Shansi Report – Taiko and Progress

I knew from the beginning that if I were to get Shansi, I would want to take classes at a taiko dojo in Tokyo. Since enrolling at the prestigious Oedo Sukeroku Taiko dojo in September last year, I have come a long way. For over half a year I was constantly scolded or criticized by Kobayashi Sensei, who is also the head of the school. It was difficult to fix all the “bad habits” of my playing style that were fine in OCT but not at the dojo. Because I joined halfway through the year, I was learning not only the style, but the song as well, and I felt embarrassed when the whole class would stop every two minutes so Sensei could correct my form, which deteriorated even more if I tried to focus on the melody. However, at some point within the past two months I began to finally feel comfortable at the drum. I was criticized less and given more advice on how to make my playing look sharper and cooler. I began to enjoy classes again, despite the long and tedious commute. I was then honored to perform in my first Japanese taiko performance on a large stage in Ikebukuro, Tokyo.

The members of the dojo rented out a large auditorium near Ikebukuro’s City Hall, paying a whopping 20,000yen each. Mostly all of the dojo’s 100+ monkasei or students were performing in their respective classes, and everyone invited their family and friends. My class is considered a beginner level class, and so to watch the senior members (who ranged from middle-schoolers to grandparents) was a humbling and inspiring experience. When it was almost my group’s turn to perform, I was nervous, as usual, and wiped the sweat off my palms countless times while taking deep, loud breaths. Once I got onto the stage, however, I was able to smile, kiai (vocally send energy to the others), and pull off the minute-and-a-half solo that I had practiced as smoothly as I could have hoped for. While I have had doubts about whether I would continue next year, taiko is something I have always loved, and so I want to continue and improve. Through my taiko performance and through teaching English I realized that I am now finally able to get over stage fright—as soon as I am on the stage. I also realized that despite all my doubts about taiko and teaching, I have been able to make immense progress in a year.

Over one year into my Fellowship at Obirin, I am amazed at how differently I feel now compared to this time last year. In December 2013, I was frustrated with many things: I felt inadequate at Japanese and at work, lonely without friends, and constantly stressed by my living situation. I was quite ready to take off for vacation. This year, I feel much more satisfied and comfortable with my classes, social life, and apartment.

On December 7, I took Level 1 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test for the second time. I attempted to take this test within my first semester at Obirin, but was wildly unprepared. At that time I had few situations that required me to listen and participate in a Japanese environment. I hardly used Japanese besides for shopping or going to restaurants. On the exam, I felt like I had guessed on every question of the test. This year I had a more positive attitude and began studying consistently and farther in advance. I was using and listening to Japanese a few times a week with Eisaa, taiko, and anime shows on my new laptop. I was going out with friends more. During this year’s exam I felt much more confident, and though I do not know if I have passed, my comprehension has improved immensely and I have at least a chance at passing. If I turn on the TV as background noise, I can understand almost everything without painfully concentrating. Reading no longer seems an intimidating struggle. In short, after over ten years of studying Japanese I feel as if though a towering, stone wall has finally been broken down.

Within the past year I have made many friends with students through Eisaa, Conversation Circle, as well as GLEE, which has changed from a club focused on theatre to a general English club with different fun activities every week. This semesters meetings have been quite successful, with a solid number of students coming each time. Some of our closest friends have come from GLEE, particularly the students who performed with us last year. Although we are not doing a play this year, we have met often for dinners, movies, and even a musical recording for a contest. They do not realize it, but I really overflow with joy every time they request to hang out with us.

Since moving into Erika Raberg’s old apartment all seasons have become more bearable. Fewer mosquitos and critters enter in the summer and the room is slightly warmer in the winter- though I still turn on two heaters and my new kotatsu (heated table). The neighboring dog’s barking, while still audible, is slightly farther away and no longer makes my ears throb every few hours. I now feel comfortable calling my room “home”.

After submitting my Fulbright application for a year in the Philippines, I have begun to think about teaching as a career. Just last week I volunteered to help another English teacher to give a demo lesson at a high school for a large group of about fifty-three students. I enjoyed interacting with these motivated students and was surprised again to realize that I am no longer as frightened of crowds as I used to be. I have really enjoyed teaching my own class and my funny students this year. I will be genuinely sad when the semester ends, but I hope that they will continue to be interested in English and foreign cultures through the games we have played and the creative writing assignments I have assigned. I know for a fact that they will continue to be friends, as they have created strong ties amongst themselves.

As always I am completely grateful to Shansi for this opportunity to live in Japan and as gain wonderful experiences as well as pursue my hobbies. I am happy to be working with the ELP at Obirin and with all of its fun teachers. I am thankful for the kind and generous Yukiko Ebara and Ikue Hatakeyama for always giving advice, taking care of us when we need help in our daily lives, or just hanging out with us. When my last semester at Obirin comes, it will be tremendously bittersweet.

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