In 2008, I had the lucky experience to be given a tour of the Yanagisawa saxophone factory in Tokyo, Japan. When I came home I wrote about my experience on the saxophone forum SaxOnTheWeb. That article is now duplicated here to make it easier to find. Yanagisawa liked what I wrote and has linked here from their own website.
Yanagisawa themselves also has their own excellent factory tour on their website now, added in 2011.
Here is what I wrote. See photos at bottom.
First off, let me say that it is going to be hard for me to write about this without sounding like a shill. I was so impressed with everything that I saw that I am having a hard time being objective, but perhaps it is possible to be objective and still be extremely impressed.
I recently had the privilege of taking a guided tour of the Yanagisawa factory in Tokyo, Japan. A person who I actually met right here on SOTW had come to visit me at my shop in New York City, and although I knew he worked for Yanagisawa before he came over, what I didn’t know was that he is Yanagisawa’s chief final assembly technician! His name is Hidemasa Sato, and over time and many emails we became friends. When I told him I was coming to Japan for vacation, he invited me to come visit the factory. Of course, I jumped at the chance.
First things first- this factory is small. I didn’t know much about the area where the factory is, so when I got out of the subway into a sleepy residential neighborhood I was surprised. Surprise turned to worry as I got closer and closer to the X on my map and saw nothing but houses and small restaurants and shops- until I heard the unmistakable sound of buffing and hammering wafting down the street.
I searched for a front door, but every door I opened went directly into a part of the factory. Turns out they don’t really have a front door! The factory is that small. I found Hidemasa and after introductions and a little catching up, the tour commenced.
I was simply blown away by how simple everything was. The factory has a couple of trusty old lathes and mills and drill presses, and almost every other tool in the factory (including mandrels, jigs, form tools…) is made on these manual machines. These tools are then used to make the saxophones. That’s it. No CNC machines, no huge presses, no robots or assembly lines or automated stamping machines. Just hands, tools, and metal. This alone rocked my assumptions about modern saxophone making to the core. To see that hand-making everything is still a viable option for non-boutique horns…. why isn’t everyone doing it this way??
As the tour wound on and I saw every tonehole being drawn by hand, every seam being hand-brazed, every post being hand turned and every spring hole being hand drilled, I came to realize what I had been seeing in Yani horns all of these years. People come into my shop and among many questions that are asked, one of the more popular is “What is the most well-made modern saxophone?” and my answer is always Yanagisawa. And the reason that Yanagisawa is my answer is because Yanagisawa is still making saxophones “like they used to”. Every saxophone is literally made by hand by skilled craftsman who take pride in their work. The same cannot be said for any other saxophone manufacturer. The world of CNC machines and automation has made its way into saxophone manufacture while the artistry and craftsmanship of the individual has given way, but this is not the case at Yanagisawa. Every worker rotates duties to prevent boredom and to increase skill, and by the time a worker eventually works his way up to assembly technician, they have years of experience in every facet of saxophone manufacture, from key fitting to buffing to lacquering to neck making to brazing to drilling springholes. Ever wonder why Yani padwork is so good out of the box? Perhaps because the technician who did the padwork can make a saxophone from scratch. THIS is the way saxophones should be made!
Regardless of whether you are a fan of the feel of the horns or the sound of Yanagisawa, one thing I firmly believe is that you will not find a better made modern horn anywhere.
I did get to see a couple of really cool things, including a solid 14k gold saxophone. Apparently they have made a few of these, but they must be special ordered and lets just say whoever buys them has some pretty deep pockets. However, it was easily the most beautiful saxophone I have ever seen, putting everything in my collection to shame. The engraving alone took over 90 hours!
I also saw a lot of their pink gold plated horns, which are stunningly beautiful. I haven’t seen any stateside yet, but if I can bother my higher-ups enough perhaps New York might have one or two in town sometime in the future.
With such a small factory hand-producing saxophones, the output is relatively small compared to the other modern saxophone makers, which sometimes leads to making Yanagisawas a little harder to find in the market, but I think if you are thinking of buying a modern horn, definitely go a little out of your way to make sure you try a Yani.