If someone were to say the word "Japan" to you, what would spring to mind? Anime? Sake? Bullet Trains? Vending machines? Maybe it brings to mind extraordinarily polite people, in crowded concrete cityscapes alight with radiant neon.
Well, that is all there; stepping foot on the streets of Tokyo for the first time is an unforgettably disorientating and bewildering experience. You walk around being relentlessly bombarded with audio & visual stimulation of every variety. Flashing adverts, blaring music and brightly illuminated signs fight for your attention everywhere you look. Although if you’re anything like us, you might just focus on was how clean the place is, despite there being no bins anywhere.
However, in what feels like a million miles from the brightness and bustle of Tokyo (although it's actually only 353 miles) lies Nagoya, the largest city in the Chubu region of Japan, and an altogether more traditional landscape. Take another local train into the mountains for around 40 minutes and you'll arrive at Nakatsugawa, a small rural town that from the outside appears most notable for being a Halfway between Tokyo and Kyoto - think more Spirited Away and less Akira.
However, the ludicrously lush scenery of this humble Gifu Prefecture area also happens to be, appropriately, the home of Takamine guitars.
You have probably heard of Takamine - in the six decades since it was founded the company has gone from a tiny, family-run guitar shop located at the foot of a mountain from which they draw their namesake, to a globally recognised brand played by musicians of all levels. Five minutes inside Takamine's headquarters, and it's easy to see why. For many of us Japanese culture inspires a special kind of curiosity, and there is something very Japanese about Takamine.
Hidden up in the mountains, they are surrounded by nothing but nature. The neon and noise of Shibuya replaced with thick green forest and a serene calmness simply not attainable in the big cities. The area itself is rich with a history of artisan woodcraft, and approaching the entrance to the factory, you get the impression that these guitars could only be made here.
One quick scan around the factory floor reveals an organised flurry of hands collectively making the technical art of luthiery look effortless. However, dig a little deeper and you begin to realise that you have only scratched the surface.
Halls filled with production machinery for rapid, high-volume turnaround is not something Takamine is concerned with. Speed isn't the name of the game here - ask Makoto Terasaki (the company's Director, General Manager, Designer, Artist Relations and Guitar Technician - a position that has earned him the nickname “Mr Takamine”) what comes first and foremost and he'll simply describe the quality. Quality is everything in the world of Makoto-san, and by extension Takamine itself. We were recently lucky enough to be given a guided tour of the factory by the man himself, and he means it.
Each section of the body is fitted together, binding is intricately inlayed, rough edges are sanded down and the completed body is prepared for the next stage of construction. While that may all sound like standard fare, what sets Takamine apart is the meticulous consideration that is poured into every single stage of its construction. Once again Makoto’s influence is felt throughout the whole process. He has spent his entire adult life building guitars, beginning at Takamine as an apprentice in 1988, his days largely consisting of painstakingly hand-making parts for acoustic guitars.
As he recently revealed in an interview with Guitarist Magazine, “Purfling, sanding, electronics…in those days I was also making the top-nut by hand and I cut notches in nuts for 12-string guitars. As you know in those days 12-string guitars were very important for Takamine because of the Eagles’ Hotel California. So there were huge orders of them and every day I had to cut 12-string nuts by hand [laughs]! I did this for almost four years.”
As each guitar passes from one exceptional set of hands to the next, you start to get a feeling not unlike what you might experience whilst watching highly trained chefs preparing a meal in a restaurant recommended to you by the Michelin Guide. These are Makoto’s chefs, and the factory floor is his kitchen.
While the body is being assembled, the neck of a Takamine guitar receives an unusual amount of attention. The company is building a reputation for extremely intricate inlay work; they release a limited edition model once a year, typically drawing inspiration from the area surrounding the factory. The fretboard of 2017’s “Magome” model featured a stunningly detailed depiction of the Nakasendō highway, a three hundred mile stretch of road that was used to travel between Tokyo and Kyoto centuries ago. Or 2018’s “Gifu-cho”, which features delicately inlayed butterflies known locally for only thriving for a short time each year in the hills and meadows of Gifu.
The fretwork is also an extremely considered part of any Takamine, with a laser-guided fret finishing system levelling and crowning each fret to “within 0.0001 inch” of dead-on. The company believes that a good fret job can be the difference between a nice guitar and a great guitar. Try one for yourself, you will find it difficult to argue with them.
As we see each guitar going through every stage of its construction, we get the feeling of a company that may have grown in leaps and bounds over the years, but has not forgotten the family-run business that started it all. The love and care that is poured into each guitar is striking, and the history and traditional values that guide the company endure, no matter what is happening 353 miles away, or anywhere else for that matter.
As the company states on their own website, the spirit of the century-old phrase from the arts and crafts movement "Anything worth doing is worth doing well" lives on at Takamine.