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Japan image that resonates

by Steve McClure

Ichitaro Nakanoshima likes nothing better than to spend the late morning watching videos of old musicals like “Singin’ in the Rain.”

Nakanoshima, though, is no slacker. Before settling down to watch Gene Kelly trip the light fantastic, he starts his day at 6 a.m. with a 7-km run. Then it may be his turn to make breakfast for the eight people he lives with, followed by a study period in which he reads historical novels by authors such as Ryotaro Shiba. After that, it’s time to practice writing Japanese — not the usual shodo (calligraphy) drill, rather holding the pen or brush in the hand he doesn’t normally use.

Nakanoshima is obviously not a salaryman. Instead, he’s a member of taiko drumming group Ondekoza. Living communally in the city of Fuji, Shizuoka Prefecture, the members of Ondekoza lead a life that combines physical and mental self-discipline — but it’s not so Spartan a regimen as to exclude simple pleasures like enjoying Hollywood musicals. Nakanoshima was quick to point out that most of Ondekoza’s members prefer watching old Japanese and Chinese movies during their video-viewing times.

After lunch there’s a rest period, then more exercise, followed by dinner. After dinner members are free to do what they like. Drumming practice takes place only on designated days. It’s a rather demanding schedule, but the aura of calm energy that Nakanoshima radiates makes it obvious that the Ondekoza lifestyle suits him just fine.

Ondekoza has been in a state of transition since the death last year of its founder, Tagayasu Den. He started the group in 1969 on Sado Island, Niigata Prefecture, with the aim of reviving interest in taiko drumming and other forms of traditional Japanese music.

“We’ve been living in the city of Fuji for the past 2 1/2 years,” said Ondekoza member Seizan Matsuda, who is in charge of the troupe’s live performances. “The last words of Mr. Den, who died last year at the age of 69, were ‘We’re going to go with Ondekoza of Mount Fuji.’ This was because Ondekoza had been wandering all over the world with the aim of showing off what Japanese people are all about.”

Over the years Ondekoza has made a name for itself internationally thanks to its incendiary performances, earning the troupe the nickname “the demon drummers of Japan.” The group is also known for its rigorous physical training. During Ondekoza’s first U.S. tour in 1975, for example, its members ran the Boston Marathon and then immediately afterward got up on stage to do their show. We’re talking stamina with a capital “S.”

“In the end, [Den] wanted us to always aim toward the top while staying grounded,” continued Matsuda. “It’s hard to reach the summit, but he wanted us to keep looking at it every day.”

Matsuda explained that Den decided to move Ondekoza from Sado (where Ondekoza offshoot Kodo is still based) to Fuji to have better access to the nation’s transportation network.

“It’s convenient, but with a great environment,” said Matsuda. Another reason for the move, he explained, is that Den was wary of falling into established routines. “He thought that . . . nothing in overabundance is worth anything. So he left Sado, taking the name Ondekoza with him.”

Aside from taiko drumming, Ondekoza’s performances feature the samisen, the shinobue and shakuhachi flutes, as well as the kendama (ball and cup), best known as a children’s toy, but used by Ondekoza in concert as a percussion instrument.

“Taiko has a very strong sound; you can feel the vibrations in the audience,” said Matsuda. “Our most important task is to draw out the music that everyone has inside them.

“Sometimes, there is no immediate applause after the taiko, which is great. The taiko is so strong that [the audience is blown away] and then you get the applause. After the concert, when the audience is going back to the parking lot, we hear comments like ‘That was fun! I feel so full of energy now!’ That’s the best part.”

Those interested in partaking of that energy are advised to check out Ondekoza’s “full moon” set at the Eurasia Festival at Honmonji Temple in Tokyo’s Ota Ward on Oct. 21. Performances start at 6:30 p.m. Ticket information is can be obtained online at www.13moon.net or by calling (03) 5548-7501.