Amagasaki isn't the first destination you'd think of when planning a trip to Japan. Right next to Osaka to the west, it's an industrial town lined with factories and not much else to see. But last weekend, I knew I had to be there. A legend was coming to Amagasaki.
The legend's name is Seijin Noborikawa. Widely regarded as one of the greatest living Okinawan musicians, he is a master of the three-stringed sanshin. On a whim, I bought one of his CDs, and was blown away by his sound: the exotic five-note scales, strummed with fiery precision by Noborikawa, gave me visions of a mystical island of Okinawa of ocean, jungle and dark nights.
But Noborikawa, for various reasons having to do with the history of Okinawa and Japan, doesn't like mainland Japan and so hardly ever comes over here to perform. He's 78-years old too—I wanted to witness his art while I still could. So I boarded the shinkansen to Osaka, got on another train that would take me to Amagasaki, and headed to the municipal culture center.
Outside of the 'Archaic Hall Oct', so named because it's octagonally shaped, a long line of people of all ages had formed, from babies to the elderly, and many had the shorter, wide physique of Okinawans. It was standing room-only by the time I entered the auditorium, but I didn't mind because I'm used to listening to music standing up. I was surprised, though, about how much interest there was in Okinawan music.
The four-hour event mainly featured performances by students of 'Noborikawa-style' sanshin playing. In the first set, for example, about fifty sitting sanshin players, with Noborikawa at the center, plucked Okinawan songs in unison.
Always pleasing the crowd were several tiny kids that played the sanshin, sang, and danced, including two brothers aged one and two who performed the eisaa drum dance.
Tetsu Irei, the Amagasaki-based organizer of the event, also did a sanshin duet with his little grandson, who was a prodigy on the three-stringed instrument. When the two dashed through a lightning-speed, electrifying passage, in any place but Japan the crowd would have been up on its feet in ovation, but here everyone waited politely until the end to applaud. The crowd also laughed when Irei scolded his grandchild for yawning on stage between parts.
Noborikawa, the legend, was a tiny man, who cracked jokes (he explained he played sitting down because 'as you get older, little by little you get so you can't get it up') and talked at length in incomprehensible Okinawan dialect. But in spite of his small physical stature, he dominated the stage with the gravity of an old master. Watching Noborikawa play the sanshin without strain, as if it was a natural thing for his body to do, I felt the weight of a long life devoted to the instrument. At one point his disciple Irei said Noborikawa had stopped drinking because he got cancer (he'd been smoking and drinking since he was a little kid in Okinawa), and his doctor told him he'd die if he didn't quit. Hearing that made me glad once again I made it to Amagasaki.
At the end of the event Noborikawa presented awards to students, but warned that he might not be able to read all of the citations because he didn't go to school. And, indeed, he stumbled over some of the kanji. I went out and bought a biography of his, and found out that it's not that there was no school for him to attend, but that there was a school but he skipped classes most of the time so he could practice the sanshin to impress his older friends. Sometimes he went inside Okinawan tombs to practice without being bothered (and no doubt giving a fright to any passersby who heard the sanshin strains from inside the tomb...). He was still a kid during the Battle of Okinawa in WWII, and climbing on top of a tree he was impressed by the sight of the gleaming B-29 bombers flying in for their muderous missions.
When the war ended, the people of the devastated island tried to recreate older, better days, and also express their sorrow, by singing and playing the sanshin. They had to make the instruments themselves out of tin cans and sticks. Later, the islanders found out that cut-up parachutes stolen from the GI's made for sanshin coverings that were almost as good as the traditional snake skin. This is the world in which Noborikawa developed his art. It's like the blues of Okinawa.
One final thing: at the event, some of the young performers did a skit recreating the mo-ashibi, the late-night youth get-togethers, up in the hills, that used to be a common thing on the island. They acted the parts of guys and girls sitting together, singing and strumming the sanshin over food and liquor.
The Noborikawa biography I read, however, suggested that these parties weren't quite as innocent as portrayed in this skit. One of the things about these gatherings was that when a guy and a girl took a liking to each other, the two would slip away from the party into the darkness, for a more intimate encounter. Marriages were arranged by parents in those days; at times, as a result of what happened at these parties, when the new wife met her husband she was already carrying a child. That sort of thing scandalized the upright islanders, and good kids weren't supposed to attend mo-ashibi. But Noborikawa couldn't resist the sound of laughter, youthful conversation, song and sanshin notes wafting down from the hills, and so he snuck out of his home to watch. And a sanshin player was born.
Here's a YouTube clip of Noborikawa playing a six-stringed sanshin (rokushin?):
I found this guy in front of a sushi restaurant in Amagasaki: a Hanshin Tigers-loving sushi chef!