High school graduate pursues professional taiko dream with Japan’s Kodo

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Ren Zoshi recalled the first time she saw Kodo Taiko Performing Arts Ensemble perform as a 9-year-old child.

“That first performance, I think, I just couldn’t forget the sound, the energy and how much you can do with drums,” Zoshi, the 18-year-old Shin-Nisei, said. “Taiko — the sound, you can feel it vibrate in you.”

Zoshi had planned to host a shaon-kai or “thank you party” at the Enmanji Buddhist Temple in Sebastopol, Calif. March 15 to offer her gratitude to those who have supported her dream to become a professional member of the Japanese group based in Sado Island. The event was canceled as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, however.

In December 2019, Zoshi was one of 12 applicants accepted into Kodo’s apprenticeship program.

Early on, Zoshi, who was born in Napa, Calif., spent many hours practicing her craft while her mother drove her to both Sonoma County Taiko in Santa Rosa, Calif. and Oh-In Taiko practices in Richmond, Calif. She said she wouldn’t be where she is today without her mother’s hard work.

Ren Zoshi performs with Sonoma County Taiko at the Enmanji Buddhist Temple’s Obon festival in July 2019. photo by Nozomi Hallberg

“Without her, I wouldn’t be as far and I wouldn’t be who I am today for supporting me, working so hard,” Zoshi said of her mother. “The only way for me to give back to her is to be on that stage with Kodo.”

While balancing good grades and continuing to play taiko throughout high school, she received approval from her counselor in her junior year to graduate a semester early from Analy High School in Sebastopol to devote her life to her dream.

“I practice two hours in Richmond because I go to a group called Oh-In and then I practice with Sonoma County Taiko on Wednesdays for about two hours,” Zoshi said, who has played with Sonoma County Taiko and Oh-In Taiko since she was 9 and 12 years old, respectively.

Arnold Shimizu, Sonoma County Taiko founding member and Zoshi’s instructor, said “she was always striving to be better” and “be as proficient as she could be.”

HEADED TO A LARGER STAGE — Ren Zoshi performing on the tsuzumi (hand drum) at the 2018 Cherry Blossom Festival in San Francisco. photo by Mark Shigenaga

“Her drive and eagerness to learn are really prominent,” Shimizu said of Zoshi’s strengths. 

Every summer since she was in the seventh grade, Zoshi has traveled to Tokyo to expand and hone her taiko skills. Her Oh-In Taiko instructor, Jimi Nakagawa, introduced her to Saburo Mochizuki, another taiko teacher in Japan, who taught her how to play the traditional Japanese hand drum, the tsuzumi. 

“Everyday, we would have lessons for three hours on the tsuzumi and three hours on taiko,” Zoshi said of the rigorous training she received in Japan.

Zoshi hopes all of the hours practicing and honing her taiko skills will finally pay off when she goes to Sado Island in the Niigata Prefecture in April, for her apprenticeship program. The program is communal, where applicants learn more about Japanese culture, including cooking meals, as their diet is important, said Atsushi Sugano, the managing director of the Kodo Cultural Foundation. The program requires participants to be proficient in speaking Japanese. Zoshi said she’s “pretty fluent.”

The applicants wake up at 5 a.m. to follow the current apprentices’ daily routine. The current apprentices show the applicants the taiko repertoire they have learned from Kodo.

Sugano said applicants go to the apprentice center to warm up and stretch before playing taiko. There is a dance session followed by dinner and dessert with a singing session coming after.

“Our program is communal living; they need to be communicating and it’s not just about musical ability,” Sugano said in a Skype interview. “We try to find out about their characters through all sessions.”

According to Sugano, Zoshi’s apprenticeship will consist of being taught “basic techniques of drumming and also throughout the two years, we teach a basic repertoire of Kodo.”

Zoshi is hoping her near decade of perfecting her craft will enable her to advance from the apprenticeship program, into becoming a junior member and eventually, an official member of Kodo Taiko Performing Arts Ensemble, completing her dream.

“I hope I will be able to impact other people with taiko,” Zoshi said. “I hope I can give the same impact Kodo gave me as a child, so I hope I would give that to other people.”

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