Brutal bootcamp: Inside Japan’s village of drummers in the mountains
What’s it like to live, breathe and sleep drums 24/7? CNA Lifestyle visits Japanese modern taiko troupe Drum Tao’s secluded headquarters ahead of its Singapore concert this March.
High up in the mountains of Oita this Monday morning, it’s not hard to imagine a life of Zen.
You’ve got front row seats to a magnificent sunrise, unadulterated views of rolling hills and the Japanese prefecture’s majestic Mount Aso looming in the distance.
It is, for all intents and purposes, the perfect place for a bit of quiet contemplation.
Well, except for the sound of people loudly banging away on drums non-stop. Every morning. For one hour.
Located somewhere in the Aso-Kuju National Park is a place called Grandioso. And this collection of wooden houses that wouldn’t be out of place in a European fairytale is where the members of Drum Tao live, breathe and sleep with drums.
Formed in 1993, the taiko troupe is arguably the most famous one in Japan. They’ve performed all over the country and the world. They’ve done Las Vegas and Broadway, and even appeared in The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. In March, they’ll be back in Singapore with a brand new show called Rhythm Of Tribe.
The group is well known for its powerful, high-octane shows centred around young men and women furiously pounding away on massive Japanese drums, and much of the hard work begins right here in this isolated mountain retreat.
“Grandioso is an Italian musical term which means magnificent and grand, and I chose it to represent the way we play taiko drum – in a magnificent and grand manner,” explained Ikuo Fujitaka, the group’s no-nonsense founder.
The place where Drum Tao’s “village” stands used to be grazing land for cows, before Fujitaka decided it was the perfect headquarters where they could train and create shows in creative isolation, a thousand metres above sea level and kilometres away from the nearest town.
Grandioso has a chilled out mountain lodge resort vibe – and in fact, for the first five years since it opened in 2000, they did accept visitors who’d stay and catch performances, until things got so busy.
Nowadays, they occasionally hold summer festivals where people drop by to watch outdoor shows.
But the scenic location and pretty impressive amenities (there’s even a couple of onsen, a gym and a well-stocked bar) belies the rather military bootcamp life Drum Tao members live.
When they’re not touring, all 43 members and trainees stay here, bunking together in container vans or houses. There are no staff to look after them – everyone does chores, from cooking to cleaning. And every single minute of free time they have is spent drumming, drumming, drumming.
LIVING A TOUGH LIFE
Rain or shine, before their daily one-hour drumming practice in the mornings, the members get up at the break of dawn for a 20km jog – which isn’t easy at high altitudes. Afternoons are spent drumming as well – and it’s not uncommon for members to continue drumming until late at night.
Trainees don’t get days off and they’re not allowed to use their phones. Members are slightly luckier – they get to visit their families once or twice a year between tours (for about three to five days).
“We have a reputation that precedes us – that our training is harsh and our living environment is co-ed and strict,” admitted Fujitaka.
Nakai Saki, who has been a member for the past six years and is one of the few women performers, agreed that being in Drum Tao can mean a tough life.
“It is certainly not easy. You need a lot of mental strength and focus – even after doing this for six years now, I’m still working on it. And I do not keep in good contact with my family even through texting,” shared the 28-year-old.
Fellow member Hayashi Yuya, 24, recalled how he wanted to quit after three days as a trainee, until Fujitaka and more senior members convinced him to stay. He was hooked after his first performance onstage.
By today’s standards, the regimen isn’t that tough compared to the early years – in a previous interview, Drum Tao’s big boss shared that 400 trainees ran away during the first decade.
And all of this is based on the assumption that one actually gets past the auditions, which are only held twice a year.
Said Fujitaka: “Joining Drum Tao alone is really tough. Among 150 applicants, we take in five to six candidates. From these, we only select two to three to be regular members. And from there, perhaps only one can secure his or her place for performances.”
AUDITIONING FOR A SPOT
And yet, they still come. Drum Tao seems to attract a lot of drumming fanatics. Nakai, for instance, had been playing the taiko at school since she was 12, and, after seeing a show, wanted to join immediately after finishing high school.
Instead, she went to college first and took up a job as a medical secretary at a hospital before eventually deciding that she’d be happier hitting things with sticks.
At least she had a break. Fellow member Hayashi didn’t even want to wait until he finished high school.
“In the summer of my third high school year, I went for an audition and later received my acceptance letter. Immediately after that, I submitted my request to quit school. However, my school contacted Drum Tao and they decided to cancel my request,” he recalled. He promptly joined the troupe once he finished school.
That Monday morning, while the rest of Drum Tao were busy doing daily chores and practising, Fujitaka and a handful of senior members gathered at their indoor rehearsal space for the final audition session of the year.
Under their scrutinising eyes, the 10 young men and women who were picked from around 200 applications went through a series of tests – from drumming (to see if they even had a sense of rhythm) and a talent showcase to nerve-wracking interviews, with the numbers slowly dwindling at each step.
While all of them were obviously there because of a love for drums, each one had a different bag of tricks to impress Fujitaka and the members – singing, playing the oboe or shamisen, a bit of street dance and even a flag dance.
The majority were still high school students (some had parents waiting outside) but there were a couple of surprises. A 22-year-old classical musician who played the timpani admitted she had signed up for a gym membership just to prepare for the audition. Another young woman who displayed her karate moves revealed she currently had a job working as a legal assistant (“Why are you even here?” Fujitaka asked, amusedly.)
In the end, both women were given a thumbs up, which was unusual considering it’s normally the young men who are accepted as trainees. But this is part of Fujitaka’s plan to balance things – these days, only a quarter of the members are female and he envisions a time when it’s 50/50.
But for now, it seems like the inhabitants of Grandioso will have to make space for two more people – if they can stay long enough, that is.