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PJ Hirabayashi

Bang the Drum

By Sarah Quelland

ALMOST 30 YEARS ago, PJ Hirabayashi and her husband, Roy, helped found San Jose Taiko, one of the first three taiko groups established in the United States. The drum-and-dance art form has become tremendously popular, and since San Jose Taiko's beginnings in 1973, close to 150 professional taiko guilds have sprung up across America.

As creative director for San Jose Taiko, Hirabayashi says, "It's quite exciting to see the connection with the root culture coming from Japan [and] also to see how people are developing their own identity. We're not doing traditional taiko from Japan. It is definitely contemporary. It is an expression that speaks to our experience, and our repertoire reflects the melding of different influences."

Seemingly tireless, this petite and athletic woman performs, trains, teaches, develops repertoire, tours, holds public workshops and conducts school outreach programs. She also works with close to 100 kids in the Junior Taiko program. At the moment, she's planning San Jose Taiko's 30th anniversary show scheduled for Oct. 4, 2003, at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts. The event will bring the first three taiko groups in the United States (San Francisco Taiko Dojo, L.A.'s Kinnara Taiko and San Jose Taiko) together to celebrate their pioneer beginnings and recognize the preservation efforts of the three remaining Japantowns--which, coincidentally, are in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Jose. Not surprisingly, Hirabayashi says, "I don't have too much time, so going out on special times for myself isn't that frequent." But she was happy to share some of her favorite local spots in her Japantown community and its surrounding areas.

Metro: All this exercise must make you hungry--where's your favorite place to go eat?

Hirabayashi: One of my favorite spots is Gombei Restaurant, on Jackson Street--real down-home cooking. [My favorite dish is] Age-Dashi--it's deep-fried tofu. What's so special about that is that they use a tofu that's handmade right next door to the restaurant. That's another little hidden secret--the tofu maker that's right here in Japantown; it's called San Jose Tofu.

Where do you go for breakfast?

Hawaiian-style breakfasts at Fourth Street Bowl. They specialize in dishes like the Locomoco, a breakfast of rice, egg, a hamburger patty and gravy and Hawaiian-Portuguese sausage with rice and eggs.


The Shuei-do Manju Shop. Manju is a sweet confection made out of smashed beans and sticky rice--what they call mochi. Beautifully done. Artistically done.

What's a good place to find gifts for people?

Again on Jackson Street, Nichi Bei Bussan. It's very eclectic in that it has martial arts-type of things, a nice collection of Japanese books on art history, cookbooks and a lot of gift items. They also have a little area for Japanese fabrics you can buy by the yard. They also take orders for making shoji screens, the rice-paper screens that they put in the window. They also make futons there; you can have the blankets or the fold-up mattresses made to order. During Obon season, you can get your paraphernalia like your tabi (little socks that you wear with your slippers) and your yukata (like a summer kimono made out of cotton) and all the little obis for the little kids. It supplies what you would need for a Japanese festival.

Also, Nikkei Traditions. What's really nice about that particular store [is] it highlights a lot of products that are handmade and indigenous of the community--of Japanese-American cultural traditions--not so much imported from Japan. There's nice gift items there, nice little treasures to find there for presents and for yourself!

Where do you go to stock up on groceries?

Santo Market (245 Taylor St.) and Doboshi Market (240 Jackson St.). I frequent both of them. You can get a lot of ethnic foods there.

What local events do you look forward to?

The Obon Festival is one of my favorites because San Jose Taiko was born out of the Buddhist Church, and there's that connection. It's a celebration of friends and loved ones that have passed on, and it's that moment in the summer where supposedly you are dancing in memory of their spirit and of their existence and what they've left with you. [I also like] the Nikkei Matsuri Festival. What's wonderful about that is it brings together all the many different organizations within the community or extended community. It's a coming together of the community for diverse groups from martial arts groups to social service groups.

What about when you just want to wind down--what do you do to relax?

I like something as simple as walking around the square block of Japantown with my two dogs in the morning to see the sun just coming up and appreciate the landscape. To see the sun coming up over the tiles of the roof of the Buddhist Church. To be able to walk and see the trees and the flowers. It gives you a sense of community and connection.

Another place I particularly like to walk in the morning with my two dogs [is] the Guadalupe Parkway area. There's a little park there with lots of wonderful roses. They have thousands and thousands of roses that have been donated from all over the world. During the height of rose season, it's just [full of] spectacular colors and wonderful aromas. There's [another] section there that you can see almost a wildlife refuge. You can see egrets flying. One morning, there was a hawk and a hummingbird simultaneously. Those are poignant snapshot images that you can see during the morning.

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From the October 10-16, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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