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Hidden Wonders

[Hidden Wonders of Japan] Guitars Are Leading Revival of a Forest in Nishiokoppe, Hokkaido

Guitars made in Japan by Okhoskt craftsmen have a stable, accurate sound and are finished with a sophisticated painting technique, making them popular overseas.

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Electric guitars made by Okhotsk craftsmen are lined up in the factory showroom. (© Sankei by Kan Emori) 

Nishiokoppe Village in Eastern Hokkaido is in the midst of a landscape that is 90% forest. Remote as it might seem, the area prides itself for its guitars. In fact, it's popular among guitar enthusiasts inside and outside Hokkaido.

Why? Because the wooden body for electric guitars used to be made, along with some other products, by the village's historical lumber industry. 

In the past, Nishiokoppe had a flourishing timber industry. But dairy farming has taken over in recent years.  Sadly, manufacturing stopped in 1987 when the company went bankrupt due to a slump in the timber industry.

「オホーツク楽器工業」で生産されるギターのボディ。ギターの原板には2~3枚張り合わされた板が使われる
Producing a guitar body at the Okhotsk Musical Instrument factory. Two or three sheets are glued together to make the original body of the guitar. (© Sankei by Kan Emori) 

The village didn’t give up, however. It set up local groups to train former employees and provide new jobs.

Eventually, this effort helped build up the Okhotsk Musical Instrument Industry Co. Ltd. And the revival of guitar manufacturing. 

Thanks to the expert carpentry and meticulous painting skills of the artisans, as well as the dry local climate, the company has grown. It currently produces about 20,000 guitar bodies a year.艶を出す為に磨かれる多くのギター。工程の多くは手作業で、完成するまで約2カ月を要する=北海道西興部村

Guitars made in Nishiokoppe are polished until spotlessly smooth and shiny. Most of the process is done by hand, taking about two months to complete. (© Sankei by Kan Emori) 

「オホーツク楽器工業」で生産されるギターのボディ
Guitar bodies produced at Okhotsk Musical Instrument factory. (© Sankei by Kan Emori) 

多くの建物がオレンジ色に統一された村の中心部
The center of the village of Nishiokoppe, where the orange color of many buildings stands out. (© Sankei by Kan Emori) 

Young Guitar Lovers Making Guitars

In fact, most of the 40 craftsmen in this factory, with an average age of about 33, are guitar enthusiasts who have come from outside the village. 

At the factory, visitors hear the sound of cutting wood echoing in the dry air. Most of the process is done by hand, which means it takes two months to make one single electric guitar. 

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Factory manager Noriyuki Mukaichi, 44, explains the appeal. Guitars made painstakingly in Japan by Okhoskt craftsmen have a stable, accurate sound, he boasts. "The sophisticated painting technique gives each one a stylish finish which is popular overseas." 

真剣な眼差しでギターを制作する従業員。完成品は海外でも高い評価を得ている
An employee examines the guitar carefully. Finished products are highly regarded in overseas markets. (© Sankei by Kan Emori) 

Guitars Leading Renewal of the Forest Environment

Linden, a broadleaf tree which is soft and easy to process, is the main material used for the body. In the past, these trees were naturally plentiful growing in the village. However, they are no longer available in sufficient quantities in Japan and the timber has to be imported.

シナノキの苗木を植樹するオホーツク楽器工業の従業員ら
Employees of Okhotsk Musical Instrument factory planting linden seedlings. (© Sankei by Kan Emori) 
Employees of Okhotsk Musical Instrument factory planting linden seedlings. (© Sankei by Kan Emori) 

Taking the long view in a bid to become self-sufficient, the village started planting linden trees in 2021. All employees joined the effort, planting more than 1,000 Japanese Linden saplings under the wide blue sky. 

Each tree takes more than 80 years to grow before it can be used as a raw material. So hopefully in 100 years time, the forest will be fully renewed. 

Nishiokoppe's hope is that the forest will once again support timber production for making guitars from local wood. Beyond the town, the guitar world hopes the forest will contribute to producing the clear and accurate notes of Okhotsk guitars far into the future. 

Nishiokoppe may be a small village, but its big dreams are going forward to make history.

平成元年に廃止されるまで村にはJR名寄本線が通っていた。旧上興部駅で静態保存されているディーゼルカー=北海道西興部村
The JR Nayoro Main Line ran through the village until it was discontinued in 1989. A diesel locomotive is preserved at the former Kamiokoppe Station, near Nishiokoppe Village, Hokkaido. (© Sankei by Kan Emori) 

About Nishiokoppe, Hokkaido:

The small town has a population of 1040 (as of September 30, 2022). It covers an area about 308.08 square kilometers in Northern Hokkaido, just inland from the Sea of Okhotsk. 

There are no trains going there these days. The town is about 1 hour and 20 minutes by car from the nearest transportation hub, Okhotsk Monbetsu Airport. 

Many buildings in the town are colored orange to make them stand out in the snow, giving the town a unified look.

guitars
Setoshi-kun, the mascot of the village with a guitar. Dairy farming and guitar making are the main industries of the village. (© Sankei by Kan Emori) 

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(Read the article in Japanese at this link.)

Author: Kan Emori, Photojournalism Bureau, The Sankei Shimbun

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