Monday, January 2, 2017

Visiting my piano’s birthplace

Yamaha's Kakegawa piano factory
Not long before Christmas, Mrs. S and I made our way over to Taiwan and Japan for a bit of vacationing, catching up with family, and eating beef-and-rice bowls (among many other Japanese foods we can’t get in Alabama). I didn’t particularly want to go, but when a dirt-cheap plane ticket came available, I was compelled to make the trip. Mrs. S wanted to know what I wanted to do there, but I had no agenda, so she came up with the idea of visiting the Yamaha piano factory in Kakegawa, near Hamamatsu, as another enticement to keep me on the trip.

In front of the one time home of my piano that now lives in Alabama
The factory is not easy to get to, but like most of Japan, it isn’t particularly hard to get to, either. Getting that far off the beaten track somewhere north of Nagoya was interesting, to say the least. It was actually harder to find a place to eat lunch than it was to visit the factory.

One of the nicer looking pianos in the lobby
Prior to the start of the tour, there is a large reception area with one or two of every musical instrument that Yamaha makes, plus about ten different pianos. There were even two concert grands in an isolation room, one of which was the one-millionth piano ever made by Yamaha. I spent a while playing that, trying to feel like the great pianist, Richter, for whom it was basically custom made. Needless to say, my halting renditions of “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and “Maple Leaf Rag” did not do much to promote those feelings.
Perspective skewed by the camera makes the piano look about five feet long...

...but it's much, MUCH longer than that (almost ten feet).

I wasn't kidding: their one millionth piano. Numbers guy me loves that.
The tour is a conducted affair that takes about an hour and a half. They do give English tours, but ours was in Japanese. We were one of two couples, joined by a small eight or ten person group of (possibly?) music students. The tour starts with two videos where they show you the “3K” parts of piano production, 3K translating from Japanese into the 3D: dirty, difficult, and dangerous. So, we didn’t actually see any tree cutting, wood fabricating, hardware casting, painting, or frame assembly. After the videos, the guide took her time showing us whippens, hammers, felt, and things like that, which I had seen plenty of when I took my square grand apart. The factory was all about pin and string insertion, action assembly and adjustment, and tuning.
Some other pianos that could be tried out
For me, there were two particularly impressive things. First was the sheer number of people they have working on pianos. Of course, anyone who has worked on a piano knows how labor intensive it is, but the point is really driven home when you see how many people are working on the very mundane, but meticulous tasks of piano adjustment. The other thing was, Yamaha doesn’t make all of one piano at a time. If you stand at the top of one of the production lines and look down, you can see that the pianos are (mostly) all different sizes (lengths). It is not uncommon to see a couple G1’s or G2’s, some C1’s, C7’s and C5’s, and never see two in a row the same size. It’s actually kind of disconcerting. Not surprisingly, the parts racks are meticulously labeled and mixed all together. It’s kind of unbelievable.

Some boxes to test different string types
The tour culminates in a listening room where there are three identical pianos that each sound completely different from the other two. The guide played a bit of Fur Elise on them, and the differences were hardly subtle and quite noticeable. Again, for three identical pianos to come off the line within a few days (hours?) of each other and yet sound so different, it really makes a statement about the craftsmanship that goes into each piano. Truly remarkable. We also each received a keychain made from an authentic piano hammer embossed with the Yamaha logo. It was nice that Mrs. S and I both got one, so we can use one and keep the other clean and safe as a trip memento.

"Been there, done that, in their anniversary year" photo
It seems highly likely that I will never buy another acoustic piano, given how well my C1-X holds tune and how I will probably never live in a house larger than the one I’m in now. But I do know that if I do buy one, it will come from this factory. I owe it to myself to get the best possible musical instrument, and that is what the Kakegawa factory makes. I saw that for myself.

Our souvenirs.

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