Koto harps to be made with tree from castle

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Musician Kiyoshi Ibukuro holds his original koto harp.
The Yomiuri Shimbun
Fukuyama Castle

FUKUYAMA, Hiroshima — A project is underway to make traditional musical instruments from a paulownia tree that grew within the innermost bailey of the castle in Fukuyama, Hiroshima Prefecture.

Fukuyama has long been one of the nation’s major production centers for the koto, a traditional Japanese harp. Luthiers are said to have begun constructing the instrument, known as Fukuyama koto, in the early Edo period (1603-1867).

Six manufacturers in the city plan to make one instrument each from the paulownia. The six koto are scheduled to be unveiled at the Fukuyama Castle Museum on Aug. 28, 2022, to mark the 400th anniversary of the castle’s establishment.

The Fukuyama city government has been cutting down trees in the central area of Fukuyama Castle since fiscal 2018, as the trees blocked the view to the castle tower and the stone walls were about to collapse due to the growing roots.

Kazuki Nakajima, chief of the Fukuyama factory of Mishimaya Gakkiten, a musical instrument maker in the city, learned that the paulownia tree was among those scheduled to be felled in fiscal 2020. With the use of high-quality paulownia, the Fukuyama koto is characterized by its beautiful wood grain and elaborate decoration, but most of the materials have been from the Aizu area in the Tohoku region, according to Nakajima.

He went to check the tree wondering if the paulownia grown at the castle could be used to make the Fukuyama koto.

Based on the size of the trunk and other factors, Nakajima concluded that the tree was big enough to make six koto. He took his proposal to the city government, which decided to give the tree that had been cut down to a local cooperative of Japanese musical instrument manufacturers.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Artisans mark a paulownia tree from Fukuyama Castle in Fukuyama, Hiroshima Prefecture, on April 15.

The city’s cultural promotion division readily provided the tree, and an official said: “Koto production was encouraged by successive feudal lords. We hope the tree will be put to good use to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the castle’s establishment.”

On April 15, artisans gathered from all the manufacturers — one of them being Mishima Gakkiten — in the city to mark which parts of the tree they would take to make their koto.

One artisan said, “The tree’s annual growth rings are very close together, and this wood is better than that from Aizu,” while another said, “It may have grown in the castle because it wanted to become a koto.”

The portions from the tree will be dried for more than a year before being processed at each workshop.

“The six manufacturers have been united to make a good koto,” Nakajima said. “I hope this will provide an opportunity to boost the Fukuyama koto culture.”

More support for industry

Efforts to support the koto industry in Fukuyama have also been increasing outside the prefecture. The group Wagakki Band, which fuses Japanese musical instruments with rock music, collected donations at their concerts and donated about ¥4 million to the city.

Kiyoshi Ibukuro, 37, who plays the koto in the band, said he had his original koto made at a manufacturer in Fukuyama. He came up with the idea of raising funds for koto producers in the city when he heard that they had been struggling due to the novel coronavirus pandemic preventing concerts from being held.

“Once traditional techniques are lost, it will be difficult to recover them,” Ibukuro said. “I want to be involved in activities to inherit and pass down culture and undertake this as a challenge for our community and ourselves, not as a challenge for others.”

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A map of Fukuyama Castle