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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Music to revive a community

Toshiyasu Sato

Jun. 5, 2017

The port city of Otaru in the northern island of Hokkaido, Japan, is famous for its historic sites. Tourists enjoy visiting the waterfront area which has many popular attractions.

But off the beaten track, the city is losing its luster. The population has plunged 40% compared to its peak and the local economy is in decline. As the city limps along, a restaurant owner is doing what he can to make the city alive with music.

An unlikely object shines in a nearly deserted shopping mall in central Otaru.

The locals know it as the "street piano." It's said to be the only such public instrument in Hokkaido.

"Many people come here. It's great to be able to play loud before an audience," says a local.

The arcade is the Otaru Sun Mall Ichibangai. Anyone is welcome to tickle the ivories, from noon to 10 PM.

People of all generations and backgrounds stop by.

A chef of Japanese cuisine visits on his break. "I'd rather just quit my job and play," he says.

But he knows his customers might be waiting. He finishes his performance and heads back to work.

The piano is the idea of restaurant manager Yukihiro Arasawa.

He put it here 2 years ago, with hopes of encouraging community spirit.

"It's mainly locals who come here and it's fun if people can chat and interact with one another. I mean, that's how communities start, isn't it? I set up the piano because I want to help create a shopping mall that everyone can enjoy," he says.

The piano gets particularly busy after dark.

Street musicians play it on weekends.

Passersby stop to listen, including a couple of high-school sweethearts.

"I haven't played for ages," says the girl.

The street musician encourages her to play. She plays for her boyfriend.

Afterwards, she says "I was a little nervous and wished I had practiced more."

When asked for his impression, she answers for him. "He said he fell in love with me."

"You can't say that!" her boyfriend responds, laughing.

Two women come to play the piano every month.

The mall becomes a stage, with an impromptu performance.

"The piano is part of my everyday life." "It's great to be able to sing anytime," they say.

The cheerful scene attracts people from a nearby pub.

The piano provides some once-in-a-lifetime encounters.

The music echoes around the mall until late into the night.

This is just the sort of scene Arasawa imagined.

"I feel there's a real exchange of people happening, it's not just about selling things or serving food. I hope people will return to the mall," he says.

As the sun sets on Otaru, the street piano is doing its part -- connecting people in the city.