An experience of a lifetime: taiko with Ondekoza

Taiko with Ondekoza – Traditional Japanese taiko is invigorating to watch, but it is even more exhilarating to play. But training with the esteemed Ondekoza taiko drum troupe is an experience an a whole other level. The afternoon I spent watching and playing taiko with some of my peers and the Ondekoza group is an experience that will remain with me until the day I die.

Hikijin

The taiko drum experience was part of a press tour, managed by the excellent Tobu Top Tours. The press tour, partially monitor tour, is one of the monthly activities of the Hikijin 192 project that I am taking part in. “Hikijin” means “Hiki people” or specifically in this case, people living in the Hiki area of Saitama. Each member of the project is an ambassador for the Hiki area.

taiko experience with ondekoza
Taiko workshop; a special experience with Hikijin, Tobu Top Tours and legendary Ondekoza

Hiki Area

The Hiki area, not to be confused with the Hiki district (although it does include the towns of the Hiki district), includes;

  • Higashimatsuyama City
  • Ranzan Town
  • Ogawa Town
  • Tokigawa Town
  • Yoshimi Town
  • Kawajima Town
  • Namegawa Town
  • Hatoyama Town
  • Highashi Chichibu Village

Higashi Chichibu Village

sleepy village of higashichichibu
A collection of houses on the mountain road just before we came to the training camp

The experience took place in the latter – the endearing mountain village of Higashi Chichibu. Higashi Chichibu is Saitama’s last remaining village. It only has a population of 2000 people (rounded off). The setting was idyllic. The scarcely populated village is for the most part serene and tranquil, but the boom of mighty taiko drums intermittently galvanizes the otherwise sleepy village.

Former Shiroishi School

Former Shiroishi school HIgashichichibu  home to Ondekoza training camp

The former Shiroishi School itself is quite run down and the old playground equipment is in a state of disrepair. The school closed quite some years ao as there just isn’t the population to support its opening. The town of Higashichichibu now just has one school for the whole village. Those that are geographically far from the school are brought to and from school by a school bus.

former shiroishi primary school

Even before it closed it never did have a lot of pupils. Hence, it is typical of a lowly populated mountain area school – a one floor building with just a few class rooms and very few trimmings. There isn’t even a separate gym hall.

But it is what lies within that is special and worth the visit (prearranged):

Ondekoza

taiko troupe ondekoza plaque at former shiroishi school higashi chichibu

The Former Shiroishi primary school is currently the main training camp for the legendary taiko troupe Za Ondekoza. Over the years I have seen dozens if not hundreds of taiko performances around the country. No group has ever impressed me as greatly as Za Ondekoza.

taiko ondekoza

Ondekoza as can be translated as “devil drummer” in English. The characters “devil” and “taiko” are used to write it in Japanese.

Here (photo on the left) you see an Ondekoza troupe member of eight years playing so fast you couldn’t capture the “bachi” (drum sticks) in a photo.

The drummers, who live and work together daily, practice for hours each and every day to hone their skill, speed and strength.

Ondekoza (also known as Za Ondekosa) originated in Sado island in Niigata in 1969. They are widely recognized as being one of the founding groups to create the type of performance art taiko that is popular today. Next year they are celebrating 50 years (by Japanese counting next year is the 50th).

Training camps

Taiko drums
All sorts of taiko drums are available for playing

In anticipation of that significant anniversary they have been making preparations to open up the group to more public interaction in 2020. To that end, this year they started allowing members of the public take short term training camps at the base in Higashichichibu. They have already hosted several groups and individuals from overseas who adhere to the strict training regiment necessary to create the endurance, strength and skill needed for taiko group performances.

Taiko Workshop

A private performance! With three of the Ondekoza members

Training camps are usually a duration of a least a few days. Yesterday was a special allowance and extremely appreciated rare opportunity to glimpse inside the troupe’s training camp, life and regime for one afternoon. We were honored and privileged to spend a few hours learning about, listening to and playing taiko drums with three of the members of the esteemed Ondekoza group.

During the workshop there were several performances by the professionals including the demonstration above by Yoshi, the head of the group. Here Yoshi is demonstrating the reverberation of a taiko drum. Unlike other drums, the taiko drums made in the traditional manner with calf hide, have a longer reverberation.

taiko experience saitama

This is just one of several precious insights we got into the drum itself. We learned so much in such a short period of time, but of course one of the best bits: learning to and actually playing the taiko for ourselves. It takes a lot of physical strength and fitness. Part of taiko drum troupes training actually includes physical work outs not just playing the drums. The Ondekoza group run 8 kilometers every morning as part of their regime.

During the sessions when we played the taiko in groups it was so incredibly invigorating. It felt like we might move the earth and bring the mountain down on top of us! And that is one of the reasons why the training camp is in such a remote location. There are some residents nearby, but being located between the mountain and a gorge helps incubate the sound.

Taiko Experience

Taiko experience with Ondekoza

There is currently no drop in workshops or experiences available at the former Shiroishi primary school, but it might be something they introduce next year. They are planning to increase the opportunities for a short term training camp stay. You can arrange to participate in a short term training camp through the troupe’s official website contact page (click here).

Impressions

The experience of playing and watching taiko with the Hikijin and Ondekoza is a new addition to my top ten experiences in Japan. Scratch that – top three. Pounding calf hide bound fiercely on wooden barrels in the crease of a mountain in Higashi-Chichibu, was by far one of thee most exhilarating experiences I’ve have had in my 19 years in Japan.

ondekoza

I may have crossed “playing taiko” off my bucket list, but that doesn’t mean I am finished with it. Yesterday’s experience has left me wanting more. I definitely want to see Ondekoza in concert – anywhere in the world. I also hope to organize for my family to join the troupe for a day or two. No doubt it would have a positive lasting influence on the kids. I think taiko drums can be enjoyed by all – no prior experience or musical inclination is necessary to appreciate the majesty and beauty of taiko.

An inspiring performance during our workshop

Ondekoza Taiko Troupe Information

Official English Language websiteOfficial Japanese language website
Ondekoza Youtube page Ondekoza Facebook Page
Former Shiroishi Map

Other hands on experiences featured on this blog:

Coming up – WASHI! Make your own Japanese washi paper in Tokigawa

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2 comments on “An experience of a lifetime: taiko with Ondekoza

    1. L M N

      I do too! Unfortunately I don’t have the natural ability I secretly hoped I would have on picking up a bachi drumstick for the first time!!

      Reply

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