Old and New: Tsugaru-jamisen Rock

I will never forget walking down the streets of Turin, Italy, with my husband, in search of classical Japanese koto and shakuhachi music. One Italian music seller, eager to help us, got so excited she offered to track down an actual shakuhachi instrument. We explained we only wanted recordings of the instruments, so we could experience the sound. Importing an actual shakuhachi to Italy was a bit beyond our budget.

Although traditional Japanese recordings were tough to find in Italy, every corner newsstand carried Japanese manga, in translation. Italy was an interesting place to become Japanophiles. But you know a better place to indulge our love of all things Japanese? Tokyo. We were so thrilled to have the chance to visit there this May.

We’ve had some of the most moving entertainment moments of our lives with Japanese pop culture: manga and anime, video games and video game soundtracks.

And there’s something about traditional Japanese culture that’s so deeply peaceful and beautiful. Celebrating cherry blossoms in the spring, our experience at Mt. Takao, where we hiked amid shrines and temples to a beautiful vista at the summit.

It’s impossible to spend any time, either in Japan or with Japanese media, without noticing the striking juxtaposition of old and new, traditional and modern, in Japanese culture.

The Wagakki Band goes all out to celebrate this juxtaposition of old and new. They play classical Japanese instruments– but don’t expect classical music. This band rocks.

Wait, can the koto really rock? Check out the video to their song, Senbonzakura.

Two of the instruments played in Senbonzakura are the classical Japanese instruments whose music we longed to experience back in Italy. The shakuhachi is the instrument with the beautiful, breathy sound, that looks roughly like a recorder. The koto is the horizontal, harp-like instrument that comes in several sizes. There are also special Japanese drums, wadaiko, which you may have heard referred to more commonly as taiko drums.

The instrument I didn’t know is the tsugaru-jamisen. It looks like a squared off guitar with small body, long neck, and wide tuning pegs. It’s known for its percussive playing style. I’ve known the sound for years, as played by the Yoshida Brothers. But finally seeing the tsugaru-jamisen jamming to the beat brings a huge smile to my face.

The blend of modern bass, guitar, and drum set with these traditional instruments makes a compelling sound. The video to Senbonzakura shows that this musical blend is no accident. From the instruments to the composition, from the dancing to the outfits worn by the musicians, it’s clear that The Wagakki Band is having a blast playing with the juxtaposition of old and new.

Band photo:

Author Daiima

This file is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

10,000 steps

I once believed the right attitude was the most important factor in living a healthy lifestyle. To keep moving and stay fit I cultivated a preference for walking to driving. I got in the habit of doing errands on foot, walking to the grocery store, the post office, to visit friends.

About three years ago I bought the Fitbit, and found my mindset and habits didn’t keep me on track as much as I thought. The Fitbit represented my first foray into quantified self, evaluating aspects of my life by the numbers instead of subjective experience.

My first weeks targeting 10,000 steps with the Fitbit were such a surprise. Hours spent cooking and cleaning seemed like constant motion, but yielded almost no steps. I could be found at 11:45 pm, pacing back and forth in the hallway to get the last hundred steps to 10,000. I memorized paths around my neighborhood by number of steps and calculated the extra laps needed to meet my target.

For me steps became such a natural and intuitive measure of my activity. The measure taught me an active day sometimes means driving to the post office so I have time for a run or cardio workout.

This week I happened upon the origins of the 10,000 step goal. It’s cool to learn that something so integral to my daily life began way back in 1960’s Japan. Here’s the story:

After the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Japan was enthused about physical fitness. Researcher, Dr. Hatano, was ready to put that enthusiasm to use. Hatano studied the number of steps an average Japanese person took in a day, then calculated the additional steps needed to burn an obesity-reducing extra 500 calories per day, and came up with 10,000 steps as a daily total. Hatano successfully marketed a pedometer called the Manpo-kei, which quite literally means counter to 10,000.

10,000 steps still holds sway in the global consciousness as a healthy activity target. I check my step total throughout every day, even though my current fitness tracker sets calorie goals instead of steps.

I learned all about Dr. Hatano and the Manpo-kei from a newsletter sent by one of my favorite apps, Coach.me. They cited the article: Why 10,000 steps?

Pictured from bottom to top is the Fitbit Ultra, the first model made, which I used until it died, and its immediate replacement, the Fitbit One.