Damian Iorio’s Japanese diary

Conductor Damian Iorio recently led a concert with Kyoto Symphony Orchestra. Here he shares his experience of performing and travelling in Japan with IAM

Day one: Today was the last day of my National Youth String Orchestra course, which involved a talk, workshop and short performance of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. I jumped in a taxi and, with no traffic on the M25, I was conveniently early for my flight … only to discover that it was delayed by 3 hours.

I eventually landed at Osaka Kansai airport at 9.30pm local time to be met by my Japanese agent. We drove 100km north to Kyoto and finally arrived at the hotel by 11.30pm, almost 24 hours after I had jumped in a taxi to Heathrow!

Day two: After a good night’s sleep I got up early to stretch – important after the long-haul flight. At 9.45am I met Kyoto Symphony Orchestra (KSO) chief conductor Junichi Hirokami, who accompanied me to the orchestra’s rehearsal studio, an old elementary school just outside of Kyoto’s centre.

After meeting various members of the management team, we ran through Resphigi’s Fountains of Rome. My first impressions of the orchestra were very positive; they made a lovely warm sound and are technically superb, allowing us to talk in great detail about the music. By the end of the rehearsal the jet lag kicked in, so I had a quick nap at the hotel before heading out for my first plate of sushi and a couple of glasses of sake. Afterwards, I had a pleasant walk around the area and saw my first Japanese cherry blossoms.

Day three: Got up early to study my score for Boris Godunov, which I’ll be performing this summer in Paris. At breakfast, I tried Japanese amazake – a drink made from fermented rice – before getting a taxi to the rehearsal studio (I loved how the driver pressed a button and the door opens automatically). On my return to the hotel, I had another nap, and following more score study I ventured out for dinner. I tried a dish of burnt soy ramen and afterwards explored the Gion district, as I had seen nothing of the city yet. This was the first time I was among the many tourists that visit Kyoto in the spring. I caught sight of a Geisha crossing the main road; an unexpected sight, and a very brief glimpse of ancient Japanese culture!


Day four: Today was the first rehearsal in the Kyoto Concert Hall, a well-designed space with an excellent acoustic. My most pressing task was balancing the extra brass, offstage trumpet, mandolin and organ (Respighi brought in extra instruments for these majestic orchestral pieces).

I spent some of the rehearsal offstage, walking around the auditorium to check the sound. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and I should have gone for a walk afterwards, but unfortunately work beckoned, and I spent the rest of the day holed up in my hotel writing emails, booking flights and trying to study.


Day five: Unbelievably, I slept until 1pm – 10 hours in total! When I got over the shock (and that my clock wasn’t wrong), I realised that my morning plans were out of the window. Instead, I prepared for the concert, ran to a local café for a massive lunch and left for the concert hall. After a few last-minute balance checks, I conducted a pre-concert talk with the help of an interpreter.

The concert itself was wonderful: the hall was packed and the orchestra sounded magnificent. Afterwards I was astonished by a queue of fans waiting backstage for autographs, many with my recent Naxos releases to hand. I spent awhile signing CDs and chatting.

Day six: It was rather a late night after the concert, and the sake had flowed rather abundantly (!), so I had a slow morning packing and checking out of the hotel. I now had time to explore this beautiful city; I walked over to the eastern part of Kyoto and visited the Kiyamizu and Chion-in Buddhist temples. However, it wasn’t as peaceful as I had hoped due to a number of tourists milling about. I settled at the lovely, lesser-known Shoren-in temple, which was much more relaxing where I had some matcha tea and sweets from a nearby cafe.


Day seven: I took the train west of Kyoto to Arashiyama to see its famous bamboo forest. The tall bamboos were lovely, and I wandered through the beautiful gardens of the Tenryu-ji temple. After lunch, I took the scenic railway (called the ‘romantic train’ in Japanese) along the river to Kameoka Torokko station.

Day eight: Good weather today, so I rented a bike and rode up into the mountains north of Kyoto. I travelled further into the forest and started climbing towards Kurama. I had decided to take the pass over the top of Amagadake to Monmoi; the road was very steep and at times had to walk, but I got there in the end and started the descent past Monmoi towards the main road back to Kyoto. On the way down I visited the hidden Kochidani Amida temple, in complete solitude apart from a single Buddhist monk.


Day nine: I spent the morning preparing for my next concert with the Milton Keynes City Orchestra on Friday 20 April. After picking up some rice with salted plum from a roadside stall, I took the bus to the Kyoto Handicraft Centre where I bought various souvenirs. It was wonderful walking through the narrow streets of the area, enjoying the everyday life around me – mostly children returning from school.

Damian Iorio is music director of Milton Keynes City Orchestra and has worked with ensembles including BBC Symphony, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Orchestre National de Belgique and Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne. 

damianiorio.com | kyoto-symphony.jp