Remembering Firsts

As my time here comes to an end, I have been doing a lot of reflecting, typically in the form of taking pictures and writing.  I still have a bunch of farewell parties I need to write posts about, but in the meantime, I thought it might be nice to share one of the pieces I’ve written:

When encountering a new culture, your “firsts” are what stick with you throughout the years.  For Japan, there are some firsts that are fairly common: your first time wearing a kimono or yukata, your first tea ceremony, your first festival.  Other experiences can be unexpected firsts, moments when you did not expect a cultural difference: your first doctor’s visit, going to the bathroom, trying to figure out which part of the post office is actually a post office when two-thirds of the building is a bank.  My most memorable first was my first taiko performance.

At the start of my second year living in Japan, I set new goals for what I wanted to accomplish during my time spent here.  I revisited the bucket list I had written for my blog when I first arrived and decided to work on accomplishing what I had left on the list.  Originally, my big three goals from the bucket list were to a) learn a new martial art, b) try kyudo, and c) try taiko.  I half accomplished my first goal by joining a dojo in my neighborhood which teaches taekwondo, a martial art I have been practicing since I was a kid.  However, the school being taught was different from what I was used to and I was ready for a new activity.  For the second goal, I stopped by my school’s kyudo club and practiced with the students from time to time.  However, I found I did not have the patience for the slow and precise ceremony of the sport with my background in archery.  My third goal was a little more difficult to accomplish.  My school’s taiko team practiced off campus at a location that my co-workers could only vaguely describe to me.  A basic Google search led me to a website that had not been updated since the inception of the internet.  Still, I decided to send off an e-mail in hopes that someone would find it.

My response came from one of my co-workers.  Her friend was the president of the taiko team and he had contacted her upon receiving my e-mail.  With her help, I figured out the location of the practice and how to get there.  The next few weeks were filled with sweat and arms so sore I could barely reach up to shampoo my hair in the shower.  Eventually the president of the club told me to show up at an event one day and so I did.  I thought I would just be going to help and did not bring my performance outfit or even my bachi.  I helped unload the truck and mostly stood on the side lines, helping as needed and taking pictures.

Suddenly, right before the taiko team was about to start a second set, the president turned to me and told me to get on stage.  I protested, saying I had not practiced enough, I was not matching everyone else, and I did not even have my sticks.  His response was to hand me a pair of extra bachi and all but push me onto the stage.  I was nervous and my arms quickly started to ache, but I managed not to lose the beat completely.  There is a picture of me at the event, my face caught between a grimace and smile, enjoying myself but struggling to keep going.

That performance set the tone for the rest of my taiko career.  I knew I had to push myself if I was going to be able to contribute anything more than the baseline for our songs.  I started showing up early to practice so I could focus on my weak points before everyone else showed up.  I started participating in performances whenever I had free time and soon people in town started to recognize me as, “that foreigner in the taiko group.”  Taiko helped me become more confident in my Japanese, forced me to continually challenge myself, and even helped me integrate more fully into the community.

All of this came from that one day when the taiko president forced me on stage.

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