Fukushima Taiko drummers Japan's newest stateside export
A cool 540 meters above sea level sits the Yamakiya district of Kawamata in Fukushima Prefecture. Prior to March 11, 2011, the mountainous region was known for its silk products and wintertime rice-paddy ice-skating rinks.
No one is skating there this winter -- in fact, no one is living there at all.
In May 2011, it was evacuated when high levels of radiation were found after the nuclear disaster at the Daiichi nuclear plant in Fukushima.
All of its residents were evacuated to lower ground, scattered and displaced, including the members of the Yamakiya Taiko Club, an award-winning drumming group consisting of children from elementary school through high school that has been around for more than 10 years.
But displacement didn’t stop these kids from banging on their mammoth drums, the largest of which measures 3.5 meters in diameter. And on April 7, they’re leaving Japan and taking the show on the road ... to the United States.
The 13 Taiko drummers have never been on an airplane, never held a passport before and will be traveling abroad with some of the largest drums in the world. How on earth did this come about?
Michelle Spezzacatena and Darryl Wharton-Rigby, two former JET Program teachers in Kawamata, had the initial idea.
“After the earthquake, I found Michelle on Facebook,” said Darryl. “she was the teacher I took over from in 2005, and the idea started to take shape.”
With a grant from the United States-Japan Council (USJC) Earthquake Relief Fund, assistance from the Tomodachi Initiative and coordination from the Japan American Society in Washington, D.C., the kids are packing their bags -- and drums.
“The biggest challenge in this entire process has been the drums,” said Anna Cable of the USJC.
“We had to get input from a professional Taiko drummer to figure out how to get them to the States. American Airlines has been amazing and the drums are shipping via cargo to New York City, where they will be driven to Washington to meet the group.”
The kids will be plenty busy while in the United States.
Their two-week visit will be filled with cross-cultural exchanges, a homestay, museum tours and the highlight -- the group’s performance at the centennial of the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington.
Asked what she would like to do while in the United States, drummer Rika Watanabe, 16, had a mixed agenda. “I want to learn about trendy fashion and food and I want to meet Johnny Depp,” she said.
The group will march in the Cherry Blossom Festival Parade on April 14 and then later that day perform at the Sakura Matsuri Street Festival.
The finale performance will be on April 15 at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage at 6 p.m.
So, Johnny, if you’re anywhere near D.C. either day, you might consider dropping by the Kennedy Center -- there’s someone there waiting to meet you.
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