On Monday, I played Jingle Bells on the koto. Mizutani-sensei tuned it on a traditional Western do-re-mi scale and sounded out the sheet music’s title in katakana. “Jinguru Beru,” she said and beamed at me. I had been playing Sakura Sakura and other Japanese folk songs whose names in Kanji I could not read. Jingle Bells seemed unsuited for the koto, but her eyes were excited, like we were in for big fun. Even with the new tuning, I had to play in funky half notes. This was hard for me and I kept losing my place on the vertical sheet music. I could tell I was disappointing her the same way I disappoint other Japanese people when I don’t know something about American pop culture. Like when my supervisor was shocked to learn I haven’t seen Bad News Bears and that I don’t own any Police albums.
The thing is I know Jingle Bells, but my playing abilities fall short of tricky fingerings and left-handed plucking. Mizutani-sensei, who has shown grace and patience in our four months of lessons with nary a sigh or look of disapproval, even though I don’t speak Japanese and I don’t cover my mouth when I lick my fingers before putting on my koto claws, stopped our lesson short. “Kitte!” she said. Listen! “Hm hm hm, hm hm hm, hmm hum hmm, hm hmmmm.” She patted her knee and tapped her foot in time. I sang with her to let her know I that I know. “Subarashi!” she exclaimed. Wonderful. Either relieved she didn’t have to teach me the song or amazed that I had learned it in just under 10 seconds.
“Onagaishimasu,” she said with a bow. I bowed as well and caught up with her at “…masu.” I was out of the dog house. We began again. I tried extra hard, clearing my mind of everything I had learned about koto in the past months. The awkward sounding C major coming from the hachi string started to melt my brain. After I plucked the last ju-ni note, I smiled and bowed, “Arigatougozaimasu.” It was the first lesson that had made me sweat. She flipped in my music book to Sakura Sakura, pointed and said “Getsuyoubi.” Monday, we would go back to the folk songs.
My teacher made sure to give my Jingle Bells efforts plenty of praise, but I know the truth. She was desperately trying to help me save face. If I had met her expectations, who knows how long that would have carried on? Sometimes in Japan, you see or hear something that’s familiar, but on inspection, the notes are all a bit off. The burgers with buns made of rice don’t ease homesickness, but make it feverish. Hearing an oddly tuned Jinguru Beru doesn’t give your soul the shot of eggnog it longs for, but makes you go straight home and frantically download How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
On Thursday, a teacher I work with invited me out to her house in Himi to play the koto with her lady friends. I was psyched at the prospect of jamming on the koto with a bunch of elderly ladies while serving each other sake. Kananaka-san asked me to bring my music book. “What do you like to play?” she asked. “Sakura Sakura is my favorite,” I offered nobly. It was my favorite because it was the second or third tune I learned and could play it with out messing up. “Oh, very good!” She sang the first few notes under her breath, “Sahh ku raaahhh,” and nodded in approval. “Very good, Melissa-san.” I repeated her, “Sa koo raa,” and, as culture would have it, the syllables sounded a little off on my tongue.