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A Hamamatsu Stopover

When you're hurtling through the countryside between Tokyo and Kyoto on the Nozomi Super Express Shinkansen bullet train at 187 miles an hour, it's easy to forget that there are many other destinations enroute that are literally passing you by. But if you take the slower bullet train that stops at every Shinkansen station, you'll make stops at cities you've probably never heard of. One of those stops is Hamamatsu, which I visited for the first time a few months ago. Although Hamamatsu, located near Mt. Fuji about halfway between Tokyo and Osaka, is most known to Japanese as the home of Tokugawa Ieyasu in the late 1500s while he waged battles in his quest to become shogun, today it's famous globally for its industry, which, admittedly, is not a sexy attribute until you learn that two of those industries are giants in the music and auto industry. It also boasts a hot-spring resort called Kanzanji on the shores of Lake Hamana, making it good for a one-night stopover. And if you ever have the chance to come in early May, you'll see firsthand that the business of flying kites is much more than child's play.

Battling kites at Hamamatsu Festival
Hamamatsu's major attractions include a remake of Ieyasu's Hamamatsu Castle, the Hamamatsu City Museum of Musical Instruments with instruments from around the world, and Ryotanji Temple with an impressive garden designed by Kobori Enshu in the early Edo Period.

Hamamatsu Castle (photo courtesy of Hamamatsu City)
Most foreign visitors come to Hamamatsu, however, on business trips tied to industries that produce cars, motorcycles, musical instruments, textiles and optical technology. It's the headquarters of Honda and Yamaha, both founded here by Hamamatsu entrepreneurs. At the Yamaha Showroom, I learned that Mr. Yamaha built his first reed organ in the 1880s simply by dismantling an existing organ and was then able to produce organs and pianos at a cheaper price than imports. Today Yamaha produces virtually every instrument used in an orchestra, including string, wind, and percussion instruments, as well as guitars, electronic and digital instruments, synthesizers, chips for cell phones, and home theater systems. But the stars of the show here are clearly the grand pianos. It takes 300 people three years to produce a grand, with 60 to 70 units shipped off daily (approximately 60% find homes abroad, mostly in the U.S.). The showroom allows visitors to try out various instruments, including those that take no skill at all, like a trumpet that works on the same principle as a kazoo (you hum the tune you want to play) and a guitar for rock star wannabes that literally plays itself.

Yamaha Showroom
Unfortunately, my autumn visit meant I missed the extraordinary Hamamatsu Festival, held annually in early May. In addition to elaborate floats paraded through downtown to the accompaniment of blaring bugles and the pounding of taiko drums, the festival features as many as 170 kites soaring through the sky above the Nakatajima Sand Dunes. While it's customary for local families to celebrate the birth of a baby by raising a kite with the infant's name on it (according to legend, the custom dates back some 440 years, when the lord of a castle announced the birth of his first son by flying a kite with his son's name on it), it's the battle between giant kites that's the biggest draw. Kites as wide as 9 feet are maneuvered by teams who employ various techniques to dodge attacks and make assaults on other kites, using their hemp kite lines to "saw" through the lines of opponents. There's no other festival in Japan quite like this one?but to see it you have to plan far in advance, since it's held during Golden Week and attracts up to 1.5 million visitors. From September 19 to November 23 of 2009, Hamamatsu also hosted Mosaiculture, a unique exhibition of sculptures made from flowers and plants. Formerly held in Montreal (in 2000 and 2003) and Shanghai (in 2006), the traveling exhibit features horticultural art of spectacular proportions, from 2-D pictures "painted" with flowers and plants to 3-D geometric forms and flights of fancy. The theme of 2010's exhibition is "The Symphony of People and Nature."

If possible, book a room in Kanzanji, where Japanese inns offer hot-spring baths, traditional tatami rooms (many with lake views) and local specialties such as barbecued eel from Lake Hamana (don't knock it unless you've tried it!). Although companies offer boat cruises around the lake, I suggest renting a bike instead for a 3-hour ride around the lake. So while Hamamatsu can't hope to compete with destinations like Kyoto or Tokyo, it does offer a hot-spring experience and some interesting diversions. Tokugawa liked the location so much, he stayed 17 years.



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