I was privileged to be a member of a small South African delegation that toured Japan in November in order to learn more about Yamaha pianos and keyboard products, as well as the Yamaha music education system. After two long flights (Johannesburg to Dubai, then Dubai to Narita), we were transported to the wonderful New Otani Hotel in Tokyo. In spite of being located in the middle of a city of more than 10 million people, the hotel grounds boast one of the oldest and most spectacular traditional gardens in Tokyo. The scene below is just one of the many spots where visitors can relax, meditate, and enjoy the breath-taking natural beauty.
Tokyo University of the Arts
After a restful night’s sleep, we began our busy itinerary with a visit to the Tokyo University of the Arts, where we observed a class in ancient Japanese theatre. Unfortunately, no photographs were allowed inside the class, and we sat quietly (with shoes removed) in the furthest corner of the studio. The traditional masks and costumes that the students and professor donned reminded us of a bygone era, and the focus and discipline with which the students approached the lesson was an example to all. The reverence in which the students held their professor was plainly obvious. Our second observation was a piano rehearsal of Rossini’s Stabat Mater. Once again the high level, focus, and discipline of the students were evident.
In a question and answer session with a few of the professors afterwards, one of the delegates asked why there seemed to be an emphasis on the study of Western, rather than Japanese music and arts. One professor’s simple reply (via translator): “The Japanese have a long and distinguished history of studying foreign disciplines.” The busts of several revered Western composers outside the university buildings attest to this.
Yamaha Ginza Shop, Tokyo
We then travelled by bus to visit Tokyo’s flagship Yamaha store, the Yamaha Ginza Shop. This gargantuan complex comprises 10 levels which include dedicated floors for pianos, electronic instruments, winds, strings, sheet music, and even concert halls. The selection is absolutely mind-boggling, and it is really difficult to imagine anything music-related that is not available here.
There is music for all instruments, ranging from pedagogical books to editions of works from the standard repertoire. Unfortunately, most of the editions are in Japanese, and my complete lack of knowledge of the language saved my credit card from what could have been a most unfortunate (and potentially bankrupting) incident!
Below is just one example of the many stunning designs that we were privileged to feast our eyes on. This piano sounds every bit as good as it looks, and even the accompanying bench looks plush and inviting.
Bösendorfer showroom, Nakano
After departing the Ginza store, we travelled to the Bösendorfer showroom on the outskirts of Tokyo. Yamaha acquired the Bösendorfer brand in 2007, but the factory where the pianos are produced remains in Vienna. The showroom doubles as a small concert hall, and we were specially treated to a short recital on two of their top-end instruments.
The inside lid of the piano below is decorated with an exquisitely detailed pattern that is decidedly Japanese in its look and feel.
The inside lid of the Bösendorfer below is adorned with a detailed reproduction of one of Gustav Klimt’s most celebrated paintings. These custom instruments are aimed at the type of shoppers who are able to approach their purchasing with the kind of wild abandon of which most of us can only dream!
Onari Elementary School, Kamakura
From Tokyo, we departed to Kamakura where we stayed in the spectacular Kamakura Prince Hotel with its 180 degree ocean views. The next morning we were lucky to observe a concert rehearsal of very young learners at the nearby Onari Elementary School. The Japanese are very protective of their children’s privacy, and as such we were not allowed to take any photos in or around the premises. The little children were so well-behaved and organised that a number of South African elementary school teachers would probably have been tempted to immediately take up teaching positions there if circumstances (and language) allowed.
Yamaha factories, Hamamatsu
After the school visit, we departed to Hamamatsu where we remained until the end of the trip. Some of the overall highlights of our stay in Japan were the visits to the Yamaha factories (piano and wind instruments, respectively). We were taken through the whole manufacturing process by knowledgeable tour guides, and we got to see for ourselves the absolute dedication and craftsmanship that goes into the production of Yamaha’s instruments. I had always imagined the manufacturing process to be much more automated, and was surprised to see how many of the components were still manufactured mostly by hand. Although no pictures were allowed inside the factory, we did manage to snap a few shots inside the showrooms.
The Yamaha Modus (below) is a high-end electronic instrument that is both eye-catching and a pleasure to play. I can imagine it being particularly practical for use in a small Tokyo apartment, or on the Starship Enterprise.
In the selection room, lucky buyers can try several pianos before deciding on which one to purchase. Pictured below is Dr Roland Moses from the Tshwane University of Technology demonstrating the unique sound and feel of each instrument.
Yamaha’s ‘silent viola’ inspired some of the delegates to share a number of viola jokes that I have never heard before, and some that I would, perhaps, not repeat in a formal setting …
Hamamatsu International Piano Competition
We had the opportunity to listen to some of the very high-level competitors in the second round of the Hamamatsu International Piano Competition. The competition took place in the beautiful concert hall at Act City Hamamatsu, which was a convenient 5 minute walk from our hotel. Competitors could choose to play on a Steinway model D, a Shigeru Kawai, or Yamaha’s flagship, the CXF. It is interesting to note that the majority of competitors chose the Yamaha CFX as their preferred instrument.
Although not quite a picture that would make Annie Leibovitz envious of my talents as a photographer, the photo below does give an idea of the size of the hall in which the competition took place.
Hamamatsu is a thoroughly musical city, as is evident on the elevators in the Okura Act City Hotel where we spent the last three days. The sounds of Chopin were ever-present in the lobby and restaurant areas.
After our activities in Hamamatsu, we took the bullet train to Kyoto station where we were treated to a day of sightseeing. Kyoto is an ancient city known for its many Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, and it was the capital of the former Imperial Japan for more than a thousand years. The golden temple was our first stop, and we were astonished by both the temple and the iconic autumn colours of the surrounding gardens.
Next on the list was the Kiyomizu temple. It is in many ways even more awe-inspiring than the golden temple, but the narrow, uphill, and very crowded streets that have to be navigated by foot in order to reach it, makes it a less than ideal choice for the agoraphobic (or podgy and unfit). The spectacular architecture and scenery, coupled with many Japanese tourists in splendid traditional kimonos, made this a uniquely unforgettable experience.
I am deeply grateful to Yamaha Music South Africa for inviting me to be a part of this once-in-a-lifetime experience. My visits to the Yamaha facilities gave me a deep admiration for their craftsmanship and attention to the smallest of details, and it was a privilege to witness different aspects of arts education in this unique country.