Marewrew

It was a busy week with a great finale! Yesterday was Okafes, the World Music Festival in Kyoto’s Okazaki, and I spent most of my day there. The Okafes is an outdoors festival that invites musicians and dancers from Bali, Korea, Thailand, and of course, Japan to perform traditional music. It’s fun to watch and learn something new!

The highlight this year was Apetunpe, a female duo from Hokkaido singing Ainu tunes. Interestingly, they had no instruments, and the songs they brought along were canons (aka rounds) with a strong rhythm, which surprised me. Of course, they sing in the Ainu language, but even though I couldn’t understand anything, their soothing music touched me deeply.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find Apetunpe on youtube, but it seems that they are a part of a larger group called Marewrew, and they do have a few albums online. Here is Sikata Kuykuy, with a significantly more happy sound than what they performed yesterday.

Moon Viewing

It was full moon last Friday, and because this harvest moon is considered the most beautiful in Japan, there are moon viewing parties at many shrines and temples in Kyoto. This time, my friend from Tokyo joined me for the kangetsu at Matsunoo Taisha all the way out in the Western part of Kyoto.

It started off with a fairly short religious ceremony with prayers and a dance ritual by a miko shrine maiden. These dances are meant to attract the gods to the shrine, so they can take part in the ceremony and can later enjoy the performances that are put up for the gods (and earthly visitors as well). While those can vary and include martial arts or theater for example, at Matsunoo Taisha, visitors usually are treated to concerts for moon viewing.

First, there was a shakuhachi – bamboo flute – concert. I like shakuhachi very much, and they do have a plaintive sound that is essentially built-in. Still, I felt that the music wasn’t chosen well, it felt more appropriate for a slumber party, and that’s not the point of moon viewing. Something more upbeat would have suited the occasion better; surely there must be fun modern pieces for shakuhachi as well.

Afterwards, a koto & shinobue duo came on stage, and the mood lightened considerably. As I’ve explained before, koto is a zither-like instrument, and the shinobue is also a bamboo flute, but much smaller and with a higher pitch. The combination was fun and light-hearted, exactly what my friend and I expected.

At last, the main attraction and the reason why we went all the way out to Matsunoo Taisha in the first place: Wadaiko drums. I had planned this the moment I found out that one of the Bati-Holics (lead singer Nakajima) would perform with his students, and I was not disappointed. Altogether there were five groups performing one song each, and finally, there was some power behind the music, literally.

By then, the moon had risen over the dance stage and the shrine was packed with fans and friends of the players (mostly female laypeople except for the teachers) and the atmosphere was very lively, as always when taiko are involved. The free cup of sake did help too, I’m sure. Of the five pieces, one of them stood out to both my friend and me, and we were later told by the owner of the taiko school who organizes these concerts every year that it was his wife’s song (sorry, Nakajima-san).

We skipped the haiku contest at the end, but it was a lovely night just as well. The weather was pleasant, and even though I only got home past 11, I didn’t need the jacket I brought. My friend was also glad she came; it was her very first traditional moon viewing in a shrine. Things are indeed very different in Kyoto and Tokyo…

Yoshida Brothers

Somehow, I fell into a Japanese music hole on YouTube the last couple of days… and here I emerge with the Yoshida Brothers.

The brothers from Hokkaido began to play Japanese shamisen from a very young age, and started performing when they were around 20 years old. Their music mixes elements of Tsugaru-jamisen (a very rapid but still traditional style of playing) and western influences. Their first album sold 100,000 copies, and they have performed even internationally. This is one of their latest uploads to their YouTube channel, a dedicatory performance for the Buddha (sound isn’t perfect):

They also have an English website through their record label: https://www.domomusicgroup.com/yoshidabrothers/

Bati-Holic II

Last night, I went out, and I can’t believe it took me that long to see another Bati-Holic concert! During that time, the world had (and still has) Corona, and the Kyoto Taiko Drum Rock Band has released their new CD “What a Sushi”. I haven’t listened to all of it yet, so I can’t say if I have a favourite on this album.

My favourite from their previous one is “Brightness”; the video is from a Kyoto concert in 2019.

This is closely followed by “Panorama”, where the lead vocals are replaced by a flute. Enjoy!

Koto

What do you “hear” when I ask you to think of traditional Japanese music? Is it the shakuhachi, the bamboo flute, or the shamisen or biwa, guitar-like string instruments? Most likely, it’s the soft tones of the Japanese koto, ubiquitous in many videos about Japan.

The koto is one of Japan’s string instruments, a large zither-like instrument with origins in China. It’s made from Paulownia wood, is 180 cm long and has typically 13 silken strings. It is played with the right hand (using fingerpicks) and the left hand is used as support and to move the bridges that are used by tuning – sometimes even during the performance of a piece.

As mentioned above, and like many other things, the koto has its origins in China, and it was introduced to Japan somewhere in the 7th or 8th century. It is already mentioned in the Genji Monogatari of the 11th century, so it must have been quite widespread at this time already.

There once were different types of koto, and interestingly, as far as professional musicians go, these were exclusively blind men in the beginning. Only when this rule was changed, were women allowed to play and to teach the instrument. For this reason, many of the traditional songs were written by men.

With the westernization beginning with the Meiji Restoration, koto music, together with other Japanese traditions, lost a lot of its appeal for the Japanese, who were more likely to study the violin or other classical instruments of the Western canon.

However, Michio Miyagi, a blind man who reached the highest rank of koto performer when he was just 18 years old, created many new songs in which he combined the traditional and the Western style of music. His piece below is called “Tegoto” and I like it because it is so dynamic and shows off not only the instrument’s unique sound, but also the player.

The sound is not the best in this video, but you can see the hands of Ms. Kimoto at every note of the song. Enjoy!

Moon Viewing

Last Friday night was a full moon, and the full moon in September is considered the most beautiful by Japanese people. That’s why there are many moon viewing parties going on everywhere, from the expensive dinners and tea ceremonies in quiet gardens to festival-like events with food stalls in shrines and temples, and there are some people who just go out with a can of beer and organise their own moon-viewing picnic.

This year, I took some time out to visit Shimogamo Shrine for their moon viewing event. I live very close to the shrine, so it’s easy to get to, and my choice was partly driven by the cloudy skies that looked like it would start to rain any moment. At Shimogamo Shrine, the full moon is a rather minor accessory to the events, the big thing is a concert of traditional Japanese music. It lasts for three hours, and there are a number of participants. I am not sure if they are the same every year, but this year we had:

Five people playing the shakuhachi to kick off the concert. I was very pleased about that, and I found it quite interesting that my own shakuhachi sounds so much deeper than the ones they played. I’m wondering if I’m doing something wrong, actually, that’s very likely since most of the times, I cannot get a tone out of it anyway…Gagaku Musicians

Afterwards we had a gagaku concert – traditional Japanese court music. It is still not my thing, I find it excruciatingly boring, and I am wondering if the people back in Heian times really and honestly enjoyed this kind of music.

Then, a large troupe of koto players took the stage, and this was the part I enjoyed most. They played very lively and modern sounding pieces, but from the reaction of the spectators next to me who could hum the tunes alongside the musicians, I guess that the pieces must have been very old and popular ones.

The biwa music that followed was less exciting to be honest, but still my fellow spectators knew the tunes. I could not help wondering whether half of the musicians were Buddhist priests or nuns – shaved heads and all.biwa musiciansAfter a biwa solo recital and one more fun koto part, we got to the highlight of the evening: another gagaku concert. This time, however, the music accompanied dancers, which made the whole experience much more bearable. We had three dances, first four children dressed in butterfly outfits, then two men who might have been courtiers, and finally, a single performance of a demon, complete with mask, sword, and spear.Kids dancing as butterflies.

The dance movements were extremely formalised, almost stiff, to be honest, the dancers didn’t look very graceful. Only the demon at the end was allowed to brandish his spear in a more realistic way, it must have been a part for a very advanced performer. Still, all the costumes were fantastic and elaborately decorated, it was a joy to just look at all the details. I am sure the colors and embroidery have some hidden meaning, but even so, they were lost on me.Demon Dance

I bought a ticket for reserved seats in front of the stage and I did not regret it – standing for three hours is no fun at all. The ticket also included a cup of green tea with sweets, but I would have had to leave my seat to get it. I thought about it and, looking back, I should have just gone during the first gagaku concert, but it was fine anyway. In the end, I had a nice evening – and when I walked home, the moon came out from behind the clouds for a brief “good night”.

Taiko

Among the many types of traditional Japanese music instruments, taiko drums are probably the most exciting. They have been used in many settings, including court music and theater – both noh and kabuki – but the biggest taiko drums were used during warfare. There, they were used chiefly for communication, to let the troops know when to attack or to retreat, or simply to keep the beat during long marches.

Today, these large drums are often played during festivals, and then, it’s usually in the form of a kumi-daiko, where a group of people with different sized drums performs together. I enjoy listening to taiko music, it is – excuse the pun – always very upbeat and energising. The video below shows a performance by Kodo, which is probably the taiko troupe that is best known outside of Japan, since they are touring abroad for four months each year.

The video is 8:24 long and safe for work – although you might want to turn the volume down a bit.

Important Cultural Property

You have no idea what I have met last Sunday… But let’s start at the beginning!

Last Sunday, I took a few hours off to take an introductory course on Noh in a very small Noh theater. Noh (or Nohgaku) is traditional Japanese theater with a history of some 600 years, and I have seen one play before. This time, however, there was an in-depth explanation of some aspects of Noh, given by three actors of both the Kanze and the Kongo theater – both major traditional Noh schools.

The course came in three parts: In the first, we got a brief historical overview, then talked about chants (Utai), masks (Omote), and movements (Kata). Two people could even try putting on one of the masks, which must have been very exciting for them. Anyway, in the second part, the movements were explored further, and the audience learnt a very short chant to which the actor then performed the moves on stage. Even though I can’t sing, this was the most fun part of them all.

Nohgaku TranslationIn the third part, we saw a short excerpt of the Noh play “Atsumori“. But first, the most senior actor played that part with all its movements and chanted in English what was happening. Noh movements are very complex and refined, without knowing what is going on it is pretty much impossible to discern it just from watching the play. So, this part was very useful, since we could compare the English version to the stylised real version we could watch just a few moments later. I liked this part a lot, and it gave me more incentive to go back and see more Noh plays. Yes, for some odd reason, I do like Noh, even though most of it is practically incomprehensible to the outsider.

Anyway, after the course, there was first a question and answer session, and afterwards, a few people – me included – went to have dinner in a nearby Japanese restaurant. There, the instructors of the course, the staff of the theater, and 12 people from the audience could sit together and eat, drink, and talk to the Noh actors. It turned out that the oldest one – who spoke English almost flawlessly – was the representative of a very small local Noh theatre. He was very knowledgeable, and talking to him gave me lots of things to think about.

Towards the end of the dinner, people exchanged business cards, and, you won’t believe it: That old sensei was a “Designated National Human Important Cultural Property” of Japan. These people are usually extremely knowledgeable in a traditional art of craft, and they are officially charged to maintain the art on the highest possible level and transmit their knowledge to future generations. Obviously, there are not many of them, and I am so thrilled that I could actually meet one of them – and even more: That he could speak English so well and that I was allowed to ask all sorts of questions.

Yes, I do indeed like Noh. I will be back for more!

Not Getting Out Of Bed!

A friend of mine just sent me a link to the video below, it’s a very cute Japanese song and anime with the title “I’m not getting out of bed” or literally, out of the futon. It tells a story every Japanese can relate to:

When you wake up in the morning and you have to get up, but it’s really, really too cold to step out of bed…
When the room is finally warm enough, but you now have to go to the toilet, but it’s really, really too cold to leave the room…

To all my European friends who suffer from the extreme cold there at the moment: I feel for you! If you can’t enjoy the cold, at least enjoy the cute penguin!

Kokyu

Last Saturday I went to a small open air concert in a temple in the centre of Kyoto: koto and shakuhachi. The two instruments go well together, and the flute was the main reason why I wanted to go. I had been to koto concerts before, but never heard a shakuhachi live. And I have to say – I was disappointed by it.

I am not sure what was wrong with the shakuhachi player – a rather old monk from said temple – whether I could not hear him because the microphone was not well-adjusted or functioning (there were a number of total outages throughout the concert) or whether the player himself didn’t have enough breath do make himself heard.

The two koto players were very good though, so my time was not wasted. Interestingly, I was the only non-senior in the audience, something I had not expected at all. But maybe because of this, I was treated to a very special performance: The last song (and the encore) must have been well-known tunes, because at some point, people in the audience started singing along! Man and women alike accompanied (or were accompanied by) the koto and the shakuhachi. It was lovely!

A Japanese Kokyu As a bonus, I learnt something new: In one of the pieces, a so-called kokyu was used. It looks like a half-sized shamisen, but is played like a cello. A kokyu has three silken strings and the bow is a thick handful of horsetail hair. The bow-strings (do you call it like that?) are slack, and you need to use the ring finger of the bow hand to tighten it while you play.

This is not easy, and I know that because I was allowed to try it after the concert – obviously the foreigner bonus. To be honest, the sound of the kokyu is not very pleasant to Western ears. It is reminiscent of the Chinese erhu, but the tones of the kokyu are less crisp. I guess this is either because the bow is never really taut, or because of the silken strings.

All in all I had a nice afternoon, even though I will have to try and catch another shakuhachi concert. I hope that I will hear about more concerts and events like this – there is so much to do and learn in Kyoto!