Every October, men on Shodoshima parade taiko drums throughout it’s cities on large floats, demonstrating skill and strength – and I was asked to join!
We were thrilled to be in Shodoshima for the annual drum festival, but we never could have imagined how involved we were going to be!
Shodoshima Drum Festival
I’m holding onto one of two logs the size of a telephone pole, along with 60 other men and teenagers. Nearly 15 feet ahead of me, four young men are strapped onto a litter that is lashed to our massive poles, playing a taiko in perfect sync with each other. With a shouted command, we roar and lift the entire float, or taiko-dai, high above our heads.
The leader shouts another command like a battle cry, and we roll the entire float to one side. It weighs around 3,000 lbs – as much as a mid-size car – and my arms burn as we hold our side up in the air. Moments later, we tilt the float in the other direction. Then, we lift it back above our heads, lower it and toss the entire float in the air!
The entire time, the drummers keep perfect time, leaning back dramatically before striking the taiko with their bachi. Salt is flung over us, mochi are thrown to the crowd; the excitement and enthusiasm are overflowing!
The Shodoshima Drum Festival is an intense traditional ritual and a community event that literally and figuratively reverberates throughout the entire island.
The drums call out to the kami, or deity (in this case Hachiman), and participants play and sing ancient praise music throughout the march. The taiko-dai is pushed between neighborhoods while resting on a wheeled cart, but as soon as the next performance spot comes into view, everything gets intense quickly!
How did I get involved?
We were happy just to enjoy the festival with the crowd. We showed up, parked, and were immediately stunned to see the talented drummers and dramatic feats of strength.
As drummers took a break from one of the first performances, I – using Google Translate, hand gestures and very limited Japanese – began asking some questions of Hirokuni Hida from Kashima, an area of Tonosho. Kashima just happened to be one of the most intense groups we saw all day!
After chatting, Hirokuni-san thumbed his shirt and asked if I wanted to participate. Whoa! I immediately agreed; they brought out a happi, or traditional shirt, cinched it around me and introduced me to Hajime.
Hajime was one of the leaders toward the rear of the taiko-dai. He was welcoming and friendly, and extremely patient with my poor Japanese and complete unfamiliarity with the ritual. He kept me where I needed to be and helped me have the most incredible experience I’ve had in Japan.
Everyone was bound together by tradition and the combined effort of doing something really hard. I felt totally integrated into the group. A few spoke some smatterings of English, certainly better than my Japanese, but we muddled through it with smiles on our faces. We marched the taiko-dai from shrine to shrine, singing along with the chorus of the music and chatting about a million topics. And smiling. Lots of smiling, because despite the language challenges, I couldn’t have been enjoying myself more!
It’s a community event. Every walk of life comes together – we had a firefighter, a crewman from a ship, high school students, a Japanese dentist and a discount store employee represented in the group surrounding me. How the event brought everyone together to pull their weight was remarkable.
Harada-san, the dentist, and I were able to have some good dental chats! Periodontal disease and caries are common on the island; 10 dentists on Shodoshima serve a population of 30,000; he doesn’t do many root canals, but lots of prosthodontics. It was fun to make a professional connection.
The young drummers on the taiko-dai demonstrated discipline and strength throughout the ritual. They are firmly tied to the float underneath their robes, but that doesn’t make their drumming any less impressive. Note in the video how they never miss a beat, despite being tossed and turned in every direction!
Each pole is supported by people on each side of it, angled away from it to oppose each other. As a command, “Ei-sha sha-ge!” is given, then we mount the float on our shoulders and lift it clear of the cart. Again, the command is shouted, and we drop the float to our waists before slinging it above our heads.
The next command has the right pole lifted while the left pole drops. The drummers and float are held at almost 90 degrees to the side, and yet they still play on! Others throw salt to purify us, and climb up the sides of the float as they are raised high in the air. We roll the float to the right, straining to keep it steady.
As we lift, drop and roll the float, feet, shoulders and elbows collide as we shuffle together to make it work. The scent of exertion and dust and taste of the salt falling from our hair combine with the pine from the float. After rotating the float while holding it above our heads, my arms turn to rubber, but we keep it up.
After placing it back on the wheeled cart, the tight group loosens up and some walk to the sides, in front or behind the float. Laughter fills the air, friends stop to talk with onlookers watching from the streets or their homes before running to catch up; occasionally an incline necessitates a call for everyone to take their places and push it up the hill.
Numerous taiko-dai were in our procession, and everyone gave their utmost effort. I was proud and privileged to join Kashima, but I don’t think its my bias that makes me say they were the best that day!
In our last lift together in front of Hachiman shrine, members of other groups joined in to make it even more exceptional. The bellowed commands, roared responses from us and the crowd, lifts and rolls were even more dramatic. When the command came to toss the float, we did it in such unison and with so much force that the entire float launched a foot above our outstretched hands. It crashed down on us, but 120+ hands caught it together and it didn’t drop.
This was my favorite part of my favorite adventure yet in Japan. Be sure to see everything else there is to do on Shodoshima – the island is amazing!
Plan your trip:
This festival is part of a 10-day celebration on Shodoshima, but the biggest day for the drum festival is the 14th of October, every year. Begin at the City District Office, and follow the taiko-dai all the way to Hachiman shrine. Or, set yourself up with drinks and food at the shrine and wait for the party to come to you!
Go to Shodoshima. Experience the drum festival, and be a witness to or part of a centuries-old tradition!