Japan trip Part 2 - seeing concerts, kabuki, and friends

In the Japan trip Part 1 entry, I described the primary reason for my recent trip: Edo Bayashi intensive with Suzuki sensei. In addition to my lessons, there was a lot happening during my stay and I was able to attend some performances and see many friends.

The day after I arrived, I went to see Azusa Yamada's vibraphone trio in Tokyo. We first met almost 2 years ago through another Tokyo musician because I was looking for a vibraphone to rent for a Ginza performance with shakuhachi player Bruce Huebner. Azusa gave us a great rate to rent her Premier vibes for a two-week period, and two things remain in my memory about the instrument: it was one of the heaviest vibes I've ever played on, and there was a low E (which I couldn't get used to and had to cover up with a music stand bag for the gig). Her performance in the intimate space was very good and I especially appreciated all the original material in the program as well as the exciting playing of pianist Sachiko Nakajima.

The next day was the Wakayama Shachu performance at the Bettara Ichi Festival, which I described in Part 1. The day after that was a collaborative concert in Asakusa called Taiko Battle Live, featuring Makoto Yamamoto of Osuwa Daiko. I've known Makoto for several years, having visited him in Nagano as well as presenting Osuwa Daiko for concerts and workshops in Vancouver, BC. The program consisted of original music, solo performances, and some traditional music. It was also a fun surprise to see my very first taiko teacher Saburo sensei in the audience, as he had taught some classical repertoire to Makoto in preparation for this concert.

I enjoyed checking out Hitoshi Hamada perform at his CD release event in Shinjuku. I first met Hamada san in 2005 during a Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble concert tour. This vibraphone and saxophone duo played some very challenging original music and Hamada san sounded great as always. I was there with Bruce and Azusa so we took a group photo after the performance. It's not every day that three vibraphonists are in the same room together.

I was fortunate to see the famous Kabuki play Kanadehon Chushingura at Kokuritsu Gekijou (National Theater) in Tokyo. As part of the theater's 50th anniversary season, the play has been divided into three parts, and I saw the first third. The middle third runs in November and the final third runs in December. Because each part is approximately 6 hours long, the audience is treated to rarely-presented scenes which many kabuki fans have never seen or heard of. Everything was excellent: acting, music, staging, and bento. This was especially meaningful for me because I had been a geza musician (playing nohkan and shinobue) for Portland State University's presentation of Chushingura in February 2016. The video of that performance can be seen here: Chushingura blog entry.

It's always a great pleasure and inspiration to visit Ranjo san at his workshop in Chiba. He continues to answer my questions and share his wealth of knowledge every time I see him. In this photo, Ranjo san is wrapping one of my flutes to prevent a small crack from opening. I also met Fujita san on this recent visit, a great fue player from Akita Prefecture who demonstrated some of the music from his local festival on a Ranjo #4 hayashi fue. For more information about Ranjo san, check out this blog post: Ranjo blog entry.


Chichibu in Saitama is a special place. It's best known for the spectacular Yo Matsuri (annual night festival, Dec 2-3) and the music of Chichibu Yatai Bayashi. But there is also a very long history of Ji Kabuki (地歌舞伎, local kabuki) going back to the Edo period. This Hagitaira kabuki stage is at least 170 years old and continues to be used for theater and music. Apparently there are no carpenters in the area who are properly trained to make repairs on such an old building, so they have had to bring experts all the way from Kyushu. I attended the October 30, 2016 event where there were three kabuki presentations: elementary school, middle school, and finally the adult group. The performances were complete with live geza music as well as gidayu chant and shamisen, and the day was interspersed with performances of Chichibu Yatai Bayashi, Tsugaru Shamisen, and Chichibu Ondo. The overall presentation was remarkable, especially considering this very rural setting. Of course the youngest performers were the audience favorites, and the best moment for me was when the little girl finally got a turn on the odaiko, outplaying the previous versions by teenage boys and an adult. And all of the food and drinks I tried during the event were memorably delicious.

Another unique experience was visiting "the Switzerland club of Kanto" in Katashina village of Gunma Prefecture. These remarkable wooden horns are handmade by Kinsaku Hoshino using local cedar. I was told that the curved bottom portion is made out of a naturally shaped section of the branch that was bent by the weight of the heavy snow. Even the mouthpiece (similar to trumpet) is handmade. I was able to get a decent sound right away, so perhaps my music education degree finally came in handy many years later. Hoshino san offered to let me try the carving tool so I carefully took a turn.

Finally, I got to see an incredible concert at Suntory Hall in Tokyo of the incomparable Eitetsu Hayashi. This was a mostly solo performance with the exception of one piece composed by percussionist Midori Takada. They have a long history of working together and this was apparent in their cohesive sound. Eitetsu's concerts are fantastic every single time. Without fail, there are always things I've never seen before, and such consistent creativity and attention to detail is truly breathtaking. Concluding the program was a 20-minute solo odaiko performance, and this was the finest odaiko playing I've ever seen. Absolutely beautiful.

Interview: Colleen Lanki of TomoeArts on kabuki and collaborating

My friend and Vancouver-based dancer, director, writer, and teacher Colleen Lanki was in town for the final performance of Portland State University's kabuki production Chushingura.  She is the artistic director of TomoeArts, "a dance theatre company that works between traditions and disciplines" and regularly produces some of the most intriguing and original work I've seen.  Colleen kindly agreed to join me in my studio where we talked about the kabuki play, her training in Japan, thoughts on collaborating, and the various projects we worked on together.  Included in this recording is music I composed for two of the productions mentioned in the interview - EN: a raincity street dance and Voices of Hiroshima.  Working with Colleen has been fun and rewarding especially because we were able to create a number of different shows together.  Finding like-minded artists is not as common as I would like, so I'm happy when opportunities arise to work with someone like Colleen.

EN: a raincity street dance

EN: a raincity street dance

EN: The Procession of Performing Circles

EN: The Procession of Performing Circles

See the performance of Chushingura on video

Portland State University has posted the video (in two parts) of the recent production of the kabuki play Kanadehon Chushingura (The Revenge of the 47 Loyal Samurai).  I was a geza musician in this eight-show run playing nohkan, shinobue, atarigane, and crow call.  This was a major production with a huge team of actors, musicians, make up and wardrobe crew as well as many other staff members.  Because of the rarity and scope of such a production, a lot of people established in the field of Japanese theater and literature came to town for the show.  It was great to see old friends and meet new ones. 

A very special guest was Donald Keene, the preeminent scholar, writer, historian, translator, and teacher of Japanese literature.  On March 7, he and his son Tsuruzawa Asazo presented a fascinating lecture/performance titled "A Journey through Sin, Redemption, Miracles and High Adventure: The Tale of the High Priest Kochi."  This bunraku puppetry play was originally published and staged in the 1680s, but was lost until a script was rediscovered in a British museum in 1968.  Keene's presentation included a documentary film showing the long and challenging process of remounting the play from this single script, along with Tsuruzawa's live virtuoso performance of an excerpt of the play on shamisen, chant, and song.  The story of Kochi was more mysterious and otherworldly than other Japanese plays I have seen even though it was based on a real person.

This was a very interesting project to be involved with.  Professor Larry Kominz did a wonderful job as director and gidayu chanter.  The show naturally got stronger as it progressed over the two-week run, and I enjoyed the way each performance was influenced by the energy of the various audiences.  I heard that this production was covered by more than 100 Japanese newspapers, and saw that there were several Japanese news outlets at the press conference after the final show on March 5.  I'm especially looking forward to seeing the video because my off-stage position during the performance didn't allow me to see the stage.  If you watch the video, please share any thoughts you have regarding the performance.