Natsu Miyashita’s novel “The Forest of Wool and Steel” opens with nature: “the scent of the forest close by … the earthy fragrance of autumn.” Yet the narrator, 17-year-old Naoki Tomura, is not describing some forgotten grove, but instead his first experience with piano tuning inside a musty high school gymnasium in rural Hokkaido.
This unexpected juxtaposition of nature and music is a deliberate motif throughout the novel, as the wool and steel piano keys of the title foretell. It’s a personal reflection of Miyashita’s own life experiences that resonated widely with Japanese audiences, earning her both a nomination for the Naoki Prize and the 2016 Japan Booksellers’ Award. A movie adaptation of the novel followed in 2018.
The novel debuted in English on April 25, following translations into several other languages including Korean, simplified Chinese, Italian and French.
“I didn’t have high expectations when the original Japanese version came out,” says Miyashita, admitting she was surprised by the book’s success. “I thought that people who liked this kind of novel would read it, so I was pleasantly surprised and encouraged when it was so well received.”
Her narrative follows the young Tomura as he learns the skills of piano tuning in a small Hokkaido mountain town. Tomura’s steady learning of the art beats out the plot rhythm, and his interactions with both the coworkers acting as mentors and the clients who become friends adds to the harmony.
Miyashita has played the piano since she was a child, but the connection to nature came as an adult, when she moved with her husband and children to the remote mountain village of Tomuraushi in Hokkaido for a year. Tomuraushi (which translates to “place with many flowers” in the Ainu language) lies within Daisetsuzan National Park, and the experience of settling there had a profound impact on Miyashita’s life and writing.
“While I was living in Tomuraushi, I was overwhelmed by nature’s splendor, an almost too-beautiful- for-words kind of majesty,” says Miyashita. “I had felt the same way about music as a child, and I thought how great it would be if I could write something that would interweave the two. Somehow, this novel is the result.”
Tomura’s life unfolds slowly, a quiet layering of moments. From the carefully constructed, episodic chapters, where a lesson is learned or wisdom imparted, to the writing style, where Miyashita’s deceptive simplicity of language resonates with multiple meanings and deep beliefs, there is a hushed beauty about Tomura’s growth as a young idealist, learning a skilled vocation.
“A piano tuner came to our house regularly when I was growing up and I loved to watch him work. I didn’t know how to tune a piano, but I studied so I could write this novel. I talked to many piano tuners and they were all fascinating people — not only did they have great tuning skills, but they loved the piano and music as well. I found out what a wonderful vocation it is and wanted to write more and more about it.”
The reader, alongside Tomura, gradually appreciates the difference between making a living and “making a life.” Philip Gabriel, acclaimed translator of Haruki Murakami and Kenzaburo Oe, deftly captures Miyashita’s intentions, and the resulting work reads with a simple, measured beauty in English.
Divided into five sections, each chapter’s lesson transcends music or nature to reveal simple advice, from “Achieve a Sense of Harmony” to “Surrender to the Wind.” The very act of reading becomes meditative, a steady contemplation of a single life, like being mesmerized by falling snow in the blanketed silence of winter.
“We’re living in a busy, chaotic state,” Miyashita says, “so I was a bit worried that people wouldn’t relate to the novel. But I wanted to write something that I myself would want to read, so in the end I decided that there were others out there who felt the same way.”
Miyashita studied philosophy at university, but she laughs at the idea of including any specific philosophical tenets, saying, “I’m still learning philosophy myself.” For her, capturing the slow growth of one individual as he matures within his chosen career was the primary aim. As she explains, “Rather than purposely trying to include wisdom, I was searching for it as I wrote, alongside Tomura’s search for guidance. So if I succeeded in including some ‘moments of wisdom’ in the novel it makes me very happy.”
Tomura’s journey is guided by many secondary characters, from his growing friendship with a pair of young twin sisters — high school students who both play the piano — to his tutelage under the veteran tuners at Eto Music Shop, where he works.
Hokkaido’s glorious nature is another important source of growth, as Tomura constantly uses his upbringing in the forests of Hokkaido as a metaphor for music: “The gods of my world then were the trees, the leaves, the berries, the soil. But now it was sound that guided me.”
“The Forest of Wool and Steel” is a mesmerizing reading experience, a slow journey in how one young person renders an occupation into a vocation, striking a chord with all of us seeking a meaningful life.