April 20, 2019A folk instrument shop, called Koizumi, is in the Teramachi area in downtown Kyoto. We went to this shop and interviewed the store manager, Mr. Koizumi. We asked him to talk about the following topics: traditional Japanese instruments, the reason he opened the store, how he acquired the instruments, and which instrument is the easiest and most difficult to play. What follows is what we learned.
Traditional Japanese Instruments
Japanese traditional musical instruments are called wagakki instruments. What are the musical instruments of Japan?
Wadaiko. This is a kind of drum, which is used by kabuki musicians. People beat it with a stick. It has a big sound.
Shakuhachi. This is a is a kind of woodwind instrument, similar to a flute. It comes from China and is made of bamboo. Playing the shakuhachi takes lots of practice because it is difficult to play.
Shamisen: It is similar in construction to an acoustic guitar, but only has three strings. You can buy a shamisen in many places in Kyoto, as many shops sell them.
Musical instruments came to Japan from China and Korea 1,200 years ago. These musical instruments, like the wadaiko, shakuhachi and shamisen still exist today. As the culture developed in what is now Kyoto and Osaka 400 years ago, the music culture developed, too. Kabuki was famous as a cultural expression in this age. A lot of popular songs were created then. The unique music using Western musical instruments also developed. It eventually led to modern music. Traditional Japanese musical instruments are now famous, so foreign tourists are interested in them. Kyoto is a great place for buying and listening to these instruments.
Reasons for Opening the Shop
The grandfather of the manager opened this shop in Kyoto in 1940. At the time, the shop was not an ethnic musical instruments store. It was a common general musical instrument shop. The current manager turned the store into an ethnic musical instruments shop in the late 90s. He did this because he liked music and its mysterious sound. He went to India three times a year afterwards. He went there to collect musical instruments, called “sitar” and “tablah”. He was not satisfied with the sound of Japanese instruments. He wanted to look for musical instruments of the world.
The shop did not prosper at first. This is because even though it had a Japanese name (Koizumi), it only carried instruments from India and Taiwan. The manager then made up his mind to collect musical instruments from all over the world. So, he started traveling to other places, like Africa and Korea, bringing back a variety of different ethnic instruments back to sell in his store. In addition, he learned preservation methods of each instrument. The manager focused on the quality of the musical instruments in his shop. These are the reasons he founded the shop and why his shop has been successful.
How the Instruments are AcquiredThere are several steps the manager goes through in order to acquire the instruments in his shop. First, he goes to foreign countries two or three times a year and visits musical instrument factories. Because he can’t speak English well, he communicates with local people using a smattering of English, and in non-English-speaking countries like rural areas in China, he often communicates using gestures. While he is there, he confirms quality of the instruments and negotiates the best price to provide his customers with quality instruments at fair prices. Then, he asks local people to teach him how to repair the musical instruments and buy necessary components because he thinks that not only should he sell the musical instruments, but also, he wants to support his customers. In addition to this, he sells musical instruments on the internet so that customers who live in distant areas can buy them. Finally, he pays the suppliers in advance and need building trust relationship with local clients because it sometimes happens that ordering deadline is half year or one year behind time schedule by the weather and some people don’t send his products so, he must trust the suppliers and wait for his products. In this way, he gets musical instruments.
The Easiest and Most Difficult Instruments to PlayAccording to the shop manager, easy instruments to play are Jew’s Harps, thumb pianos, and drums. Jew’s Harps can make various sounds by using movement of the tongue and breathing. In Japan, this instrument was used by Ainu people lived in Hokkaido or north Tohoku region. Thumb pianos can make a sound by snapping a bamboo stick or iron stick with one’s thumbs. It is said that thumb pianos were precursors of music boxes. As for drums, we can make a sound by hitting it because they are made by stretching a thin film made by animal skin onto a frame. These music instruments are fun to play, even if you can’t play music instruments well.
The most difficult music instrument to play is the sitar, which is made in India. This instrument has about 20 strings, a thick neck and is played with a wire pick. In India, people are used to playing musical instruments like the sitar, so it is only the most difficult to play for us. However, the shop manager said “Don’t think that the sitar is a difficult instrument. In addition to this, I want everyone to enjoy playing these instruments.”
ReviewAt Koizumi, we can enjoy instruments freely in the shop. I experienced many music instruments from all over the world. For example, the dan bau is from Vietnam, the kalimba from Tanzania, and the sitar from India. The Animal Voice is the instrument we recommend the most. It is a mechanism which emits the sounds of an animal’s bark when we shake a square box. There are four types: bird, cow, sheep and cat. I thought that the barks were different, and the quality was high. It is sure to be popular with children. Another instrument we recommend is the kalimba, or thumb piano. Kalimba is said to be at the roots of music. It was very easy to play when we tried. It is a wonderful instrument that can make beautiful sounds when playing with our thumbs. Koizumi has many kinds of kalimba, so we can try playing all of them to find one that we like to purchase. All of them create beautiful sounds.
The store manager said, “We not only sell instruments, but also do repair because we want to help the performer.” The most attractive point of this shop is we can play the instruments. It seems that half of the customers are foreigners. Please try to go there at least once and enjoy many instruments they offer for sale. You might just go home with something new and wonderful.
You can see koizumi in front of subway station exit 5 named “Kyoto shiyakusyo-mae”.
518 shimohonnoujimae-cho Anekoji-agaru Teramachi Nakagyo-ku Kyoto-shi Kyoto 604-8091 JAPAN