Traditional Drums from Tottori

Tottori Prefectural Government

An ancient sound, rooted in nature

Nichinan ~ Home of the taiko drum
The traditional Japanese taiko drum originates in the town of Nichinan in the Hino region of south-western Tottori Prefecture; we cannot be sure why drum-making started here, but the favourable location maybe a key factor. Nichinan lies by the River Hino, one of the prefecture’s three great rivers, in the glorious natural setting of the 1000 metre high Chūgoku Mountain Range, with easily accessible supplies of cowhide and zelkova wood required to produce drums. It is also close to the prefectural boundary, so ideally located to transport products to customer bases.
Ohe Drum Shop
At Ohe Drum Shop in Nichinan, the techniques of traditional taiko drum-making have been passed from father to son for four generations. The entire process is carried out manually, from procurement of materials to assembling the drum locally, making it an unusual store in Japan as a whole.
An ancient tradition of drum-making
The traditional drum-making process uses no man-made no chemicals, employing only natural materials. This requires a huge investment of time and labour but results in a distinctive, natural product. Consistently sticking with this approach over several generations has produced the taiko drum we know today.
A legacy of ancient times
The history of the taiko drum can be traced as far back as the Jōmon Period (14,000 -300 BCE). In antiquity it was used primarily for ceremonial purposes, rather than for entertainment.
In was in the Middle Ages that taiko for music performances began to enter Japan from the Asian continent. They subsequently took on very important role in various settings like shrine and temple festivals, and the performing arts. In recent years, a great many taiko drumming groups have sprung up around the country.
Zelkova – making the body
The body of the drum is made from zelkova wood, whose hardness and density give it very good resonance. The wood-grain is also extremely beautiful.
Drying the Wood
The wood to be used is cut down in winter. This is because if the trees are felled in summer, when they are growing, they have many insect holes in them and it is difficult reduce the water content. Wood with a high water content is prone to crack or break, so the felled logs are dried out for at least 10 years before use.
Shaping the body
The logs are mechanically trimmed into a drum shape, and then dried again.
The inside of the log is hollowed out. This is a crucial part of the process which will affect the sound. The wood taken from the centre will be used to make a smaller drum, so many large and small drums are created from a single tree.
Cowhide – The Drumming Surface
The surface of the drum is made of cowhide. Cattle have long been a familiar part of the local landscape, as they were commonly used in farming. The superb toughness and resilience of cowhide makes it an indispensable element to a good-sounding drum. Because thickness and quality vary in different areas of the hide, these are selected according to the type of drum being created.
Processing the cowhide
After washing away any residual meat with water, the hide is left to soak in a solution for about a month, speeding up the process of hair removal.
Once the hair has been removed, the hide is soaked for about a week in a solution of rice bran and coarse salt, which gets rid of any excess fat.
The cowhide varies in thickness, so must be evened out to make sure the drum’s sound is consistent. The drum-maker uses a tool called kawakanna to create a uniform thickness.
This is the task of joining the body and the cowhide surface. The hide, shaped to form the drumming surface, is adjusted to fit the body.
The exact stretch of the skin determines the quality and pitch of the sound. Once the skin is fixed to the barrel with rivets, the sound of the drum can no longer be altered. At this stage, the aim is not to achieve the best possible sound right now, but to ensure the sound quality will be preserved for decades to come. Creating a taiko drum whose sound will mature with use is a delicate process.
Rivets and ornamental metal fittings are added to complete the drum.
Repair and Restoration
A taiko-maker’s role is not just producing new drums. Most of the work currently involves repairing broken or out-of-condition instruments. Artisans can also adjust a drum to achieve a particular kind of sound. The very important job of taking the taiko drum, a historical treasure of its region, into the future: this also presents a tremendous opportunity to learn the skills of ancient craftsmen.
There are mini drum-making classes where parents and children can try their hand at the process. It takes only about an hour to create a simple instrument, which has a good, full-bodied sound. Parents and children get engrossed in the crafting process.
Connecting with the Next Generation
In 2001 Mr. Ohe set up, and leads, the Oku-Hino Taiko performance group, which aims to interest more people in taiko drumming.
Tottori Prefectural Government
Credits: Story

Supported by:
Ohe drum shop
Oku-Hino Taiko performance group

Directed and text provided by:
Tottori Prefecture

Photograph created by:
Maezaki Shinya, Kyoto Women's University

English Translation by:
Daniela Mageanu
English edited by:
Martie Jelinek

Movie by:
Takayama Kengo, A-PROJECTS

This exhibition is created by:
Akino Kitayama Kyoto Women's University
Mai Fujio Kyoto Women's University
Shiori Furunaga Kyoto Women's University

Project Directed by:
Maezaki Shinya, Kyoto Women's University

This exhibition is provided by:
Tottori Prefectural Govenment

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.