Drumming up business for 300 years


The first musical instruments humans ever invented were believed to be those of percussion. The oldest drum, discovered in Moravia, dates back to 6000 B.C.

Taiko, or Japanese drums, are presumed to have emerged about 2,000 years ago, though the oldest evidence is a haniwa clay figure of a drummer that is estimated to have been made in the 6th or 7th century. In the Warring States Period, taiko were often used in battle to issue commands, since their loud and rumbling sounds could be heard across entire battlefields.

These days, taiko come in a great variety of shapes and sizes depending on their purpose. The drum is indispensable for local festivals such as the Bon dance festivals that take place all over the country, as well as for Japanese traditional music and dance, such as gagaku, geisha dance and the lion dance. In some religious sects, followers strike taiko while chanting prayers or marching to the cemetery in a funeral procession.

Taiko manufacturers Nanbuya Gorouemon established in 1689 in Tokyo’s Imado district, are one of only three manufacturers that remain in business in Tokyo. Once, there were more than 10 taiko makers in this part of Tokyo, but as the demand for taiko decreased so did the number of its makers.

“Business is not good, but I don’t want to close down the shop that my family has run for more than 300 years,” says Shiro Ishiwatari, the current owner of Nanbuya.

However, despite falling sales, taiko makers are very busy in early autumn, prior to the fall festival season, with orders for new taiko, and the repair of old ones, flooding in. During this season, the rhythmical sounds of hammers sealing the drum’s membrane onto its frame echo all day long, and neighbors who happen to walk by stop for a moment to observe the artisans at work.

The process of making taiko is quite simple, however, it is difficult to get the proper sound from the instrument.

At first the artisans chop a log of appropriate length and hollow the trunk with an electric saw. They shave the inside and outside of the wood into the shape of a barrel, being careful to make the wood the same thickness throughout. The barrel-like body is then left to dry naturally inside the studio for about two years. Drying it any other way would mean risking cracks in the frame. Once the wood is completely dry, color and varnish are applied to the surface.

The next step is to cover both ends of the dried, hollowed-out trunk with stretched cowhide. A jack is placed on a special wooden stand and the wooden body of the drum is placed upon it. A round piece of cowhide, perforated on the edges, is placed on top of the open circumference of the hollow log, and short wooden pegs are then placed through the holes of the hide. Next, cords are tied around the pegs, pulled tightly down and attached to the wooden stand. If the cord was to run directly through holes, the strain could tear the cowhide.

Unless a customer makes a specific request to the contrary, taiko artisans usually stretch the hide as tightly as possible by hitting the wooden pegs with hammers and picking up the subsequent slack of the cords. The membrane is stretched little by little as the taiko is jacked to a higher tension.

The last step is nailing the skin to the wood and taking off the cord. “Hammering the nails at equal intervals is difficult. Usually we adjust the spaces with the last 10 nails,” says Ishiwatari.

“I would like the artisans to master most of the technical skills within three years, but it’s likely to take them at least five. Ideally, a taiko manufacturer should have stamina and patience.”

The price for a Nanbuya taiko ranges from 100,000 yen to 3 million yen, depending on the size. However, it is becoming more and more difficult to make the big drums due to the lack of sizable logs.

Usually, the keyaki (zelkova) tree is considered best for this instrument, since it is tough and robust. To make a taiko that is 70 cm in diameter — middle-size for the use of local festivals — a tree over 500 years old is needed. The largest taiko Ishiwatari has ever created is one he made in 1957 for Tokyo’s Hakusan Shrine, the diameter of which is over 1 meter. “The tree for that taiko was probably over 1,000 years old. We can’t make big ones like that any more,” he says.

Nowadays Nanbuya makes mikoshi (portable shrines) along with taiko. Ishiwatari is happiest seeing Nanbuya creations used in matsuri. “I like spring most — especially May — because we have several big festivals in this neighborhood [Asakusa], including the Sanja Festival. I feel very empty when the matsuri season is over,” says Ishiwatari.