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Silk strings   /   Qin as object   /   Distributed in China by Juntian Fang 首頁
Marusan Hashimoto guqin strings
Silk strings from Japan 1
丸三桥本古琴絃
(丸三橋本 Wansanqiaoben) 2
  The coiled first string from a set by Marusan Hashimoto 3   
Marusan Hashimoto is a family-owned string making company on the east side of Lake Biwa in Japan. According to a flier that comes with their qin strings,4 Marusan Hashimoto was formed in 1908 to make strings for a variety of traditional Japanese musical instruments, and they are now one of the three leading Japanese companies making silk strings for Japanese instruments, koto, samisen and biwa in particular.

Marusan Hashimoto only recently began making strings for guqin, advertising them as "蚕丝冰弦 ice silk strings". Although "ice strings" may not be strictly accurate, the strings certainly are very smooth and easy to use.5 In making them they have the China market in mind; in this regard as of March 2014 they were being distributed in China (plus Hong Kong and Taiwan?) by Wang Peng under his own company name Juntian Fang (strings page).6

As of 2014 there seem to be two ways to get the strings sold by Marusan Hashimoto under their own name:

In September 2013 Marusan Hashimoto sent me a complimentary set, which I immediately tried; I then visited their factory on 10 October. My host there was 桥本英宗 Hashimoto Hidekazu, the fifth generation of Hashimotos directing the company. It was apparently his idea to experiment with silk strings for non-Japanese instruments (they have also made some for Korean kayagum as well as for other Chinese instruments). While doing research for qin strings he was able to visit the Shoso-In and see up close the strings they have stored together with their Tang dynasty guqin (q.v.). He said that the Shoso-In itself is not sure of the age of the strings in their collection.

After a tour of the factory we discussed briefly the manufacture and the source of the silk. The silk is all local, he said, crediting the strength of their strings to the high sericin content of the original fiber from the silkworms, which are from a nearby prefecture, as well as to the purity of the local water, in which the cocoons must be boiled. For their qin strings they developed their own spinning techniques, though apparently with some advice from China. However, they do not cook the strings in any of the glues known to have been used in China; instead they use only glue made from "sweet rice" (rice with a high gluten content). Likewise, to preserve and restore these strings one should use glue made from rice cakes (further below).

Evaluation of the Marusan Hashimoto strings (August 2014)

In July 2014 Marusan Hashimoto sent me two more sets of strings for evaluation, one called "Normal", the other "More thick". The following comments are based largely on having used my original set for about ten months. In addition, I have strung several more qin with identical sets, and have now strung two more qins with the two new sets.

On 24 September 2013 I put my set of Marusan Hashimoto silk strings on a qin made by Tong Kin-Woon. At first I tuned the qin based on the first (lowest string) having a pitch of just over 100 Hz, i.e., near Western concert pitch G sharp (see pitch data) and three days later made three trial recordings. A week later I tuned the strings up so that the first string was about B flat, similar to what I normally use (the metal string conservatory standard is to tune it to C). My initial reaction is very positive, but it should be emphasized that, not only are silk strings for qin supposed to last for years, they are said not to be at their best until after considerable use, perhaps some months, perhaps longer. I do not know if this has always been the case: so far it does seem to be true here, but for the time being when recording with these strings I do not use as much left hand vibrato as I might otherwise.

On 5 October 2013 I re-did the three recordings mentioned above and added a fourth (all with the first string tuned to B flat). These four recordings can be heard via the following links:

  1. Yu Qiao Wenda (Dialogue between a Fisherman and Woodcutter)
  2. Oulu Wang Ji (No Ulterior Motives Regarding Seabirds)
  3. Wuye Wu Qiufeng (Leaves Dance in an Autumn Breeze)
  4. Chun Gui Yuan (Leaves Dance in an Autumn Breeze)

Soon after this made recordings of Huai Gu Yin comparing the sound on five different qin with five different sets of strings, including the MH strings (details).

After several months of play the Marusan Hashimoto strings became considerably smoother, similar to my well-used Taigu strings but seemingly stronger. Specifically, it seems easier to tune them higher, and the shredding problem seems to be less.

Nevertheless, the MH strings can still experience shredding. With my first set there was some shredding to the wrapping in the plucking area on the lower four strings after several months of play, but there was no problem with the rest of the string. With the Taigu strings the wrapping on the strings is prone to break anywhere; as a result Taigu recommends that one should regularly apply glue to the whole string. With the MH strings this seemed necessary only in the part of the wrapped strings where they are plucked. Following a logic that says it is best to preserve and restore strings using the same glues as were originally infused into the strings, for MH strings rice glue is recommended (e.g, not substances such as baiji, used on Chinese strings). For this MH has recommended a glue made from mochi.7 (I do not yet know how how the new MH strings with reinforced mesh fare in this regard.)

Other specific comments I can make now include the following: Original packaging (expand; see text)      

  1. In contrast to the Tobaya strings, the lower strings on the Marusan Hashimoto sets are in fact mesh wrapped like Chinese strings. In the image at right, showing the original packaging (the image at top more accurately reflects their color), they are the four strings marked "small opening" (細口 xikou, normally referring to a small hole in a jar or pot - or the bore/hole on a wind instrument; I do not know the significance here). This mesh indicates that the MH strings are more specifically designed for the guqin than are the Tobaya strings.
  2. The strings (as with the Tobaya strings) seem quite smooth, though not (yet?) quite like "ice strings". The sound when sliding the fingers on the wrapped strings, though at first more than I would like, has become much smoother with use. (Someone who has played only with nylon-metal strings would still need to make adjustments when playing with these.)
  3. The strings feel durable: no cracking of the glue in the strings when the string is bent. In this regard, with all new strings from China one is advised to periodically re-apply glue; as suggested above, with MH strings this may be necessary only in the area where the lower fourth strings (those with the mesh) are plucked.
  4. The tone is bright and clear, even for the thick lowest string. In fact, the strings still sound good (more mellow) when tuned down so that the first string is 440 Hz. As with other silk strings the sound does seem to be mellowing with age.
  5. Once installed on my qin the wrapping on the lower four strings of the original set sent me extended about 20 cm beyond the end of the qin top; this is about the same as or perhaps a little more than with available qin strings made in China. With the second set sent to me they extended 24-28 cm beyond the end (according to my recollection this was also the case with earlier strings). This is a significant improvement. If a string always breaks by the bridge, as they normally do, with 20 extra cm it can be retied and continue in use for perhaps two or three such breaks. If the shredding in the plucking area has become so bad that the string should be cut and retied, with 20 cm you will be lucky if this can be done twice. With 28 cm it can certainly be done twice or perhaps even three times.
  6. The gauges of all the MH strings produced through 2014 have had a bigger spread than those of the Chinese sets with which I am familiar: the thickest first string, at 1.83 mm, is almost as thick as the thickest Chinese strings I have seen, while the seventh string, at .80 mm, is only a little thicker than on the thinnest Chinese sets. The chart here shows, in mm, the gauges of the three sets of Marusan Hashimoto strings I have tried so far, with the dates the strings were sent to me:

        original
    Nov 2013
    "normal"
    Jul 2014
    "more thick"
      Jul 2014
     
        01.80   01.83     01.80  
        01.50   01.55     01.60  
        01.25   01.30     01.37  
        01.14   01.20     01.20  
        01.05   01.04     01.12  
        00.90   00.90     00.93  
        00.80   00.80     00.80  

    Marusan Hashimoto says that the 2014 strings have a stengthened wrapping gauze.

    The reason for the original wide range may have been to allow the MH strings to be tuned in such a way that the tension was the same for each string when using standard tuning - the pitch was then determined solely by the gauge (though the wrapped strings should also be more dense, otherwise they would be even thicker).8 To my knowledge no Chinese string sets of recent manufacture have had this sort of range; perhaps this results from a belief that some instruments sound better with thin strings, others with thick. MH say they plan in future to have strings in three sets of thicknesses but, as it is now, the wider differences in gauge do seem to help increase the variety of sound available from my qin. It makes me think the ideal would be for strings to be readily available individually instead of only in sets.

  7. As with qin strings made in China string length is about 230mm and there is one extra seventh string.

While visiting the Marusan Hashimoto factory I also tried their strings on two qins they have there, one a cheap instrument, bought in Japan for about US$400 (the kind that uses some chemical lacquer like polyurethane instead of real lacquer), the other a Wang Peng qin. What surprised me most was that the cheap qin actually sounded good enough that I might even recommend such an instrument for a beginner. The few times I have tried similarly cheap qins with the cheap silk strings it has been my impression that the most important factor in making that combination acceptable for a beginner is that the qin be light in weight. Although the sound is not rich, it is loud enough to hear easily and still richer in sound than that of much more expensive metal string qins.

The Marusan Hashimoto strings have also come with a brief note (in English) saying "silk string's durability is not good compared to steel strings. Be careful when handling. Please do not touch with wet hands." In fact, the durability of the MH strings seems to be at least as strong as that of Chinese silk strings, so in future they should really revise this statement to say something like, "Care for silk strings is different from that for metal strings: silk strings should not be tuned as high, and the player's hands should always be both clean and dry."

For both Tobaya and Marusan Hashimoto making silk strings for guqin seems to be a spinoff from the silk strings they make for traditional Japanese instruments.

 
Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Marusan Hashimoto
Their website includes both an English section and a Chinese section. Their full address is:

Kinamoto, Nagahama-shi, Shiga-ken,
〒529-0425 滋賀県伊香郡木之本町木之本1049番地

The director, Hidekazu Hashimoto, can also be contacted via Facebook.
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2. 丸三橋本 Wansanqiaoben
"Wansanqiaoben" is the mandarin Chinese pronunciation of the Chinese characters (kanji) for "Marusan Hashimoto". Sometimes the kanji for the company Marusan Hashimoto seems to be shortened to 丸三橋; I do not know the reason for this.
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3. Image: Marusan Hashimoto silk strings
Taken with my digital camera, which was not designed for such close ups.
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4. Two fliers with the strings The English and Chinese are different      
Regarding the English flier's comment on durability, see above. The Chinese discusses the history of the company, saying that they were founded in 1908, adding that they are now the most famous such company, making over 400 types (including similar types of different gauages?) of strings for such instruments as samisen, koto and kokin (huqin). All are made by hand. There are further details on the English and a Chinese pages of their website.
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5. MH strings sold by Juntian Fang
They are called 鈞天絲絃 Juntian Sixian and are sold in what looks like a wooden box. No price seems to be mentioned on their site but at Rushi Shanfang in Beijing (which did not stock them) I was told the price was 1,800 yuan/set. MH say they are still selling the strings separately, especially outside of China, Hong Kong and Taiwan (I am not sure about mail orders), but they should "be a little different" from those they sell through Juntian Fang (I recently saw them on Taobao for 1,450 RMB [about US$235] or higher).
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6. Smoothness of MH strings
The Marusan Hashimoto strings, though smoother than standard Chinese silk strings available at present, still require a breaking in period - they improve significantly after a month of regular use (see also Breaking in new silk strings).
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7. Making glue from 餅 mochi and applying this to Japanese qin strings
In modern Chinese 餅 bǐng refers to various flat breads, often made of wheat instead of rice; in Japanese "mochi" often refers to a type of Japanese sweet, but the word by itself refers to glutinous rice that has been cooked then pounded into a mass; this is then used to make the rice skin in which the sweet paste is wrapped.

Hashimoto Hidekazu, manager of Marusan Hashimoto, gave the following information about making glue from mochi then applying it to qin strings (based on translation by Yuni Han; compare strings made in China):

After cooking our special rice in the purest water we have available we pound it in the traditional way, with mortar and pestle, until it becomes a glutinous mass ("mochi"). However, if one is making a small amount of glue, to be applied thinly to only a short length of string, one can make this pure mochi by putting any good quality glutinous rice into a modern "mochi machine" or even, after some preliminary pounding of the cooked rice, in a bread machine. To preserve this mochi it should be dried into strips of "かき餅 kaki-mochi); one can also use commercially available raw nama mochi (translator's comment: these 生餅, also called "mochi squares", may include other substances that make them less preferable). These kinds of mochi can then later be melted in order to make the glue. However, you should only make as much as you are going to use, as the moist glue will easily become moldy.

As for the melting, take a small piece of mochi and put in water for perhaps a day, until it softens. When soft enough, cook it at a high temperature with just enough water - not enough water and it will be too thick and so will not feel smooth to the hand; too much water and it will be too diluted. When cooking you must stir constantly so that the pot does not get burned at the bottom. When you scoop it with a ladle it should have solid consistency and not be soupy.

At the correct temperature (slightly warmer than body temperature, or ~30-40°C) the glue should penetrate easily, but at too high a temperature (over 80°) the existing wrapping may change its shape.

Mochi being a natural product, you can apply it directly by finger; after it is applied you may then wipe off excess from the string using a wet towel. Now leave it to dry fully, otherwise it will be sticky.

(Charles Tsua earlier advised using a rice paste glue made by mixing rice powder in water: bring to boil, then simmer for 10 minutes, continuously stirring until gloopy; let cool then apply. Based on the comment from "MH", "let cool" means apply it when it has cooled to just above body temperature.)
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8. Tension of the MH strings
There seems to be some comment on this on the Chinese language page of the MH website (see under 丸三桥本古琴丝弦的特点…").
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