The next morning we have breakfast with the students and Mr. and Mrs. Hasegawa and Gen-kun, their youngest son. Gen means “string”. He’s a wonderful little boy, always happy and smiling as if he were a little Buddha himself.
After breakfast we’re taken to the train station where we board the train back to Himeji, from where we’ll take the Shinkansen to Nagoya. It’s calm at the station. It would be nice to see a little bit more of the places we visit, but there’s hardly any time left between the concerts, the train rides and the social obligations. Originally we had 5 concerts planned this time, but in the end there will be twice as many.
We’re only in it for the money…
At the station we see a “Cosplay” girl, dressed as a cartoon figure. Cosplay or “costume play” is a typical Japanese phenomenon in which people dress up in the weirdest costumes: manga or video figures are popular, sometimes boys dress as girls and vice versa.
Cosplay girl. Not the one i saw, but pretty close.
In the train we have front seats, so we have to leave the bass in a special luggage compartment. Today we’re rehearsing with two Japanese baroque musicians, a cembalist and a flautist with whom we’ll play a Telemann Trio. Haruko is also playing some music by Boismortier with them, and we’ll bring the Ariosti Lezione in Duo form.
After a long trip we arrive at Obu, a place near Nagoya. Here we are picked up by the flute player, Mr. Kataoka, and taken to the rehearsal which takes place at the home of Mrs. Sassa, the harpsichordist. I quickly assemble the bass, and we rehearse the Telemann first. It seems to go well enough, and after an hour or so the others go on to rehearse Boismortier and i go out for a walk with Tobias.
It’s a quiet, sunny day and we take a stroll through a suburban village, trying to remember the way back as we turn this way and that. There’s always something to see in a foreign country: a house under construction (seemingly very different from the way houses are built in Belgium), an old-timer car…
We’re back just in time for tea and cake, and then i put the bass in its case again. Kataoka-san drives us to the hotel, and at 8 we have dinner (Haruko, Toby and me) in an “Izakaya”, a typical Japanese bar that also serves some simple dishes. You can cut the smoke with the wrong side of a knife, so we don’t stay long and we retreat to our hotel rooms. In ours there is just enough space for the bass next to the very narrow bed.
Breakfast the next morning is in a room that looks like a military mess, and is a lot less refined than what we’ve seen elsewhere. The people here are very friendly though, in spite of the fact that one lady accidentally pours her scalding hot tea over Haruko’s arm at the self-service counter. No great harm done, no burnt fingers so the concert is not in jeopardy…
It’s raining heavily now, so we buy two cheap umbrellas at the hotel lobby. Two cars pick us up for the long drive to Nagoya city, where we will play a Salon Concert. This will be my last concert of the tour. Haruko has another concert in Tokyo after this one.
As we arrive, we have to unload the cars and change into the slippers provided. We didn’t take our newly received ones. With all the luggage and instruments it was impossible to take more than the strictly necessary stuff. It always involves a fair amount of acrobatics to change from shoes into slippers, especially when you’re carrying a bass case. You can’t just leave your shoes in the position they are in (pointing towards the house’s inside) as you enter the house. You’re supposed to turn them around so that they point outwards, towards the exit. This makes it easier to slip them back on when you leave. Well, you try and do that with a loaded bass case in your hands…
At the rehearsal we play some of the pieces, trying out different playing positions. Kataoka-san installs his recording equipment, then the tuner takes a very long time to meticulously tune the beautiful English harpsichord, so we have to wait till he’s finished. I desperately need to practice. The pieces i’m playing today are quite challenging: they’re 8ft parts meant for a gamba or cello, not for a 16ft double bass. I’ve had a lot of work figuring out ways to play them well, and i need to play a little before we attempt a run-through. And so far there’s been little time for practicing on this tour. But as usual when travelling, private warm-up time belongs to the realm of wishful thinking.
We put the chairs in place. There’s a grand piano there that we can’t move, so we install the harpsichord in front of it, and i hide the bass case behind it. Then we play the whole program through.
Rehearsing in a language you don’t master is sometimes difficult. Music may be thought of as an international language (not so sure that’s really accurate. It’s a nice romantic thought, but it’s certainly worth discussing how true or untrue this statement is), but the technicalities demand that musicians understand one another as clearly as possible. When the Japanese musicians speak about the music in their own language, i find it hard to really grasp all the subtleties. A lot escapes me, and i don’t want to ask them for a translation all the time – especially since their command of English isn’t all that good either. Nevertheless we find a way to make it sound more than acceptable. Sensitive musicians always do.
The bass is a bit out of style against the venerable “old” instruments, but when you think away the B21’s steel parts there is something archaic about this bass, something reminiscent of ancient times. Its sound, thanks to the gut strings, blends beautifully with the flute, harpsichord and violin. When played softly it resembles the sound colour of a viola da gamba.
Playing 8ft bass parts on a 16ft bass demands some wizardry and imagination. In a way it’s just as awkward as a viola playing violin parts in an ensemble, or a cello playing the viola part, all in thumb position. It just can’t sound right, most of the time. But i can save the day by using my bag of tricks. I have to tailor the part to my instrument and to the sounds the other instruments produce.
Not everything has to be in the “right” octave. Some notes and figures actually sound better an octave lower. Then, i don’t necessarily play all of the printed notes. Less is more, and i leave out a few notes in inconspicuous places where playing them would do more harm than good, or i use “ghost notes” that have no definite pitch, but that are really there, in the exact right place and with the right timbre (a trick i learned playing rock and pop music. I also learned a few very useful musical tricks from Dutch bassoonist Henk De Wit when i was younger and ambitious enough to study several instruments at once. Reminds me i have to write a column about the Tricks of the Trade in music, one day).
And then i can toy around with the many harmonics the Viennese Tuning provides, and choose to play certain passages either in “real” notes or (partly) in harmonics, depending on the context and on the sound colour of the other instruments. I often use these changes in colour for repeats. Repeats are never really repeats, in the sense that they are never exactly the same – or anyway, they shouldn’t be. It doesn’t make sense to make repeats sound the same as the original: a repeat is a re-invention, a new impetus, something different. Not an exact copy of what we’ve heard before. It has its own magic. The softer, warmer sound of bass harmonics comes in handy when trying to change colours in repeats. In real notes, the sound has more “bite” and timbre.
At 11 our old friend Shoko rings the bell. We haven’t seen her in a long time. Last year she attended our concert at the Hamamatsu Instrument Museum but this time she can’t be there in the afternoon. So she just drops by to say hello. Shoko is a violinist who played at our Brussels Opera Orchestra for a couple of years, a long time ago. We still miss her very much. We play our Ariosti for her and she admires the little violin that Haruko is using as a 4-string Amore in A.
Dum Vixi Tacui, Mortua Dulce Cano: In life i was silent, in death i sweetly sing.
We take our lunch break at a local bakery, called Nucca. “Food Control Shop Zero” it says above the entrance. They have very nice bread (second time we find great bread in Japan), all home-made. Poor in gluten, low carb, no additives. They pride themselves on their use of top quality ingredients. As a matter of fact, the shop started three years ago, in the aftermath of the tsunami and the nuclear disaster. Many people and businesses now concentrate on food quality with zero radiation (hence the “Zero” above the door). A certain degree of opportunism may be suspected in the case of some of these businesses, but in general there is an increased awareness of environmental issues since the catastrophic events of 3/11.


We have coffee and bread. One of the rolls looks like it’s sprinkled with crunched nuts. Mmm, delicious… I’m starving so i take a big bite. It takes a couple of seconds before i realise the nuts are actually ground peppercorns. Mamma mia!

The mind works in mysterious ways. Tasting this unexpectedly spicy bread in Japan, i am suddenly reminded of Makoto Akatsu, a Japanese baroque violinist whom i met in Belgium a few years ago. He teaches at the Lemmens Institute, and i have played with him on a number of occasions. I remember that two or three years ago i participated in a school project (the Belgian conservatories never seem to have any baroque bass students for their own projects) under Makoto’s direction. He’s a very inspiring player and teacher. One day, as he wanted more attack and articulation from the violins, he talked about the “pepper finger”: the index finger of the bow-hand. With this finger, one can control and increase the attack of the string, adding bite and spice to the sound. Hence the “pepper”-finger. I had completely forgotten about it, until i tasted the pepperbread in Nagoya.
Makoto “Pepperfinger” Akatsu rehearsing with the Lemmens baroque ensemble.
I’m on the left with the 7-string Violone.

Today is sunday, the streets are empty. The rain has turned into a light drizzle. After our coffee and pepperbread we say goodbye to Shoko, sayonara and see you next year, we hope… She’s off to her own rehearsal and we head back to our Salon for another long wait. Kataoka-san is sick, he’s got a severe cold. He’s sleeping it off now, stretched out across three or four chairs, and snoring quietly.

The audience starts coming in, their slippers neatly lined up for them in the entrance hall. The concert goes really well, and there are quite a few beautiful moments.



At this concert there are only two children, and the poor little girls have to sit through our entire baroque program. Haruko gives some explanations about the Viola d’Amore, addressing the kids in particular, and they seem to feel less bored afterwards. This concert is more formal than our own Duo performances, we’re dressed in the usual classical-music dark tones and some of the pieces are long and rather serious for 8-year olds. But they survive and live happily ever after. For them, the most interesting part of the concert is the transformation, after the concert, of the double bass into a set of wooden bits and pieces that disappear one by one into the big white case. Now there’s something they can tell their friends.



We have to leave as quickly as possible because the Salon is rented by the hour, and an extra hour means extra money to pay. So we grab our things, do the slipper-mambo again, and through the light rain we walk the 2 kilometers to the nearest underground station. Kataoka isn’t feeling too well and we don’t want to bother him by asking him to drive us. Too late i remember i left my hat in his car, but i don’t need it anymore: we just use it for “Fu Ten” (the main character in this TV series, Tora-San, invariably wears a hat. As soon as we start playing the piece, the first few notes and the sight of my hat send waves of memories through the audience. Always a very emotional moment). Our Duo Concert Tour is finished now, and it feels right that Tora-San’s hat remain in his country.

The schlepping never ends…The rain has stopped, but there’s a fierce wind that pushes the bass case sideways and it’s all hands on deck to keep it on a straight course. Down the stairs, into the underground, onto the escalator, through station corridors and over the omni-present yellow “wheel-killer” lines that litter the streets and the stations. At least they seem to care about the blind in Japan.

The yellow lines are real wheel-killers for the bass case.


Nagoya as evening falls.



Nagoya Underground.

Escalator calisthenics.





Views at Nagoya Station.

Three stops to Nagoya train station where we take the Shinkansen back to Tokyo. I find a perfect little space to stow the bass. From Tokyo we take the bullet train to Omiya, and then it’s just a few stops by local train to Minami-Urawa again. It’s evening on a sunday and there are a lot of people around. At the stations we always see these “Panic Buttons” that one can operate to stop the train, should someone accidentally fall down onto the track – at least that’s what the drawings suggest, but it’s just a nice way of avoiding the word “suicide”.

On the train i stay next to the bass in the corridor. I’m tired and hungry. We haven’t had much sleep these past two weeks, and regular meals have been rare. But it’s the emotions that have taken it out of me, more than anything else.

It’s been an amazing trip. I can’t get Fukushima out of my mind. The road there, the evacuated villages. The schools and the children. The teachers and school staff who care so deeply. The monk at Minamisoma, and the Soroptimist ladies. John Becker, the white-bearded writer. Mrs. Nakahira, and Kikuchi the reporter with the inquisitive mind and the big heart, whom we’ve come to love like a brother. The farmers we saw on our way, with their children, grandparents, families together. The little boy who came to hug me, without saying a word. The kids all singing together with our playing. Older people in tears as we played their music for them. The slippers we received at the Baptist church, a simple gesture maybe, but so heartwarming. The Kamishibai stories. The Geiger counter telling us another kind of story, without a Happy End in sight. Standing on the beach with the destroyed power plant close by, and the flooded houses right behind us. It’s all turning around in my mind as i’m standing here in this racing train, lost in thought, the cities and landscapes flashing by in a blur that resembles the one inside my head.


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