03 · Finding my first shamisen

I decided to buy a shamisen after soaking up all the Yoshida Brothers discography. It was then when I started to look for information on how to buy one…

This week I want to talk about the search and the trip I undertook to Japan to get my first tsugaru shamisen.

I wasn’t sure where to start looking. I had just started to study Japanese and I did not see myself able to do an internet search in that language, so I tried searching on google and youtube. To my surprise I did not find any shamisen store in Spain, not even in Europe, in fact, there were no manufacturers outside Japan.

I was lucky on youtube. I found a video of a young red-haired American, promoting in a hilarious and very funny way, how to get a shamisen if you were a foreigner.
Surely, many of you know who I’m talking about (thanks Mike!).

In the video he talked about a guy named Katoh san, he said that he had a store in Tokyo and that he was a very friendly shopkeeper with foreigners. I didn’t have many other options. I knew that getting a shamisen was not going to be easy so I prepared myself well and a few months later I traveled to Japan.

This was my third trip to Japan, so I organized it to visit a place I really wanted to discover, Yakushima. This beautiful island is located in the south of Japan, about four hours by boat from the city of Kagoshima.

You may wonder what I had missed on that island, and the answer is very simple: Princess Mononoke, one of my all time favorite movies is inspired by it and all its nature. That’s why I decided to fly to Tokyo, where I would buy my first shamisen and continue my trip to Yakushima.

The day after landing in Tokyo, I went to visit the Katoh store in the Arakawa district. From the outside, the view of the store is curious. Unless you have the exact address or know the shamisen kanji, it is difficult to recognize what kind of store it is.

I walked in and then I saw that I had come to the right place. The walls were full of shamisens and accessories of all kinds, it was a very cozy place and it felt very Japanese and traditional.

A man appeared with a scarf on his head, which I deduced, from the videos I had seen, that he was Katoh san himself. I communicated as best I could and let him know that I wanted to buy a tsugaru shamisen.

To my surprise, he told me that they did not have any available at that time. I was saddened and surprised by his response since the walls of the place told me otherwise. I took it for granted that they would be other customers instruments and that they were not for sale so I asked him if within 12 days (my remaining stay in Japan) it was possible to make one?

After thinking about it for a moment and seeing my insistence and interest, he made a phone call with who I understood to be his manufacturer and/or assistant and confirmed.

“It can be done, but the shamisen neck cannot be divided into three parts and you will have to take it in one piece” said Katoh san.

Originally, all shamisen neck are divisible into three parts, they are built that way for easy transportation and to respect the tradition of making the instrument.

I said no problem and after being shown a rough estimate, I agreed. Back at the train station I remember how I couldn’t stop thinking about what I had just done, being something as simple as buying an instrument, inside me I was full of enthusiasm to start playing and learning. I just had to wait for a couple of weeks….

The next day I boarded the shinkansen and traveled to Kagoshima, where I spent the night to catch a ferry to Yakushima the following day.
Without going into details of what I experienced on the island, I can say that it reinforced even more my desire to play the shamisen. Visiting places like the Kodama forest and its rocky viewpoint at the summit, I connected even more with Japan. I am sure that this island awakened in me the love and respect I have today for nature.

The two weeks passed and I went back to the Katoh store. This time with my friend Shimpei who would help me to translate the possible extra info they would give me there. I tried my new shamisen with practically no idea how to hold it but I was already happy, made of rosewood, it looked amazing. I felt that at that moment the real journey began….

As a curiosity I will tell you that I did not want to take the shamisen with me for fear that at the airport they would tell me that I could not carry that case, so, deluded me, I told Katoh to send it by freight forwarder. A method that I do not recommend, as I received it 2 months later and with a very high customs bill…. You have been warned!

Despite this, everything went well and the shamisen arrived safe and sound. Since then, every time I go to Tokyo, I visit the Katoh san store. My level of Japanese is now acceptable and I can speak a little with him, which makes it an obligatory stop to buy accessories or strings. If there are no people, he usually invites you to tea or coffee and makes you feel at home. If you travel to Tokyo and visit him, tell him that you come from me 😉

See you next week!


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