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Here and There :
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Here and There introduces art, artists, galleries and museums around Japan that non-Japanese readers and first-time visitors may find of particular interest. The writer claims no art expertise, just a subjective viewpoint acquired over many years' residence in Japan.

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image image Make a Joyful Noise: The Hamamatsu Museum of Musical Instruments
Alan Gleason
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The Jegog from Bali, the world's biggest bamboo gamelan. Photo by Alan Gleason

For over a century the center of western musical instrument production in Japan has been Hamamatsu, a city of 800,000 that sits midway between Tokyo and Kyoto. Apropos of this legacy, the city-owned Hamamatsu Museum of Musical Instruments holds a treasure trove of sonic delights that are as much fun to look at as they are to listen to. Visitors are encouraged to view, hear, and -- in the "Hands-on Room" -- touch and play instruments from all over the world.

Opened in 1995, the museum boasts a collection of some 3,300 instruments, of which more than 1,500 are on permanent display. The exhibits cover every corner of the globe, though the European and Japanese collections are particularly extensive. The large galleries greet visitors with the mesmerizing sight of row upon row of every noisemaker devised by humanity. The museum provides headphones, as well as a personal earphone guide system, with which to hear the sounds they make.

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Bronze gamelans from Java and Bali fill Exhibit Room 1 with a golden glow. Photo by Alan Gleason

The most visually exciting displays are found in the spacious Asia Room (Exhibit Room 1), which features three complete Indonesian gamelans: two bronze ensembles from Java and Bali, and the Balinese Jegog, a bamboo gamelan that's said to be the world's largest. The museum boasts that it is the only one in the world with three different kinds of gamelan in its possession. The arrays of gleaming metal xylophones, drums and gongs are gorgeous, but the ultimate eye-catcher is the colorfully painted wooden Jegog with its toothy, bug-eyed Balinese Hindu deities. Just as spectacular is the Saing Waing ensemble from Myanmar, a glorious boat-like contraption in which the musicians sit to play their batteries of gongs and drums.

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A lineup of Morin Khuur (horsehead fiddles) from Mongolia.


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Three beautiful specimens of Biwa from Japan: Satsuma, Chikuzen, and Heike. Photo by Alan Gleason

Stringed instruments abound, too, of course. Among the loveliest exhibits are a row of Morin Khuur horsehead fiddles from Mongolia, a set of tars, dotars and setars from Iran, and, in a room devoted entirely to instruments from Japan, a trio of exquisitely wrought Biwa lutes.

Downstairs, the museum's other main gallery houses a seemingly endless expanse of instruments from Oceania, Africa, the Americas, and Europe. The variety of drums and other forms of percussion from Africa alone is mind-boggling, and the maps and pictures displayed with them teach us much -- revealing, for example, how instruments like the thumb piano have spread across the continent, each region producing its own variant. The same is true of the islands of the Pacific, with Papua New Guinea a preeminent source of drums and flutes.

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Exhibit Room 2, with instruments from Oceania in the foreground.


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A gallery devoted to Japanese musical instruments.

The museum is justly proud of its vast collection of European instruments. From sackbuts to serpents to hurdy-gurdys, this is a remarkable assemblage of woodwinds, horns and strings in all their permutations, offering a thorough overview of musical development in the West. Built around a set of 18th- and 19th-century instruments formerly owned by the late American collector Robert Rosenbaum, the European collection is clearly viewed as the centerpiece of the museum's holdings. This is a bias reflected in the thoroughness of the section's English-language descriptions, which contrasts with the relative paucity of English text in other exhibits. That disparity is unfortunate, because for most foreign visitors it will be the instruments from non-Western countries that are less familiar and hence more intriguing.

Hamamatsu is best known as Japan's piano mecca, so it is not surprising that keyboard instruments occupy a sizable portion of the museum's floor space. Entering the Keyboard Room, one encounters a panorama of pianos, harpsichords, and clavichords extending off into the distance. Some of the earlier instruments are so beautifully appointed that they are works of art in themselves. Nor do the exhibits fail to educate, with interactive mechanical models demonstrating the different methods by which these various keyboards generate their sounds. Another room is filled with organs and synthesizers.

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The Keyboard Room, an entire gallery of pianos, harpsichords, and clavichords.

Hamamatsu's association with music began in 1888 when Torakusu Yamaha, an itinerant watchmaker and medical equipment repairman from Wakayama, was asked by a school in Hamamatsu to repair its American-made reed organ. Yamaha became so enthralled with the instrument that he taught himself to build organs, eventually progressing to pianos. Thus was born the Yamaha Corporation, today an industrial behemoth known as much for its guitars and motorcycles as for its pianos. Along the way, former Yamaha protege Koichi Kawai launched his own piano-making enterprise in the same city, and the Yamaha and Kawai companies together have cemented Hamamatsu's position at the top of the nation's musical instrument industry.

With a rich year-round calendar of concerts, lectures, workshops, special exhibitions, and educational outreach programs, the Hamamatsu Museum of Musical Instruments deservedly enjoys a sterling reputation not only for the volume and quality of its collection but also for its cultural contributions to its home city. If you're traveling between Tokyo and Kyoto, for example, and you like music (or even if you don't!), add it to your itinerary. Part of the Act City cultural complex just outside JR Hamamatsu Station, it can be reached from either Tokyo or Kyoto in about 1 1/2 hours by Shinkansen bullet train.

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The Hands-on Room offers a variety of instruments for visitors to play themselves. For the perfect photo-op, try strumming the Morin Khuur in front of a backdrop of Mongolian grasslands. Photo by Alan Gleason


All photos courtesy of the Hamamatsu Museum of Musical Instruments unless otherwise noted.


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Hamamatsu Museum of Musical Instruments
3-9-1 Chuo, Naka-ku, Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture
Phone: 053-451-1128
Open 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Closed on 2nd and 4th Wednesdays (except in August), 29 December to 3 January, and cleaning day (check website for schedule)
Transportation: 10-minute walk from Hamamatsu Station on the JR Tokaido and Tokaido Shinkansen Lines
 
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Alan Gleason
Alan Gleason is a translator, editor and writer based in Tokyo, where he has lived for over 30 years. In addition to writing about the Japanese art scene he has edited and translated works on Japanese theater (from kabuki to the avant-garde) and music (both traditional and contemporary).
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