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Enchanting Edo: Tokyo 'taiko' drums still beat in Japan's hearts

A craftsman is seen fastening the skin to the body of a "nagado daiko" drum at Miyamoto Unosuke Shoten in Tokyo's Taito Ward on Dec. 13, 2021. By turning the bamboo tubes laced with hemp rope, the skin is stretched over the top of the drum. Once the sound is adjusted, the skin is fastened with round tacks. (Mainichi/Emi Naito) =Click/tap photo for more images.

TOKYO -- Long ago in the Edo period (1603-1867), a large drum was struck at Edo Castle to signal the gates' opening and closing dawn and dusk. The booming sounds echoing through the castle told people the time of day.

    Japan's shrines and temples each have their own drums used not only in ceremonial rituals but during festivals, where the drums create music along with flutes to enhance and uplift the lively atmosphere.

    Miyamoto Unosuke Shoten is one establishment in Tokyo's popular tourism spot Asakusa that has continued its long history of producing Japanese taiko drums through traditional methods. 2021 marks the shop's 160th anniversary. During our visit to Miyamoto Unosuke Shoten, craftsmen were in the middle of tightening the skin stretched over the drum of a "nagado" (long body) daiko.

    Japanese zelkova tree is used for the cylindrical body of many of the shop's nagado drums. Their most striking feature is that each drum body is created from a single zelkova trunk that has been hollowed out, with the drum's size depending on the trunk's thickness. After the freshly cut timber is roughly processed, they are left to dry for three to five years before they can see full-fledged use. Each craftsman uses a specially-designed hand plane to manually adjust the overall shape, the drum body's thickness and other factors.

    "Japanese zelkovas grow into large trees providing trunks that are the perfect size for drums, and while the material is solid, it is also viscous and has beautiful wood grain patterns. No material befits taiko drums more than these trees," said Daigo Nakamura, a 44-year-old taiko craftsman with 26 years in the industry.

    Craftsmen soften the drum skin by hitting it rhythmically with a wooden mallet at Miyamoto Unosuke Shoten in Tokyo's Taito Ward on Dec. 13, 2021. (Mainichi/Emi Naito) =Click/tap photo for more images.
    Craftsmen hit the entire surface of the drumhead and listen to the taiko drum's sounds to examine whether the skin is stretched equally at Miyamoto Unosuke Shoten in Tokyo's Taito Ward on Dec. 13, 2021. (Mainichi/Emi Naito) =Click/tap photo for more images.

    With the drum's body processed into a beautiful golden-brown color, it then undergoes drumhead stretching.

    The skin, which does not tear even if hit, is a thick material taken from domestically-grown cows. The leather is fitted onto the drum's body, which has a diameter of around 42 centimeters, and hemp rope is fastened around eight spots along the rim to tug the skin. The craftsmen repeat the cycle of pulling the skin and testing the drum's sound, and gradual adjustments create a high-pitched resounding echo coming from the skin's entire surface.

    After stretching the drumhead slightly tighter than the tautness consistent with the ideal sound customers seek, the tacks are fixed into place as they are closely packed along the drum's rim to fasten the skin to the drum's body. "The skin gets slack through usage, so we factor this in when stretching the drumhead," said Nakamura.

    Besides newly created drums, the workspace also had old ones brought in from shrines and temples around Japan to have their leather replaced. Visible on the inside of a drum body with its skin removed were ink letters indicating "Showa," "Taisho," and "Meiji," -- the eras when the drum had been out for repair. This particular drum had a 120-year history.

    "Drums each have their own history and have been loved by their community's people, so we want to hand them over in the most beautiful state possible," said Nami Taguchi, 31, an employee in her fifth year at the company. While showing us around the factory, she told us how she has recently come to understand the profession's depth and profundity.

    Traditional taiko drums are seen at Miyamoto Unosuke Shoten in Tokyo's Taito Ward on Dec. 13, 2021. (Mainichi/Emi Naito) =Click/tap photo for more images.

    After World War II, a new trend emerged that saw people enjoy the sound of traditional taiko drums on their own, in a shift of focus from their role in ceremonies and festivals to their musicality. The changes eventually brought about modern "kumidaiko" ensemble performances consisting of various drums, and activities by professional musicians made traditional taiko drums all the rage in the 1980s. Taiko drumming groups popped up in various places across the country, and in the blink of an eye their powerful sounds that reverberate through the body have transcended linguistic barriers and gathered fans the world over.

    "They're percussion instruments, so anyone can produce sounds if they hit them. This sort of familiarity may be what's good about them," Taguchi remarked. But ultimately their origins lie with festivals, she said. "In Asakusa, I feel the passion of the local people who have worked to enliven the area's festivals. As long as that fervor exists, drums will surely continue to echo throughout Japan."

    (Japanese original by Tadahiko Mori, The Mainichi Staff Writer)

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    A word of wisdom: Japan's beloved taiko drum both easy-to-approach and stage centerpiece

    When it was decided our next interview would be at a drum shop, I vaguely imagined muscular men beating drums while shouting out to crowds against booming sounds. I was under the impression that drums were more familiar objects than the other specialized crafts we have covered so far. But once in the craftsmen's workspace, I realized I had actually never seen a taiko drum up close, or thought about how they are made.

    Toward the end of our interview, staff member Nami Taguchi revealed with a laugh that when she began working at the shop around five years ago, she didn't even know the drumheads were cowhide, and thought they might be washi paper. As she said this, it occurred to me that I'd had some mysteries answered, too. While I wondered whether the drum skins were glued to the top with an adhesive paste, I found that drumheads were secured by either hammering in black round tacks or lacing hemp rope through them. Before our opportunity to peek inside the wooden cylinders yet to have skins stretched over them, it never crossed my mind that drums' bodies are actually hollow inside.

    The new discoveries weren't limited to the construction process, with some coming during the drums' practical usage, too.

    I was surprised to find that the main group of overseas learners for the shop's online platform were women who wanted to take up drumming for exercise and staying in shape. Beating a taiko drum requires using the entire body to exert great force, and drumming can also be considered somewhat of a sport.

    Hibikus Asakusa, a traditional taiko drumming studio operated by Miyamoto Unosuke Shoten is shown in this photo provided by the shop. =Click/tap photo for more images.

    Taguchi said taiko performances are "dynamic" because they combine energetic movements and powerful sounds. Hearing this, I felt that traditional taiko drums are remarkable not just for their sound, but for their integral role in complementing and bringing out the best in performances' visual spectacle by adding liveliness and excitement to the stage.

    When I asked Taguchi what distinguishes Japanese taiko drums from other drums, she said, "I suppose what's big is that they are not just musical instruments played in the background, but the centerpiece of the performance itself."

    After visiting Miyamoto Unosuke Shoten, my image of drums was renewed. No longer were they merely creators of powerful sounds. They were also multifaceted objects which can be used as a form of exercise and can be appreciated for both their performative and musical aspects. Taiko drums of course have many other functions, including usage in religious ceremonies and as theatrical accompaniment.

    In spite of these various purposes, drums are also "easy-to-approach instruments for beginners as all you need to do is hit them," Taguchi said.

    Both the diversity and familiarity of taiko drums may be the key to why they are loved by so many around the world.

    (By Chinami Takeichi, The Mainichi Staff Writer)

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    An "okedo daiko" which links together multiple wooden planks to form a barrel-like structure for the drum body is seen at Miyamoto Unosuke Shoten in Tokyo's Taito Ward on Dec. 13, 2021. (Mainichi/Emi Naito) =Click/tap photo for more images.
    A small "shime daiko" drum is seen at Miyamoto Unosuke Shoten in Tokyo's Taito Ward on Dec. 13, 2021. (Mainichi/Emi Naito) =Click/tap photo for more images.

    Types of drums

    Apart from "nagado daiko" drums made from hollowed-out logs, "okedo daiko" drums link together multiple wooden planks to form a barrel-like structure for the drum body. While in nagado drums the drumhead is affixed with round black tacks, for okedo drums the skin is fastened with rope. The shop also sells "shime daiko" -- small drums played while placing them vertical to the ground so the skin's surface faces upward -- and small "kotsuzumi" hand drums, whose skin's tautness is also adjusted with rope. Other items include an "uchiwa taiko" consisting of only a drumhead and a handle, which is shaped like a traditional round uchiwa fan, as well as drums designed for classical court music during Imperial Household events.

    Drumsticks

    Miyamoto Unosuke Shoten also has various types of drumsticks made of wood from Japanese cypresses, Japanese bigleaf magnolia, maple trees and "kashi" evergreen oaks. Cypress drumsticks are the softest while "kashi" drumsticks are the hardest. Because the sound changes based on the material, as well as a drumstick's thickness and length, performers use differing drumsticks for drums of different types and sizes.

    Drum seals

    Taiko drums in the past were branded with seals once complete. This is the origin of the Japanese idiom "affix a drum seal," which means to "give a stamp of approval," and "guarantee that goods are of a high quality." Miyamoto Unosuke Shoten's seal, which combines the first kanji character of "taiko" and a letter used in the store's name, used to be affixed onto the drums' wooden surface with a branding iron. Today, product certification plates are used instead.

    Echo-logical taiko

    Miyamoto Unosuke Shoten has also collaborated with forestry company Tokyo Chainsaws in the capital's village of Hinohara to create "okedo" drums that use locally-grown Japanese cedar trees. The sound of drums made from Japanese cedar differs from that of zelkova ones. A video introducing these efforts to link local production for local consumption with craftsmanship can be watched here. https://vimeo.com/628677643

    Hibikus studio

    The shop has also established Hibikus studios in Asakusa, Yokohama, located south of Tokyo, and Fukuoka in southwest Japan, for people who want to actually learn taiko drumming. The studios host classes for beginners and intermediate learners, as well as lessons for families.

    More information can be found here (https://www.hibikus.com/) in Japanese.

    Online drum lessons & shows

    Miyamoto Unosuke Shoten has also launched the U.S.-based online learning platform "kaDON," to provide taiko lessons conducted in English for international audiences.

    More information can be found here (https://kadon.com/)

    For those interested in watching taiko performances online, the "Taiko Celebration 2021" concert held in November in Oita Prefecture is available for streaming until Jan. 18 Japan time. It is accessible via https://en.wtctokyo.com/

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    Miyamoto Unosuke Shoten

    The shop was founded in 1861, toward the end of the Edo period, in the east Japan area that is now the Ibaraki Prefecture city of Tsuchiura. It moved to its current Asakusa location in 1893 during the fourth-generation head's tenure. President Yoshihiko Miyamoto is the shop's eighth-generation master. Besides drums, the shop also handles instruments used in Imperial Palace ceremonies as well as Kabuki and Noh performances. Production and repair of "mikoshi" portable shrines is also one of the shop's core businesses, and it works to contribute to preserving the region's Shinto festivals.

    This image provided by Miyamoto Unosuke Shoten shows the shop time in the early 20th century, between the late Meiji period and the early Taisho period. =Click/tap photo for more images.

    Address: 6-1-15 Asakusa, Taito Ward, Tokyo

    Website: https://www.miyamoto-unosuke.co.jp/company/index.php (in Japanese) and https://www.miyamoto-unosuke.co.jp/english/ (in English)

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    Miyamoto Unosuke Shoten is also featured as part of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government's Edo Tokyo Kirari project which, based on the concept "old meets new," profiles brands at the link: https://en.edotokyokirari.jp/project/life/miyamoto-unosuke/

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    Enchanting Edo

    The "Enchanting Edo" series highlights Japanese traditions, crafts, artisanal techniques and culture dating back several hundred years. The stories offer a glimpse into old shops in Japan's capital, which are all searching for ways to protect long-established skills and talent while also keeping them alive in the modern day.

    The original Japanese versions of the articles, accessible via the link under the right of the headline, include "furigana" phonetic characters to assist in reading all the texts' kanji characters. The user-friendly text primarily targets elementary school children in Japan, but can also be used by non-Japanese readers learning intermediate-level Japanese. We encourage any readers interested in Japanese culture, language, or both to make full use of our series.

    In Photos: Taiko store in Tokyo bangs the drum for traditional music

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