Gogawadaiko in Matsue and Izumo

Last weekend Gogawadaiko hit the road – driving two and half hours to Shimane Prefecture’s capital, Matsue to play at a small culture festival on Saturday, then heading a bit further South to the ancient city of Izumo on Sunday for a brief showing at a taiko exhibition.

The night before leaving we prepared the drums for transport and loaded them into what I am sure is the oldest vehicle still on the road in Japan. The big truck, which has a mechanical language of its own, frightened and entertained the other taiko members and I as we were jostled along the tiny country roads of Shimane on our way to the capital. I was amused by the memory of a Japanese idiom which happened to fit our situation perfectly: onobori-san, which literally translates as: “one who journeys to the capital”, but means “hillbilly” or “country bumpkin” in common use…

So we hillbillies took off for the capital with our truck full of drums and our hearts full of hope and excitement for a weekend of performing and relaxing on the coast of Western Japan.

Upon arriving in Matsue we quickly unloaded the drums and dispersed in search of matsuri food – the equivalent of American fair food but far healthier and much more delicious. I found a friend that was working at a stand selling zenzei – my favorite Japanese food! Zenzei is a delightful fall and wintertime treat – hot and sweet azuki bean porridge served with toasted mochi dumplings. I had two bowls. I also enjoyed a couple of freshly roasted-in-shell spiral sea creatures called sazae. The flavor is delicious except for a slightly bitter crunch when you reach the back end…

Our first performance followed shortly and went well, considering how little we practice… We played fours songs, two of which I was able to join. It was a rainy day but the sun gave a peek through the clouds during our performance and everything felt perfectly lovely. Afterwards we packed up the drums and headed South along the coast, arriving in Izumo that evening. Along the way we stopped at Tamatsukuri Onsen – one of the oldest onsens in Japan. It is said that the gods bathe there… The particular bath we stopped at was named Yu-Yu and had not only indoor and outdoor baths, but a dry sauna, a mist sauna (felt just like a sweat lodge), a cold water bath, and several makeshift waterfalls for those in need of a natural massage. It was also the first onsen that I’ve been to that has been full of people. I thought I wouldn’t like the liveliness of sharing a hot spring with a large group of people, but I found it to be refreshing and enjoyable in a completley different way than I am used to. With so many people moving around, splashing through the pools, working out their knots under the waterfalls and washing in the shower booths I felt like I was at a big public bath – being used in a more practical way than in an “elegant spa” sort of way. Old women were there not just to relax and feel nice, but to feel good, and to work for it. They bounced around from bath to bath, searching for that perfect spot, then stretching and scrubbing, and finally melting into blissful reverie with eyes closed and legs spread in the hot mineral-rich water. I was in heaven. Never too hot, never too cold, but able to balance perfectly between the two with so many options of baths and saunas…

After leaving the onsen we dropped our things off at a hotel in Izumo and headed to an izekaya (Japanese pub), where we each paid ¥3000 (about $45.00) for a 7-course catered meal and unlimited alcohol consumption for two hours. I enjoyed some local nihonshu with servings of eggplant dengaku, salmon, saba, salad, soup and pickled veggies. I challenged the group to attempt to drink as much as I could…knowing that my German roots would allow to consume far more alcohol than their saki-sipping ancestry. A few mugs of beer and bottles of sake later I was feeling fine while my friends were stumbling over words and tatami mats. When our two hours were up at the izekaya we decided to head to another bar. I asked the bartender for the best gin he had and he pulled out two bottles – his favorite gin and his favorite tequila. He gave us each a shot out of each bottle. I enjoy the flavor of gin and tequila…especially expensive gin and tequila. It seemed like a great idea to me at this point to advertise for our upcoming performance in Izumo. In order to properly convince the bartender of the necessity of his presence at our performance we decided to set up the barstools as psuedo taiko drums and provide an adequate demonstration. With one person playing the djembe and the others playing the chairs we mimicked our song Matsuri, which we play at every performance. The bartender was impressed, but I’m still not sure whether he showed up at the next day’s performance or not…

The night ended late, resulting in a groggy morning for all. Luckily, our performance the next day wasn’t until 5:00pm. We rehearsed once and then took off in search of another onsen. It was magical. There’s nothing like an onsen to soothe every weary bone in your body and cleanse every messy corner of your mind. After coming out of the onsen we all took a nap in the building’s tatami room. Nothing could have been better.

We returned to the performance hall and began to prepare for our brief appearance on stage as part of the largest taiko festival I’ve yet experienced – featuring almost twenty different taiko groups from all over Shimane and Southwestern Japan. There was an intricate system created for the mass movement of each group’s taiko set. I have never seen so many drums in one place.

We were given only eight minutes to perform so we played the song that has the longest history with the group – Chugoku Taro, named for the river that flows through Kawamoto. The seats were full as we began our song. Through this experience I found that in the presence of a group, I love performing. We have so much fun together, playing is a rush of joy and adrenaline.

After finishing, we quickly loaded our drums back into the truck and stopped by the      post-performance party for a bit of classy food and drink before heading home. I was amused by the beer selection, including this “fresh hop” brew from one of the biggest producers of low-end beer in Japan. Notice that the tea and juice are made by the same “brewery”.

The shouchu on tap was pretty neat though…

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