Takarakuza Bluegrass Festival in Japan celebrates 50 years

The Takarazuka Festival in Japan is recognized as the third oldest ongoing bluegrass festival in the world, after Bill Monroe’s Bean Blossom and Ralph Stanley’s Hills of Home Festival in McClure, Virginia. 

The first festival was held on the stage of Hazu Hachiman Shrine in Takarazuka City, an important cultural property in the mountains of northern Takarazuka in August 1972, with the intention of offering the excitement of the bluegrass festivals that Bluegrass 45 experienced on their 1971 tour of the United States. 

It was sponsored by B.O.M. Service, a music mail order company founded by the Watanabe brothers, Saburo Inoue and Toshio Watanabe, both members of Bluegrass 45. 

Sab was festival director for nearly 50 years, bringing, in the words of his brother, “unique leadership since its inception.” 

He established the concept of “equality for all participants in the name of bluegrass,” and every year, over 100 bands gather from all over Japan, with the Saturday program running an extremely tight schedule of nine minutes per band. 

The festival was moved to other locations, including a housing development, and in 1977 to its current venue, Sanda Athletic Lodge, another district of Hyōgo Prefecture; from 1988 to 1991, the Takarazuka Bluegrass Festival was held at Shibata Ranch in Moushi, Sanda City; and in 1992, it returned to the Sanda Athletic site. 

Red Clay Records released a various artists selection from the 8th Annual Takarazuka Bluegrass Festival (RC 106, 1980) ….

This year marked the 51st anniversary of the 50th event (the 2020 event was cancelled due to the COVID pandemic).

It is thought that people who experienced the Takarazuka Bluegrass Festival were inspired to return to their hometowns and begin organizing their own bluegrass festivals, and that it may have contributed to the formation of a bluegrass community in Japan, as much as it did to the enlightenment of bluegrass music. 

Calvin, Butch Robins’ father, visited the Takarazuka Festival in the late 1970s and later served as a goodwill ambassador to bridge the gap between Japanese and American bluegrass. Joe Ross, from Oregon, and Pete and Kitsy Kuykendall also visited. Former Blue Grass Boys Wayne Lewis and Bill Keith, Hazel Dickens, Bill Clifton, Billy and Terry Smith, Allison Brown, Sandy Rothman and David Nelson, Bill Clifton, Andy Owens, Clay Jones, Sierra Hull, Norm Pikelny, Anya Hinkel, MIPSO, and Country Gongbang, from Korea, are just a few of the international musicians who have participated.

Beating Around the Bush by Grass Syndicate, 1982 

Kazuki Kobayashi (mandolin), Kiyoshi Tanaka (lead guitar), Shinobu Nakamura (guitar), Yoshihiro Waki (bass), and Kentaro Sato (banjo).

Joe Ross, who went to a Yokohama high school and has written about bluegrass in Japan a few times for Bluegrass Unlimited magazine, sent this greeting along with some recollections of his experiences at the festival … 

“Congrats to The Takarazuka Festival on its 50th Anniversary! 

When my wife, Kathy, and I attended in 1986, it was an adventure just to get there involving trains, a bus ride, and then a one-kilometer walk. Fortunately, a young picker with a banjo befriended us and showed us the way on that last leg of the journey. We were not very prepared for camping, so Saburo and Toshio offered us some excellent accommodations backstage. After a night there, we moved to a very comfortable traditional Japanese ryokan (inn) nearby. There were several cabins at the site, and different groups stayed in those. Instead of burgers and hot dogs on the BBQ grills, it was pleasant to smell fish, shrimp, and more traditional Japanese fare frying. 

Jamming was fantastic, and we found a lot of common ground. My friends paid close attention to my mandolin picking, and I sensed that they really appreciated having someone there to sing in English. I should’ve stayed up even later, but we wanted to be rested for a performance on stage the next day. 

Many of the bands there were associated with universities where they had first, second, and third string groups. They would each run on stage and adhere very closely to their allotted timeframes for performance, usually about 12-14 minutes apiece. The evening show was exciting, and a couple other gaijin (foreigners) were there, namely Tony Marcus and Sandy Rothman. 

The “Bluegrass Entertainers Contest” was also quite unique and amusing, with entrants performing with various humorous antics. One young man was wrapped up like a mummy. Another played Foggy Mountain Breakdown on his banjo with chopsticks! A third entertainer had constructed a very playable fiddle from a large aluminum beer can. Another performer played both banjo and guitar at the same time … of course it was Dueling Banjos. The winning group, fronted by Akira “Shochan” Otsuka, had tuned downed their instruments and performed Blue Ridge Cabin Home as they learned it on their record players …. at 16 and 1/2 RPM! It’s a great festival and definitely something to experience first-hand. 

The Japanese are very friendly, hospitable and helpful members of the worldwide bluegrass family, and they’ll welcome you with open arms. One friend even taught me some Japanese lyrics for Bill Monroe’s Y’All Come.

One final lasting impression was that for fun one evening, a group gathered around a large wooden bucket with wooden mallets and made mochi (sweet, pasty Japanese rice cake) the traditional way (mochitsuki). They even gave us a few opportunities to swing that 9-lb hammer to the cadence of the crowd! How fun that was!”

The 40th annual Takarazuka Bluegrass Festival, part 1 

40th annual Takarazuka Bluegrass Festival, part 2

Shin Akimoto, who has been the Editor of MoonShiner magazine for the past four years, shared this 2022 festival report…. 

“We had 123 bands enter this year’s festival, more than double the number of last year, and almost the same number as before Corona. We had participants from far away, especially from the Kanto region, which was almost non-existent last year. However, Corona’s momentum did not stop, and we had seven bands cancel before the program was prepared, and 14 bands cancelled on site.

The day before, Thursday, was the eve of the festival, and in addition to the husband-and-wife duo of Tea or Coffee and Today, a band called Patricks, featuring Irish fiddle and guitar player and Otani University alumnus Tadato Nakamura, who seemed interested in bluegrass, added a banjo and mandolin from Kobe University and played in place of the opening jam on Friday.

Friday’s program started from Tokyo and the BG Runners, who have been enjoying bluegrass in their old age. Daisy Hill, Lassie, Hanshin Park ga naidesho, plus local regulars and bands from Kanto area, Nagoya, and Shiga such as Bluegrass Stomp, who participated energetically in festivals nationwide, and Big Tilda, who brought us the Stanley sound, arrived one after another, and the camp site was getting crowded. The program ended almost on time with Takako Tsujii of Yagitako, who was left alone after the death of her partner Yanagi. Today, which had more members than on Thursday, and the Sennichimae Bluegrass Album Band. By this time the students had arrived and the jamming never stopped until morning.

This year was marked by the emergence of young talented fiddlers. In particular, I stopped to listen to the late-night sessions of fiddlers such as Akifumi Hosokawa of the Nagoya University circle, Sakura Kawakami of Kobe University, and Mika Nara of Kyoto University.

On Saturday, the schedule was packed from 9:00 a.m. to midnight., with bands from Friday, veteran working bands, and Hanshin Bluegrass, who come out in droves every year to liven up the stage, practicing two songs a year for this day. The Thursday Night Fiddle Band, made up of members of Nakai Gakki’s fiddle class, also participated for the first time in three years since the passing of their teacher, Sabu. In the afternoon, a number of student bands who had just finished their exams came to the stage one after another and played lively music as if they were trying to relieve the frustration of not being able to do their circle activities in Corona.

The bands were all students who had been studying under difficult circumstances to continue bluegrass music, and were now ready to participate in the festival. I was given hope that the future of bluegrass is bright.

Mr. Toda played an original song that wrote for the first time to express his thoughts about the festival, and I was able to catch his message. Montrose Walk performed a banjo instrumental written by Sabu. The Churchback Trio, which was revived with the loss of its partner, Ms. Shuko Ishida, Ms. Ruriko Tagashira, and our president, Mr. Toshio Watanabe, as members, performed classic songs by the Blue Sky Boys and the Louvin Brothers, which brought back memories of bygone days and drew applause.

The Bluegrass Nuts, who have been performing since the first event, the Senri Mountain Boys, who have been performing since the sixth event, Kyoto and Kobe with their fun stage composition, Noboru Morishige, from Hawaii, the 5 Springs Band who travelled 14 hours from Niigata in the pouring rain, Sadao Oya of the Tokyo Hot Club with his friends from his school days, and the newly started Flying Fish who performed for the first time. The Flying Fish made their first appearance, along with festival veterans such as Masuo Sasabe and Yasuhisa Kato of Blue Side Lonesome, and the Camp Site Boys, an elite group of Kansai bluegrass musicians; Kazuhiro Inaba with Friends, who welcomed Mr. Sasabe, and many others, as well as the rise of the younger generation were notable this time. The Dairy University alumni band, Marron 5, Kimi and Brothers, and Yona Yona, who performed straight bluegrass with a new sensibility, impressed the audience with their passionate and highly skilled performances. 

The last band, the Tomo-sama Kings, who have been performing on Saturdays for more than 20 years, gave a rousing performance. The Saturday program ended almost as planned with a fiddle jam by Sadao Oya, Sakura Kawakami, Tater Yasuda, and Yoko Tanuma. We hope everyone enjoyed the midnight jam and talk as much as they wanted. According to the rain cloud radar on the Internet, it looked as if an evening shower could come at any time, but it passed through without interruption, and although it was humid, the heat was moderate compared to down below, which was a great help physically.

Sunday began with the customary gospel time by Noboru Morishige, followed by presentations by new students from Nagoya University and Kobe University, and Fiddling Serika by Mr. and Mrs. Isoyama, organizers of the Bisei festival, and their grandson, who made his festival debut in Takarazuka. I seemed to me that it was the mission of Takarazuka festival to provide a place for her and the new generation of bluegrassers who have emerged to present and interact with each other. Hikaru Hasegawa and Shin Akimoto, who were band mates in their younger days and who had not been to Takarazuka Fest in 16 years, Daisy Hill, and Mr. and Mrs. Hashioka, who had joined been at the festival since Thursday, closed Sunday’s program with Today.”

(Translated, with minor alterations, from the report in MoonShiner. Used with permission.)

There are several videos on-line showing scenes and music from the Takarazuka Bluegrass Festivals over the years. Here is a selection of shorter clips …

North Hill – Sugar Coated Love, Flying and Sitting On Top Of The World (2003)

G-men 68 (2013)  

Sennichimae Bluegrass Album Band (2016)

Kiyoshi Nishiguchi (guitar); Koji Onoda (banjo); Atsushi Kimura (bass); Shin Akimoto (mandolin); and Masafumi Hisanaga (guitar). 

Grass Store Reunion (2019)

Kenichi Yoshida (guitar); Tatsuo Takemura (mandolin); Mamoru Sengoku (bass); and Koji Onoda (banjo). 

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.