Hamamatsu: City of music

By Vicki L Beyer

Hamamatsu styles itself Japan's city of music. There are even locally-manufactured pianos in the shinkansen station to prove it. Hamamatsu is home to a number major musical instrument manufacturers, as well as music schools, and even music festivals.

It all began in 1897 when Torakusu Yamaha, a local man who had been repairing reed organs in Hamamatsu's primary schools, decided to try his hand at making an organ. It worked. The organs sold. By 1900, Yamaha was also producing pianos, and eventually added strings, brass and woodwinds to its repertoire.

Yamaha was joined by Kawai, known especially for its pianos, Suzuki Musical Instruments, and Tokai Guitars. Indeed, more than 90% of Western-style musical instruments produced in Japan are manufactured in Hamamatsu. And there's plenty to do, see, and hear, relating to Hamamatsu's musical industry.

If you reserve at least a week in advance, both Suzuki and Yamaha offer tours of their factories (Note: Yamaha has relocated its piano production facility to Kakegawa, the next shinkansen stop to Hamamatsu).

For my visit to the city of music, I decided to play in a minor key. Instead of touring one of the factories manufacturing Western-style musical instruments, I paid a visit to the Hikosaka Koto Shamisen Shop (52 Nameda-cho, Naka-ku, Hamamatsu; phone 053-452-5566; e-mail Having called a few days in advance, I arrived at the appointed time and spent a delightful hour with Makoto Hikosaka, son of the shop's founder. The shop is conveniently just a few minutes walk from Hamamatsu Station.

As the name suggests, the shop specializes in traditional Japanese musical instruments, particularly the koto and shamisen. While he re-strung a koto, Hikosaka explained the basics of the body, made of Paulownia wood (“kiri,” in Japanese), and the 13 strings. While the thick, ribbed strings Hikosaka was using were synthetic, he explained that silk strings were traditionally used, although they have fallen out of favor because they are not as durable. It was fascinating to watch him knot, thread and loop the strings through. He was amazingly quick about it. When all 13 strings were in place, Hikosaka tuned the instrument, knotting each string in place when he was satisfied with its pitch and then looping all the strings together and tucking them into the hollow body of the koto.

Hikosaka was almost wistful as he told me more about traditional Japanese musical instruments. His father had opened the shop just after World War II, a time when there was great demand for shamisens. Why? Because in economic hard times, women often become entertainers. And because as entertainers they needed instruments and regular repairs to instruments, hard times for others meant boom times for shamisen makers. Alas, these days, even when the economy dips, women are not turning to the shamisen for their living. So, while the Hikosaka shop still made, sold and repaired shamisens, that part of their business is in decline, and Hikosaka had no shamisen work to show me during my visit, although there were plenty of shamisen to see.

But while interest in traditional Japanese musical instruments seems to be waning, Hikosaka still has plenty of work to keep him busy. This he tells me as he reaches for a tsuzumi drum that needed new heads. The tsuzumi is a hand-held drum used in traditional Japanese theater as well as to accompany folk music. This particular instrument belongs to a local neighborhood that uses it in festival parades. Hikosaka explained all of this while he unthreaded the orange cord that held the heads in place at either end of a bar-bell shaped body. He also explained that because this drum was used in festival parades, he would use inexpensive synthetic heads, rather than those made of leather. As he fitted the new heads and threaded the original cord through holes on the edges of the heads to hold them in place, he also explained how the instrument worked. The cords could be pulled tighter or loosened by squeezing them, changing the tone of the drum. There, he was finished, and quickly demonstrated his point. He even let me try.

After bidding farewell to Hikosaka and thanking him for his time, I decided to lunch on unagi-ju, one of Hamamatsu most famous dishes, before making my way to the Hamamatsu Museum of Musical Instruments, just on the other side of the ACT City complex outside Hamamatsu Station (Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; closed 2nd and 4th Wednesdays of the month; admission 500 yen).

This is the only museum of its kind in Japan. It contains a huge collection of musical instruments from all over the world, many that were distinctive and some that were downright odd.

The entry level is divided between Japanese instruments and instruments from elsewhere in Asia. Some of the exhibits demonstrate how instruments that were created in one place evolved as they moved along trade routes and human migration paths. In other cases, one could simply observe the cultural cross-fertilization by noting the similarity of the instruments in the displays of different countries.

On the lower level there were European instruments, especially brass and strings, as well as instruments from South America, Oceania and Africa. I never knew that there were bagpipes in Africa! Somehow I suspect that was a case of independent development of the same thing in two places, rather than one of cultural cross-fertilization (unless Dr Livingstone traveled with bagpipes...). In front of many of the instruments are headsets through which visitors can hear the instruments being played. There are also fliers with English explanations available for many of the European and Japanese instruments, with other fliers being developed all the time.

Given that Hamamatsu's musical roots are in organs and pianos, it's not surprising that there is an entire hall of these instruments and their European predecessors such as the virginals and the harpsichord. Some of the instruments were quite unique, like a duet piano, with keyboards at opposite ends of a single case, and a twin-keyboarded grand piano.

At fixed times throughout the day, the museum hosts mini-concerts on the piano and the organ. I was treated to four Chopin pieces played on a Pleyel piano of the mid-19th century. Pleyel was known to be Chopin's favorite make of piano, although this particular instrument was probably produced shortly after Chopin's death. Both the piano and the pianist performed splendidly. It was especially thrilling to hear such sounds up close and personal.

Tucked in the back of the entry level of the museum is another chance to get up close and personal with music, a hands-on room. Probably intended for children, I still enjoyed the chance to pluck banjo strings and actually produce a tune on a Caribbean steel drum (there was color coding, making it a whole lot easier).

On the way back to the station, I meandered through ACT City, Hamamatsu's performing arts and convention center and host to many of the music festivals that take place in Hamamatsu. Particularly noteworthy was “Chopin Hill”, a rooftop garden with a replica of Waclaw Szymanowski's haunting sculpture of Frederic Chopin. The original sculpture is in Warsaw, which, unsurprisingly, is Hamamatsu's sister city. Back at the station, the refrains of a Chopin nocturne played in my head as I waited for my train.

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Will arrange a visit with Japanese students from the MusicfestPerugia ( )and will ask Ilana Vered to lead the tour ( )

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Hey, you forgot to mention Roland!

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I was in Hamamatsu exactly one year ago -- just in time for Typhoon ManYi -- and really loved the city! It's a city of industry like my old hometown Detroit, and, as a Polish-American, I was glad to see the interest and appreciation for the music of Chopin.

The museum of musical instruments is not to be missed. There is nothing like it anywhere. (A good friend of the family donated an early synthesizer which is on display.)

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