More than a year ago, when I was still sitting at home waiting to come to Iwate, I got an email from my then-future boss wondering if I’d participate in a local parade in Morioka. “It’s only a week after you get here, so you might be too tired to do it,” he wrote. “No, I’d love to do it! Sign me up! I’ll do my best!” I wrote back as cheerfully and assertively as I could. I wanted to experience everything I could, as soon as I could. I figured it wouldn’t be a huge deal anyway, and it would be a great way to bond with my new coworkers. I didn’t think I was in a position to say no either (what else was I going to do, sit in my no-internet-apartment and eat conbini food by myself??).
Sansa Odori is the largest taiko drum parade in the world. It’s 4 consecutive nights of various drum organizations marching down Chuodori Street in front of the prefectural office, beating their drums and dancing a dance that everyone knows. Every organization wears their own style of yukata, the Japanese summer kimono. Our’s was blue, with white accents, and that first time doing Sansa, I wore it rather clumsily. I was just an add on, performing the dance at the back of the group, and the only reason any one would even look at me was because of my race. I felt a bit out of place, like I often did those first few months.
I remember that day, the day we performed. It was one of my first days at work, and my predecessor’s last, and she was going through the things in her desk drawers and showing me what this book was used for and what that paper was used for. I got up for some reason and banged clumsily into the open metal drawer with my knee. I fell back into my chair, startled, and she looked at my knee with wide eyes. “It’s bleeding,” she said. “Are you okay?” I noticed at small trail of blood dribbling down my leg.
“Ah, wow, I’m such a clutz. I’m just going to run to the bathroom,” I said, as cheerfully as I could. I hobbled to the bathroom, trying to make sure the blood didn’t drip on the floor, and shut myself in one of the stalls. Great, now I was the foreigner who was bleeding everywhere. Everyone’s probably thinking how much they love my predecessor and how disappointed they are to get a serious, weird, incompetent girl as her replacement. I mean, I just rammed my knee so hard into my desk that I started bleeding. Who does that? I cradled my knee with some toilet paper, and the bleeding stopped even though it stung pretty badly. I leaned against the wall and started sobbing, remembering to turn on the flushing noise maker by the toilet so no one could hear me.
But I pulled myself together and walked back into the room, holding a tissue on my knee for a while because I couldn’t find a bandaid. Later that afternoon we went to get our yukata put on for us (because while I can put a yukata on by myself, it never actually looks good) and I looked at myself along with my predecessor and the Chinese CIR. I saw some Japanese girls on my floor with their hair piled on top of their heads in rough buns and curls, their sleeves wrapped up with a bright red sash. “Who are they?” I mouthed. “They’re playing the taiko drums,” my pred said sweetly. I thought they looked so cool, as I lamely put a yellow ribbon in my ponytail.
I had only been to one practice before the parade but the dance was simple enough. Wave your hands this way, walk with your toes pointed forward, jump up at this point. It was fun, and after a while of clumsily mimicking everyone else my body was able to mindlessly follow the moves on its own. I marched for an hour, surrounded my white lights and people and the noises of the drum. Those drums became my heartbeat, and after a while all I could see or hear was the dancing. I didn’t even remember that I had banged my knee. My mood was lifted, and as sweat poured off my face, we approached the finish line and broke into elated yells and cries of encouragement. That was the first time I really felt like I was a part of things here.
We all gathered after we were done, still sweaty and gasping, and cried at each other, “Great job!!” B, my fellow CIR patted me on the back, as T-san, my other coworker who was my own age, came and grinned at me. The two of them were still wearing their taiko, and they looked so cool. “Come drinking with us and the other taiko drummers,” B said, and I said yes immediately. By the time we walked back and got changed and headed out of the office, there was no one around and the streets were dark. B walked ahead while T-san and I started talking. “What clubs did you do in college?” I asked politely as he pushed his bike alongside me.
“I was in ping pong.”
“What, really? I did ping pong while I was studying abroad. I loved it.”
“Really?” he asked, his interest piqued. “Are you any good?”
“I stink,” I laughed, and he chuckled as well.
“Well, let’s play sometime.”
It was the first we ever really spoke to each other. We sat next to each other at the drinking party and spent most of the time talking, me telling him about why I was in Japan and how I got here and how it all started with pokemon and anime. I think I said I had some ridiculous goal, like wanting to be able to talk to my favorite boy band or be on tv or something, and he tapped my knee lightly as he laughed. Later, as we were talking to other people, the man he was talking to beckoned to me and said loudly, “T-san over here just said he thought you were cute in your yukata!”
“No, no, no!” T-san said, blushing and waving his arm, “I did not!” I smiled shyly and went back to my conversation, feeling warm inside. He was kind of cute, I decided.
That was the first time I ever really thought about him. It’s been one year since that day and I still remember it like it was yesterday.
I told everyone for the next year any chance I could get that I would perform in the taiko troupe in next year’s Sansa. The prefectural office team only had space for 80 people, so you needed to be chosen in a lottery to get in, so I checked the message boards and my email inbox periodically for info on that starting in maybe May or something. I was committed. I was going to be just like those cool girls with their hair tied in bows and flowers, marching down the street in perfect step, holding their drum sticks high in the humid air.
I found out later that the parade dates were from the 1-4 of August, and that the prefectural office would perform on either the 2nd or the 3rd. My heart sank. I was going on a business trip on the 3rd to Tokyo, with T-san. I had been looking forward to Sansa Odori for a year, and now I wouldn’t be able to go. Sure, it was a business trip with him so it wasn’t all bad, but I still felt disappointed. We decided to sit in for the lottery anyway, and if the parade date turned out to be the 3rd we would give our spots to someone else.
The lottery was in the beginning of July, and five of us from my division went. Only two of us got numbers. T-san stood triumphant along with M-san, a new Chinese lady working in our division, and us CIRs stood there despondent. X looked about to cry, so T-san shrugged and gave his winning ticket to her. He smiled at me,”We might not even be able to participate anyway – we gotta go on our business trip in August.” I nodded, still disappointed, and then he added, “We’ll just drink that night to make ourselves feel better.” Well, he certainly knows how to brighten my mood.
In the elevator, M-san struggled to keep holding her drum. “How long do we have to carry this?” she asked X, who responded, “About an hour.”
“Forget this,” M-san scoffed. “Who wants to take my spot?”
T-san and B looked at me. “Well, we already did it last year,” B shrugged, and that’s how the participating taiko drummers from the NPO, Culture, and International Relations Division became me and X. I could tell T-san was a little disappointed he couldn’t participate again this year, but as I held that beat, old wooden drum in my arms, my fingers brushing against the cracking lacquer and peeling drumskin, I didn’t really feel that bad. He works for the prefecture; he’ll have his chance again.
That night we dropped the drums off in the office and rushed off to a division party we had, where everyone congratulated me on becoming part of the taiko troupe even though it was really though the kindness of others. T-san and the rest of us young people went off afterwards to go watch the World Cup with some other friends, and as we walked outside we saw the rain pouring around us. T-san had an umbrella so I huddled next to him, linking my arm with his. That night, as we cheered for the Japan team to win in overtime, we all held hands in solidarity. T-san was next to me, and his hand intertwined with mine, squeezing my fingers. I wasn’t aflutter, and I wasn’t nervous – I felt safe and warm, and I hadn’t felt that way in a long time. Everyone else broke off after awhile, but we still kept holding hands, because I didn’t let go. But he didn’t let go either. We kept holding hands until the end of the game and Japan lost, and then we broke like nothing had ever happened.
I went to practice for the first time the week afterwards. Me and X marched down there with our taikos holstered on our shoulders, backs aching a bit from the weight. We weren’t used to it yet. The taiko is actually pretty light, but it still takes a while to get used to this large object jutting out from in front of you. X grinned at me as we waddled to the practice area. “Look at us! These are our babies!”
I caressed the side of my drum. “Krips Taro* is in here, I gotta be careful.”
*Taro is the most common name for boys in Japan – it’s kinda like “John”. Whenever I make a joke about me having a baby, the name always becomes Krips Taro because I think it kinda sounds cool. Not that I would have a baby anytime soon, or even name it Taro.
We met up with H-chan, who brought her family’s taiko along. The paint job was new, and her taiko gleamed in the setting sun. She had her thick, curly hair piled in a bun on top of her head. I sighed admiringly, knowing she would be perfect for the whole taiko girl look. She grinned at me, “Get your lazy bums over here. Do you girls even know the dance at all?” Me and X giggled and shook our heads no; we forgot to even print out the rhythm sheets from the office message board.
As she was clumsily trying to teach us the rhythm that not even she could remember, the drum instructor walked on the premises. I remembered him from the year before – he wore a bandanna over his shaved head, with a short, stocky body and kickin’ sneakers. He was a professional, and this was what he did for a living, at least that’s what it seemed to me. His kind, lined eyes had seen quite a few Sansas, and as he shot me a knowing look, I realized that he remembered me. “You did this last year, yeah?”
“Yes!” I chirped, singled out from a crowd of eighty. “But I only did the dance.”
He just nodded his head, and with that we started practice.
Practices were tough, especially since I have very little rhythm and no balance, and everytime I messed up, I stood out so much that Sensei would always know. He tried his best to teach me but it was only after about two weeks of me practicing on the roof at lunch that I finally got the rhythm down. Every practice I stayed near H-chan and X, and we sweated and huffed together, struggling but satisfied.
At one particular practice, I looked up for a moment, sweating pouring down my face, at the building across from us, and I saw someone looking at us from the window. It was A; I could make out his face from across the parking lot. I knew he worked in that building, too. It was hard to tell if he was even looking at me. My heart pounded a bit, and I stared right back at him until I had to turn my attention back to marching. When I looked back up, he was gone.
It was the first time I had seen him since our weekend in Hiraizumi. That night I went out to dinner with X, T-san, and S-kun and tried to forget about it by planning a trip to T-san’s hometown together.
On the day of Sansa Odori, me and X took off during the morning to get our hair set and curled and put up in elaborate buns. We bought expensive flowers and other such doodads for our hair, because it was so important to us to get it right. If there’s one thing me and X hate, it’s being propped as the dumb foreigners who tried to do things the Japanese way but failed. We still got fawned over by our division once we returned, decked in our yukata and red and yellow sashes. T-san and R stood there watching us take pictures in their boys’ yukata, chuckling softly.
I was disappointed because that night T-san wouldn’t be celebrating with us afterwards – right after the parade he was going to be drinking with his douki friends instead of us. And even though I was jealous and a bit hurt – he never came drinking with me anymore – at a certain point I just had to let it go. I wasn’t marching in Sansa Odori for him. I may have wanted to look strong and beautiful in my taiko yukata, so that I could look like those confident, gorgeous girls I saw last year, but it really wasn’t for him. And I just want to stop gauging everything I do here by whether he gives me enough attention or not, because the reason I am here and the reason I wanted to be in Sansa and the reasons why I do anything shouldn’t have nothing to do with him. In the beginning I wanted to be in the Sansa parade for me, and only along the way did I start hoping he’d think I was cute or whatever. Well, just about everyone else in the office called me cute but him; it’s time to accept that it’s not gonna come from him.
And as I marched up to the parade starting line, my taiko strapped to my back and grinning at X and H-chan, any attention from T-san, who was standing at the back of the procession, an add-on just like I had been last year, was the farthest thing from my mind.
We walked along to the beat to the starting line. Sansa sa! San sa sa! Sansa sa! San sa sa! In perfect step with one another we started pounding our drums, following the same 1 minute rhythm we had practiced for weeks, and started marching down Chuodori. Within minutes my face was slick with sweat and my limbs felt heavy, but I smiled and danced with emotion, in front of all the crowds gathered on both ends of the street. I couldn’t hear anything but a dull roar and the ever present beat. I felt like my whole body was moving on auto-pilot, following everyone else, in step and going forward. I beat my drum with everyone else, I yelled with everyone else, I jumped and I danced. Sakora choiwayase!
It ended as soon as it began, even though in a way it felt like it had taken years. My face was bright red from exertion but I felt alive, with more energy pulsing through my veins than I had felt in ages. I laughed and huddled near X, screaming “Otsukaresama! Otsukaresama! (We worked hard!)” Before I knew it I was surrounded with everyone else in my division who had danced and T-san was right by me, grinning.
Even though later he’d be off with his friends, and I was in a weird mood because I was always so jealous and hopeful and scared at the same time, for that moment, he was with us, and we all shouted and laughed and hollered from the sheer joy of participating in such a thing. Being in a parade like this makes you feel like you are leaving yourself from some greater thing, moving in sync with everyone, marching with everyone, going towards…somewhere with everyone. And then it’s over, and you return to yourself, and you’re just filled this great joy that you could be part of such a thing.
N-san asked us to all take a picture together, and T-san stood next to me and put his arm around my shoulder before hastily retreating and settling on just putting his arm on my shoulder closest to him. We leaned our heads together, my taiko drum in between us, and we took the shot.
I looked at that picture weeks later and realized that I fit right in with everyone, and you couldn’t even tell that one year ago I had been a lost little girl who thought she would never belong in Morioka. And part of that is because of him, but not all of it.