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I wait in the dark in the empty parking lot between the school and the garbage-strewn stream. I was told specifically to be here at 3:30 and ‘not to be late’. I’ve learned a lot in the 6 months since I moved to Niihama. The most important thing has been this: don’t be late.

Just before the half-hour, I hear the familiar hum of Yoko and Mike’s little car. Atsushi is right behind them in his Honda. Two of Yoko’s highschool students arrive by bicycle. There’s a quick discussion in Japanese: who’s going with who? Atsushi waves me over. I ride with him a lot. He frets over me like a mother hen.

“How long a drive?” I ask as we leave.

“Don’t worry. Not long.”

“Where are we going?”

He says the name so quickly I don’t catch it. There’s a lot I don’t catch. I’ve become used to it. “What the hell you doing?” he yells at the car in front of us. He throws the car into third, passes the offending vehicle, and roars up the mountain.

“The vibration intensifies. It’s like a heartbeat, deep and sonorous.”

In twenty minutes, we’re in a tail-back on the narrow mountain road which winds though the bamboo northeast of Niihama. Atsushi warns me, as if he’s just remembered, “Sometimes people die in taiko-dai festival.” I blink in surprise.  Yoko-sensei told me it’s an important part of Niihama cultural life, famous throughout Japan[1]. She never said anything about people dying.

Atsushi pulls into a packed parking lot. Miraculously, he finds a spot for the car. A greater miracle is that Yoko and the others find us. We join a crowd making their way up the steep slope. I get a lot of curious looks. For a lot of the people here, I’m probably the first Westerner they’ve seen outside a television show.

Suddenly, there’s a barrier in front of me blocking a wide stone stairway. On the opposite side of the stairs there are trees. Through the trees, and way, way down, I see the lights of Niihama. I hadn’t realised we’d come so high. Atsushi’s warning comes back.

“What’s that?” I ask him. There’s a vibration. I can’t decide if I’m feeling it through my feet or through my chest.

“Taiko-dai!” Atsushi says. As one, the crowd cranes their necks to look down the steps.

The vibration intensifies. It’s like a heartbeat, deep and sonorous. I look down the steps. I can’t see anything. The excited chatter around me stills. The beat becomes louder. It’s a drum!

The sky lightens.

There’s movement, as if all the people in the crowd have been forced back. A man shouts, he’s answered by more shouts. I hear three, four, more drums. Their pulses throb across my skin and in my gut. The noise bounces off the mountain. A flash of gold and red towers over the crowd. It advances up the steps. The shouting man wears a blue happi and sways with the movement of whatever he’s standing on. Another man raises a stick and brings it down. “BOOM” the drum says, and holy cow this thing is the drum, over 5m tall, decorated with red and gold dragons and heavy with gold tassels as big as I am. It approaches, riding two poles the size of pine trees. They are pine trees; the wood still oozes sap and the air is sharp with the smell. The drum glitters in the blush rose of dawn, and there are more of them coming up the mountain behind the first.

The drum lurches. The shouting man loses his balance, regains it to an impressed ‘Woah!” from the crowd.  His shouts have a purpose. He’s directing the steps of the 150 men who carry the 3-ton taiko-dai on their shoulders. With each beat of the drum, the men take a step, advancing toward the shrine on the mountaintop.

The man shouts something new. The taiko-dai stops. The drum pace changes. All at once, right in front of me, the men hoist the drum off their shoulders like Olympic weight-lifters[2]. With each beat, they thrust the drum skyward: ichi, ni, san, shi, go! The crowd shouts with them. I shout with them. Then I remember that I have my camera and snap a few pictures.

The developed pictures can’t capture that morning on the mountainside. I’ll only keep one: it’s focused on the face of one of the men as he took the weight of the taiko-dai back onto his shoulder. He looks right at the camera and gasps for breath. His headband is soaked with sweat, his hair plastered to his head, his happi creased and stained. You can see the extraordinary effort it’s taking for him to continue up those steps, but there’s something about his expression that makes me feel I’ve intruded. This harvest festival goes back over a thousand years.

I put the camera away.

“You like it?” Atsushi asks me.

“I love it,” I tell him. And I do. I love all of it: the people, the drums, the mountains, the city, and the October sun rising over Japan.

[1] The Niihama Taiko Festival is an autumn festival held in celebration of good harvest. It is a sacred ritual and the most well-known ethno-cultural event representing the city of Niihama. The festival has an incredibly rich history with its origins dating back 1,000 years. 

[2] The biggest attraction of the whole festival is the Kakikurabe, where men known as “kakifu” demonstrate their power and skill lifting the Taiko-dai. Every district has its Taiko-dai, and you can see many Kakikurabe throughout Niihama. (footnotes from