Where beating the drum is part of the craft…*
* If this crude translation from German may be allowed….
The high standards of Japanese arts and crafts are world-renowned. And this is certainly not a coincidence, as Japanese master craftmen seem to cultivate a special dedication to their art and they also seem to form a sort of most impressive symbiosis with the materials they are about to work on.
I was able to find quite a representative for that at the workshops of the time-honored establishment of Miyamoto Unosuke (宮本・卯之助 / みやもと・うのすけ), which I had the chance to visit with members of the “Deutsche Gesellschaft für Natur- und Völkerkunde Ostasiens” (OAGドイツ東洋文化研究協会 ).
The workshops of Miyamoto Unosuke produce, among other things, the famous great hand-made “taiko”(太鼓 / たいこ)-drums, but gorgeous and delicately adorned, portable shrines – so-called “mikoshi” (神輿 / みこし) – just as well. And they do that since 1861, when the company was founded (at that time under the name of “Yamashiroya”, but residing in Asakusa and “listening” to the Name “Miyamoto since 1893). Today about 50 craftsmen are working for the firm. And during the course of their employment with Miyamoto Unosuke they have to make themselves familiar with the whole product range of the company (while the lacquerers may have a certain exceptional position, as the paint used may lead to allergic reactions with some of the members of staff).
Suitable to the “devotion to the work” displayed by the craftsmen, the company has given itself a motto: “重義” (しげよし / shigeyoshi), which could, most roughly be translated with “one should value trust and sincerity prior to profit”. Nevertheless, when visiting the premisis of the company, one doesn’t get the impression that profit was all together neglected. And why should it be? After all, a trade in hand finds gold in every land. Why not in Japan?!
During the funeral ceremonies of the Taishō emperor (1926) Miyamoto Unosuke was commissioned with the ceremonial drums – and it has been granted an imperial warrant ever since. Hence, also musical instruments needed for the enthrownment of the Shōwa emperor came from Miyamoto Unosuke. Since then the company became official supplier for the Kabuki-za (1963), the National Theatre (1966) and the National Noh-Theatre (1986). Also there is hardly any work of restauration at the notable temples and shrines in the city that didn’t require the company’s skilled experts.
Of all their products, the best-known may be the “nagadō daiko” (長胴太鼓 / ながどうたいこ / long-body drums – as their body is longer than the diameter of the drum’s head). These drums come in all sizes, but the most impressive ones are those with diameters of more than one metre – made from wood of the domestic keyaki tree (Japanese zelkova). The body of the drum is made from one single piece of the wood that needs to be dried in an elaborate fashion for three to five years, once the rough version of the drum’s body is hollowed out. Only after the drying process it can be assessed, whether the wood has been brought into a condition that is required for further procession. The rough body of the drum finds its perfect shape and smooth surface under the hands and ploughs (no abrasive paper!) of the craftsmen of the firm, before it the drumhead made of cowhide is tacked to it.
As the age of a tree (or its circumference respectively) also dictates the maximal size of a drum to be made from it, the large drums are the biggest treasures. It is said that the age of a tree should correlate with the expected useful life of the drum made from it. Hence, if a 400 year old tree is cut today to make drums from it, the biggest one of them should still be in use by the middle of this millenium (provided appropriate handling and care).
Here are two examples for one of those particilarly big “nagadō daiko”:
And if you want to see (and hear) the soundscapes that can be created when various smaller “taiko” are put together, have a look at this slighly older video I took at the cherryblossom festival at the Sumida river:
Those who have been to a kabuki- or noh performance may know the “kotsuzumi” (小鼓 / こつづみ) and their – at first glance – idendical sister, the “ōtsuzumi” (大鼓 / おおつづみ) (by the way, “tsuzumi” is a general term for percussion). Their slender body is usually made of the wood of cherry trees and it is decorated with precious lacquer-ware, before their horsehide drumhead is fixed. One of the characteristics of these drums, however, are the bright red hemp ropes that are used for tightening the drumhead. These ropes add an additional degree of “flexibility” to the drums, as their tuning can be changed by applying pressure to the rope.
Naturally, the musical instruments that are used for “gagaku” (雅楽 / ががく) have their very unique rank among traditional Japanese instruments. This kind of music, that has been played at the Imperial Court since the Heian period (8th century AD), originally came from the Chinese Impire of those days, and it still sounds like the passage of events wasn’t able to change it the slightest. For a western ear this music may seem to lack harmony, because the instruments that carry the melody can do that in line with the underlying rhythm as well as independently. In any case, for many people this music is the very essence of age-old Japanese culture. Another identifying feature of this music is its most solemn, extremly slow speed. Among the instruments used for “gagaku”, the gorgeous percussion instruments, “dadaiko” (鼉太鼓 / だだいこ), “shōko” (鉦鼓 / しょうこ) and “gaku daiko” (楽太鼓 / がくだいこ) are surely the most impressive.
Even though you are not supposed to beat them, another of the main products of the workshops may very well be the most awsome: The so-called “mikoshi” (神輿 / みこし), the portable shrines for shintō-dieties. None of the big shrine festivals in the city would be possible without them. I’ve reported about them before:
Sanja Matsuri (三社祭) (Engl./dt.)
– Ein Fest für die Götter, das Volk, die Augen und das Ohr
– A festival for the gods, the people, the eyes and the ear
Sanja Matsuri (三社祭）– Video
With this “parade of the dieties” local people are aiming at ridding the respective part of town of evil spirits. And all those who have a more “worldly” approach to it, take it as a welcome occasion for a little bit of exuberance. The shrine festivals in Tōkyō are surely among the most lively events one can imagine when it comes to folk festivals. The Sanja Matsuri alone attracts millions of people on one single weekend.
In the year 1988 Miyamoto Unosuke also founded the first museum of the world, dedicated to drums. In the meantime the collections contain some 900 exhibits from all corners of the world. But it doesn’t just “exhibit” them – most of the items on display may not only be tried, the owner of the museum practically “demands” the visitors to play with the instruments. Who ever wanted to play a Jamaican steel drum (steel pan) is in the right place. Or would you like to find out how the croaking of frogs is being imitaded on kabuki stages, how the falling snow is being made audible there, the Miyamoto Drum Museum is the place for it.
By the way: At the “Miyamoto Studio” you can take lessons for all the instruments produced in the workshops.
Address of the Head-Office and the Workshops of Miyamoto Unosuke:
Map of the main shop and the workshops of Miyamoto Unosuke:
10 am to 5 pm
Closed on Mondays (should Monday be a holiday, the museum stays closed on Tuesday)
Adults: 500 Yen
Children (from elementary school): 150 Yen
Disabled and accompanying person: free
Address of the Drum Museum:
2-1-1 Nishi-Asakusa, 4. OG
Map of the Drum Museum of Miyamoto Unosuke:
How to get there:
Drum- and Mikoshi Workshop:
Take the Tōkyō Metro Ginza line (東京メトロ銀座線 / とうきょうメトロぎんざせん) or the Toei Subway Asakusa line (都営地下鉄浅草線 / とえいちかてつあさくさせん) or the Tōbu-Skytree line (東武スカイツリー線 / とうぶスカイツリーせん) to Asakusa (浅草 / あさくさ) and from there about 5 min on foot along the Umamichi Dōri (馬道通り / うまみちどおり) in northern direction to Asakusa 6 chōme (浅草6丁目 / あさくさ６ちょうめ).
Take the Tōkyō Metro Ginza line (東京メトロ銀座線 / とうきょうメトロぎんざせん) to Tawaramachi (田原町/ たわらまち) and from there 2 minutes on foot in northern direction along the Kokusai Dōri (国際通り / こくさいどおり).