I think there were five or six drums, each mounted on a wooden frame, and the drummers did a precise choreographed dance as they drummed to exactly the same beats. They pounded out the music as if it had been written, which clearly it had, even though the only instrument was drums. I always thought drumming, except for a steady beat for timing, was a more fluid thing, a make it up as you go kind of thing, but what I was seeing were clearly devised and rehearsed pieces. They used their entire bodies to get the most from the huge drums. It was loud and exciting, and I was completely gobsmacked, trembling with the excitement of it, with the power, the energy. And grinning from ear to ear as their joy and passion became my own. Amongst many exciting and heart-stopping experiences of the (sadly now defunct) Frostbite Music Festival in Whitehorse, Yukon back in 1990, the taiko drumming was the most electrifying. I’d never seen anything like it.
My next experience of taiko drums was at the Kurayami Festival in Tokyo in 2018. These drums are seven feet high and are paraded around the neighbourhood on huge wheeled carts. Trembling again.
I fell in love with Japan and all things Japanese on my first trip there in 2018. I’d long known of the Japanese community in Vancouver, and knew that they had annual festivals here, but I’d never sought them out until I returned from that trip. That year Don and I discover the then six-year-old Nikkei Matsuri. Matsuri is the Japanese word for festival, and of course we go to it.
Making our way through the crowds we first go inside the building to see some of the performances on the main stage.
The last thing I expect to see is hula dancing! But given the strong Japanese heritage in Hawaii I don’t suppose I should have been surprised. So in a happy wonder of multiculturalism I watch Canadian women of Japanese heritage dance traditional Hawaiian Polynesian dances. It is Wailele Waiwai, a hula dance group, and their name symbolises endless growth, like a waterfall. In their graceful flowing movements they live up to their name.
The next act, randomly, is Indonesian. More multiculturalism. I’m bewildered, but delighted, especially with the peacock dance. I learn later that the festival partner for that year is Indonesia.
And now for something completely different. I think he looks pretty hot in his ninja clothes, but he looks even hotter out of them.
He’s a real-life ninja who has been training in the ninja arts since he was five years old. The perfection that comes from years of practice shows in everything he does. His stage presence is compelling and we’re hooked from the beginning. Ninjas were spies, and assassins. He has a brown cloaked and hooded adversary who has a couple of long poles to defend himself. The ninja takes him down over and over with knives, with swords, with a long ribbon used to bind his opponent from a distance. It’s spectacular. These guys are trained! And fit! And fast! Back when ninjas were a real thing in Japan they would pretend to be street performers so they could mingle with ordinary people and gather information. So there’s a juggling act with a ball and umbrella, and some audience participation. It’s a really engaging show. We gasp, we groan, we smile, we laugh, and at the end we clap with enthusiasm. Bonus that he’s also pretty to look at. His name is Tomonosuke, from Iga, Japan, and he performs around the world. Worth seeing.
Japan’s loss is Canada’s gain. Yumeko Kon had a dance studio in Tokyo, but she now lives in Vancouver. At Dance Studio she teaches a dance style that is part hip hop, part reggae, part House, part African, and all Japanese! And all fun!
And of course there is taiko!
They are using smaller drums than those I saw in Whitehorse all those years ago, but it’s just as exciting, and just as compelling. This is Vancouver Okinawa Taiko, a taiko group that was formed in 2004. They are as much a performance group as they are drummers, ambassadors of Okinawan style drum-dancing. Their energy and joy is infectious and once again I find myself matching their smiles with my own.
Apart from the main stage performances there’s a game zone, a market place, a yukata dress-up station, a book sale, a Hello Kitty art workshop, and of course a dojo for learning, performing, and viewing martial arts.
Outside it’s a party, a huge crowded communal party
with food stalls like this one serving okonomiyaki
and others serving spiral potatoes, melon pan, Japanese-style crepes, takoyaki, and ramen.
And a beer garden, and dances, and cosplay characters,
and many people dressed in traditional outfits, travelling back to Japan if only in their imaginations.
The energy is contagious and joyous, a sumptuous celebration of Japanese culture.
Her name is Sumiko, and she’s just about the first thing we come to. She’s hard to miss.
Sumiko, the alter-ego of June Fukumura, a Japanese-Canadian theatre artist, is a hyper-kawaii dark humoured clown. Shouting, laughing, cajoling via her microphone she convinces her audience to participate in some quirky games based on equally quirky Japanese TV game shows. There is much merriment happening here on this bright and bubbly August summer day.
Behind her is one of the stages, ahead of her is the main area of the festival. It feels like half of Vancouver is here.
We are at the Powell Street Festival, Vancouver’s other celebration of all things Japanese. And if we ever made the mistake of thinking that things were really happening at Nikkei Matsuri, we find out what a really big festival is at Powell Street. It’s the largest of its kind in Canada.
There are artist talks and panels, a tea ceremony, films, dance performances, a sumo tournament, martial arts demonstrations, singers and musicians, theatre performances, a market place, the chance to try really really big calligraphy with a brush the size of a broom, endless food booths, and, of course! A taiko ensemble! I am happy!
It is Onibana Taiko whose performances are a modern take on a traditional art combining drumming, folk music, and dance. It’s a fusion of shamisen, flute, and kick-ass taiko.
We hear it before we see it. It is the loud rhythmic chant of the men and women carrying the mikoshi and the crowd parts like the Red Sea to let them through. There are many others bunched up on either side, also chanting, ready to take their place as needed to relieve those carrying it; it’s heavy! This is Rakuichi, the Vancouver Mikoshi Group, and Nana Tamura stands on top as those beneath aggressively rock it from side to side to awaken the kami, or Shinto god within.
In the grounds of Shinto shrines there are small wooden “houses” called jinja. It is here that the kami live. The kami are like nature spirits, and once a year they are taken on an outing through the streets – to bless the neighbourhood, and to bring good fortune for the year. They are carried in elaborate golden mikoshi, or portable shrines. The mikoshi is an essential element of festivals all over Japan and seeing it come towards me through the crowd, blessing this Vancouver neighbourhood, I almost feel as if I’m back in Japan again.
After the excitement of the mikoshi we go exploring with the crowd, moving slowly down the street, often finding the spectators as interesting as the performers.
We buy street food. We find a baby sumo wrestler.
And we stop to watch the Ainu performance. The Ainu, an indigenous people who primarily live on the island of Hokkaido, but also live on the Russian island of Sakhalin, are a bit of a mystery. They are probably an isolated Paleo-Asiatic people with no direct relations, and their language does not appear to be related to any other living language. They are a truly unique people, holding on to their culture as best they can in a continually changing world. Having suffered much the same fate as all indigenous peoples when subjugated by a colonial power their lifestyles are widely integrated into Japanese society, but many have sought in different ways to recover their lost culture and tradition. And we get to see something of it on a crowded street on a sunny day in Vancouver. The world really is a small place.
Eventually we make our way back to the stage for the traditional dance performance by Otowa Ryu Japanese Dance Group.
And eventually, sun soaked and exhausted, having followed the festival down Powell Street and around the corner along Jackson Avenue, we fall like rag dolls into a cafe for sustenance, catching this elder as he leaves in all his ceremonial glory.
The Powell Street Festival is held in August in both outdoor locations and indoor venues around the Powell Street area within Vancouver’s historic Japanese-Canadian neighbourhood, on the traditional unceded territories of the Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations.
Nikkei Matsuri is held annually in September at the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, Tsleil-waututh, and Kwikwetlem First Nations.
Next post: Travelling solo – how I was escorted off the skytrain by police having been falsely accused of racist remarks, and the lessons I learned from this experience.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2021.