Sounds in the Vienna of the North

Musical steps leading to a temple

Musical steps leading to a temple

Beneath the pillar-supported shops on either side of Sakura Street in downtown Koriyama, among the black-suited salary men hurrying to work and the inexplicably giggling school girls sporting blue uniforms and white stockings, there is an inconspicuous world of musical symbols that were once meant for the great promotion of a city made unsound by the discordant tremors of the ruinous earthquake of March 2011.

One representative of this hopeful image remains, emblazoned on construction site barrier walls and displayed throughout the city in a desperate attempt to garner attention as one of the popularity-vying mascots of Japan’s prefectures in television adverts and online promotional videos: Gakuto-kun (がくとくん).

Gakuto-kun, music mascot of Koriyama City, and her sister Onpu-chan

Gakuto-kun, music mascot of Koriyama City, and her sister, Onpu-chan

Something of a Powerpuff girl/unsettling-felt-version-of-my-circa-high-school-sister hybrid, Gakuto-kun is among over 400 colorful characters who vied for last year’s highly televised distraction campaign, the Regional Mascot General Election, in Japan. The musically talented and sporty Koriyama representative was beaten out by Funasshii, the pearish, official “unofficial” nightmare mascot of Funabashi, Chiba.

I was intrigued by Koriyama’s mascot despite being overshadowed by an oversized convulsive, jaundiced fruit, and I determined that I should find out what exactly made Koriyama the musical city it purports to be, aside from its purely decorative allusions in the most heavily trafficked part of town.

School Piano StatueWhile I’ve been exposed to few Japanese-influenced bands, such as Akiko and current sensation Mister Children, the majority of my young students are overly fond of J- and K-pop (Japanese and Korean pop music, respectively). One would also be hard pressed to find a local train or bus not plastered with posters of the disturbingly immaculately clean English-Irish pop boy band, One Direction. Only a handful of students, mostly over the age of 30, express some interest in composers dear to my heart, including Chopin, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff.

Piano BenchNeedless to say, karaoke joints parallel pachinkos in popularity here, and the repertoire offered can include anything from lung-straining, insanely paced Japanese pop to gag-inducing renditions of Bon Jovi and Journey.

Aside from the private booths of ensconced karaoke parlors, however, Koriyama prides itself on its successful junior and high school choir competitions with surrounding cities and prefectures. In February, the New York Philharmonic performed “Music for Fukushima”, including “short pieces composed by students between the ages of 10 and 15.”

Subsequently, musicians and designers joined together to raise money for earthquake victims, producing such works as the heart-wrenching animation By My Side and the aptly unusual Psychedelic Afternoon, the collaborative effort of David Byrne and Ryuichi Sakamoto.


Koriyama high school choir performance

The events heralded the third anniversary of the 7.1-magnitude earthquake that struck the Fukushima prefecture on March 11th, and much discussion in my classes in that second week of March touched upon the effect the tragedy had – and still has – on each student. In a grammar lesson dealing with cleft sentences (remember those?), a student asked what calmed me when I got upset or angry. What normally I do, I replied, is find my peace in any music with violin or cello.School Music Notes

Following that lesson, the city’s heavy investment in mascot branding did not seem such a waste after all. Whether or not the pony-tailed piano skirt has done the city any favors in the way of tourist and resident appeal alike, it’s nice to see – and hear – such appreciation for music.

On March 11th, I watched for the better part of an hour a husband and wife alternately striking the large bronze bell outside a nearby temple as speakers overhead broadcasted eerie shōmyō, or Buddhist monk chanting. As is with so many untaken pictures, the moment was beautifully unrecorded, and the altogether new sound now takes place in my top favorites, right behind glass tinkling in the surf on a beach, dry Golden Grahams hitting a porcelain bowl, the warning of a wind chime as a storm approaches, and Tina Turner performing a Buddhist chant to a very uncomfortable Larry King.

Godzilla playing the piano outside a music shop in downtown Koriyama

Godzilla playing the piano outside a music shop in downtown Koriyama

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