See, listen, and get hands on with a centuries-old Japanese music tradition

Article by Felice Forby

Just a few minutes walk from Matsumoto Castle is a quaint, local theater known as the Shamisen Geiyukan where you can pop in and listen to the shamisen tunes of Old Japan. The music is performed by the kimono-clad duo Hideyoshiro and Hideyoshiha, who also sing several expressive hauta, or short songs from the Edo Period, as they strum along on their shamisens.

In case you need a refresher, the shamisen is a traditional Japanese stringed instrument that is reminiscent of the banjo but has only three strings and a distinctly Asian flair. Hauta were often sung by geisha in Japan's pleasure quarters to entertain guests along with the instrumental music.

For me, Shamisen Geiyukan's performance was the perfect way to spend a relaxing moment immersed in the beautiful music of Japan. The sounds of the shamisen and hauta were both elegant and soft, yet at times were filled with color and spirit. Hideyoshiro even played the Japanese flute, which went in perfect harmony with the strumming of the shamisen.

Once the performance is over, we got served a cup of green tea and a sweet treat from one of Matsumoto's traditional Japanese confectioneries.

Then came the fun part—the chance to try playing the shamisen ourselves!

Hideyoshiha taught first taught us the basics of how to hold the instrument, how to hold the pick, and how to strum the strings. Then we learned to actually play a simple song, Sakura Sakura, one note at a time as our teacher helped us read the notes and place our fingers correctly. I didn't think I would be able to play even one note, but thanks to Hideyoshiha's patient instruction and the simplicity of only having to deal with three strings, I managed to make it (very slowly) through the song. It was a challenging yet fun experience indeed.

For an up close and personal peek into Japanese music and Edo Period culture, definitely pay a visit to the Shamisen Geiyukan!

The Shamisen Geiyukan is also featured in the Michelin Green Guide Japan (Michelin Travel Guide).

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