The Heartbeat Of Sado Island
Woken by alarm at 4.15 a.m. Strike head on door to bathroom. The only vaguely encouraging thought as I climb into my shorts and trainers is that this will probably be the earliest I’ve ever run in my life. We tip-toe out of the Pension Nagakura to find Japan is still very dark.
Up at the school the eleven young apprentices, eight men and three women, look blearier than I do, and they’ve been getting up before five every day, except Sunday, for the last five months.
It’s not easy to join Kodo, which translated into English means both ‘heartbeat’ – as in the rhythm of a child’s heartbeat in the womb – and ‘children of the drum’. Once accepted, pupils are required to spend a year living communally in a spartan, highly disciplined regime – no tobacco, alcohol, TV or radio – practising five or six hours drumming a day. As I am being told this by Sayo, a twenty-four-year-old Tokyo woman who once taught English, I can’t help noticing a dusty TV set in the corner.
‘Yes we do have a television,’ Sayo corrects herself.
‘But we don’t have an aerial. So we can watch only videos.’
‘What sort of videos?’
‘Oh, videos of drumming.’
There is a strong element of tradition and ritual in all this. Though Kodo itself was founded less than twenty-five years ago, it harks back to a pre-industrial, rural Japan when the size of a village was defined by how far the sound of the taiko drum would travel.
The run is quite bearable. As we pad along by the side of the road, a flat, warm, humid dawn comes up, heralded by a light, unrefreshing drizzle. The pace is steady but polite. No one seems to want to offend their guest by leaving him behind – not for the first few miles anyway.
The serving of breakfast is preceded by the cracking together of two drumsticks. We file in and are seated on the ground around one long table. I find the lotus position quite painful, and breakfast is more athletically demanding for me than the run.
I’m introduced to the delights of fermented bean curd. Apparently Japan is divided into those who love and those who loathe it. I come down rather heavily on the loathing side. After fermented bean curd, the raw egg that follows it is like ambrosia. The hardest part is actually eating the egg, with a pair of chopsticks.
At nine the first period of instruction begins. In a plain and basic plaster-boarded room, in essence nothing more than a big garden shed, the apprentices sit, straight-backed on the floor and begin to hit the drums to a rhythm dictated by the sound of a flute and the striking of a small gong. One of the senior Kodo drummers walks amongst them, loosening wrists and correcting shoulder positions. The apprentices move from drum to drum and vary the pace of the beat they play and the position from which they play it, but essentially they keep going continuously and powerfully for forty-five minutes. When they stop the effect is extraordinary. If there is such a thing as a deafening silence, this is it. Total calm descends. Nothing and no one moves for a minute or more. After a short break they play for another forty-five minutes. At the end of it Sayo is dripping sweat. She looks shattered, but laughs at my concern.
‘On a good day,’ she says, ‘I don’t notice it. The energy comes from right here,’ she indicates her stomach. ‘It goes through my breast, shoulder, arm and then finally goes into my drumming. The drums become the sound of my heartbreak.’ I think she meant heartbeat but it was a nice Freudian slip.
After a year’s apprenticeship only one or two students will be deemed good enough to join the elite at the Kodo Village a few miles away. Here conditions are more comfortable and the atmosphere more relaxed. Among the trappings of success are tour trucks marked ‘Kodo, European Tour 95’, and the presence of foreign musicians in the village, come to learn from the masters. One is an Englishman, Chris Slade, drummer of the band AC/DC. He shows me a blistered and bloodied pair of hands. He grins. ‘It’s worth it, I tell you.’
I have to ask why. ‘Well, it’s not just the drumming. It’s the whole way of life. The whole Japanese thing. Unity of mind and body to produce the perfect sound.’
Obligingly they fetch out for me the giant drum, O-daiko, which weighs 1000 pounds and can be moved only on a heavy black, wood scaffold. Only two men in the world know how to play it properly. One of them, Eichi Saito, shows me the Kodo stance and hands me the sticks. The sound is tremendous. Saito can play this huge drum without a break for fifteen minutes. I, lacking the required unity of mind and body, release the sticks after fifteen seconds. I already have two soft pink blisters to show for it.
It’s been a long hard day by the time I arrive at the Red Pear House in Ogi village on the southern tip of the island, and I am quite ready for the legendary hospitality of this traditional Japanese inn, or ryokan. But Japanese hospitality, like Kodo drumming, does not come easy.
I’m greeted at the doorway by Mama-san, a tough-looking little lady standing five-foot two with her clogs on, and four-foot eight without. We exchange bows and I am shown onto a slate floor where I take off my shoes. Water is sluiced across the slate to eradicate my footprints. I then step up onto a low, stripped wooden floor on which a pair of slippers awaits me. I put them on and they reach about halfway up my foot. As I’m shown upstairs I admire the reticent Japanese aesthetics. The well-crafted wood used throughout (it’s hinoki, a juniper of sorts), the vase of fresh cosmos (picked out by an artfully placed spotlight), beautiful pieces of porcelain, and somewhat surprisingly, a Chagall reproduction. Mama-san, who claims to speak no English, accepts my compliments with a series of chuckles and further bows. At the threshold of my room I have to take off the slippers I’ve just put on. A sliding rice-paper door gives onto a low simple room with tatami mats on the floor. Apart from a black-lacquered table, raised about a thigh’s width from the ground, and a chair with no legs, there is no other furniture.
Bathing is done in communal premises downstairs and if I want to use them I must first don a yukata – a cotton robe. Feeling like some foul-smelling giant who’s just come down a beanstalk, I gratefully slip off the hot sticky remnants of a long day, don the yukata and make my way downstairs. I forget my slippers and as I go back for them encounter Mama-san on the stairs. She shakes her head in despair and starts tugging at the belt around my robe. The obi, as it’s called, must be tied, samurai-style, across the hip. To tie it on the hip, as I have, is considered deeply effeminate. Having tidied me up, Mama-san leads me downstairs and for one awkward moment I think she’s going to accompany me to the bathroom. But she confines herself to a little cluck of disapproval as I go in without exchanging my downstairs slippers for my bathroom slippers, and pulls the rice-paper partition closed behind me. To my surprise I’m confronted on one side with a mediaeval Japanese bath and on the other by a positively twenty-first century toilet.
Mission control at Houston seems anti-diluvian when compared with Mama-san’s state of the art appliance. The seat warms automatically on contact. The pressure-pad control panel offers a variety of delights. Eight separate ‘Shower Positions’ direct varying strengths of spray over the general posterior area, eight separate ‘Bidet Settings’ propel water jets at more specific targets, and finally four ‘Dry’ settings round off the whole experience with anything from a light, warm breeze to a mistral. Over the next few hours there is a constant background noise of soft, unmistakable cries of surprise and pleasure as various members of the crew discover its delights for themselves.
Pausing only to change my lavatory slippers for my bathroom slippers I make my way into the washing area. I soap myself first then squat down on a three legged wooden stool, and rinse myself using a small bowl and a bucket of water. Only when every sud is banished from my body can I remove the stout wooden planks from the tub itself and settle myself in the very hot, very clear water of the o-furo.
There remains only the ceremony of the evening meal, taken robed and cross-legged. This consists merely of seafood with garlic, bream, tuna and squid sashimi, seaweed, cooked vegetables with bean curd, abalone steak in soy sauce, fried seabream with limes (served whole with head and tail curved artistically upwards) teriyaki of tuna stomach and rice pickles and bean paste.
Mama-san serves this in impeccable style and with almost religious ritual. So pleased am I to see the jug of hot sake arrive, that I make the dreadful faux pas of reaching for it myself. The sake goes flying and I am covered in confusion and rice wine. One of the last lessons I learn on this crash-course in Japanese etiquette is that a guest must never, ever, pour his own sake.
I can barely shuffle upstairs at the end of all this, but I reach my room with relief, pull aside the balcony door and refresh myself with great gulps of muggy night air. Soundlessly, Mama-san’s daughter slips in behind me to lay out my futon and bean bag pillow for the night – and to remind me that I really shouldn’t be wearing my upstairs slippers inside my bedroom.