Shin-ichi Izutsu, a Master Violinmaker

Windows Facing North

Patches of blue sky are visible through the workshop windows facing north. Through the windows facing west, the sun shines gently on the potted plants with beautiful leaves. The workshop is probably as large as an elementary school classroom, and spacious enough for one person to work in it though there are worktables and office desks.

The north windows are there to alleviate the effects of the sunshine, and the fluorescent lights are brightly on even during the day in the workshop. Those are the conditions created for the benefit of its master whose work is to cut and plane wood.

Shoo, shoo, shoo, shoo

The workshop master is sharpening a piece of wood at astonishing speed with a plane, which is as small as a miniature toy car. Seven or eight of them are scattered on the table, and he occasionally stops using one of them and changes it with another. Only for that fleeting moment, the sound of the plane stops and a dead silence falls over the workshop. The master quite intensively concentrates on his work as if he breathes only when he changes tools.

As he almost vertically looks down at the wood while he is planing and sharpening it, it is next to impossible to read expressions on his face.

Despite his concentration on a piece of wood, there is no tense atmosphere felt in the workshop, strange as it may sound. The master industriously turns around the piece and subtly changes the precise spot to sharpen. This part of his work seems to require great tact and sensitivity. However, he hardly feels this part difficult, and that’s the reason why there is no tense atmosphere there. Well, it’s not the question of whether or not the work is difficult for him, but because he gives the impression that he moves swiftly but with naturalness just like leaves swaying and trembling to a strong wind.

He seems to be simply pouring his energy into wood gently and quietly. “It certainly is an artisan’s work,” I said to myself. The master is Shin-ichi Izutsu, a violinmaker who was born in 1936.

Becoming a Wood Turner, after Working as Apprentice for and besides His Father

After a three-hour-ride from Shinjuku Station by Limited Express Azusa, I arrived at Matsumoto before noon where Izutsu’s workshop was located. It was a sunny winter day. The sky was clear and shiny and the air crisp and cool.

Izutsu’s wife, Hideko, was waiting for me at the station gate. Izutsu parked his car outside of the station and was waiting for me there. He looked cool in his red checkered shirt, leather jumper with boa, and leather pants. He looked as if he was a sophisticated rock musician. I saw some scratches and sawdust on his pants. I realized they were Izutsu’s work clothes.

It’s about lunch time. Let’s eat soba or something before we go to my workshop,” Izutsu said. Soba is a kind of noodles made of buckwheat. He drove a silver-colored minivan and took us to one of the most famous soba restaurants in Matsumoto.

We passed through a neat and clean shopping street. Then, there we found the soba restaurant. It was in a quiet neighborhood very close to Matsumoto Castle. We ordered soba noodles topped with tempura.

While I ate some of the noodles thinking that they tasted rather nice, Izutsu already ate up two trays of them.

Craftsmen eat quick,” he said.

My father often scolded me when I was eating slow. ‘How long is it gonna take you to finish the dish?’ he would say.”

Izutsu’s father was also a woodcrafter.

Izutsu is the first son. He has five brothers and sisters. When he graduated from junior high school, he started helping his father with his job.

At the beginning, my father wouldn’t let me work. All he said was to watch how he worked. He would get so mad at me if I dared to touch his tools,” said Izutsu.

He took his first step to become a violinmaker when he helped his father with a weak constitution and went into the world of craftsmen.

Church as an Entrée to the World

When we went outside the soba noodle restaurant, we saw Matsumoto Castle. There was a beautiful church, Catholic Matsumoto Church, right beside the castle. Izutsu is a Christian succeeding from his grandfather and father, but he doesn’t know why his grandfather was converted to Christianity.

The church was always a part of his life since he was born. Although it was not as fancy as it now is, the church, together with the castle, was a playground for Izutsu and his friends.

It was also the door to the world for him. Priests came to the Catholic Matsumoto Church by turns from around the world: Germany, Hungary, Italy and Spain. They often talked about their hometowns to local people. A boy who was born in a small town came to hold a dream to go abroad someday.

A priest from France was different from any other adult Izutsu had ever known. He was proud and filled with confidence, and talked to anyone without any sign of hesitation. Naturally he, as a Catholic priest, lived in a modest way, but Izutsu felt some dignity in his manner and outfits.

That priest surely was a Parisian,” Izutsu said in reminiscence.

He taught me French, but he left for another church right after I started learning from him. I might have been able to speak French a little if he had taught me three more months.”

Shin-ichi Izutsu has been called “Shin-chan” since he was a child, just like Thomas is called “Tom.” The Catholic priests called him “Shin-chan” too, and treated him with affection. He went to church every Sunday with his family. As time went by, he came to help read mass as an altar boy. He learned Latin for prayer and came to understand it.

There were three kids of Shin-chan’s age among those who went to church. They were all good friends.

One day, the priest of the church called him over but not other kids.

How about going to Germany, Shin-chan? Why don’t you go there and study to become a Catholic priest?

He was so thrilled as if he was about to dash off to Germany at any time. Nobody but he, Shin-chan, was selected!

Now, I can go to the country that I have been dreaming of!”

His mind was already looking forward to being in his dream land.

Becoming a Violinmaker

The more Shin-chan acquired skill in woodwork, the more he earned money. But his family was still needy. He couldn’t go on to high school but wanted his sister to go on in his stead.

Every day, he worked as a newsboy before he started working with his father. Early in the morning, he put on a pair of kanjiki, or Japanese snowshoes, and walked from door to door delivering newspapers. Winter in Matsumoto is frigid, but he didn’t think it too hard or too cold. As soon as he came back home from the morning round, he sat in front of the wheel in the workshop.

With the money he made from the jobs, he bought a pair of dark blue shoes for his sister so that she wouldn’t look shabby at high school. She was delighted to wear them at her entrance ceremony and said, “Thank you, Shin-chan.” He felt glad that he had not left his family.

Izutsu was twenty years old when he found himself at the turning point in his life.

At that time, Shin-ichi Suzuki, a prominent figure in the field of musical education and pedagogic theory, ran a violin factory in Matsumoto. His brother, the factory’s operation manager, asked Izutsu if he was interested in working at the factory.

Izutsu was eager to further cultivate his artisanal ability in the new environment, the youthful curiosity getting the better of him. He was confident that he was skilled enough to satisfy the hopes entertained of him. “But, what would my father say?” Izutsu worried.

Just like he abandoned his plan to go abroad, he was determined to give up the idea of working at the Suzuki factory if he could not win his father’s approval.

You may go and work there if that’s what you want to do. But, once you decided to do it, you just have to devote your whole life to the work,” said his father unexpectedly.

Since then, Shin-chan has kept his promise with his father. He loved his father very much.

The Third Chance to a New Life

After making a round of his factory where work was on, Izutsu took me upstairs. There are a concert hall that can seat eighty people and three rooms in which to practice playing instruments. Although he does not give lessons, teachers and students adore him and come all the way to his factory. Many of them commute from Tokyo.

The teachers hold concerts in a trio several times a year, and all the seats are taken in the hall. Izutsu is very happy when he is among the full audience.

Attracted by his personality, musicians have come to visit the Izutsu Hall from all over the world. They gather there when a music festival takes place in Matsumoto. Among them was Seiji Ozawa, the world-famous conductor.

Among the visiting musicians was a black-haired young man with a remarkably shining aura. It was Alan Gilbert, chief conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. As he visited Izutsu several times, he has become a close family friend. In spring 2006, he invited Izutsu to Stockholm. He said he wanted to try Izutsu’s violins.

My violins might be played overseas,” said Izutsu leaning forward enthusiastically. Apparently he could hardly wait for the day to come to go to Stockholm again. It doesn’t matter who made the violins or where they were made. There was a chance that the quality of his violins would be judged on the spot by their quality.

In his boyhood, he gave up going to study abroad because of his family to support. In the prime of his life, he gave up leaving Matsumoto because of his friends. Now that he is over seventy years of age, he has got a chance to attempt to embark on a new career for the third time. Izutsu’s eyes are still as shiny as they were when he was called “Shin-chan” in his childhood. This term of endearment is still now used by some of his family members and childhood friends.


Forests and Spirituality in Sedona

Last March, I visited a small town called "Sedona" in Arizona, which is in the southern part of the U.S. It is about two hours drive up north from the state capital of Phoenix. Another two hours’ drive farther to north will take you to the Grand Canyon.

Phoenix is a city built on a dry plain, while the Grand Canyon is a canyon which has been eroded by rivers for hundreds of millions of years to look as it now stands. Sedona is somewhere in-between in terms of topographic characteristics.

The boundless sky spreads like the universe beyond the horizon which is dried up in the scorching sun in the South. In the azure sky stand out red craggy mountains surviving and witnessing the ages since the Earth came into being.

Sedona has gradually become known also in Japan as a place you can experience spirituality. The Japanese media, however, are playing with the word “spirituality” confusing it with some kind of fortune-telling by bringing up former lives, auras and the like.

There are spots scattered in Sedona, where you can feel energy quite different from any of those “spiritual things.” The spots are called “vortexes” and are used to be sacred places for the Native Americans.

I wonder if the special energy welling out from the land is the same as the one I feel when I am in a forest.

I have spent a couple years in a mountain village in Toyama Prefecture. During those years, I visited quite a few forests across the country and experienced various kinds of jobs as a staff member of a forestry cooperative. Every forest has an atmosphere of its own, or individuality, should I say. Forests on the island of Yakushima, for example, are massive and powerful, yet at the same time delicate in some ways. Deep mountains in Toga, where I walked through everyday, seemed aloof from others with proud.

Every forest has its individuality just like every person has. It may be natural to think that a forest, which is made up of a great number of living things, is itself a living creature as well. That’s probably the source of the energy from the land.

I walked in this sacred place, Sedona, thinking of these and other things.

Meanwhile, I came up to the most famous place in Sedona, “Red Rock Crossing.” It is a bewitchingly beautiful place where dry riverbeds of Oak Creek stretch out and where you can enjoy the scenery with one of the vortexes called “Cathedral Rock” in the distance. A range of large sycamore trees make a white forest, and the river flows between the red dry riverbeds with its surface glittering. I felt really peaceful in my mind in the dazzling sunlight.

I then climbed up the huge Cathedral Rock. As its name suggests, the rock seemed even bigger than the Duomo in Florence. It took about forty minutes to reach its top. Although there are some parts where I had to scramble on all fours, it did not seem to take long at all. I felt as if I was wrapped in warm and comfortable blankets. There must be some special power that springs from the land.

Sedona is also called a “Red Rock County”. Strata there are said to have been formed hundreds of millions of years ago. I saw rugged mountains have red, pink and gray layers. Walking on a dry reddish soil, it shimmers with crystal particles it contains.

However, Sedona is not a place that parches up like a dessert. Plants belonging to the opuntia and yucca families grow all over the plain, and trees of the cypress family such as Utah junipers grow on the slope from the foot halfway up the rugged mountains. All of them are gifts from the Oak Creek which runs through the land from north to south. There must be bountiful forests up the stream of the river where the water flows off. I had longed to see those forests.

I asked my travel agent to find a forest guide in Sedona before I left Japan. A Ms. Sado of the Sedona Tourist Information Center was kind enough to accept my request and acted as a guide. She is a young Japanese living in the U.S. since her early childhood because of her parents’ jobs, and for some reason or other she came to work in Sedona. Ms. Sado was apparently enjoying a happy life there.

My local guide in and around Sedona was a Richard T. Lynch, who was a talkative, cheerful and nice guy. Richard drove a jeep upstream along the Oak Creek. Some 20 minutes later, we were amid rich woodland scenery. It was the “Coconino National Forest,” a splendid forest with gigantic trees growing luxuriantly.

We went on trekking on a bank of the West Fork River which flows into the Oak Creek. It is one of the most popular trekking courses in the U.S. On both sides of the well-maintained trail towered sheer cliffs with red, pink and gray layers just like what I saw in Sedona. The trail looked like a time tunnel leading us to the ancient Earth.

The sunlight reflects on the surface of the flowing river, making the surrounding rocks of countless ages glitter as if they were rippling. Mingled with the gentle stream sound of early spring I listened to, I also caught between whiles the tweeting and chirping of wild birds. As it was March, I saw only very few leaves put forth from the trees. I imagined the valley would glisten golden, come summer and then fall. The sight of the maples, oaks, and sycamores all of them coloring the trail has been firmly imprinted in my memory.

Thinking of the beautifulness of the lives inherited throughout the ages from the very dawn of time on the Earth, I certainly felt the spirituality welling up from the land.

On the final stage of our trip, we visited Mr. Vernon Foster, a Native American who was a quiet man and seemed to have sadness in the innermost fold of his heart. He inherited what is called a “sweat lodge,” which is a kind of steam bath where one of the Lakota’s traditional rituals takes place. His tent-covered sweat lodge was located in the midst of a forest. People say that, true to its name, it helps to purify their spirits by sweating and shedding tears.

It took us almost one hour by car from Sedona to reach Vernon’s place in a small village. Pastures spread out before us with the grass bending in the wind. I also saw luxuriant oak forests. I was surprised to find Native Americans and forests living side-by side there, because I had thought until then that the Native Americans – known as American Indians before – lived by and large in arid regions. I found out later that they had been driven out of their ancestral homeland.

The sweat lodge ritual takes place in the forest. Vernon guided us there, where teenage girls were collecting firewood and scooping up water. Two of them, Samantha and Ashley, were Vernon’s daughters. There were three other girls of the same generation. I heard they lived away from home, as their parents had alcohol or drug problems.

The Fosters not only were taking care of these “drug children,” but at the same time volunteered to help their parents devise and carry out rehabilitation programs. I saw so intense a fear and anger in the children’s eyes that I really felt pity stirring in my heart.

The framework of a small dome-shaped tent had been assembled in an open space in the forest. It was then covered with cloth, and then tightly shut. There was a hollow in the center of the ground. Around the hollow sat in a circle all the participants, including Vernon, his wife Rita, who is a shaman, and me.

Vernon put heated stones in the hollow one after another and poured water on them. When it became as sweltering hot in the tent as in a sauna, we all sang traditional Lakota songs together. Vernon told us to wash our sadness away by singing the songs. Soaked with sweat and tears in the rising dense steam, I sang the songs loudly, imitating and following Vernon. I felt as if I became totally prostrate and empty. Rita started crying. She was sad because a boy she and Vernon were supposed to adopt was taken back by his parents’ relatives. We felt released at last from the deep sadness until then locked in our heart.

After the ritual, I had dinner with the Fosters. We enjoyed tacos which were quite substantial. Vernon said he devoted his life to uphold the traditions and spirituality of the Native Americans and hand them down to future generations. Actually, it is only very recently that the Native Americans took back and resuscitated their long-deserted traditions, because they had been relegated and confined to “reservations” for long. The sweat lodge ritual is one of their traditions banned by the government, and it did not take place until 1984. When the first space shuttle lifted off to the space in the early 1980s, the Native Americans were still put in chains, so to speak, on the ground. Years have passed since the government “withdrew” the ban. But the scars have yet to disappear from their hearts.

I think I found the true spirituality in the Fosters, who were trying to maintain the old traditions and protect their heart-wounded children.

You don’t need to explain the logic when you help children recover from sickness of the spirits. You don’t need to explain the reason why you feel sad and shed tears when you are pulled away from your children. It is no different from being grateful for the mother earth and the sun or finding beauty in trees and flowers. It is people’s innate and natural feeling. I am confident that that is exactly what the spirituality truly means.

It would have little meaning to argue about your previous life or the color of the aura you emanate. It is understandable that people seek for salvation, even transient, in the chaotic times. It might help you feel better if a psychic told you about the life you lived during your previous existence or if a fortune-teller said you wouldn’t go to hell if you changed your way of life. However, your heart will soon be rusted if you think only of yourself.

I believe it important to appreciate the mighty power of the Earth and to feel moved by miracles of nature in order to enhance our spirituality. I am now convinced that the spirituality can be glorified by widening the circle of happiness from people close to us to those rather distant from us.