The Fukuyama Koto is music instrument with unique sounds


Fukuyama Koto in the fusion of gorgeous ornamentation and beautiful tones

Fukuyama Koto is a zither made in Fukuyama City, Hiroshima Prefecture. The raw material used is the finest paulownia wood, which is dried in nature over a period of one year before being processed. The surface darkens during the drying process, but after careful planings, the beautiful white color of the paulownia wood is revealed. The sound quality of the zither is determined by creating cavities in the paulownia wood with a chisel. The ornamentation is also detailed and gorgeous, making the zither not only perfect as a musical instrument, but also highly valuable as a work of art.

Paulownia wood is an essential part of Japanese traditional crafts, and there are other traditional crafts using paulownia wood besides the Fukuyama Koto, such as Inami wood carving or Osaka Ranma. The common thread that runs through all of them is their high artistic value. They are also used as wardrobes or boxes, taking advantage of paulownia’s moisture absorbency. Specifically, you can see Kamo paulownia hest or Kyo-Sashimono.


The beauty of the Fukuyama zither can be seen in the ornate decorations on the surface and sides of the zither. Maki-e, an ancient Japanese method of decoration in which patterns are drawn in lacquer, is further enhanced by the sprinkling of gold leaf or silver.

The reverse side of the surface material is carved with patterns such as “twilled cedar carving” and “sudareme carving,” which not only serve as decoration but also affect the sound quality. In particular, the “hemp-shaped carving” (commonly called “diamond carving”) is a decorative pattern that is applied only to the highest-grade Fukuyama zithers. The price is quite expensive, but the fine and delicate decoration makes it worth it.

As you can see, Fukuyama Koto is decorated with a wide variety of ornaments and techniques, so a lot of time is
required just for the decoration. It is said that it takes one to two weeks to finish one surface of a high-end product.

Koto in Japan
Source: Hitokoto-monokoto

Origin and History

The Fukuyama zither was the first musical instrument to be designated as a traditional craft. The history of the Fukuyama koto is said to date back to 1619, when Katsunari Mizuno built a castle in Fukuyama, and with the encouragement of successive feudal lords, singing and music were actively performed in the castle town during the Edo period. The castle town was also known as “Kochi” in the Edo period. At the end of the Edo period (1603-1867), during the Bunka era (1603-1868), Kuzuhara Kotou, a master of the Koto from Kyoto, returned to his hometown in Bingo and Bichu, and is said to have enhanced the fame of the Fukuyama koto.

Manufacturing Methods for Fukuyama Koto


1. Lumbering Process

The process of making Fukuyama zithers begins with the selection and examination of logs. The main logs selected are those of Japanese or North American paulownia, with a diameter of 400 to 600 mm at the end. The logs are carefully examined for curvature, annual rings, and the presence or absence of knots, which affect strength. The process of selecting the logs and determining the best sawing method for the material is known as “marking. The marking process is carried out by a skilled craftsman with an eye for detail. In order to determine the width, the first step is to saw off both sides of the piece, a process known as “Oowari,” which involves sawing off both sides. After that, the koto is roughly ground into the shape of a koto, which is called “kou-hiki” or “ita-hiki”.

2. Drying Process

The lumber is then left outdoors to dry in the sun in a drying area. The drying period is one to three years and requires spending several rainy seasons. Drying under the sun sufficiently stabilizes the dimensions and prevents “warping” or “curling” of the finished lumber. Leaving the wood outdoors for long periods of time also removes the “lye” (yuck) from the paulownia wood. Drying is an important process, and after natural drying, artificial drying is also performed.

3. Kouzou Process

The process consists of gouging, carving, mounting, baking, and polishing, in that order. Gouri is the process of rough cutting with a planing machine that has an imitation function, and the machining of the mounting parts. Once the gouging is roughly completed, the work moves on to carving. This is the process of engraving the inside of the zither. The carving is done with patterns such as “sudareme” and “ayasugi” according to the grade of the koto. The pattern carving is a detailed process in which the carving is carefully done with a chisel.

The next process, ita-zukuri, involves processing and attaching the back plate, which is the resonant layer of the zither. The work up to the plate attachment completes the processing of the wooden base. In the subsequent “yaki” process, the surface of the wood is burned by applying a scorching iron. The burning process gives the Fukuyama koto its unique color and texture. In the polishing process, which is the final step in the ko making process, carbides produced by the burning process are removed to bring out the luster.

Koto in Fukuyama
Source: hobbytime

4. Decoration Process

This process is also called the koto decoration process. It is the most time-consuming process in the koto making process because of the large number of decorative parts and the complex and delicate processing techniques required. The main decorative parts are shiburoku, ryukaku, kashiwaba (oak leaf), and ryuzetsu (dragon tongue). Other parts include the round shape (marugata), front legs (mae-ashi), rear legs (a-ashi), and the pillar (ji). To make a beautiful zither, traditional ornaments such as inlaying, makie (gold-relief lacquer), and yosegi (marquetry) are necessary.

The gorgeous maki-e on the dragon’s tongue is done using techniques such as taka-makie, hira-makie, and hone-gidashi makie. The decoration of oak leaves called “tamabuchi maki” is a characteristic of the Fukuyama zither.

5. Finishing Process

After the metal fittings are attached, the koto is leveled and the front legs are detached and adjusted. While confirming the zither’s perfection as a musical instrument, a strict finishing inspection is also carried out as a traditional product, and the Fukuyama zither is finished.

Fukuyama Koto
Source: Hitokoto-monokoto


Brilliant decoration. The Fukuyama zither is created by the handmade techniques of experienced zither craftsmen. Among the many traditional crafts, the Fukuyama zither is the only one designated as a musical instrument, which further demonstrates the magnificence of its design. For people from overseas, the Japanese zither is probably an unfamiliar instrument. However, the sound of the Koto is extremely beautiful, and at the same time, it has an appeal that touches the heart.

Recently, the number of players of the Fukuyama zither has been decreasing, and the production of the Fukuyama zither has been shrinking as a result. However, the beautiful products produced by traditional craftsmen who preserve Japanese culture continue to fascinate people.


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