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How I ended up living in Kuopio, and the reasons I will stay here forever

Kuopio Symphony Orchestra rehearsals

Many people ask me: why have you chosen to come to Kuopio, in the middle of Finland, of all those places on earth? The answer is not simple, with all the factors in my professional and personal life in the past few decades.

After graduating from a high school in Tokyo, I moved to the United States to continue my music education. And then, I became a freelance musician, meaning I had performing work but without any benefits like healthcare a company could provide if you had a full-time position. I had to pay $200 to $300 every month to get myself covered with some sort of a private healthcare plan, but because I chose the cheapest plan, thinking I would never get sick, it merely covered anything.

One nice summer day in Chicago, I was riding a bicycle in a hurry, trying to catch a train to work. Then I had an accident, flying off my bicycle and injuring my left hand. Luckily it was not a horrible injury, and I didn’t have to go to the emergency room. If I had to take an ambulance car to the hospital, then have some extensive tests and everything else.. that could have put me to serious financial crisis. It took about two months without work and income before I could sort of play the violin again, but I still had pain in my hand, and treatments to a full recovery was very expensive. Freelance musicians need good healthcare, because our body parts, fingers, mouth, basically everything, has to be in a good shape in order to play our musical instruments to make a living.

While recovering, I thought about the Japanese national health care system. One has to pay a small annual fee to stay in the system, but once you are in the system, from a hospital visit to dentist treatments, all can be done with a fraction of cost. When you are out of work for some reason, they will give you just enough to keep on living. This is the normal life there, most of people in Japan do not have to worry about their daily lives.

I started wondering: I have no obligation or patriotic feeling towards the Unites States, is it really worth it to stay in this country? After researching and asking my musician friends around the globe, I made a decision to try a few other countries for a job. Finland came on the top of my list to try, because of what the country provided to their residents, plus I could actually apply for a job without a European work permit I didn’t have then.

One of those musician friends I had spoken to for an advice was my now-colleague Sayaka, she is also from Japan, and we had grown up in a similar atmosphere there. She told me that there was a job vacancy in the City Orchestra of Kuopio, and I should just try it out. “Just come, you will see how pretty it is in Kuopio,” she said.

Berry picking in a forest

It didn’t take me long to see that beauty. As I was flying towards Kuopio Airport for the first time, I saw the beautiful lakes and little islands, a truly breathtaking view. I said to myself, “if this is where I could live for the rest of my life, I already know I would be happy.”

Now, I am an employee of the City of Kuopio. My job is to play in the City Orchestra of Kuopio, providing our fellow city residents and beyond musical entertainment. I believe it is very important that classical music is part of one’s life. It brings true calmness and peaceful mind, and unlimited imagination using all human senses.

Kuopio Music Center has a true classical music hall which is considered to be one of the best in Finland. Many classical orchestras and other groups come to perform from outside of Kuopio, and they are all jealous that we have this hall. In this great institution, one can come to the hall before a concert, eat a delicious meal and have a few drinks, then enjoy the performance. Just like going to a movie, or to see a play at the theatre, it is really a nice way to spend an evening. I love my work, it gives me all the calmness and peaceful mind, and excitement of music itself which we perform. Also, interacting with our audience members in and out of concerts gives me more energy and motivation to be a better provider of music.

Kuopio is really a great place to live. In the center of town, there are just perfect number of shops and establishments with everything you need. If one needs some nature time, just walk towards the lake for a few minutes, sit and listen to the sound of tree leaves and songs of swans and birds. In the summer time, I take a boat and go to a very traditional Finnish cottage where there is no electricity or running water. Staying there for a few days, picking berries in a forest, fishing on the lake and cooking those fish I catch, chopping wood for fire, it is the best way to empty and refresh my mind. In the winter time, I would go skating on the beautifully serviced skate rink the City of Kuopio prepares, or walk towards the middle of frozen lake and ice-fish for hours.

Is there anything more I need? I think I’m pretty spoiled here with my surroundings.

Lila Watanabe

Concertmaster of Kuopio Symphony Orchestra

Konserttimestari, Kuopion Kaupunginorkesteri

Ice skating in Kuopio harbour