Okaya Taiko Festival

Photo: Scott Minns

Okaya Taiko Festival

Poppy Reid

Taiko is the name given to traditional Japanese drumming, a group of which can be from a few to hundreds of players at a time. In the small city of Okaya in Nagano, there is a yearly two-day festival in the middle of Obon week in August called the Taiko Matsuri (Taiko Drumming Festival). Although Okaya’s population is only 52,000, various festivals like these occur in the nearby area of Suwa, such as the Suwako Fireworks Festival and the insanely popular, six-yearly Onbashira (Tree Festival). This article is an account of experiencing the Taiko Matsuri, including advice for if you’re planning to go.

As I was accommodating sightseers at the time, we decided to go the whole way and buy yukatas (summer kimonos) to wear at the festival. What a great decision. ILF plaza, which is just a five-minute walk from the stage, sells them, and will even kindly help you put them on. My kimono, plus the obi (belt), came to around 7000 yen.

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The roads of Okaya’s town centre were blocked off from early afternoon until late evening, leaving the streets free of cars and providing plenty of space for food stalls and the gigantic Taiko stage. Foods on offer included takoyaki (fried balls with octopus inside), yakisoba (stir-fry), pizza balls (I didn’t try them, but my cousin said they were fantastic) and chicken skin served on top of shredded cabbage with sauce (surprisingly tasty). There was also a small stall giving away nihonshuu (Japanese sake) for free!

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The Taiko performance was fantastic. Three hundred drummers worked hard to produce an unforgettable show in perfect synchronisation; it was our guess that they had been practising for four or five months – perhaps longer – in preparation for their stunning performance. It was a show worth seeing (and a free one, at that – no entrance fee here.)

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Photo : masashiro takei on Flickr
Although it started to pour only minutes before the show was due to start, the Taiko drummers covered their drums with waterproof covering and played anyway. It looked like hard work in the humid rain, which made it all the more impressive. The show included pretty umbrellas and other showcase items, and the drummers were dressed in matching festival clothing. The show continued for an hour or so before the show ended and the crowd dispersed. Some people headed to the karaoke place just a two-minute walk from the stage.

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If you’re thinking of going to next year’s Taiko Matsuri, here are some tips:

  • Book accommodation early or stay with a friend. Or make sure you know when the last train is. Warning: it will probably be crowded. If you want the full experience and want to attend both days, my suggestion is to find somewhere to stay well in advance if you don’t live nearby.
  • If you’d like a decent view of the stage, get there early and lay down a comfortable (and preferably rainproof) mat. The show starts at six o’clock, so getting there between four and five o’clock should be fine.
  • Bring your own drinks so you don’t have to line up for beer (although the free Nihonshuu givers didn’t seem to be able to get rid of their alcohol fast enough, and thrust a shot cup into your hand as soon as they saw you).
  • It may rain (it did on the first day) so bring an umbrella and/or a waterproof jacket.
All in all, it was a fantastic, unmissable show that’s definitely worth a visit if you’re in the Suwa or Okaya area. Taiko is often performed in festivals, but this was the biggest stage I had ever seen, and we’re definitely glad we went. Don’t forget your yukata!