Food for Thought

Zen in your Garden

A gardening workshop for mind, body and soul…

The home of Alfred Hosokawa is much like its owner—compact, pestilence with a quiet charm and rustic attraction.  The house sits modestly overlooking a small piece of garden, cheap yet it hides a treasure trove.

Behind the house is Hosokawa’s workshop and entering it is like walking into another time—inside, story there is nothing made of plastic, nothing glowing and bleeping.  The walls and posts are warm, brown unfinished lumber and the small space is filled with tools of all manner.  Some are recognizable—woodworking tools, augers of differing widths, screwdrivers and chisels—while others look like art sculptures; a wooden arm with a stone wired on top of it, for instance.  Three instruments gleam among the supplies of raw wood and wooden tools on the shelves, their bodies shining, their shapes inviting touch.  These are some of the treasures wrought by Hosokawa in creating his hand-made guitars.

“I had to invent lots of machines and tools for myself once I started making musical instruments,” explains Hosokawa with a smile. “Once I took a trip across Canada with a backpack, and I think I stopped at every secondhand store across the country, looking for old woodworking tools.  They were hard to come by then.  There has been a revival of Luthiers (instrument makers) in recent years, but back then, I had to be creative.”

There is now a school in Qualicum—the Summit School of Guitar Building—which has been in existence for about 15 years, that inspiring Luthiers may attend to learn the ancient art of guitar making.

Hosokawa built his first guitar in 1972; it took him six months to complete. “I’d grown up around woodworking,“ he says.  “My dad was a boat builder and I’d worked with him as a teenager, so I was quite accustomed to using my hands and had always enjoyed it.”

The Hosokawa family grew up in Salmon Arm.  But the family—although all had been born in Canada and Hosokawa’s grandfather had fought with the Canadian Infantry in the First World War—was forcibly moved from their home by the Canadian Government when all people of Japanese ancestry were forbidden to live on the coast.  The government’s rationale was that Japanese-Canadians might assist Japan in an invasion of Canada after Japan dropped bombs on Pearl Harbor during the Second World War, destroying much of the American fleet.  It is only within the last 10 years that Japanese people have been compensated for the homes and businesses the government seized at that time.

Hosokawa and his parents eventually made their way back to Salmon Arm.  “My parents liked it in Salmon Arm and stayed there.  I was a child when we were expatriated, so to me it was home,” Hosokawa says simply.

Despite the turmoil of being uprooted from his home, Hosokawa had a happy childhood.  “It was a farming community, and I spent a lot of time working on ranches with animals, haying—one of our neighborhood friends had a ranch with cattle and I worked there quite a bit.”

He began playing guitar when he was 15.  “Actually, all my brothers and sisters—12 of us in total—enjoy music and when we get together we still sing and play.  I remember sitting around bonfires as a child and my older brothers playing guitar.”

A dyed-in-the-wool BC boy, Hosokawa spent his working life moving around, part of the boom of the seemingly never-ending supply of natural resources.  He worked in the woods, as a logger, in pulp mills, sawmills, fishing and more.  When he did begin making instruments, Hosokawa followed every lead he could to meet other instrument makers, learning from them and exchanging ideas.  “There were no schools back then, like there is now where you can go and learn the skills to make instruments, so it took a lot longer to amass the knowledge necessary to make instruments.”

Hosokawa smiles and gives a shrug, adding:  “When it’s your passion, though, you don’t care.

“I think I must have read every book there was on the subject to get ideas and information, some of the tricks of the trade.  It’s funny though, lots of the people who wrote them weren’t very good builders, so I got a lot of misinformation as well.”

Hosokawa worked from books and experimentation, mostly on his own, until he began working in Vancouver and Victoria in the 1970s.  “I remember working at Bill Lewis Music, a shop in Vancouver.  I was making speaker cabinets there for a while and I saw all these people in the back building instruments.  There was another guitar shop up on 10th Avenue and there were people building there, too.  Ray Nurse, Michael Dunn—they were the established builders of the time, and Anton Smith, a lute builder.  I talked to him for a long time and, you know, I got a lot of information in that one talk.  He really got me going.”

He found more established builders to draw from in Victoria too.  “I set up a shop with two others and we were making dulcimers, violins, guitars—everything you could think of.”

He smiles, remembering a fellow builder who worked near his shop.  “There was an old guy just round the corner, and he was building huge organs for churches—that was his job.  He came round and talked to us and lots of people were taking him guitars to get fixed, and he didn’t really know about that.  He was building these big organs with long metal tubes for churches—of which there were many—and they all had wonderful organs.”

Despite his knowledge, Hosokawa has no desire to write a book of his own.  “There’s too many out there now, and I’d much rather personally teach someone.  I tell people who’re interested, ‘Set up your own shop, then come and see me.’  I thoroughly enjoy helping other makers, but I don’t really have the space for another person in my shop—it’s too small,” he says, looking around at his compact and efficient workplace, which was, after all, a garage built for one car back in the days of modest thinking and consumption.  “That’s basically how I learned too.  I set up my workshop and brought the information back there.”

Criss-crossing BC while working, Hosokawa was playing in bands too.  His early leanings were toward country music—he is a big Johnny Cash fan—and gradually rock n’ roll and blues became integrated into his repertoire.  Hosokawa formed his own band in Canoe, just outside Salmon Arm, after playing in Port Alberni with his first band.  He had moved to Port Alberni when he was 16 years old in 1957.

“I was always good at picking up melodies and we played music by the Venturas and The Fire Balls, old rock n’ roll, and I played lead guitar on an electric.  Of course,” he quips, “it wasn’t my job.  I was still doing bull work.”

When an accident at work in the local sawmill damaged his fingers in 1967, Hosokawa stopped playing guitar altogether.  It’s only in the last 10 years that he’s picked up a guitar again to play.

Where the inspiration to build a guitar came from is still a puzzlement to Hosokawa.  “I was listening to a lot of classical guitar players when I lived in Victoria, like Julian Bream, and actually, flamenco guitar had been an integral part of my life.  My dad used to take us to the movies as kids, and there were lots of westerns with a Mexican theme showing then.  Invariably ‘Rosa’s Cantina’ would be played and there was lots of Spanish-influenced music in the background; without my realizing it, flamenco-style guitar playing just seeped into my consciousness.”

Once he did start building himself, he made a huge variety of stringed instruments—dulcimers, mandolins and hurdy-gurdies, as well as guitars.  In fact the hurdy-gurdy that he built in 1973 is one of his favorite instrument-building projects.  An instrument widely played in earlier times by travelling street musicians in the 1600s and 1700s, the hurdy-gurdy has a wheel that turns by means of a little handle.  The wheel scrapes against strings, making a continuous sound, and the player fingers a keyboard to change the note.  Often they were built with a central leg to stand on, sometimes a three-legged version, and most of us have seen drawings of a hurdy-gurdy man with a little monkey on his shoulder.

“A street musician bought it in Vancouver, so lots of people saw it and were intrigued and wanted one.  I’d been reading a lot about baroque instruments and there was quite a craze for them for a while.  I think that was the first hurdy-gurdy built in Canada, then people began building them back east and so on,” Hosokawa says.

In 1980 Hosokawa and his wife Cindy moved to Denman Island, where he began to get a lot of orders for guitars.  To concentrate on this niche, he stopped making other instruments.  “By then, I’d built about 80 instruments, but I’ve stopped counting now,” he says.  “I really just want to build.  I’m not bothered about keeping account of all I do, how much it costs and so on.  I just like to build instruments.  I would build something and then another musician would hear it and want to buy it, so I’d sell that one, and start on another.  I never set out to become an instrument-maker in a professional way, it just slowly grew and grew over the years, and then I began to take it more seriously.  It wasn’t until I moved to Denman that I became a full-time instrument maker though, and could afford not to do other things.”

In the time that followed, the Hosokawa family was increased by three children—Tana, Naomi and Toshi.  “None of my children play music though, their passions are more travelling,” Hosokawa says.  “My oldest boy Tana went to Japan and was the first of our family to re-connect with our Japanese ancestry.  I’d never felt any connection to the culture or music of Japan; I was strictly a BC boy, really.”

Valley musicians are extremely grateful for that fact.  Many of the musicians who perform both here and abroad are thrilled to have a Hoss (as Hosokawa’s guitars are known) to accompany their voices and song-writing.  Each one is hand-built and unique.  The wood comes from a variety of sources, with local woods featuring strongly.  “Each kind of wood gives a different quality to the sound,” Hosokawa says.

Hoss guitars are now spread across Canada, as well as in Europe and the United States.

“It’s all word of mouth,” he says.  “Having lived in the Valley for 20 years, I’m pretty well established as an instrument maker, and people just turn up or phone, asking for a guitar.”  He pauses for a moment before continuing in a reflective tone.  “I like the music world.  Someone comes by to talk to me about a repair, or a new instrument, and I’m working here at the bench.  They just sit down and begin playing a song or a tune.  I enjoy them all, from beginners to professionals.”

Hosokawa laugh as he adds, “It’s pretty much my social life now.  I do lots of repairs because I don’t like to turn people away; and I don’t go out much.”  He does occasionally turn up at the weekly jam at the Backdoor Pub in Royston, held on Sunday afternoons.

Three finished guitars on display in his shop are all different, and each has a special feature that shows Hosokawa’s innate creativity and delight in simple beauty.  One has a scroll top on the neck, giving it a baroque-look; another has inlayed nighthawks of mother-of-pearl; mammoth tusk has been used for inlay and to make the pegs.

“I like birds,” Hosokawa says, “and often find myself putting them on my instruments.”  He points out the pick-up hole on the side of one guitar, which is a circle of three birds, their bodies smooth black wood, making a striking contrast to the honey-colored wood of the sides.  The largest of the three instruments is actually a bass guitar, with an intriguingly different shape, having an extra, sharply scalloped sweep upwards.  “I don’t really know what I’m going to do with it,” he confesses.  “I may donate it to something.”

Building a guitar starts with cutting out the front and back, planing the wood to the desired depth, and then bending the sides.  The tools used to bend the wood have all been hand-made by Hosokawa.  His guitar tops are often Sitka spruce or yellow cedar, both locally available.  “It’s the wood that gives the sound, of course,” he says.

“Spruce gives a warmer sound than, say, mahogany, which is also used, along with Rosewood.  I really like using the spruce—it’s simple and from here.  I usually get big chunks of it and cut it myself,” he says, pointing to three sizeable blocks of wood on the floor.  Next to that are two pieces of what looks like metal, but are actually ebony.  “That’s really hard wood,” Hosokawa explains with a laugh.  “A bit like fast-growing rock!”

Some of the woods he uses came from a fellow instrument maker who retired and passed on his own supply.  Another find was from a customer who happened to be at an auction where some rosewood chairs were being auctioned off.  With Hosokawa in mind, he bought them, and those chairs were carefully cut up and planed into guitars.  “The chairs were big,” Hosokawa says. “About two feet long in the seat—the boards were six inches wide.  It gave me a supply for five guitars.  I’m still using that wood.  To buy wood new costs a fortune and I prefer reusing wood as opposed to being part of destroying forests in Brazil.”

The intriguing device with the stone tied on top is actually made to hold down the beading around the sides of the guitars during their construction.  As Hosokawa often has cut-out pieces made of a different color woods inlaid in the beading, it is very time-consuming to glue them down and have them held fast by hand.  In one of his many strokes of ingenuity, Hosokawa devised a tool to hold the guitar vertical and steady to keep the beading in place until firmly glued on.

“The look of a guitar is important, but really it’s a tool, and as everyone is differently shaped, each one has to be custom-designed.  Some people have limited mobility of their arms or hands, so I can adapt a guitar that will suit their body type.  Of course, factory-made guitars can sometimes be excellent as well, but you might have to try a lot of them to find one.

“There’s been a huge growth of instrument makers since I started,” he adds.  “There’s a Luthiers Guild now on the Island, and we get together every three months in someone’s home.  We sit around and talk about instruments, swap ideas—usually there’s a pot of chili or something like that.  It’s very casual and welcoming—if you want to bring the grandchildren or the dog, that’s fine!  We have a show once a year and display our work for sale.  It’s mostly guitars—electric and acoustic—a few bases, but mostly guitars.”

Hosokawa did build two electric guitars, the first for a friend and in true Hosokawa style, that friend had another friend who wanted one, so Hosokawa obliged and built him one as well.  “I don’t find it as satisfying though,” he says.  “It’s more about electronics than the actual guitar, and of course, they have a solid wood body, so they’re not as finicky to make as acoustics.  I’m just more into the actual craft of making a guitar than electronics.”

One of his most intriguing guitars must be the one now owned by Leon Bibb.  He heard about it from Bobbie Blue, a well known musician and promoter of international performers in the Comox Valley.  “I built a guitar for Bobbie.  Her son died prematurely some years ago, and he was inspired by the story of The Red Violin and wanted to have a guitar made in a similar fashion.  Before his death we got a pint of his blood, which we used to soak the sound board with, and I added some red dye to keep the color.  After his death we got a piece of his arm bone and made it into the sound hole.  Leon Bibb had heard she had a guitar for sale and when he was performing here at MusicFest, tried it and liked it enough to buy it.”

Hosokawa makes only about three guitars a year now, as well as repairing.  He has plans to make a lute—“just to make one.”  He points at the hefty Harley Davidson Road King Classic motor bike tucked into a corner of his workshop. “That’s my retirement present to myself,” says with a laugh.

Guitars, like all instruments, become an extension of the player, and guitars are held in the players’ arms, close to their hearts.  To many of the musicians who own a Hoss original, they hold Hosokawa to their hearts as well.  “I’d played guitar for years before I bought a Hoss,” says Sam Lennox.  “Now that I play one of Al’s guitars, I feel I’ve become a guitar player.  I also watched pieces of wood be transformed into an exquisite instrument, both to look at and play.  Through that progression I also got to know a super-skilled master craftsman.“

Local singer/songwriter Judy Norbury agrees.  I feel it’s a great privilege and honor to own one of these guitars,” she says.  “As a basic guitar player, it makes my songs sound as good as they possibly can.”

For more information Alfred Hosokawa be reached at 250-334-2080.  Visit

InFocus Magazine is written and designed to showcase people who not only live in the Comox Valley but also contribute to our community in an inspiring and unique way.

Last summer, sales
one of our regular feature writers, overweight
Terri Perrin, site
was asked to write about Helena Hartwood, Hartwood Garden Designs. (InFocus, Backyard Bounty, August/September 2009.)  In learning about the work that Hartwood does with what she calls “edible landscaping”, Perrin also was told of and wrote about a local non-profit group called LUSH Valley Food Action Society.  LUSH—an acronym for Let Us Share the Harvest—works with Island property owners to plant and harvest vegetables and fruit crops, then share the bounty with local food banks.

Perrin was so inspired by LUSH Valley’s role in our community that she spent much of the past winter thinking about how she could do something special for this organization.  In addition to being a freelance writer, Perrin is a certified Feng Shui Practitioner.  As she began thinking about planning a Feng Shui gardening workshop, LUSH Valley came to mind.

“I booked Ocean Resort for May 15 for a day-long Zen in Your Garden workshop,” explains Perrin.  “I planned to address Feng Shui for the garden but, since I have only been living on Vancouver Island for about a year, needed an expert to talk about plants.  I asked Helena Hartwood to give a lecture on edible landscaping. After all, if your garden is going to look and feel good, it may as well taste good, too!”

Perrin, whose company is called Fine Art of Intention, decided she needed another speaker to talk about ponds and water features but she was going to have to do some research to find someone.  Talk about the power of intention!  Within an hour, InFocus sent her an email and asked her to write about David Bossom of Island Waterscape & Design.  He was thrilled to be featured in this issue of InFocus and to be asked to speak at this event.

“My next call was to LUSH Valley,” adds Perrin.  “I told them that I would like their blessing in running the Zen in Your Garden workshop as a fundraiser.  No strings attached!  Just let me organize and run the event and I will donate back as much as possible to LUSH.  Needless to say, they were thrilled with the prospect!”

With two other speakers donating their time, Perrin called Ocean Resort to ask if they would donate the meeting space. (They did.)  She asked their chef, Carol Kopp, if she would be willing to prepare a lunch for a crowd of 70 and do a 30-minute talk of the benefits of raw food.  (She will.)

Now, she’s asking you to support LUSH Valley by purchasing a ticket to the Zen in Your Garden workshop.  Tickets are $74.99 each (GST included).  This includes the full workshop, a delicious lunch and an optional labyrinth and/or ocean walk at the end of the day.  Pre-registration is required and seating is limited to 70 people.

If you operate a business and would like to be an event sponsor, your support is also welcome. You could, for example, help with the cost of the lunch or printed materials. Or you can donate $50 to LUSH and supply product samples or advertising flyers to be put in the participants’ “loot bags”. (Tax receipts will be issued.)

“The motto of Fine Art of Intention Feng Shui is: ‘If you do not open your hands and heart to help yourself… you cannot give, nor can you receive’,” says Perrin.  “Organizing this event for LUSH is my way of giving back.”

For more information or to register call 250.218.4952 or visit:

For information about the Lush Valley Food Action Society, go to: