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High-End Audio in Japan, Part One: First Impressions

Before I talk about the three master craftsmen whom I had the pleasure of visiting on my just-completed trip to Japan, I’d like to share my first (and I hope not last) impressions of the country itself.

Like Germany or Turkey or the Netherlands or Great Britain or any of the beautiful places I’ve been to, Japan is a distinctive mixture of new and old. In its towns, particularly in the gigantic metropolis of Tokyo, which is the largest city I’ve ever seen, it seems thoroughly and sometimes almost frantically modern. With its millions of flashing neon signs and blazing marquee lights and the hundreds of thousands of buyers and sellers jamming its sidewalks and storefronts, a district like the Akihabara (Tokyo’s huge electronics quarter) could pass for a cross between Times Square and the Las Vegas Strip on a busy Saturday evening. All the towns, even the smaller ones like Hachioji and Kawagoe, have this same dense, festive, unabashedly mercantile look. But that look is deceptive.

Enter any store—no matter how gaudy or plain—and you will invariably be met with a politeness and graciousness that is as formal and characteristic as the slight bow with which you greet and are greeted. No matter what you buy or where, this unstinting courteousness makes your transaction feel like something more elevated than a mere exchange of money for goods, although it is that, too, of course—something more like an exchange of respect, a bond of civility.

Step away from the city streets into the exquisite home of someone like Mr. Taro Hirayama (the view from whose beautiful listening room window opens this essay), and you discover this ancient bond of civility in its purest form. It’s as if you’ve stepped out of the rush of modernity into a time so simple and elegant and formal and beautiful that it is like a sonata turned into manners and morals, into landscape and décor.

It is this ancient music, this marriage of commerce and grace, that the three men I’m going to tell you about—Kiyoaki Imai of Audio Tekne, Naoto Kurosawa of Technical Brain, and Osamu Ikeda of Ikeda Sound Labs—have brought to a kind of perfection. None of them is merely offering goods for sale; each of them is also offering you a lifetime of learning and making. I shall not soon forget Isamu Fukumoto saying of Mr. Imai, the author of every piece of Mr. Fukumoto’s fabulous Audio Tekne system: “He hasn’t just made these things for me; he has taught me how to hear them.”

When you buy from these men, you aren’t just buying goods; you are buying all they have to offer—all that they craft and all that they know.

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