The Shamisen – A Traditional Japanese Musical Instrument
Hi, my name is Irwin Wong and I am professional photographer based in Tokyo, Japan. Every month on Lenspire I’ll be bringing you a journal introducing aspects of my ongoing personal project, which involves documenting traditional crafts and traditions in Japan that are in danger of going extinct. Here is entry number 9 – enjoy!
Our ninth entry brings us back to Kyoto, where we find ourselves in a quiet side street in a quiet neighborhood. There are no tourists in this part of the city, even so it is lovely; quiet and undisturbed, with a row of old townhouses converted into studios for artists-in-residence. Nonaka-san’s studio/workshop is unmarked – he doesn’t have a website or a listing or even a sign in front of his door. I had to find him through word of mouth, which I suspect even his clients have to do. Standing outside in the half light of dusk and the remnants of a sizzling Kyoto Summer day, I take a deep breath and head on in.
Inside, Nonaka-san’s workshop is barely the size of a large broom cupboard, Nonaka-san himself sitting right in the middle of the floor with his implements and tools scattered around him in arms reach. The gleaming polished necks of several half-finished shamisen hang from the wall, lit by the single worklight in the room. For a craftsman with his own workshop, he strikes me as young – in his 40’s. He’s a soft-spoken man with a strong Kyoto accent, as he tells me he used to perform on the shamisen long before he began making them.
A shamisen is a three stringed, plucked musical instrument that’s possibly one of the most common traditional instruments in Japan. It’s used to accompany all sorts of Japanese theater, as well as being a dazzling solo instrument. It’s also commonly used by geisha or maiko when entertaining – they’ll play it or they’ll dance to it or they’ll sing to it – sometimes all three at once. So the shamisen is a pretty important instrument – especially in Kyoto which has a large geisha population.
Nonaka-san grew up learning the shamisen from a young age and found himself performing often at restaurants and inns, often alongside geisha. His repertoire consists mostly of raucous songs with bawdy lyrics to get the party going, rather than songs to be performed from a stage. Still, Nonaka-san had an affinity with the instrument due to his long history with it, and somewhere along the line he fell into repairing and making them. Apprenticing to one of the finest artisans in Kyoto, he studied under his master’s tutelage until he could open his own workshop.
The workshop itself is cramped, with barely any room to maneuver for shots, and yet it overflows with character. In the middle sits Nonaka-san, patiently filing a block of wood into a precise shape for optimal resonance, or sanding down a tuning peg to fit more snugly. His specialty is the neck of the instrument – a long thin central stick designed to look like it was carved out of one piece of wood but is actually made out of 3 piece that fit together like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. Scattered around his workshop are large chunks of expensive-looking wood waiting to be carved into new musical instruments.
Regarding the shamisen industry, Nonaka-san tells me that he does a lot more repairing than he does making new ones. ‘I’d say that there are a lot of prefectures in Japan that don’t have a single shamisen craftsman’, he says. Kyoto is a special place as it has a large population of performers who need repairs and replacements quite regularly, and so Nonaka-san is never out of work. However there are few places that offer genuine, high quality made in Japan musical instruments, and even fewer apprentices to take up the mantle.
Nonaka-san is in a unique place all by himself – he’s one of the only craftsmen who is a bona fide performer as well. When he’s not in his workshop he’ll often be entertaining at private functions at the various ryotei around Kyoto’s many backstreets. I ask him if he would be able to play a little so I could include it in the video, and he happily agrees. Taking his personal shamisen out from his case and tuning it, he launches into a piece of music with the assuredness that comes with years of performing. The notes ring out clear and loud as his plectrum strikes each string with unerring precision. It’s a beautiful, private performance by a great artist. Outside, on the quiet side street in the quiet neighborhood of Kyoto, the music blends with the whirring of cicadas and tinkling of wind chimes as one of the last days of summer draws to a close.
About the Lenses:
A artisan relies on his or her tools to get the job done – and a photographer is an artisan of sorts too. I won’t say that a photographer is only as good as his tools, however it’s really nice to have good glass that you can rely on every day, isn’t it?
I’m a Sony Alpha photographer, which makes me really happy, as there are a lot of EF mount Zeiss lenses to select from. As the workshop was really small this time around, I relied on the Batis 18mm to shoot the main portrait and some other photos to give an overview of the space. It’s an ultrawide lens with a comfortable field of view and a super fast max aperture – 2.8, which is great if you don’t like to compromise. It also has amazing performance edge to edge – it really is one of the heroes of my bag and I don’t talk about it enough.
For the video and some photos I used my trusty set of Loxia lenses, which perform with mechanical and optical consistency every time. I can’t say enough good things about the Loxia line up!