Ray Nitta with drums

Ray Nitta and Taiko Kaua`i drums. Photo by Kat Ho and students of Hale Opio

by Anne E. O’Malley

Ray Nitta is one fit fellow for quite a few reasons. As a woodworker, he handles downed tree trunks and huge wood slabs and turns them into, say, koa or mango tables that might weigh up to 300 lb. each — just to use one example.

Of course, as he says, “A lot of moving is knowing how to manipulate large pieces. You’ve got to use levers and wheels and pulleys and find different ways.”

Lean and muscled, at 5 ft. 8 in. and weighing 130 lb., Nitta says, “I’m in constant movement. I do qigong exercises, bike, and do lots of walking, ocean swimming and stand-up paddle boarding.”

And he does taiko.

When the Rev. Earl Ikeda of the Honpa Hongwanji in Waimea approached Nitta in the middle of 2000 and asked him to start a taiko group, Nitta, who’d been exposed to it, accepted.

Nitta didn’t know he’d wind up assisting in the making of perhaps 100 drums for taiko here and see the sprouting of a number of taiko groups including the one he helped start, Taiko Kaua`i.

He’d made drums of other kinds, beautiful ones with carvings on them, and even wrote directions on how to make a particular drum. The directions were printed in Gamesmag, published by a place he’d taught in Berkeley.

Somehow, those directions made it into the Whole Earth Catalog and Nitta received inquiries from all over the world. A friend visiting Australia actually saw a drum in a shop there with a sign that said, “Designed by Ray Nitta.”

Drumming on tires

Early Taiko Kaua`i days. Photo courtesy of Taiko Kaua`i

For Taiko Kaua`i to make their own drums made sense, says Nitta. The group was beating on poor-boy drums — tires wrapped in clear packing tape and propped up on folding chairs.

Taiko drums from Japan cost between $6,000 to $8,000 each for the big ones, and who could afford that? They could make their own for about $350 apiece.

And to touch back to our fitness theme, certainly, taiko is an art form that requires strength to fashion the drums and transport the big ones.

“They weigh from 15 lb. to 150 lb.,” says Nitta. “I have lifted them, but usually, you get two people to carry them.”

And then there’s actually playing the taiko drums, an athletic pursuit that causes drummers to break a sweat in every performance.


These days, Nitta is also getting plenty of exercise at Lawai International Center, where he’s part of a team working on building the new Hall of Compassion, made in the art of traditional 13th Century Japanese joinery.

Says Nitta, “I find it an honor to even touch a building like that, no less work on it.”

Volunteering from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week, he says, “It’s tiring, exhausting work, but I’m energized by it. The place and the project energize me.

“I’m afraid of heights, yet I’m like a billy goat, scampering around, walking on rafters and beams —  pieces of wood about two inches wide and 20 feet high.”

What’s changed his perspective?

“The project, the spirit of it,” he says.

Drawing from his kit bag of experiences that could fill a novel, Nitta offers a word or two about staying fit.

“Keep moving,” he says. I’ll try anything, from jumping out of an airplane — I did some skydiving.

“Life is full of risk. Jump right in with both feet.”

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