Japanese are world-class hobbyists. Go to any bookstore in Japan and there are rows upon rows of how-to books and magazines for nearly every amateur pursuit imaginable. An industry has been built around helping Japanese amateurs get really good at their craft. Music, of course, is a popular hobby and ukulele is no exception. In my opinion, these books are as good or better than anything that can be found in the US.
The last time I was in Japan I went to the bookstore Junkudo in Ikebukuro-ward and on the 9th floor lost myself in shelf after shelf of ukulele books. I came home with two: Ukulele Jazz (Kiyoshi Kobayashi) and Movie Music: Jazz Arrangements for Solo Ukulele by Hiroyuki “Tommy” Tominaga. In this post I’ll review the first.
Ukulele Jazz is a collection of 27 well-arranged tunes in both notation and tablature. Each tune has a page or two of written explanation in Japanese complete with fingering charts, but unless you read Japanese they won’t be of much help. However, if you’re an intermediate player you’ll have no problem working your way through the pieces. Author and Arranger Kiyoshi Kobayashi was trained as a classical guitarist so I find his chord inversions to be very logically laid out on the fretboard and the melodies always come out the better for that. You can hear me playing Satin Doll from this book on the UKULELEjapan.com website.
The book comes with a CD with each piece played in full. It’s helpful to listen to the CD track before starting work on the piece. Then, after you’ve gotten fairly adept at playing the piece, play along with it to get the nuances that you might have missed on your own. You can also go to YouTube and search for Lami Jeon, a young Korean woman, who has filmed herself playing many of these pieces. Watch her left hand as she plays to get tips on which fingers to use.
All the pieces in the book can be played using a flat pick, your thumb, or by finger picking. Kobayashi appears to use his thumb and fingers to pick and strum the uke. I seem to cycle between all three methods depending on what I’m playing and the sound I want to create.
If you’re not planning a trip to Japan anytime soon, you can find a link at UKULELEjapan which will take you to CDJapan where you can place an order in US dollars.
Yours in uke,
Two stops from Tokyo Station on the Chuo-line and you're in a musical paradise! Tokyo Station is the terminus for the Chuo-line so unless you board the wrong line, you're bound to reach your destination. Board the train with the orange stripe at its head so you'll be closest to the proper exit. After a brief stop at Kanda Station disembark at Ochanomizu. Exit using the west gate.
The map above show the location of several of the Shimokura stores but trust me, there's plenty of other stores to browse! You'll need very little or no knowledge of Japanese to navigate your way to the stores. Signs with the word Guitar or ギター are ubiquitous and if all else fails, look for instruments in the window.
You'll find a lot of American instruments in these stores but you'll also find Japanese brands as well- some made in Japan, some made in China. There are plenty of stores in Ochanomizu that specialize in selling used instruments but be warned, they are much more expensive than what you'd find here in the States. Takumi Ukuleles' Kiwaya, Lo Prinzi, Famous are widely distributed, Seilin's T's Ukulele are a bit harder to find but quality instruments. There are a number of luthiers in Japan making some really beautiful instruments but you'll find that like most Japanese instruments, they tend to be on the upper end of the price scale. But you do get what you pay for, don't you...
Korg of keyboard fame, recently released in Japan a full line of D'Angelico archtop ukuleles. I've seen the YouTubes but have yet to get my hands on one so let me know if you find one and what you think!
Japan is one of the last countries in the world with strong CD sales which, in a country short on living space, seems just a bit counter intuitive. This means that there's a lot of CD shops with new and used CDs of every variety! Disk Union, the largest chain, sells both used and new CD's. I've found more of the most arcane, out-of-print, hard to find CDs at Disk Union than anywhere I've ever been!
Happy hunting and be sure to share your finds here!
I'm an amateur ukulele player who happens to be fluent in Japanese. I hope that I can inspire you to learn more about the ukulele, Japan, or better yet, BOTH!