Body of Art

Been in Japan a while and still haven't taken up a Japanese art? Is the language barrier stopping you, or just the summer heat? Taiko, shodo, dance, aikido - any one of these fascinating arts will not only give you a lifelong practice, but help keep you in tip-top summer shape as well. Sasha Smith muscles her way into the world of Japanese traditional arts and comes away with a whole new understanding of Japan - plus some wicked abs to show for her troubles.

Waraku Taiko group

The Waraku Taiko group works it out on Sado Island
(photo by Miyauchi Yukihiro)

Saturday morning. I sit on the couch taking stock of my life in Japan and realize that I haven't reached any of the simple goals I'd set for myself five years ago. Learn the language, study a Japanese art. To make things worse, something about the position I'm in on the couch brings to light the fact that my tummy protrudes a little more than it did five years ago... Whoever said Japanese food is good for you obviously wasn't talking about the fried goodies. It all adds up - and no amount of running to catch the train will counterbalance the beers and yakitori that are packed away during the week.

Something had to be done, but what? How could I combine my new get fit goals with my old learn something goals?

The solution - take a class where I could study a traditional art while getting exercise. I was still intimidated by my pottery lesson experience where, deciding not to worry about the language gap, I quickly discovered that I'd been left sweating over a lump of clay while classmates turned out rice bowls and other non-lopsided objects by the thousands. I decided to cop out and find teachers who spoke English. What I realized as I scoured the city is that learning in English doesn't mean that I will learn only English. Plenty of Japanese was thrown my way and it gave me a good opportunity to study Japanese in a non-threatening, non-textbook environment. And lose a couple inches off that tummy...

Workout rating:
1 equals sitting on the couch
10 equals running a marathon and then competing in a triathlon


Workout rating: 7 out of 10 overall

Come to taiko class ready to work out because what appears effortless on stage is rhythmic muscle control. During a lesson not only are your arms swinging but there's a lot of lunging and moving involved.

Waraku Taiko Group
Sensei profile: The Waraku Taiko Group, which consists mainly of foreigners, is led by Miyauchi Yukihiro, who started a professional taiko group fifteen years ago called Wakon. For Miyauchi, taiko was love at first listen. "The first time I heard a professional group I got goose bumps. I thought, 'I want to play.'"

The workout: Thursday morning I enter what appears to be a mah-jongg parlor by night and a taiko drumming practice center by day. The lesson begins with some fairly simple rhythms, but as it progresses the patterns become increasingly difficult and everyone's face is covered in sweat even though the huge air conditioner is on full blast. Miyauchi's lesson is punctuated with his loud energetic cries of "Yeah, you got it" and "Come on!" A student who is having trouble receives a one on one lesson during the break. Miyauchi says, "I take that opportunity because learning taiko is about the relationship of person to person. There's no sheet music. It must be learned from another person."

Towards the end several of the sets require trickier steps which include drumstick flips. The end of the lesson is marked with a moment of silence and a bow. Followed by an impromptu speech about practicing. Miyauchi sensei says: "You want to become a good player? Then just hitting more. Always more. Not ten times, a hundred times, a thousand times, even a million, just more. Don't talk about it. Just do it."
The bottom line? Pay as you play, JY2000 per two-hour lesson. Class sizes vary between 6 to 20 people and meet on Thur and Sunday mornings.
Contact: Miyauchi Yukihiro (043-254-7589).

Wanderlust Adventures
Didn't realize there was life or nature outside of Tokyo? Or do you just want to get away from the city noise? Try an excursion with Wanderlust Adventures, which combines outdoor activities with the pounding of the taiko drum.

In the past Wanderlust Adventures has planned activities such as rock climbing, kayaking and hiking, all in conjunction with taiko drumming lessons led by Taiko Master Miyauchi Yukihiro. Cathy Bernatt, president of Wanderlust, says "One person asked me if we actually played while we did the activity. I laughed. Of course, we do them separately. Rock climbing and then play the drums. Actually some people go only to play the drums." The next adventure, September 25 and 26, will be rock climbing and taiko.
The bottom line? Most trips range between JY30,000-JY40,000 depending on the activity. Children are welcome.
Contact: Cathy Bernatt (0422-46-0734 or 090-4244-8559) or email

Miyabi Arashi Taiko School
("Beautiful Storm")

Full of energy, Beautiful Storm is an appropriate name for a group that can get everyone in the crowd up on their feet begging for an encore.

Sensei profile: Igarashi Moko started Miyabi Arashi Taiko School in 1997 with the goal of expanding the understanding of Japanese culture and enhancing communication between cultures through music. Igarashi believes that performance is an important part of building her students' confidence, so she makes sure that her group is able to perform several times a year.

The workout: Need more bonding time with the kids? Try a Kids and Adult taiko class. Igarashi likes to keep her lessons relaxed. She says, "Each student has his or her own ability and I can gear the lesson and performance towards that person's ability."

For those who are tired of riding around on Tokyo's crowded public transit system, lessons take place at various facilities around the city, so you should be able to find one convenient to where you work or live.
The bottom line? JY25,000 for spring or winter session (10 weeks), JY30,000 for fall session (12 weeks). One hour lesson once a week. Class sizes: About 10.
Contact: Igarashi Moko, 4-4-1-2106 Azabu Juban, Minato-ku 106 (tel/fax 03-5442-3368) or email

clay.jpg (18578 ???)
Feats of clay (Courtesy of JNTO)


Workout rating: 5 out of 10, arms, back, stomach

Struggling to memorize the 1900 kanji that every high school graduate knows? Learn shodo. Study kanji and get your upper body in shape. While calligraphy may not seem like a sweaty workout, it does take a certain amount of muscle control to master the correct posture to hold the brush in order to make smooth strokes. It's yoga, not aerobics.

Sensei profile: Kaneko Sachiko has been licensed to teach shodo since before she graduated high school. "I love shodo. I think the smell of the ink is a kind of aromatherapy," she says. About her international students she comments, "I think it's important to understand all of the different backgrounds that my students have. If I understand a little about their culture, I can understand something about their learning style. It helps me be a good teacher."

A lust for wondering
A lust for wandering (Courtesy of Wanderlust Adventures)

The workout: "I've learned that starting off with marker and shodo paper is less intimidating for beginners. First I teach control. Once you understand control it's easier to make a nicely balanced kanji." Kaneko believes learning how to master posture is most important. "Once you understand that good posture makes nice kanji, the rest is easier."
The bottom line? JY3000 per hour for a private lesson. She teaches out of her home and can travel to your office, home, etc. but transportation fees are added to the cost. She is also a Japanese language instructor (JY3500 per hour for private lessons).
Contact: Sachiko Kaneko (090-3519-8657).


Workout rating: 8 out of 10, overall

Ever wanted to join in a Bon-odori celebration, but haven't a clue about how the women stay on the tips of their geta for ten hours? Don't know which steps are first when the men start to do moves that resemble a chicken out scratching in the yard? Learn how to groove Japanese style and next year you too can spend hours getting down and funky in the hot summer streets of Tokyo.

Japan Dance Art
Sensei profile: Marika Watarovna Mutsumi has performed around the world. She's interested in taking basic traditional Japanese dance and changing it to fit with today's audience. For example, she took the basic dance steps seen at Bon-odori festivals, added bells around the ankles of her dancers, and created a livelier tap step. "It's more entertaining," she says.

The workout: Those of you with dreams of flouncing around a room swaddled in silk kimono can forget it. Marika says, "Everyone comes to the first lesson thinking that they'll get to wear a kimono. But it's not the best way." Students start off learning the basics in tights and a leotard. "I teach some classical ballet first. Or jazz moves. And once you've learned the basics you can quickly pick up Japanese dance, since basic dance moves are similar around the world."
The bottom line? Hobby course: JY20,000 registration, 10 class tickets JY19,000, 20 class tickets JY36,000. One class equals one ticket for group lessons, two tickets for private. She also has packages available for more serious students.
Contact: Marika, 1F Studio, Sunny City BI, 2-1-3 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku 160-0022 (tel 03-3225-3091, fax 03-3225-3092). Email or see homepage


Workout rating: 8 out of 10, overall

Kendo, judo, aikido? With so many martial arts to choose from where to begin? If the idea of swinging a sword around and pretending you're a samurai warrior has its appeal, try kendo. Judo is perfect for those who like combative sports, while aikido is for those who want to focus on defense rather than attack.

Aikido Shindo Dojo
There is a strong sense of community, sharing, and caring at Aikido Shindo Dojo. From the moment I stepped foot inside the dojo I knew I'd found a special place in Tokyo. (And I don't just think that's the curry rice dinner they fed me speaking.)

Sensei profile: Shindo sensei, sixth degree black belt, is the chief instructor and owner of Aikido Shindo Dojo. Shindo sensei smiles a lot while she teaches and everything she does looks effortless. Lisa Tomoleoni, fourth degree black belt, is an instructor and designated successor to Shindo sensei. I had an opportunity to talk to Lisa before class and she was able to give me a few good words of advice. "I was a beginning student and I was struggling each lesson to be perfect. I would get upset and cry. But one day a teacher asked me, 'Why do you think you're so special?' I said, 'What do you mean?' He asked, 'Why do you think you should be able to do aikido perfectly when we can't? Get rid of your ego.'" Lisa's words of advice would come back to haunt me later in the lesson.

The workout: We start with introductions and a quick stretch routine. After that everything gets faster, harder, and more exciting. (You can read exciting as people getting thrown around.) Lisa explains what's going on in both English and Japanese, but learning takes place by watching closely and practicing with a partner. Lisa says that one of the important points for the dojo is the relationship between juniors and seniors. Seniors take responsibility for the development of their juniors. "Shindo Dojo wants to focus on more than just perfect form. We also want to focus on etiquette, the spirit of aikido, which means taking care of and being respectful to each other," explains Lisa. In the spirit of the dojo, my partners kindly take me step by step through the basics. I grimace a lot while looking absolutely clumsy, but remember the advice I'd received and ergo forget my ego.

The bottom line? JY10,500 entrance fee. Monthly fees: JY8400 regular class for men and women, JY5250 children's class K-6, JY6000 women's course, JY21,000 private Mon, Wed, Fri classes.

Contact: Aikido Shindo Dojo, Higashisuna 2-3-2, Koto-ku 136-0074 (tel 03-3645-5847, fax 03-5690-4821). Email


Workout rating: 6 out of 10, arms, fingers, legs (if you use a non-electric wheel)

Do your arms have that schoolteacher swing? You know, that loose piece of flesh that wobbles around as the teacher writes on the board. Never fear! Pottery is here. Although pottery may not seem like a good workout, it takes more muscle than you'd think to pound out bubbles, fold, twist and contort the clay into an objet d'art. Even on those electric wheels where it looks as if a bowl magically springs up out of a chunk of clay, it takes muscle to produce results.

Pottering about

Pottering about
(Courtesy of JNTO)

Can't have guests over because you're short on rice bowls and tea cups? In just twelve lessons JIC will remedy that problem since the curriculum for beginners consists of tea cups, tea bowls, vases, sake cups, sake bottles, tea pots, and more.

Sensei profile: Kato Isoko is the director of JIC. She studied at Tokyo University of Arts and Ecole Nationale Superieure Des Beaux-Arts, so she speaks French as well as English. Her main advice for students is to come regularly, especially if you're a beginner.

The workout: Kato gives instructions and demonstrates one on one with the student, so everything you learn is hands-on. She's patient and explains each step clearly. JIC holds student exhibitions once a year. This autumn it will start a ceramics painting course for those who aren't interested in the building process.
The bottom line: JY10,000 registration fee; JY30,000 for 12 lessons/to be completed within three months; extra fees to cover firing, materials, glaze. Two-hour lessons. Classes in English are on Tue, Thur, Fri, Sat, anytime from 10am-8pm.
Contact: JIC Ceramic Studio, 2-9-4 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku (03-3461-8902).

299: Pokemania
Pikachu conquers the world by stealth and cuteness
298: Snow time like the present
When, where and how to get your share of the white stuff this winter
297: Helping Hands
The spirit of giving through volunteering
296: Stop the Music
Tokyo's nightclubs under attack
295: Just Do It!
Staying in shape in the city
294: 2 can play that game
The next generation of games consoles
293: Vegging out in Tokyo
Some of Tokyo's meatless oases
292: Multiplicity
The belated arrival of the multiplex
291: After a Fashion
Zita Ohe walks through Tokyo's fall/winter fashions
290: Used and Abused
Second-hand shops in the city
289: Microbrew - a mini guide
Tour the best of Tokyo's independent suds makers
288: The Delusions of a Kabuki Addict
Visit Ginza's Kabuki-za
287: Live and Learn
Studying traditional culture in Tokyo
286: Are you quaking?
Preparing for the big one
285: Sagawa Kyubin guys
Faces behind the takkyubin phenomenon
284: South Park
Christian Storms, creative producer and transwriter of the Japanese South Park
283: A saner Tokyo
Counselling and healing options for Japan's foreign community
282: Trainspotting
The Yamanote Line trivia quiz
281: The Lost World
Graham Hancock, inventor of a new genre of history mystery investigation
Graham Hancock: Transcript
280: Body of Art
Working out with traditional Japanese arts to work out
279: Open all hours
Japanese convenience stores
278: The Rice Stuff
A guide to sake
277: Get out!
Feasting al fresco in the summer
276: The Empire Strikes Big
The force behind Star Wars
275: Don't worry be happy!
A definitive guide to Tokyo's drinking deals
274: Off the hook
Tokyo's Central Wholesale Market
273: Books
Donald Richie, worldwide authority on Japan and Japanese culture
272: What's up pussy cat?
Hello Kitty turns twenty-five
271: Moving mountains for Freedom
The Tibetan Freedom Festival
270: So you think you're safe?
Women's safety in Tokyo
269: Are these the droids you're looking for?
Japan's new robot army
268: From beast to beauty
Catering to the beauty needs of foreigners
267: Perfect TV
Exploring Japanese TV
266: Let's do talk
The portable phenomenon of keitai
265: Get ready to rock!
The third annual Fuju Rock Festival
264: Kichijoji uncovered
A delightfully different day out
263: Tour Japan one bite at a time
The eleventh annual Furusato Fair
262: Golden getaways
Get you out of town this Golden Week
261: Millennium fudge
Can Tokyo survive the Millennium bug?
260: Ueno Park
A walk in the low city
259: Stressed to kill
Lifethreatening stress in Tokyo
258: Oodles of noodles
A day in a life of a local ramen shop
257: Off the shelf
Tokyo city libraries
256: Lord of light
Tokyo Classifieds founder Mark Devlin
255: Are you game
Indoor sports to get your blood on the boil
254: Eat your heart out
Valentine's Day in Japan
253: The way of wagashi
A friendly face in Japanese cooking
252: Face to face with Harajuku
Yoyogi Park street culture
251: What a grind!
In search of the perfect cup of coffee
250: The year of the rabbit
Chinese astrological signs



Kodo celebrates
(photo by Yoshino Kazuo)

One of Japan's not-so-best- kept secrets is this three-day festival hosted by the internationally renowned taiko ensemble Kodo on remote Sado Island in the Japan Sea. Formed in 1981, the devoted members of Kodo live on Sado but have been bringing their message of global unity through percussion to the far corners of the earth through extensive touring, and through the Earth Celebration, in which diverse percussionists and experts in traditional music are invited to Sado for three days of concerts and teaching clinics. The highlight of this year's Earth Celebration are performances by Huun-Huur-Tu, a throat-singing group from Tuva, US jazz percussionist Milton Graves, Ghanian drummer/singer/dancer Aja Addy, and, of course, the sounds of the massive taiko as played by members of Kodo themselves.

This year's Earth Celebration takes place August 20-22 at Shiroyama Park and other Sado locations. If you can't get a ticket to the main event, don't worry. There are several fringe events to enjoy as well as impromptu concerts and the history-rich island of Sado itself. Dan Grunebaum

Info: Earth Celebration Committee c/o Kodo, 148-1 Kaneta Shinden, Ogi, Sado Island, Niigata 952-0611. Tel: 0259-86-3630. Fax: 0259-86-3631.