Taiko and tea


The tea ceremony and taiko are both quintessentially Japanese. You could say they represent two ends of a spectrum of formality, from a refined, elegant ritual to rousing, energetic (and very loud) performances. Over the last few days I have experienced taiko as a player and audience member and visited Daitoku-ji Temple, a centre for the tea ceremony. As well as their connection to the elements, what has struck me about tea and taiko is the range of senses they engage. It is a timely reminder that elemental Japan captivates all of our senses.

A Japanese sweet served before matcha (powdered tea). The spiral represents a water ripple. The elements are everywhere in Japan.

A Japanese sweet served before matcha (powdered green tea). The pattern and colours represent a water ripple. Just in this image you can see earth, metal, water and wood.  The elements are everywhere in Japan.

My dream to learn taiko finally came true in February 2015 when I joined Taiko Drum in Hobart, Tasmania. Fortunately for me some members were soon to embark on a taiko tour of Japan, to which I was accepted. What an incredible experience it was to share the energy and joy of the Japanese taiko players we practiced and performed with. Being back in Japan has provided the opportunity to again play with Japanese taiko groups and amazingly to see Kodo perform in Kyoto. They are one of the most famous taiko groups and it was a delight to see them.

As luck would have it, my first opportunity to practice taiko was lesson only a two minute walk from my apartment. We played a Matsuri (Festival) song together. It was a lot of fun.

As good fortune would have it, my first opportunity to practice taiko on this trip was a lesson only a two minute walk from my apartment in Kyoto. We played a Matsuri (Festival) song together. It was a lot of fun.

The Matsuda family and me after we had played the Matsuri outdoors. Go taiko!

The Matsuda family and me after we had played the Matsuri outdoors. Go taiko!

Taiko has a strong connection with the elements, which I wrote about in a blog titled ‘The Way of the Drum’ soon after I started playing.  While the current form of playing multiple drum types as a group originated in the 1950s, the playing of taiko in Japan stretches back through the millennia. Individual drums are on display in the Temples and Shrines that I have been visiting where they are used in rituals and Festivals. The sound of the taiko is likened to a heartbeat, it connects to something fundamental within us. Without the element of air, we would not be able to hear these stirring sounds. Everything is interconnected.

Two taiko (drums) stand proud at Omiwa Shrine in Nara Prefecture. Drums are used in both Shinto and Buddhist rituals and festivals. I have heard the taiko referred to as the voice of the Buddha.

Two taiko (drums) stand proud at Omiwa Shrine in Nara Prefecture. Drums are used in both Shinto and Buddhist rituals and Festivals. I have heard the taiko referred to as the voice of the Buddha, as well as having intimate connections to earth, fire, water, air and ether.

One of the reasons for visiting Daitoku-ji Temple was to see the Zen garden at Korin-in, a sub-temple that is not usually open to the public. The importance of sound was reinforced there as a Zen monk performed a ceremony as we gazed at the raked sand, rocks and rhododendrons. The sound of the low and high pitched gongs, the wooden fish drum and the monks chanting was beautiful. The melody of the gong lingered in the air for some time.

Korin-in Temple, Daitoku-ji. The sounds associated with the Zen Buddhist ceremony that we heard while viewing the garden in the Temple grounds reminded me of th e importance of sound and the other senses in elemental Japan.

Korin-in, a sub-temple of Daitoku-ji. The sounds associated with the Zen Buddhist ceremony,  heard while viewing the garden in the Temple grounds, were mesmerising. They reminded me of the importance of sound and our other senses in elemental Japan.

The monks chanting drew my thoughts to Kotodama, the Japanese belief that mystical powers dwell in words and names, that sounds can magically affect objects, and that ritual words can influence our environment, mind, body and soul. It makes sense to me that words have power, and that sound vibrations can affect the environment and our bodies. Dr Emoto tried to demonstrate some of these interactions in his work on the impact of energy, particularly sound, on water crystals. Sound is an essential part of the elemental landscape of Japan, whether it be words or the voices of wind, water, musical instruments and more.

The importance of sound to the Japanese aesthetic is reinforced by the 100 soundscapes selected across the country by the Ministry for the Environment in 1996. This was done to promote the rediscovery of the sounds of everyday life, to help protect the environment and to act as local symbols. Many of the soundscapes are elemental in nature, capturing the sounds of wind, water and even the earth (squeaking sands in that case). In a way you could say they are all elemental, as the element of air is required for sound to travel. Several of the soundscapes are on Youtube and are worth checking out. An illustrated pamphlet describing all of the soundscapes is also available, in Japanese only.

Raindrops sit on the tips of these pine needles after a gentle shower the evening before. The sound of raindrops or water dripping is called potsu-potsu in Japan. I have seen an advertisement for an umbrella that highlights the special sound it makes when the rain falls on it.

Raindrops sit on the tips of these pine needles after a gentle shower the evening before. The sound of raindrops or water dripping is called potsu-potsu in Japan. Recently I saw an advertisement for an umbrella that highlights the special sound it makes when the rain falls on it. Such examples show how intrinsic the elements are to Japan.

The sounds in the tea ceremony are muted in comparison to taiko and Buddhist chants. They are still an essential part of the experience. This wonderful quote comes from the Onishi Seiwemon Museum website. The Onishi family have been master kettle makers for tea ceremonies for over 400 years.

In tearoom it is good manners not to wear a watch. The only a clock in a tearoom is the kettle, which lets you know the best timing for a bowl of good tea. When the guests enter the tearoom, the kettle has cold water in it. So the host makes the water hot by adding some charcoal into the fire pit. The kettle, which is sitting still, begins to gush out steam and makes more and more noise. This sound is named Matsukaze, which means wind through pine trees. What a beautiful poetic name for the sound of boiling water!”

The Onishi Seiwemon Museum in Sanjo Street Kyoto houses some stunning examples of iron kettles made by the Onishi family for the tea ceremony.

The Onishi Seiwemon Museum in Sanjo Street Kyoto houses some stunning examples of iron kettles made by the Onishi family for the tea ceremony. Each utensil in the tea ceremony has a rich history and an association with the elements.

Sound is important in other parts of the tea ceremony, such as the placement of the ladle in different phases of the ritual. As well as sound, the senses of smell (of the tea, and the incense used in the ceremony) and touch (the feel of the tea bowl) are engaged in the tea ceremony. Our visual senses can be almost overwhelmed by the beauty of the tea ceremony utensils, the setting of the ceremony and of course the ceremony itself. The taste and texture of the tea and the sweet before-hand is the culmination of all that goes before.

There are many images of tea utensils and the tea ceremony on the internet. This one caught my eye, possibly because I sensed the accompany text referred to tea and the five senses.

There are many images of tea utensils and the tea ceremony on the internet. This one caught my eye, possibly because I sensed the accompanying text referred to tea and the five senses (I would add the sixth). It also has a useful and well illustrated description of the ceremony itself. An electrical element is used to heat the water in this demonstration. Traditionally carefully placed charcoal is used to bring the water alive. Source: Guava Rose.

There is a 'Way of Incense (Fragrance)' just as there is a 'Way of Tea'. Kodo is not as well known as Chado. Indeed, when you type Kodo into an internet search the taiko group comes up! This incense burner is in the Isuzen restaurant at Daitoku-ji temple. Incense is also prominent at Buddhist Temples where it is used for prayer and purification. Kodo, like Chado, has a set of codified ways of handling incense. It is something I would like to explore further.

There is a ‘Way of Incense’ (Kodo) just as there is a ‘Way of Tea ‘ (Chado). Kodo is not as well known as Chado. Indeed, when you type Kodo into an internet search the taiko group comes up! This incense burner is in the Isuzen Restaurant at Daitoku-ji temple. Incense is also prominent at Buddhist Temples where it is used for prayer and purification. It is also used in the tea ceremony, sometimes mixed with the charcoal that heats the water.  Kodo, like Chado, has a set of codified rules of practice. It is a ‘way’ that I would like to explore further for its elemental connections.

So all of the senses, including the sixth one I believe, are captured in the tea ceremony. I was impressed to learn that Daitoku-ji Temple has 47 tea rooms. It became a centre of cultural activity through its association with Sen no Rikyu, who had a profound influence on ‘The Way of Tea’. As I walk around the  streets of Kyoto, shops selling beautiful utensils and tea, or tearooms large and small, make you appreciate the importance of tea and the ceremony in Japan.

Another quote, this time from Plutschow (1999), about the elements and tea.

The Japanese tearoom is structured strictly according to the forces of yin and yang and the Five Elements, based on Daoism; certain portions of the room are either yin or yang and the utensils and people occupying such space are identified with these elements. The way in which the host prepares Tea accords with the Five Elements. Charcoal “wood” is used to build a “fire” which is used to boil “water” in an iron kettle “metal” which, in turn, is used to make Tea in a bowl “earth.” “Earth” is furthermore represented in the ashes surrounding the burning charcoal and, in some forms of Tea, in the brazier. The tea scoop and ladle also represent “wood” and, because Tea is made in harmony with all these elements, it becomes the essence of the universe.”

Five elements and six senses. A heady mix.

In October 2016 I returned to Kyoto with a Urasenke Tea Master and two of his students to learn more about the way of tea. You can read about it in the post ‘Time for more tea’.

4 thoughts on “Taiko and tea

    • Thank-you Ruth. I will try and enhance the experience by adding some sound when I can. Sharing some of the other senses in their primal form is not as straightforward. Since you read the post I have added some information on Kodo, the ‘Way of Incense’ (or fragrance). While you can’t smell the incense in the image, you can at least see it floating in the air. Air, the element that we can’t see yet is essential for life and transmitting sound and smells.

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