The booming noise coming up from the basement of the British School in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, is a more visceral version of the magic flute: It’s just impossible to resist its charm. You follow the deep, thumping beat down a flight of stairs and find a shouting, whooping little devil leading a group of about 10 people — both Japanese and foreigners — through a series of seemingly intricate drumming routines. That’s Tomoko Igarashi.

Moko-sensei, as everybody calls her, has been running Miyabi Arashi Taiko School since 1997, aiming to expand the understanding and enjoyment of Japanese music and culture while enhancing communications between the local and foreign communities.

A tiny woman of unbelievable energy, the Tokyo-born teacher has just turned 50 but regularly outlasts much younger people with her dynamism. She talks nonstop while moving heavy drums around, joking and giving bilingual instructions left and right, always at the top of her voice. “I neither drink nor smoke, and always go to bed early,” she says. “I’m like an athlete, so I need to take care of my body.”

Igarashi’s love for music has its roots in the European classical tradition. “My mother is a piano teacher,” she says, “and I started playing the piano when I was 3.”

In 1981 she entered Miyagi University of Education in Sendai. That was when she made the transition to taiko drumming. “When I discovered taiko, I found it was the perfect marriage between music and sports — my other passion — because of its physicality,” Igarashi says.

After majoring in education, she decided to learn Western percussion, first at the Toho Music School in Tokyo and then, from 1987, at the Utrecht Conservatorium in the Netherlands, where she majored in marimba.

At the time many Japanese companies were opening overseas offices all over Europe. A lot of families moved to the Netherlands, and the Japanese School in Amsterdam found itself in need of more instructors. Igarashi was hired and spent the next three years working as an elementary school teacher.

She taught Japanese language for five more years, first in the United States and then in Tokyo, but the world of percussion was never too far away. While working at Choate Rosemary Hall, a famous prep school in Connecticut, she had already started a taiko club, but it was in 1997 that she decided to answer the call of the drum and opened Miyabi Arashi Taiko School.

“I chose this name,” Igarashi explains, “because Japanese drumming is both elegant (miyabi) and powerful like a storm (arashi). The word ‘arashi’ actually comes from the third Chinese character in my name, but I also want my students to play stormy but beautiful music.”

In the last 15 years the number of Igarashi’s students has grown to the point that now she teaches 23 weekly classes around Tokyo. “I teach at such places as the American School in Japan, the Nishimachi International School and the Tokyo American Club,” she says. “In most places I have a special arrangement with the schools, or just rent their space, but at the British School they actually included taiko classes in their music curriculum and were kind enough to share the expense of buying the drums.” This is no small thing as a full set costs between ¥1.2 million and ¥2 million.

Igarashi’s life can be hectic, as she teaches seven days a week. “On Sundays, for instance, I start at 10 a.m. and go on all day until 5 p.m.,” she says. “On Saturdays I first go to the American Embassy compound in the morning, then I hurry to a public school in Shibuya.” She runs from place to place with her scooter. “I’ve become good at juggling rice balls, bananas, canned drinks and my cellphone while racing around Tokyo. It’s insane!”

Speaking of two-wheel transportation, every year Igarashi makes the most of the summer holidays and spends five to six weeks in the United States riding one of her five motorcycles. “I’m really crazy for bikes, and riding is just what I need to recharge. I need to keep one season for myself,” she adds, “so that at the end of summer I miss taiko again and come back hungry and ready to beat the hell out of those drums!

“I just love teaching, and I always give it 100 percent. I’m so grateful that all these people, children and adults, want to learn taiko, and as I only see my students once a week, I never want to let them down. Every time I want to send them home feeling they’ve achieved something.”

Igarashi was particularly affected by the March 11 earthquake that devastated Tohoku. “When the earthquake hit, many of my foreign students returned to their countries, and the schools — especially the foreign schools — closed for three to four weeks,” she says. “All of the sudden I lost my taiko family and had nothing to do. I felt so bored and sad and lonely. At that time I realized you have to live for the present and enjoy life now. Tomorrow another big earthquake may hit, or I could get cancer. You never know. So every day my mission is to make each lesson an unforgettable experience.”

Observing the students at the British School, it’s clear they are having a good time, even while struggling to learn the different sequences. “Actually it’s easier than you think,” says the sensei. “It’s amazing how quickly and easily your body remembers the beat patterns for you. From the second time on it just comes out naturally.”

Igarashi knows a thing or two about struggling with steps and sequences. “I’m good with my upper body movement, but when it comes to dancing, I’m hopeless,” she confesses. “Whenever I practice Bon dancing the teacher takes me aside and coaches me individually because I’m so behind the rest of the group. It’s so embarrassing.”

Achieving self-confidence is one of the more positive effects of the classes at Miyabi Arashi Taiko School. “I often see very quiet, sometimes even shy people at my lessons,” she says. “At first they are hesitant and their movements short, but I always encourage my students to let it go, and some of these very shy people become so strong, their passion really comes out. It’s so intense. That’s what I call ‘taiko power.’ “

According to Igarashi, many traditional taiko classes, both in Japan and abroad, are as strict as a martial arts dojo. “They are very conservative and the students have to bow in front of their sensei,” she says. “My classes are much more relaxed, but I always make a point to teach my students — especially children — a respectful approach to taiko.

“A drum is not only a piece of wood that you carve inside and top with a skin. In the past, people used to believe there was a god inside the drum, and playing taiko was a way to express the divine nature of music. When I start teaching a children’s class, I always explain you can’t play swords with the sticks — like many boys do — or sit on the drum when you are tired, because there is a tiny god inside, and we have to talk to and thank the god. They need to learn respect.”

Nowadays taiko drumming has become like an art form, but in the old days it was deeply rooted in community life. “My style comes from Tohoku, an important farming and fishing area,” Igarashi explains. “The Japanese drumming style comes from the movements performed by the farmers, keeping their hip low and spreading the seeds around a big area with their hands. Also, the front-and-back movements in taiko drumming come from fishing. The players are like the fishermen who line up along the edge of the boat, casting their big nets into the sea and then pulling it back through a collective effort.”

When asked what makes taiko drumming so special, Igarashi answers without hesitation. “Taiko has both a musical side and an athletic side, which as I said makes it both beautiful and powerful. Also, it requires a lot of concentration, like martial arts, and teamwork. Yet, despite all the movement involved, this is something you can do even when you get old.”

Sen Amano, a taiko master with whom Igarashi still studies twice a month in Kofu, Yamanashi Prefecture, is now 77. “He must be the second- or third-oldest taiko master currently living in Japan, but he can play faster than me or any other student.”

Apart from the joy of playing music, what Igarashi likes about her classes is the bonding among her students. “Foreigners and the Japanese are able to interact on an equal level and learn more about each other. I’m so happy when new friendships are born!”

This sense of camaraderie is enhanced during the groups’ public concerts. Igarashi believes that performance is an important part of building her students’ confidence, so she makes sure her groups are able to perform several times a year. “First of all there are the school events, two or three times a year. We also take part in seven to eight matsuri (festivals) mostly around Tokyo. It is always a pleasure to see their broad smiles at the end of a performance.”

For more information on Miyabi Arashi Taiko School, contact stormy@shore.com or call (03)5442-3368.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.