YOLA in Japan: Tokyo –> Fukushima

2015-03-26 09.10.07

It’s kind of a chaperone’s worst nightmare—Tokyo Station at morning rush hour. Three rail companies and 14 different lines converge on this central station hauling more than 400-thousand commuters through here every single day. And today, among the throngs: 15 young musicians of YOLA.

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I’m happy to report that no one got lost or separated in the madness and we all managed to squeeze aboard our scheduled high-speed bullet train, or Shinkansen, headed to Fukushima Prefecture and eventually the city of Soma—an area hit hard four years ago in the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami.

It takes 78 minutes to ride the Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Fukushima. 182 miles; 78 minutes. It’s enough to make us Californians ponder the what ifs of that LA to San Francisco bullet train that has been in the “proposed” stage for how many years now? The YOLA musicians certainly dug it.

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I sat across from clarinetist extraordinaire, Edson, who determined that when he couldn’t see anything more than just a blur, we were going fast enough. And when that happened, he pulled out his score to the Weber Clarinet Concertino and practiced his fingerings.

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In the seat next to him, YOLA conductor Juan Felipe Molano practiced his rehearsal Japanese vocabulary in preparation for his work with El Sistema Japan and YOLA musicians later that day.

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That’s El Sistema Japan’s Toru Amijima helping Molano learn how to say things like: “Four measures before C” or “Violins, play this at the tip of your bows.”

78 minutes of glassy-smooth high-speed rail goodness and upon our arrival in Fukushima the first thing we were handed was a 20-page booklet detailing the extensive and, so far, remarkably successful radiation cleanup efforts.

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This was our reading material on our twisty bus ride over the mountain from Fukushima to the city of Soma, just inland from the Pacific Coast. The town of 35-thousand residents is well outside the 20 kilometer exclusion zone of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, but is still very much in the rebuilding phase. For example, lunch came at a restaurant that was housed in one of hundreds of temporary structures that make up a large portion of the town.

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Local food and tap water, we have been assured, is completely safe to eat and drink; so local fish, salad, miso soup, and green tea it was for lunch. And it was delicious! (Though not everyone was a fan of the raw squid in liver sauce, pickled seaweed, and pickled Japanese cucumber that served as appetizers.)

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Lunch over, we headed to the newly-rebuilt Municipal Concert Hall in Soma. The original hall, which was more than 100 years old, was damaged irreparably during the earthquake, so this new one was built in its place and has become the home for El Sistema Japan.

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In the aftermath of the disaster in 2011, one of the first things to spring up in the efforts to rebuild this area was El Sistema Japan. The community has said the music-making of El Sistema Japan helped them to heal emotionally before it was even possible to rebuild their lives physically. YOLA is the first El Sistema-inspired program to bring young musicians to Soma to play side-by-side with the kids of El Sistema Japan.

First, some introductions. For which, the YOLA students learned a bit of Japanese.

Then, it was down to the business of rehearsing. They play a concert in Soma Friday night before heading to Tokyo on Saturday for an open rehearsal and performance at Suntory Hall with Gustavo Dudamel.

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After rehearsals, the students of El Sistema Japan and YOLA gathered in the main concert hall for a cultural exchange program. The hosts sang some traditional Japanese songs…including this little number about candy and bubble gum.

The YOLA musicians performed too. Here’s the last couple minutes of Danzon No. 2, by Arturo Marquez.

After the performances, they all had bento together for dinner and took selfies with their new friends.

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