Fukuyama traditional music instrument : Koto Photo:Hiroshima Prefecture

Fukuyama traditional music instrument : Koto Fukuyama goto

The only musical instruments designated as a traditional craftwork
Beautiful grain, magnificent decorations and superb tones


What is Fukuyama traditional music instrument : Koto ?

Fukuyama-goto are koto, a flat Japanese 13 stringed instrument with a sound box, produced in Fukuyama City, Hiroshima Prefecture. Today, Fukuyama produces about 70% of Japanese koto, which is quite fitting as the city coastal view was the inspiration for one of the most famous koto tunes ever written “Haru no Umi” (Spring Sea).
Fukuyama-goto are distinguished not only by their superb sound, but also by their magnificent decoration and the beauty of their wood grain; they are reputed to be the very best koto made in Japan. Well-seasoned paulownia wood of the highest quality is used by the skilled craftsmen who make these elaborate instruments. Among all the traditionally-made musical instruments, only Fukuyama-goto is designated as a traditional craftwork. The inside of the shell is carefully carved with repetitive motifs such as stripes or herringbone, which improve the sound quality. One of the representative carved designs is a hemp leaf pattern, which is often found on the finest instruments.
Maki-e is an important lacquer work technique to give a stunningly beautiful appearance to the koto; decorative designs are drawn and in combination with urushi lacquer, gold and silver powders are sprinkled on the surface.


The history of Fukuyama-goto dates back to the beginning of the Edo period (1603-1868), when Mizuno Katsunari, a cousin of Tokugawa Ieyasu, built a castle in Fukuyama in the Bingo Province. Being a castle town in a wealthy province with an income of some 100,000 koku (a koku is enough rice to feed one man for one year) and with the encouragement of successive feudal lords belonging to the Mizuno, Matsudaira, and Abe families, ballad singing and musical performances were much appreciated by all levels of society.
At the end of the Edo period, a master-performer of the koto, Kuzuhara Koutou, won much acclaim in the Bingo and Bicchu provinces, when he introduced the playing style and songs of Kyoto to the area. The popularity of the koto gave rise to a growing koto making industry and demand increased; first-class craftsmanship and superb sounding instruments coupled with catchy tunes earned Fukuyama-goto a growing reputation throughout Japan. In the early days of the Meiji period (1868-1912), full-scale industrial production started, followed by efforts to improve the manufacturing processes and the region went on to establish its position as Japan’s leading production center. Around 1970, production reached a zenith with about 30,000 koto being made every year, but today production has dropped to around 3,000, which is about a 70% share of the Japanese market.
The production area manufactures lightweight and easy-to-handle koto without compromising their degree of completeness or quality, and by hosting nationwide koto music competitions for elementary and junior high school students, the city is actively keeping alive and disseminating the tradition of koto playing. On June 6, Japanese Music Day, a memorial service for venerable koto that have been used for many years in concerts or for practice is held in Tomonoura, Fukuyama City.

General Production Process

  1. 1. Preparing the Wood The first and most important step is the inspection and selection of the green timber. Japanese and North American paulownia wood are mainly used, and the diameter of the log top end measures 400 to 600 mm. Logs with a slightly-curved shape are appreciated, and craftsmen with years of experience will check for curves, annual rings, and burls, all of which will affect the strength of the final instrument. Selected logs are marked with sumi ink lines and the best way of sawing them into planks determined. After the plank has been cut to size, the shell and backboard are roughly cut using specially shaped saws.
  2. 2. Drying The cut wood is left to dry naturally outdoors for period of one to three years, including rainy seasons. This thoroughly natural seasoning stabilizes the wood, which prevents warping or any final irregularity in the finished product; in addition, leaving the wood outside for a long time removes tannin. Drying is an important process and after natural seasoning, planks are then artificially dried.
  3. 3. Shell Making The shell is made in the following order: gouging, carving, attaching the backboard, scorching the shell, and polishing. Gouging is rough planing using a profile planer, after which the interior of the shell is carved. Depending on the grade of koto, such patterns as sudareme (rattan blind pattern) or ayasugi (herringbone pattern) are carved with a chisel. Pattern carving is detailed work requiring much care and attention. In the next step, the backboard which acts as a resonating board is cut, shaped and attached, marking the end of the basic wood assembly stage. The wood surface is then scorched with a red-hot iron, which gives the color and texture unique to Fukuyama-goto. In polishing, the final stage of the shell making, any burnt wood is removed and the shell polished to a deep luster.
  4. 4. Decoration The basic koto is now ready to be decorated. Being such a large instrument and measuring some 180 cm by 30 or 40 cm the craftsman has a large area in which to apply their decorative skills. In addition, there are many small parts also requiring complicated and delicate decorating techniques; the decoration of the instrument will take up the major part of the production time. The main parts for decoration are shiburoku (strips each side of the fixed bridges), ryukaku (the saddle of the bridge), kashiwaba (surface end oak leaf design), and ryuzetsu (dragon’s tongue at one side end). Other decoration parts are marugata (round- shaped window), maeashi (front legs), atoashi (back legs), and ji (bridges). A beautiful well-finished koto will have such traditional decoration techniques as inlay, maki-e, or marquetry.
    For splendid maki-e applied on the dragon’s tongue, the following techniques may be applied: takamaki-e (raised lacquer work), hiramaki-e (flat lacquer work), or togidashi-maki-e (clouded gold lacquer work). Oak leaf decoration known as tamabuchi-maki are a key design feature of Fukuyama-goto.
  5. 5. Finishing After attaching the metal fittings, the level of the koto is balanced by adjusting the front legs. A final careful inspection and tuning of the instrument are carried out before being authenticated as a traditionally made Fukuyama-goto of the very highest standard.

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