When you’ve got 811 people holding 1,622 drum sticks ready to hit in unison, you know you are in for a real treat – welcome to the annual Narita Taiko Festival!
The Narita Taiko Matsuri is the largest drum festival in the Kanto region, bringing together 25 of the best taiko bands in Japan, and is held each April at Naritasan Shinshoji Temple. The matsuri features two full days of taiko drumming, dancing and parades.
Literally, taiko means “fat drum”, and the art form can be traced back the the sixth or seventh century in Japan, perhaps earlier. Taiko drums were used by samurai on the battlefield as a way to intimidate and scare the enemy as well as to issue commands to the troops.
Communities also used various taiko beat combinations to signal that a storm was coming or that hunters were setting out or returning. Eventually, some came to believe that taiko drums were the voices of the gods and today both Buddhist and Shinto employ taiko drums in their religions ceremonies.
Interestingly, before the 1980s, it was uncommon for Japanese women to perform on traditional instruments, including taiko, and their participation was largely restricted to only dance routines either during or between taiko performances. That has all changed, and, if anythhing female taiko drummers now outnumber their male counterparts.
In Japanese, taiko actually refers to any kind of drum, but outside Japan, it is used to refer to the various Japanese drums called wadaiko.
Taiko are traditionally crafted from a single trunk of the Japanese zelkova tree that has been dried out over years, using techniques to prevent splitting.
The skins or heads of taiko are generally made from cowhide from Holstein cows aged about three or four years. Skins also come from horses, and bull skin is preferred for larger drums.
Traditionally, taiko were made by the burakumin (‘untouchables’), a marginalized minority class in Japanese society, that worked with leather or animal skins.
Prejudice against this class dates back to the Tokugawa period (1603-1868) in terms of legal discrimination and treatment as social outcasts. Although official discrimination ended with the Tokugawa era, the burakumin have continued to face social discrimination, such as scrutiny by employers or in marriage arrangements.
Nartia’s Taiko Festival usually falls on the second weekend of April every year. On both days of the festival, there is a morning concert during which each group gets an introduction and short opening, the main event is all the players playing the same song. Promotions for the event say that this event can be heard from 10km away! I can’t verify that, but I can tell you that the noise is deafening – not mention the vibrations running through your body!
Throughout the days, there are various stages set up for different groups and performances along Omotesando, the road leading to Narita-san. All of the groups were incredibly good, and it was fabulous to see the mixture in styles, from very traditional to some really cool and funky modern interpretations
The main event of the festival is the Saturday evening concert. On the steps of the temple, several groups perform into the night illuminated by spotlights and more traditional fire torches.
The next day ends the festival with a parade from JR Narita Station down Omotesando to end at the temple.
Don’t be fooled by the kids’ ages – they could play as well as the adults!
Every taiko group that played in any event during the festival takes part in the parade, so it’s a great way to see the various kinds of groups all at once.
The groups range from small to large, with players aged quite literally from 5 to 55, and the atmosphere is unbelievably frantic, with everybody trying to outdo each other!
The groups absolutely hurl themselves into the festival with as much enthusiasm as they can muster
What makes the festival even nicer is its location. The old part of Narita is absolutely charming and well worth a visit at any time of the year
And there were even still some cherry bloosom to be enjoyed (these are especially for Matt, since he’d asked for cherry bloosom shots in an earlier post!)
Even though its not actually the biggest taiko festival in Japan (the honour of that goes to this one, which is actually the biggest drumming festival in the world) all in all, this festival is an ABSOLUTE MUST if you have even the slightest taste for Japanese drumming!
And finally, I dug out some Youtube videos of the festival to give you an idea of what it sounds and looks like!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ogmD3xOY2j8 (great facial close-ups)