The ABCs of: Taiko drums in Japan

May 7, 2019

The sights, sounds, and tastes of Japan are captivating. In order to truly get a feel for this incredible country and its offerings, it’s best to immerse yourself in as much of its history and culture as possible. One way to do this: check out a taiko performance. Here are three things to know about the history of Japanese percussion before you go.

Ancient instruments

In Japan, “taiko” can refer to any drum; it’s only outside of the country that “taiko drums” are taken to mean percussive instruments of Japanese origin. The instruments were introduced to Japan centuries ago, likely from Korea or China; there’s archaeological evidence that the drums were introduced to Japan in the 6th century, after Japanese musicians travelled to learn how they were constructed and played.

Built to last

Constructing a taiko is no small feat. In the past, the wood to construct the base of the drum would have been dried for years, though in recent years modern techniques have allowed craftsman to expedite this process somewhat. Tree trunks are hollowed out and carefully chiseled into the shape of a drum, then fitted with handles which may be functional or decorative. Then, cowhide (or bullhide) is stretched over each end to create the drumming surface. The skin is stretched incrementally over the frame to avoid tearing and create even tension. Sometimes a circle of deerskin is placed in the centre of the drum, to act as a target for the player.

Category is…

Taiko come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and sounds. They are categorized according to their construction method: Byō-uchi-daiko have the drumhead nailed to the body. Shime-daiko’s drum skin is placed over iron or steel rings, and Tsuzumi have an hourglass shape and deerskin drumheads.

Getting there

See taiko drumming in action on a tour with National Geographic Family Journeys with G Adventures, a new line of trips for adventure-loving families in search of a meaningful way to discover the world together. With itineraries inspired by National Geographic's expertise in photography and storytelling, wildlife, culture, history, and geography, these trips let families connect with the world and each other.

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