In 2016, Haruaki Saito quit his job as a violin repairman at a workshop in Tokyo and announced to his family that he was moving to Ireland. None of this information went down well. However, as Saito, now 34, explains — he had reached a breaking point.
“I had to change, because otherwise I would have died,” he offers as a simple explanation.
In that time of personal struggle, Saito turned to an area that had provided comfort, strength and hope for him: traditional Irish music, and the making and repairing of fiddles, an essential instrument of the genre.
When it comes to music, Saito is a bit of a black sheep in his family. His first instrument of choice was atypical.
“My family are not musical, but I started playing music when I was 15. A friend introduced me to the erhu, a Chinese traditional two-stringed instrument.”
The ehru and his friend, who was tinkering around on electronic music at the time, triggered what became a life-long interest in the vast and elastic universe of music.
In high school, Saito came across Irish music, via a compilation CD of “world music” that he picked up at a rental store.
“There was one track that was an Irish reel (dance) set, and I was really impressed by the track,” Saito recalls. “I just fell in love with traditional Irish music at that moment. I guess it was the rhythm that moved me.”
Following high school, Saito went to a technical college in Nagoya to learn how to make and repair violins. After graduating, he got a job repairing them at a Tokyo workshop where he stayed for almost 10 years, working on his craft and nursing hundreds of his favorite instrument back to full health.
In Tokyo, Saito also tried his hand at playing “trad music,” as the Irish music genre is called, taking up the fiddle himself. It was a struggle, and Saito says his bosses the workshop were “not very happy that I was more interested in trad than classical music.”
While his situation discouraged him, he continued to listen to trad music and eventually learned to play the button accordion.
“I think that was much more suitable for me than the fiddle. It was certainly more pleasurable to play, on my own or with friends,” he says. “Music, of course, was one of my primary reasons for moving to Ireland, I really wanted to learn genuine trad music. But also, I was kind of exhausted by life in Japan.”
Saito’s childhood, he explains, was a little different to most. He often withdrew from school, friends and society at large.
“I was actually a hikikomori (socially withdrawn). Then in junior high school I was a futoko (school refuser), and I didn’t go at all. It was so hard. So, so hard,” he says with emphasis. “When I was a hikikomori I didn’t like myself. I was the kind of odd one. Living in Japanese society, you have to do as others do, but I just couldn’t. I tried to pretend, but after 10 years of working, I was almost … exhausted. My body and mind were in a bad state at that time.”
Saito goes on to describe how, in the year before he quit work, he woke up one day to find he was unable to move. He was ferried to hospital by ambulance, but the doctors couldn’t diagnose the problem. The left side of his body was then paralyzed for several months.
It was during this time he made the difficult decision to change tack and do what he really wanted to do with his life, and that was when he announced to his family his intention to move to Ireland.
Saito had been to Ireland before. In 2015, he took his first trip there during the summer and spent a few weeks visiting Dublin, Galway and Cork, scouting out trad music sessions and fiddle makers. Following his hospitalization, he was determined to take a new path, one that would lead back to Ireland.
“I had a big argument with my dad. My parents are quite ordinary people, you know. They really wanted me to be a very ordinary person,” he recalls. “But since I was a hikikomori as a child, and then a futoko; and then I quit my job and next tell them I am moving to Ireland — naturally, they were concerned.”
But, Saito persevered with his intentions and emigrated to Ireland in the summer of 2016.
He moved to Cork, a city in the south of Ireland, after traveling across the country in search of violin workshops and dropping in on trad music sessions. In Cork, he apprenticed at Vegter Violins, run by brother and sister Hugo and Niamh Vegter — and he’s stayed put with them ever since.
For Saito, Vegter Violins offered a much friendlier working environment than the one he was used to in Tokyo. “Hugo (his boss) is both a friend and a colleague,” he says.
Being at the workshop has also been an ideal route into the trad community, as many of the musicians he regularly attends gigs to hear, and sometimes even play with, use bows and fiddles that he has serviced and repaired.
“I was so lucky to make friends with top-class musicians,” he says. “Being a violin maker in Cork has helped me to be part of their community, to make friends and have a strong bond with them.”
One of his favorite places to drop in on for a music session is The Corner House, a well-known and welcoming music spot not far from the violin workshop. “I think it’s the best pub in the world,” Saito says, laughing.
As for adjusting to life in Ireland, he says, “Everything is different, everything. I still have loads of difficulty living in Ireland. I have to get used to the food here. In Japan, everything is precise. But in Ireland, not really.”
He does, though, find some similarities between the countries.
“I kind of find that the Irish are a bit similar to Japanese. Irish people don’t really say what they think. After they leave, they’ll start complaining and criticizing,” Saito says with a laugh. “I think that’s kind of similar to Japan.”
In the future, Saito says he wants to try and get back to making fiddles as well as repairing them, but above all he wants to continue living life on his own terms.
“Since moving to Ireland the biggest thing I’ve learned isn’t about music or making violins, it’s about me,” he says. “I thought (while living in Japan) being odd was a very bad thing, but it can also be a strong point. (Knowing) this gives me a huge amount of self-confidence.”
And his parents? Now they are two of his his biggest supporters.
“They really cheer me on,” he says with a smile.
Name: Haruaki Saito
Profession: Violin maker and repairer
Key moments in career:
2007 — Graduates from technical academy of musical instruments in Nagoya and starts working in a violin shop in Tokyo
2014 — Takes up playing accordion
2015 — Visits Ireland first time
2016 — Quits job in Japan and moves to Ireland
2017 — Begins work at Vegter Violins in Cork, Ireland
Things I miss about Japan: “Definitely food. Fortunately there is a fine Japanese restaurant in Cork, however, I still miss Japanese cuisine. A lot.”
Words to live by: “You play with the cards you’re dealt” from “Peanuts” by Charles M. Schulz