Taking my Harpsicle Harp on a Plane to Tokyo

“Don’t, whatever you do, put your harp in the hold.”
The advice of pretty much every musician ever.

As both an expat and a harpist, my life choices have not exactly made things easy in terms of moving my stuff around. Once last year I did a gig as solely a vocalist and it was incredible. No faffing about with taxis, no desperate attempts to take my harp on public transport. I actually went to the pub afterwards and didn’t have to ask in Japanese if they have a back room where I can put my lever harp while I drank with the band. My old car made things a lot easier but I sold him to come to Japan. I also have a beautiful pedal harp being rented out 6000 miles from here that I pine for occasionally but getting her out here is next to impossible.

Taking my harpsicle on a plane though, would not be impossible. For those who don’t know, harpsicles are small harps that you can carry around with you, are often painted in fun colours and you can plug them in easily. I have one, it’s purple and I love it. I could think of so many uses for it in my Tokyo life – on stage with my metal band so I could perform standing, in my work as a Kindermusik teacher and any casual rehearsal where I could get away without the faff of moving my large lever harp.

On their website, Harpsicle® Harps describe how professionals have started using their harpsicles as their “travel harp,” “the one they can toss into the airline overhead while their big harp is trapped in a massive harp travel trunk.” So I was hopeful that I could take my harp on the plane with me on my flight from London Heathrow to Tokyo Haneda. I looked on some flight and music forums and found that people had had very mixed experiences taking their harpsicles on planes and I started to be more concerned. I really didn’t want to be in a situation where I had presumed that it would be allowed on with me and then be turned away at security – with the choice of either leaving my harp behind or chucking it into the hold with only a soft case (which is NOT an option at all).

So I called British Airways, gave them my harpsicle’s dimensions and asked if it could come with me in the cabin. The short answer was no and the long answer was no. I didn’t have a hard case as Harpsicle® Harps don’t make them and I didn’t wanted to spend the money required for a custom made case as it would probably cost more than the harp.

So my Dad and I set about making a cardboard construction to keep my baby harp safe in the hold.

First we wrapped the harp and its softcase in  4 layers of bubble wrap…
harpsicle harp bubble wrap plane

Then we constructed cardboard around the harp. Making it so it fit tightly around the irregular shape was harder than it looks. Again we used several layers for protection.

harpsicle harp cardboard plane tokyo

Finally we used a tonne of tape and then added fragile tape and a contents label in English and Japanese.

harpsicle harp tokyo fragile
The packing process took a little more than an hour. It did occur to me that if customs told me to unwrap this I would be royally screwed. Luckily, I got through with only a few odd looks and some questions. My real concern, however, was whether my harp would be damaged. Every musician I had chatted with had looked at me in horror when I had told them my intention of putting my harp in the hold. It took me 20 minutes and 3 papercuts to free my baby harp from it’s cardboard case but when I got it out it was undamaged and even mostly in tune. Victory.

It’s been really satisfying bringing my purple harpsicle to work and rehearsals this week and I recorded my first youtube video with it in years last weekend. It’s Galway Girl by Ed Sheeran and I’m not as ashamed of this as I should be.


My first performance in Tokyo at the Bio Ojiyan Cafe

bio 2Yesterday I took a step out of my comfort zone and performed for the first time in Tokyo! As it was my first performance in Japan as well as my first performance on my new lever harp (I’m trained as a pedal harpist but moving to Japan forced me to ‘downsize’) I was pretty nervous. I wanted to keep the location low key and so I was really pleased when I was asked to play at the Bio Ojiyan Cafe in Harajuku. This cute, trendy cafe has great food and a lovely atmosphere as well as being a generous host to art and music. Definitely worth a visit, there are also English speaking staff.

My boyfriend/harp slave being a saint as per.
My boyfriend/harp slave being a saint as per.

The journey there was a bit of an adventure. Harp covers are expensive and I am waiting until payday to buy one so we ‘used our initiative’ and made a makeshift cover out of sheets, plastic bags and our clothes line. It was a bit of a struggle getting it on the train without a trolley or a cover with handles but to be honest I’m enjoying the experience of an instrument that it is actually possible for me to carry, being used to my pedal harp that only just fitted in my old Vauxhall Vectra estate.

Despite it being forecast to rain, when we arrived at the cafe the weather was beautiful so the organisers suggested that we do the performance outside! I was pleased because it was almost like busking – something I enjoy but hardly get to do because of the physical limitations of the harp (aka. it would be impossible to hear it in a shopping street without some serious amplification). Yesterday’s performance had the accessibility and freedom of busking with the added benefit or Bio Ojiyan’s first rate sound system. And their free delicious coffees – I do enjoy my performer’s rights sometimes.

I was pretty nervous, mostly because of the language barrier when communicating with the organisers but performing with two great guitarists to a sunlight Harajuku back street and the patrons of a trendy cafe turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Fashionable Japanese shoppers and tourists alike stopped to listen, take photos and compliment us. Everyone was so nice to me that I quickly stopped feeling nervous. One of my highlights of the day was jamming with Saskia Thoelen – an amazing visual artist and jazz singer from Belgium. Saskia performed jazz standards with musicality and energy and, despite never having heard many of the songs I played before, managed to improvise some fantastic harmonies during my set. She has a gig at the Bio Ojiyan cafe on December 13 at 19.30 which I thoroughly encourage any Tokyoites to check out – I hope to see you there.

Photo credit: Takashi Inomata
Photo credit: Takashi Inomata
Saskia Thoelen about to drop some sick harmonies
Saskia Thoelen about to drop some sick harmonies

All in all I had a lovely time at the Bio Ojiyan cafe and I hope to come back soon. I feel like I’ve crossed a psychological boundary with my first gig in Tokyo and I plan to get stuck into more music making soon 🙂