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Drumming to de-stress at SF Taiko Dojo

SF Taiko Dojo
Ryan Kimura plays a one-ton Taiko drum with the San Francisco Taiko Dojo. Photo courtesy of SF Taiko Dojo.

Drummer Ryan Kimura was only nine-years-old when he first discovered Taiko. When he talked about this Japanese art form to a group of high schoolers, he “told everyone to close their eyes and listen to their heartbeats. And imagine everybody’s heartbeat coming together for one huge sound. And that’s really what Taiko feels like to me.”

Kimura has been doing Taiko now for 20 years, but only on the side. He makes a living with his photo booth business in Japantown. Kimura is mild mannered and modest. Even a little shy at times. But he says at least once a week, Taiko lets him express another side of his personality.

“I can come in here and hit the drums as hard as I want,” says Kimura. “And I can yell as loud as I want, and it’s totally fine.”

Kimura plays at the San Francisco Taiko Dojo. Taiko Grand Master SeiichiTanaka opened it in 1968. Back then, Tanaka’s aim was to preserve this drumming, traditionally used in agricultural rituals.

“Ancient people believe the effort bring the message to the Sanda god to bring rain to the ground,” says Tanaka.

But Tanaka has since helped Taiko evolve into a modern day hobby that fits in pretty well here in Northern California. The people who flee to yoga to de-stress after working behind a desk all day, might just as well flee to Taiko.

The physical training for playing the drums is intense. Students start class with a half hour run around the industrial park. Then they do a series of stretches, push-ups and sit ups.

“At the beginning, it’s really important that when we warm up we breathe together,” says Kimura. “That way it gets all our bodies in line with each other.”

Then they move on to practicing different rhythms on the drums, sometimes with choreography.

Ryan Kimura says Taiko has helped him mature: mentally, spiritually, and physically. “When I was younger, I had asthma. I was always in the hospital, staying overnight. It was terrible. I did kung fu and that helped me get my body in shape. Then I started doing Taiko and it really got me in shape.”

In fact, his lean physique has been the centerpiece of the group’s promotional poster. A recent photo captures him performing. He's in mid-air, playing an enormous one-ton Taiko drum, wearing a (traditional – cking on this) loincloth.

In the poster, Kimura is playing the finale of a composition called Tsunami. Members of the dojo have performed it for audiences many times since Master Tanaka wrote it almost 20 years ago.

“When I’m playing tsunami I notice I don’t think about anything,” says Kimura. “Everything I do on stage, I really don’t remember. Because the song really takes over.”

The drummers hope the same will happen for those watching. Because for them is it about so much more than listening. They want audiences to hear, watch and feel Taiko. 

The SF Taiko Dojo is performing at the 45th Annual Taiko Festival in Berkeley, going on Nov 9-10. For details click here