Every once in awhile, living in a foreign country, you have a moment, a day or an experience where you feel totally “in it.” It is as though you are completely immersed in the fabric of a place, experiencing it not so much as an event but as a state of being. As a very visible outsider – blonde hair, blue eyes, atrocious Japanese language skills – it is often difficult to have these experiences in Japan, for I’m always a noted exception to the normalcy of Japanese life, and the scene inevitably changes to incorporate me.
As a member of a taiko group, I occasionally get a chance to be “behind the scenes” of the culture, so to speak. The way socialization works in Japan is very focused on groups – you’re in an “in-group” or an “out-group” and there’s no in between. So it is that, even as a “gaijin,” the Japanese word for foreigner that literally means “outside person,” I can get on the inside by being part of a definable group and blending into the scenery a little.
The other day, a very dull and drizzly Sunday, I played at two small local festivals along with my taiko group. The first festival was set in the middle of the farmer’s fields, at a tiny community center, rice and beans growing all around. Tents were set up outside because of the rain, and we arrived early so we could enjoy the festival before we, the main entertainment, were scheduled to play. It was a cozy community festival, and at its busiest, I don’t think there could have been more than 40 people, and half of them were helping run the event.
The main attraction of the festival was not our group persay, but the mochi that was being made all morning. They cooked the rice in bamboo steaming trays over a traditional outdoor wooden stove. Then they poured it into an inset wooden pedestal and pounded it until it became smooth. Then they took it away and rolled it into sheets, or made it directly into mochi balls, covered them toppings and served them.
I found it interesting that there seemed to be a very conspicuous order of things, with the older women rolling out the pounded mochi and serving up the mochi toppings, the older men pounding the mochi, the younger women working as support inside the kitchen prepping and cleaning, and the younger men doing support outside by tending the fire and tidying, etc. It was all very traditional, although they did let a few of the young kids try their hands at the mochi pounding. When it came time for our performance, everyone crowded inside the small community center to watch. Afterwards we feasted on mochi, and just when we had gotten too full to move and were ready for nap time, we had to head off to our second performance of the day.
In the morning when we set out, it wasn’t really raining, so practically no one thought to bring umbrellas. But by the time we left the first festival it was pouring, which would make the second half of the day pretty interesting. I gave a ride to some of the younger members, so I dropped them off at the second performance location, then had to leave to find parking. This proved to be the biggest adventure of all. I had no idea that Sputnik, my little Mazda Demio, could do so well off-roading… I followed another member’s car along route to the parking lot, which took us along a tiny unpaved rice field road, and someone had laid some scrap plywood boards out at one point for the cars to drive across where the mud/gravel road was washing away. Next it was up a steep gravelly and muddy hill and around a tight corner before finally reaching the parking lot. Then we had to dash in and out of a series of small buildings, the complex of a hospital, to reach the part of the hospital grounds where the performance was.
Finally, we played for a tiny crowd huddled under a tent, as our own tent leaked above us onto our drums and our heads. I was damp and sore by the end of everything, but it had been a very good Japan sort of day, so I was happy.
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, I forgot my camera, so the few cell phone/instagram pictures I managed to snap will have to suffice.