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.
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.
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)
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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(Read the article in Japanese at this link.)
Author: Kan Emori, Photojournalism Bureau, The Sankei Shimbun