The itinerary for our next two days in China was tightly packed, so the majority of the group members that were able to shake the jet lag considered themselves lucky.
The first day centred around a visit to the Hangzhou Yamaha Musical Instruments manufacturing facility, so we boarded the bus for a three-hour ride that offered an interesting look at what can accurately be called Chinese suburbia. The bus full of Canadians found it kind of funny when our guide, Cindy, told us that Hangzhou is considered a medium-sized city, with a population of “only” around 9 million people.
An interesting point of the day came when we pulled over to a rest station that had everything from McDonald’s and Starbucks to small fruit stands with an array of offerings that nobody had seen before.
We enjoyed lunch in the lobby of a hotel a few minutes away from the factory that specialized in Beijing duck. Once again, another special dining experience.
We arrived at the Yamaha factory and were warmly welcomed by the staff in addition to Mack and Mau from Yamaha Corporation Japan, who joined the group for the remainder of our time in China.
The Hangzhou factory is responsible for the production of Yamaha guitars – specifically those in the company’s entry-level through to its upper-mid-level range – as well as upright pianos, though this being a guitar- and drum-centric trip, we focused only on the former.
One of the first comments when we embarked on the factory tour was about the cleanliness and order of the factory, which our hosts were proud to hear as it’s one of their primary focuses.
The factory seemed like the antithesis of what we in North America might normally associate with “made in China.” The workers appeared very content, though were tightly focused on their work. Instead of seeing a large crowd of people working at the same station on the same aspect of manufacturing, the layout here was very diverse and spaced out, with people in the same stations seemingly working independently on different things.
Instead of sticking to the principles of assembly line efficiency, where each person is responsible only for a single and narrow component of production, these workers were trained in several areas, but only when their skills in one had reached a certain standard.
Watching them place the wood inlays and rosettes with incredible precision was very impressive. It’s also worth noting that even the base models were having their neck joints set by hand and are put together in a nearly identical fashion to the $1,000 CAD-plus models from the APX series and others.
We also had a look at the wood-drying facilities, with some of the lumber being naturally aged and some placed in the massive kiln.
There are 45 inspectors on the floor at any given time, working to ensure that quality control is maintained at virtually every stage of the process.
The factory is now outputting over 300,000 guitars per year – incredible – with 73% of that going to international markets and 27% remaining in China as domestic sales. Seeing first-hand the efficiency of this facility and its 2,000-plus workers, that figure is slightly less surprising.
Following the tour, the dealers were given an opportunity to ask questions and share their thoughts with some of the executives from the plant and Yamaha Japan.
After a few hours on our feet, we were back on the bus on route to an amusement park to take in a show about the history of Hangzhou. It was very Cirque du Soleil-esuqe (to frame it in a Canadian context), featuring elaborate fight scenes, incredible acrobatics and dance, and spectacular sound and lighting (though some guys’ ears were ringing a bit afterwards).
Word to the wise: avoid stinky tofu. (Yeah, that’s an actual thing.)
We had a late-night dinner at a Western-themed restaurant called Phantasy with very hip and trendy décor, though the soundtrack – including three plays of “Let It Go” from Frozen – left much to be desired. The meal, however, was outstanding, highlighted by a beautifully cooked steak that even had the Calgary-based boys raving.
The next morning, we headed to Xiaoshan Yamaha Musical Instruments for another factory visit, this one at the facility that assembles the entry- to mid-level brass and woodwind instruments and the majority of Yamaha’s percussion products, save for the very high-end kits.
We were welcomed with a short performance by an orchestra comprised of factory workers, and later learned this same group is often booked for public performance in the area.
This factory featured more automation than the last, particularly for the orchestral instruments, but the care and attention to detail exhibited by these workers matched that of the previous facility.
The drum-oriented among us were particularly impressed with what they saw, and had plenty of questions for our guides as the tour progressed.
Just Drums’ Dave Hamilton had a chance to put his eyes to the test when he was shown three pieces of wood that were painted and stained like a drum shell – one being the “light” extreme and one being the “dark” extreme of what would pass for colour consistency, and the third being the “test” piece. I’ll say that, from a few feet away, they looked almost indistinguishable, but Dave was able to correctly identify which was which (though even he seemed a bit relieved to hear it), again speaking to the stringent standards that these instruments have to meet to leave the factory with the Yamaha stamp.
Following another Q&A session, we were on our way to the Hangzhou airport. After saying goodbye to our guide, Cindy, we boarded the flight to Osaka, Japan, where we’d meet up with the three missing members of our group (Dave from Dave’s Drum Shop in Ottawa, Murat from Drummer’s Hangout in Aurora, and Yamaha Canada’s Doug Booth) and then set off to visit Kyoto, Hamamatsu (also known as Music City and the home base of Yamaha Corporation Japan), and Tokyo.