As 31-year-old Ukrainian Iana Lavrova performed alongside a 500-person-strong ensemble of fellow cellists in Fukushima, northeastern Japan, the moment was not only a celebration of peace and reconstruction but also a reminder of the long journey she has undertaken in fleeing from her war-torn country.

For Lavrova, it was her first time performing in such a large group. "I've never seen this many cellists in my life!" she exclaimed, as she joined the one-time cello ensemble in a gymnasium for a concert dedicated to those impacted by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, an event which devastated the northeastern Tohoku region.

Fukushima was not only one of the prefectures worst-affected by the initial disaster but was also the scene of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant nuclear accident, which was triggered by the quake and tsunami and forced residents to abandon their homes and communities.

Although Lavrova is fleeing from her home country due to a war rather than a natural disaster, instigated by Russia following its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, she understands the feelings of those in Japan who were uprooted from their homes in 2011.

Ukrainian cellist Iana Lavrova stands up when introduced during a concert in Fukushima on May 21, 2023. (Kyodo)

Abandoning her cello, Lavrova left her residence of Chernihiv in northern Ukraine and joined her mother, herself a professional cellist, to seek refuge in Japan.

The pair arrived in the country in March last year after being helped by Lavrova's mother's friend, who the mother got to know during her past musical performances in Japan while playing with the National Opera of Ukraine, which she had done for decades.

Lavrova and her mother have performed together with cellists from Japan on several occasions. But Lavrova, who now lives in Tokyo's Suginami Ward, joined the 2023 Fukushima Cello Concert on her own for the 500-strong cello concert held in May.

As she cannot understand Japanese, she was helped during rehearsals by her friends from Ensemble Figaro, an amateur orchestra based in Japan who invited her to join the event. Her friends also asked the conductor, Ken Tanaka, to provide her with instructions in English.

Lavrova added that she was highly appreciative of the cellist sitting next to her, who provided her with assistance throughout their rehearsals by translating what was going on.

During the concert, she played in perfect harmony with the group, made up of professional and amateur cellists from around the country. Their repertoire included a range of songs, from classical pieces to folk music from the Tohoku region, with the latter being performed alongside 60-or-so chorists from several Fukushima high schools.

Lavrova said her friends have given her coaching, preparing her with background information and telling her about the history of traditional Japanese songs she was less familiar with. "I don't know it by heart but I know what the music is about," she said.

Ukrainian cellist Iana Lavrova takes part in a concert rehearsal in Fukushima on May 21, 2023. (Kyodo)

Yui Arai, part of the 10-member professional group Tokyo Cello Ensemble, who helped coordinate the performance, said that Lavrova's participation shows that music transcends borders. "When we pick up our instruments, we can do things together."

While Lavrova, who studied for seven years at Italy's Conservatorio Statale di Musica Gioachino Rossini, is more used to playing as a soloist and chamber musician, her experience performing in Japan has been life-changing and unique.

"Most of them are amateur cellists. It's pretty impressive," Lavrova said of her fellow performers in Fukushima.

Her path to becoming a musician in Europe was not easy. As a student in Italy, she was forced to take an extended hiatus from playing her instrument after suffering a hand injury.

Then came Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which is still fresh in Lavrova's memory. "It doesn't feel like one year," she said.

Yoriko Miyake, who leads the Tokyo Cello Ensemble, hopes that by gathering so many cellists together, the concert will be "a message not only to people in Fukushima but also those in Ukraine and Russia -- to think about peace, not war."

The event was organized to mark a decade since the 2011 disaster but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and was eventually held in commemoration of Fukushima's continued reconstruction efforts in the area.

Mikio Shin, head organizer of the concert, said that while rebuilding infrastructure in the area is crucial, providing solace through live music to those impacted by the disaster is equally as important.

Ukrainian cellist Iana Lavrova (seated front C) plays during a concert rehearsal in Fukushima on May 20, 2023. (Kyodo)

The cello ensemble draws its roots from a large cello concert held in 1998 in Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture, to commemorate the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake.

The concert performed in Fukushima also embraced a message of hope for those directly affected by the Ukraine war, Shin said.

Mitsuo Kawakami, a member of Ensemble Figaro who also took part in the concert said that through participating, he hopes Lavrova and her mother will be able to feel some consolation, despite living in an unfamiliar country.

For his part, he plans to continue thinking about what else can be done to help them.

The two-hour performance wrapped up with the classic Japanese children's song "Furusato (Hometown)," prompting a smile from Lavrova, who said the experience inspired her to continue getting involved in similar events in the future.

She hopes to perform something similar in her home country one day, so she can spread "music and joy" to Ukraine, a land and people sorely in need of both.