YOKOHAMA, Japan - If it weren't for the 14-hour flight to get here and the fact that the locals don't call them "hon," the musicians of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra might think they had never left home.
The focal point of this Japanese port city on Tokyo Bay is a super-sized Harborplace, where an elegant tall ship is among the tourist attractions. An enormous complex of malls, adorned on the exterior at one end by the unmistakable neon signage of a Hard Rock Cafe, includes the Gap, Eddie Bauer and a host of other familiar chain stores. There's even a dining establishment in the area boasting fresh crabs.
And, of course, it's just a short trip "downyoshun" from here.
Even without all the familiar touches, Yokohama has turned out to be a great place for the BSO to unwind before tonight's opening round of seven concerts in six cities in eight days - the orchestra's third trip to Japan since 1994.
The relief was palpable when the jet-lagged players reached this place and a hotel for which the term "first class" seems inadequate. The accommodations, which will be used as a base of operations for the first four nights of the tour, proved particularly rewarding after the orchestra spent more than an hour snaking through tightly compacted lines at customs upon landing in Tokyo.
Music director Yuri Temirkanov, who flew over on the same flight (fittingly in first class), inched right along with the rest of the gang as hordes of passengers from what must have been a fleet of 747s kept cramming into the waiting area.
"I've never, never seen anything like this here in all the times I've come to Japan," he said with a stoic shrug.
Temirkanov left for a Tokyo hotel where he frequently stays when touring with his other orchestra, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic; he'll be traveling and lodging with the BSO on other legs of this trip. As for his musicians in Yokohama, they have been adjusting their body clocks, starting to do some practicing on their instruments again, and taking in the sights.
Those sights along the pristine waterfront area are punctuated by Japan's tallest skyscraper, the 971-foot, 70-story Landmark Tower, and what is purported to be the world's tallest Ferris wheel, which slowly twirls 480 ooh-and-ahhh-ers at a time to a height of nearly 370 feet. Such vantage points can be capped, on a clear day, by views of the famed majesty of Mount Fuji to the west.
An easy walk from all the harbor action is Japan's largest Chinatown; an intersection on the way there offers the rather startling sound of an electronic signal that alerts pedestrians to the "walk" sign by playing the tune of "Comin' Through the Rye." Such jolts are not uncommon in Japan. They are especially pronounced when it comes to the adoption of foreign words. A popular electrolyte-recharging drink is called "Pocari Sweat"; the happy-hour crowd not far from the Yokohama Museum of Art can chug sake at a bar called Gaspanic.
I'm still not sure what to make of a restaurant emblazoned with a French flag, a Parisian-style awning and the name "Creperie" - that serves only traditional Japanese food.
The love of things Western extends beyond terms and phrases to embrace classical music, which is why so many top orchestras from the United States and Europe are regularly welcomed here. Four BSO members helped return that welcome yesterday by braving the language barrier to offer private lessons and master classes for musicians of the Fujisawa Junior Orchestra. A contingent from that ensemble visited Baltimore in May and performed with the Greater Baltimore Youth Orchestra (which visited Japan in 2001), an outgrowth of Maryland's sister cities program.
Oboist Joseph Turner coaxed 19-year-old Mai Takeguchi to open up more, to dig deeper into the phrases of Telemann and Mozart pieces. The young oboist responded quickly to each suggestion, even though she understood little of what Turner said; his gestures and occasional examples on his own oboe did the trick. Later, through a translator, she expressed delight with his advice.
"I have studied the same music with a Japanese teacher and an Italian teacher," Takeguchi said, "and both had completely different ideas. Mr. Turner made a good balance between them. He could understand how I want to play."
Turner wished her well on her entrance exams for a college of music in Tokyo.
"She's been extremely well-trained," he said. "She's very quick."
While the oboe class was going on, clarinetist Christopher Wolfe was tutoring another 19-year-old, and violinist Ivan Stefanovic coached two high-schoolers.
Then violinist Greg Mulligan arrived to guide three members of a young string quartet through a tricky movement of a mature Janacek score, joining in as a second violinist with them to complete the ensemble. He focused on details of vibrato and articulation, getting the players to provide more variety of tone and expression.
"I was very impressed with them," Mulligan said. "It's a difficult piece, especially for a young group."
Violinist Yuta Kato, 14, sounded appreciative, too.
"It was a really nice experience to have him play with us," he said afterward through a translator. "It made it so easy to make music."
When Stefanovic finished coaxing a more relaxed playing style out of a clearly gifted Kazuha Sato, he found out it was the violinist's 16th birthday.
"She gave me a present," Stefanovic said. "I told her I felt bad that I didn't bring her something, but she told me this class was my present [to her]. That was really nice."
The students will hear the BSO here on Sunday. Meanwhile, the orchestra is gearing up for tonight's opening concert of the tour, a 75-minute bus ride away in a Tokyo suburb called Tama.