at the Murata Lodge near the summit, so didn’t have to worry about the time, or bringing food. The dinner and breakfast at the lodge was great. I have never enjoyed miso soup and rice so much for breakfast! I suppose after getting up at 4am, climbing to the summit to watch a spectacular sunrise, then doing an hour’s walk before we made it down to the lodge, anything would’ve tasted good!

1374541_10201037935576188_182132618_nNaoshima and Takamatsu, Shikoku

Since September and October are lucky to have quite a few long weekends, I’ve tried to travel further afield. In early October, my friends and I drove to Takamatsu in Shikoku, a seven hour drive, but one which was worth it. We went specifically to see the island of Naoshima which is famous for its modern art museums and installations. We had great fun posing in the giant pumpkin that is on the island, and seeing fantastic architecture by Ando. The museums formed part of the Setouchi Triennial Art Festival, and due to that the island was busy with chic looking tourist, with their newest cameras at the ready. Modern art can be great, it is something to be part of, to experience, rather than just looking at a painting, it feels as if you become part of it. We enjoyed the chattering men in the Benesse Art Museum, and laying on huge pebble-shaped marble stones whilst looking at the open sky through a large skylight. The Chichu Art Museum was even more impressive in its architecture and installations.


Our funniest moment was when we queued in line for thirty minutes to see Monet’s water lilies paintings, but then found out it was actually a queue to see another installation called “Open Sky”, and it was exactly that! The sky does look better when you have waited and paid to see it! After disturbing the peace of the museum with our laughter, we joined the right queue to see Monet’s work, and again had to take off our shoes to see it. Wearing white slippers and being guided by young women in white clothes, we entered a completely white room. The huge Monet painting made us all gasp, and as you walk further in the square room there are three more paintings surrounding you. Unlike other museums, these paintings are behind pieces of glass, but due to the natural light coming in from the roof, there wasn’t a reflection from it, so you could get as close as you liked to the paintings and look at the individual brush strokes of each painting. It was like stepping into Monet’s world. As clouds went across the sun, the light would become darker and the change in light brought out different colours in the paintings. Even after seeing Monet’s work in his Parisian museum, I was more inspired by his paintings in this museum than in Paris. Just for that moment, the trip was justified.

We were also lucky to stay with my JET friend Julia, from the UK, who let us sleep on her floor, and was able to show us the best places in her city. She recommended us to visit Ritsurin Garden, which is one of the best gardens in Japan and lived up to its reputation. We saw tea ceremonies performed there, newly-wed couples having their pictures taken dressed up in traditional costumes, and other people dressed as samurai! After that we tried the famous Kagawa Udon, thick white noodles in a thin broth, and they tasted good, but I was more impressed by the chopstick stand! 

Takamatsu's famous udon

Takamatsu’s famous udon

 So there are a few of my escapades from the last couple of months and I’ve certainly built up a fair few memories to keep me going during the winter. I had different motives when I came here; I wanted to save money to pay off a fair chunk of my student debt, yet as the yen has dropped so low compared to the pound, that it’s really impossible. So my new motive is to see and do everything I want to in Japan. But like this tourist sign says, the possibilities are endless. 


Here’s a video and some more photos to make up for my two-month blogging absence. 


Best places to see cherry blossom

It has been said that Japan has six seasons; spring, summer, autumn, winter, as well as the rainy season tsuyu (from June to July) and the typhoon season (from September to October). Yet I would say there is one more to be added to that list, sakura season. From January the pink flowers open in Okinawa and sweep their way up the country, reaching Hokkaido five months later in May. During sakura season weather forecasts include the predicted opening times of the cherry blossom and people talk about how early or late they will open in offices, cafes and on TV chat shows. It’s a big deal, and it’s infectious. So excuse me, while I reminisce about my first sakura season, and the best places I saw it.

Sakura-dori, Nagoya

IMG_0784I will never forget the first time I saw a blooming cherry tree in Japan. It looked magical. Like a weeping willow hangs in a way which evokes both sadness and romance, this tree was weeping with the most beautiful pink stars of flowers I’ve seen. What made it all the more special was that I’d just met my Mum and could share this moment with her.

Imperial Palace, Kyoto


In the gardens of the palace are orchards of sakura trees that have been enjoyed by people for centuries. Hanami is the term for ‘cherry blossom viewing’ and is when families, office workers or friends picnic, BBQ and drink under the pink petals of the cherry blossom. It is the celebration of spring, the moment winter ends and the warm weather returns. People take afternoons off work to enjoy the petals at their peak, as they know they won’t be there the next week.

Fukuoka, Kyushu

P1040240Cherry blossoms can be enjoyed anywhere, not just at the famous viewing spots and it is made special by the people you are with. In a small park, next to a baseball field in Fukuoka, my companions and I ate bento boxed lunches and drank Brazilian tea under the falling petals. It is in this state, when the petals fall to the ground like snowflakes, that Japanese people find them most attractive. It is a lesson from nature as to how to enjoy the moment, before it is blown away.

The Philosopher’s Path, Kyoto


From Ginkakuji (the Silver Pavilion) to the Nanzenji neighbourhood a line of cherry trees line a canal which a Zen philosopher used to walk and mediate along.  For three kilometres you can enjoy the blooming trees, but unless you go early in the morning you’ll be sharing the experience with half of Kyoto!

Tenryuji Temple Gardens, Arashiyama, Kyoto

Three weeks after I first seen sakura in Nagoya, I was still being blown away by the vivid pinks and reds of cherry blossom. My mum however, thought I’d gone a little mad, with the rest of the country, in exclaiming, “Wow, isn’t it beautiful” at every tree! But in the gardens surrounding the Zen temple of Tenryuji, I couldn’t help but admire the trees. It is one of the most beautiful gardens I’ve been to and would definitely recommend it in sakura season or in the fall.











Maruyama Park, Kyoto



This is one of the most popular parks for cherry blossom viewing in Japan. It comes alive at night with young and old people alike drinking and eating under the festival lights. Japanese people work so hard, it’s great to see them in such a relaxed, public setting just chatting together and enjoying the setting. That is one thing we can learn from this sakura loving nation – stop and enjoy nature, plant trees which people love and cultivate them with parental care, line the streets with avenues of trees, the parks with flowers and the buildings with bright bushes, because seeing flowers brightens people day. This nation knows how to appreciate nature like no other I’ve been to.

Kodaji temple, Kyoto

P1040203My Mum and I did a full day of hanami in Kyoto and this was one of the last stops. Whilst looking around this old temple complex, with its lit up bamboo forests, moon-viewing platforms and manicured gardens, we decided to join a long queue of people. After waiting for about 15 minutes on our weary feet, we finally saw what the queue was for and there was no way back. It was an illuminated weeping cherry tree which turned blue, green and white every few minutes and the packed in crowd took photos of it like it was a national celebrity. It was at that point my Mum and I looked at each other and laughed, ok, there is a line for appreciating nature, and then going crazy for it!

I think this country has gone a little too mad for cherry trees, but perhaps I have been infected with it, as I am already looking forward to next year’s sakura season!