As the lights dim in the sleek common area of Taipei’s Star Hostel, guests crowd around Hang Kashiwamesmerized by the soothing, resonant tone of his hand pan — an instrument that has only existed since the end of the 2000s.
The 40-year-old Chiba-based musician is in Taiwan for six months, where he will take to the streets to perform and sell his original music CDs, gaining more fans, friends and collaborations along the way.
This travel and performance lifestyle wasn’t always what he had in mind.
“The handpan was not my dream, I just wanted to quit my job”, he says Metropolis. “That dream of being a handpan artist came later. Originally, I wanted to be an architect and open my own architecture office.
“I was an architect for 10 years. I worked for small and large construction companies because I wanted to gain a lot of design experience. After seven years, I was able to obtain a license, and it took me three years of experience to open my own office, so I started working in a small architectural study office.
“The office was always very busy, so I couldn’t sleep much. I always took the last train and sometimes I had to sleep in the office. There weren’t many staff, but there were plenty of jobs and there was always another deadline.
“This way of life is not healthy — not just for the body, but for the mind. Gradually, my mental and physical health suffered. I was always tired, always sleepy. Eventually, I collapsed on my desk at work.
“It’s hard work, but this way of life is pretty normal in Japan. There are always so many people on the train in the morning, and almost everyone comes home late. This lifestyle is “live to work”. I wanted to escape it.
A great street artist takes you into his world and for a moment, the stress of everyday life melts away. For most, the experience is powerful, but fleeting — a welcome detour on the way to a meeting with friends or on your way to run an errand. For Kashiwa, it was something much bigger.
“I saw a musician playing guitar and singing in front of Kashiwa Station, Chiba. It was really pleasing to my heart, it was really touching. He was not a professional, he was an employee who had quit his job. His dream was to become a musician, so he worked part-time every day and after work he came to the station to perform. It was really interesting for me.”
At the end of 2016, Kashiwa left his position in the architecture office and changed his name, signifying the start of a whole new life. “I had no musical experience and my singing isn’t good,” he admits, “so I thought maybe an instrument would be best for me.”
He decided to buy a handpan and travel to Taiwan. “I didn’t have a passport, so I applied for one and had to wait two weeks. That gave me two weeks to practice, so I started making sounds in Kashiwa City. My playing wasn’t good back then, I was just making sounds, but it was really comforting for me, hearing beautiful sounds was really good for my mind.
Freedom and connection
In addition to performing and composing, Kashiwa also teaches handpan, creates videos, and maintains a travel journal which he writes in Japanese and English. This year he has started doing covers of traditional Japanese songs which he hopes will introduce new listeners to the hand pan.
“The best part is that I can decide everything. If I want to go to Taiwan, I can go to Taiwan. If I want to do this job, I can do it. If I want to refuse, I can refuse. Handpan is great because there is no need for language, so if I go to another country and play, everyone can feel something. Sometimes I do a live show in exchange for housing — I make music, they prepare a bed for me.
“Two weeks ago, I took a trip to Aichi, Ehime and Kochi prefectures. I met another handpan player, we had a session and had dinner together. We have a network of handpan friends everywhere. Working in an office, there’s no conversation, you just do your job, so it’s the complete opposite of my old life.
Kashiwa offers a certain wisdom, a testament to the age-old saying that all great journeys begin with one step. “I tried to play handpan in the street. I thought maybe I could be a musician. If I try, it’ll open doors, or it won’t — I’ll know soon, but not trying is nothing, nothing changes. Really simple.